President Barack Obama the juggler has been spinning too many plates. From unemployment at 15 million, to healthcare reform, God knows how or when; to the Middle East where the peace process has fizzled yet again; to Iran where the options are narrowing to what hawks say are "an Israeli or U.S. military strike now, or a nuclear Tehran soon"; to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have heard their commander trigger a verbal bombshell to a worldwide television audience: Defeat is conceivable.
And this latter dire suggestion comes despite eight years of warfare with heavy bombers, gunships, artillery, drones, satellite surveillance, $250 billion in U.S. civilian and military assistance, a coalition of 40 nations, and some 100,000 troops, including 70,000 U.S. and 90,000 Afghan soldiers.
The new Afghan recipe, Gen. Stanley McChrystal told CBS' David Martin on "60 Minutes," is fewer kinetic operations and more emphasis on hearts and minds. He conceded that things "are probably a little worse" since he took command three months ago. Two hundred and sixty-five civilians were killed in U.S. or coalition action in the past 12 months, according to McChrystal, a situation that would deny victory unless drastically curtailed.
McChrystal believes these Afghan civilian casualties are "literally how we lose the war, or in many ways how we win it." He is convinced that it's more important to protect civilians than kill Taliban or al-Qaida fighters. The Taliban, by contrast, kill anyone who is believed to be cooperating with Americans.
And they don't fear losing public opinion support. Overwhelming firepower, concludes Gen. McChrystal, is a surefire way of losing the support of the people. The 3,000 killed in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 in Pennsylvania are now lost in the new calculus.
In Vietnam, a general once said, "once you've got them by the . . . , the hearts and minds follow." Didn't work there. Probably won't work in Afghanistan. U.S., Canadian, British, French and Dutch troops — the only ones authorized by their governments to fight — cannot cover a country the size of France or Texas with the world's most inhospitable terrain. This would require approximately 400,000 troops.
And that's why Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says a much larger Afghan army is an urgent necessity. The target is 250,000. But the 80,000 recruited thus far are for the most part illiterate.
Their officers are 70 percent ethnic Tajiks. Pushtun recruits, the majority, don't respect their Tajik commanders. Also, their ranks are assumed to be heavily infiltrated by Taliban agents. These, in turn, spread the word that Taliban insurgents will execute them after the Americans leave. Some go home after they get paid $80 monthly for the first time.
Forty years after Vietnam, few remember the lessons of that long-playing engagement. But, unlike Afghanistan, defeat did not mean the victorious North Vietnamese communists planned to continue attacking the United States with suicide volunteers.
In Afghanistan, there is little doubt a Taliban victory would bring al-Qaida back in a heartbeat to organize the next episode of their war against the heathen, decadent Western democracies.
Most of Obama's plates will stop spinning as Iran and its nuclear ambitions take center stage. A tougher sanctions regime is to be agreed among the U.N. Security Council's permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China— but Moscow, Beijing, and Paris are expected to balk at the only sanction that could conceivably get the mullahs to cry uncle: a ban on the imported gasoline that keeps Iran's cars and trucks on the road.
The next tableau in the unfolding Middle Eastern drama is Israeli air strikes against Iran's key nuclear facilities. For the rest of the world, this could not take place without a wink and a nod from Obama himself.
For Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, the only way to convince the world otherwise would be for Obama to inform Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that any Israeli fighter-bombers flying over Iraqi airspace on their way to bomb Iran would be shot down by U.S. aircraft.
As implausible as such a scenario may sound, Iran's asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities would spread mayhem up and down the entire Persian Gulf, from the Strait of Hormuz (25 percent of the world's daily oil needs) where Iran's seaborne Revolutionary Guards could sink a supertanker, to hundreds of missiles and rockets aimed at U.S. warships in the Gulf, to skullduggery by Hamas and Hezbollah throughout the Middle East. This week, Iran's well-publicized barrage of short- and medium-range missiles was designed to demonstrate the harm Iran could inflict on its own.
Alternatively, the United States could take Israel's place. On its own, Israel cannot handle all the missions for a raid on Iran's key and widely scattered installations (27 of them identified by satellite surveillance).
Air superiority and naval superiority against Iranian mine-laying and shore-based missile batteries could only be done from Iraq and carrier-based U.S. air power. Obama cannot afford to sit out the Iranian showdown, lest he be seen as weak and ineffectual. Middle East scuttlebutt also has the Saudi kingdom turning a blind eye to Israel aircraft bypassing Iraq and refueling over Saudi Arabia.
Obama may decide not to acquiesce in McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops. In which case, failure in Afghanistan is — in the general's own words — the likely outcome.
The president would then feel compelled to bare his talons. Three former CentCom commanders (Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Gen. John P. Abizaid, and Adm. William J. Fallon) with responsibility for a large slice of the globe from East Africa to the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, as well as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, have said publicly we must learn to live with an Iranian bomb, as we did with China's when Mao Zedong boasted China would emerge victorious from a nuclear conflict with the United States, and with the Soviet bomb when Nikita Khrushchev bragged the Soviet Union would bury the United States.
If that should occur, the next set of $64,000 questions will be the quest for nuclear equivalency in Saudi Arabia, the seven Gulf countries known as the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
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