"If you ask me anything I don't know, I'm not going to answer," Yogi Berra once said. President Obama should do the same.
The president's recent interview with Canada's CBC television network demonstrates that he doesn't know much about Afghanistan. But that isn't stopping him from talking about it — even while he escalates America's war there.
"Well, I think Afghanistan is still winnable, in the sense of our ability to ensure that it is not a launching pad for attacks against North America," he told his interviewer.
How is it possible for this well-educated man — like me, he went to Columbia, which had a superb history department — to be so ignorant? Afghanistan has never been a "launching pad" for a single attack, much less plural "attacks" against the US. (Or, as far as I know, Canadistan.) It's true that, until 2000, there were a few camps in Afghanistan. But the vast majority of the training camps loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda or other militant Islamist groups were, and remain in, Pakistan. Moreover, most of the jihadis who trained there wanted to fight countries other than the US: Chechens seeking independence from Russia, Uyghurs waging a low-intensity insurgency against China, Uzbeks trying to overthrow Uzbekistan's dictator.
German intelligence officials have said that three of the 19 September 11th hijackers had attended such camps. But that's an incidental fact. If you're looking for the men responsible for 9/11, you need to start in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Well-connected religious fanatics and government officials in both countries conceived the plot, recruited its personnel, and provided the money. If jihadi training camps bother you, go where most of them are: Pakistan. Afghanistan never represented a significant threat to the United States. And it still doesn't.
More disturbing still is Obama's assertion that Afghanistan, where US soldiers are even likelier to die than in Iraq, is "winnable." To be fair to the president, he admits that "you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means." But the key word is "solely." He's not only keeping troops there — he's sending tens of thousands more. US and NATO occupation troops aren't part of the solution; they're a big part of the problem.
Hamid Karzai, the former Unocal oil consultant hired by Bush to run Afghanistan's US-supported puppet regime, knows this. "Entering by force our people's houses is against the government of Afghanistan," he told foreign dignitaries in Kabul in December. "This way the Afghan government will be destroyed and it will never be strengthened when in my country, the foreign soldiers go and arrest people, hit them and even kill them."
But Obama isn't listening. Just last week, another US air strike killed 15 supposed militants in the northwestern province of Herat. Afghans, who live on the actual ground, said all 15 were civilians.
One quarter of all civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2008 were blown up in US and NATO bombing raids.
"Throughout vast areas of the country, 2008 felt like a slow descent into hell," wrote Chris Sands in The National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. "Down in Kandahar the Taliban knew they were winning and so did just about everyone caught in the crossfire. Tribal elders who had initially sat on the fence now gave weapons and money to the rebels. They said the Soviet occupation had never been so brutal and, whether that is true or not, they clearly believed it."
Bush never bothered to clearly define war aims for the invasion of Iraq. Obama is repeating Bush's mistake in Afghanistan. What would victory look like? He can't say. He's all over the place.
"If you've got narco-trafficking that is funding the Taliban, if there is a perception that there's no rule of law in Afghanistan, if we don't solve the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we're probably not going to solve the problem," Obama told the CBC.
The opium issue is more complicated than Obama says. True, the Taliban are buying weapons by taxing local poppy farmers. Put the farmers out of business by spraying their crops, however, and they won't just pay a tithe — they'll sign up as soldiers. But if the Taliban wins — an increasingly likely outcome — they may curtail or even eliminate opium cultivation as un-Islamic. Letting the Taliban win is likelier to reduce the amount of heroin on the streets of Amsterdam than staying the course.
US and NATO forces aren't the solution to anarchy in Afghanistan. They're its cause. Before we came along, the Taliban had consolidated control over 95 percent of the country. Highways were safe. Rapists were executed. Warlords lived in exile. After the 9/11 the CIA brought back the warlords and showered them with bricks of cash worth tens of millions of dollars. Security vanished. Neo-feudalism took over. Allied forces have never lifted a finger to protect ordinary Afghans from the thieves and murderers in their midst; to the contrary, they installed many of them as officials in Karzai's corrupt government.
If you were a US soldier shipping off to Afghanistan, what would you think you were fighting for? Obama couldn't tell you. I think I can: to prop up Karzai's regime until a new-and-improved strongman can be found to replace him, then to prop him up. To flex military muscle against neighboring countries, most notably China, Iran, and Pakistan. And to keep a shot at scoring a piece of the action if the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline oil and gas pipeline is ever finished.
It hardly seems killing, much less dying, for.
Ted Rall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.