Saturday, June 06, 2009

# Posted 3:45 AM by Patrick Porter  

MR PRESIDENT, YOUR WAR IS TOO BIG: In a celebrated and impressive speech in Cairo, President Obama identified this as the simple aim of the war in Central Asia:
We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

Granted, Obama was addressing Islamic audiences and trying to spell out a clear and honourable casus belli and to deny the charge of American imperialism. But Americans and their allies are listening too. And it sounds like a continuation, in less abrasive rhetoric than Bush, of absolute, messianic and unmeasured war aims.

Is it America’s war aim, to ensure that there are no more violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan intent on slaughtering Americans? Because if so, those troops will be there for a very long time indeed. For many interlocking reasons, radical and nihilistic forms of religious extremism cannot be eradicated by a grand liberal project of nationbuilding. At least, not one we can afford.

Violent extremism is not inherent anywhere. But for the moment, it is deeply embedded in places where conflict and fear are widespread, where conspiratorial and paranoid ideas can breed, where wars (such as the Soviet Afghan war) generated a radical clergy that is powerful and influential, and where radicals believe they can base themselves.

We can’t purge radical extremists from these countries. (Without indulging in the glib pieties of Michael Moore politics, if we try too strenuously, with indiscriminate drone strikes or counter-narcotics efforts, we can set conditions that are hospitable for more extremists). And we shouldn’t try.

Our best bet is to go for a more modest and achievable goal: to help make the place a dangerous one for Al Qaeda. The frontier areas of Pakistan and the weak central state of Afghanistan may remain a long-term haven for dangerous folk who wish to bring apocalypse to America. But we can make it far more difficult and lethal for them, and force them to spend much of their time and energy trying to stay alive. We will find, too, that there are people in those countries who may not like America but who develop a shared strategic interest in combating the bloodstained forces that kill and oppress other Muslims. Provided we do not interfere disastrously in the cycle, it should work something like this: the more endangered they are, the more their ability to operate as global terrorists is curtailed, and the more it is curtailed, the more politically irrelevant they will become.

I’m not sure the alternative, of potentially trillions of dollars spent on trying to forge a strong, centralised, incorruptible, opium-free state in Afghanistan, is something we can afford, even if it ultimately succeeds. In his exchanges with General Petraeus during the General’s testimony to Congress, Obama stressed the need to manage, contain and limit Al Qaeda in Iraq, not to try and eliminate it outright. This same logic applies here, in the war that will form Obama’s own legacy.

Cross-Posted at Kings of War
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