Barack Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has committed 30,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. In a somewhat low-key but nevertheless firm address at the West Point Academy (which trains US Army officers) yesterday, the US President reaffirmed that the interests of US national security lie in the escalation of the fighting in Afghanistan.
Obama was quick to make clear the goals of this escalation: (a) to ensure that Al-Qaeda finds no safe haven in the region; (b) to ensure that the Taliban do not win; and (c) to fortify the Afghan security forces. All laudable objectives. But stating objectives alone do not make them attainable.
The war on terrorism, and by proxy on Al-Qaeda, has been on for the past eight years. Osama bin-Laden is still free if he has not succumbed to disease. True, many in the top leadership of that organization have been eliminated. But who is to say what its true strength is even today, given the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? The US retaliation after 9/11 defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan handily. Yet they have now re-grouped and are well on their way to confronting the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As for the Afghan security forces, strengthening them may be a very iffy task. The political culture of Afghanistan, no matter what Obama mentioned in passing, is not democratic or cohesive. President Karzai has been re-elected by default; his sole opponent refused a re-run. The scenario that unfolded after the rout of the Taliban in 2001/2002 clearly indicates the factionalism embedded in Afghan society. Hence, the goals cited by Obama may be overly ambitious.
Furthermore, this business of exporting democracy - whether to Afghanistan or Iraq - is, to put it gently, a joke. Democracy must be home-grown. When a country has neither a democratic tradition nor a political culture which feeds democracy, no external force can shove democracy down feudal throats.
The US President further assured the world that America does not see itself in the role of a "patron" in Afghanistan, but rather sees itself as a "partner", for peace, security and development. Mr. Obama has a wonderful way with words, we are all aware of that. But let us say CNN or any news organization were to ask the man in the street in Kabul how he views the US. I doubt the answer would be "partner". Even the Afghan president would not be where he is without American patronage.
Getting down to geo-political basics, Afghanistan has an important border - with China. Is it wild imagination to surmise that the US would like to have access, whenever needed, to walk down the Wakhan Corridor? It already has Japan, South Korea and (arguably) Taiwan as allies to the east of China. Philippines and Thailand are additional allies to the south-east. Some of the ex-Soviet countries to China's north have also been wooed as allies. Pakistan, and increasingly India (especially as regards Tibet), are US friends to the south of China. Afghanistan is yet another ally in this "Great Game" of the 21st century. The sole super-power and the rising one are playing. Afghanistan is not an unimportant pawn.