Jacob Heilbrunn

Who Lost Afghanistan?

More bad news from Afghanistan. It's starting to look as though the Obama administration is the Taliban's biggest financial backer. According to Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times, a new government report indicates that the Taliban are bilking American taxpayers:

The report, released Thursday by the inspector general of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says subcontractors hired to protect a development project near Jalalabad may have paid more than $5 million to the militants through local authorities . . . The report also found "indications of pervasive fraud" in Development Alternatives' project office in Jalalabad. The report says an Afghan employee was involved in several fraud schemes with other employees, centering on kickbacks from local subcontractors. The employee had kinship or friendship ties with one of the subcontractors, who ended up with about 20 contracts.

Such are the fruits of the war in Afghanistan, which looks increasingly like a catastrophe. Pakistan is collapsing internally, while closing its border to Afghanistan to protest American incursions into the safe havens established by the Taliban. Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai is nowhere to be seen, which may be just as well, given his erratic behavior. As the war effort goes bellyup, however, neoconservatives are trying to pin the blame on Obama. The problem, it seems, is that his heart was never in the war. He was hailed by neocons when he supported the idea of a surge. Now he's being denounced for now really believing in it.

Charles Krauthammer's column today is not untypical. Krauthammer, like many conservatives is seizing upon the doubts about Afghanistan voiced by Obama in Bob Woodward's new book, to complain,

What kind of commander in chief sends tens of thousands of troops to war announcing in advance a fixed date for beginning their withdrawal? One who doesn't have his heart in it. One who doesn't really want to win but is making some kind of political gesture. One who thinks he has to be seen as trying but is preparing the ground--meaning, the political cover--for failure.

What kind of commander? Maybe one who doesn't want to get stuck in a quagmire without some kind of exit strategy. Imagine if Obama had agreed to an open-ended commitment. The Afghans would have had no incentive to improve their fighting forces. As it is, the regime is probably too corrupt to muster the effort. For its part, Pakistan is clearly the biggest enabler of the Taliban.

What's really taking place is an attempt to pin the blame for the debacle on President Obama rather than George W. Bush. It was Bush who originally lost the initiative in Afghanistan and diverted the military's focus to Iraq. Obama did not create this mess. He inherited it. If Afghanistan is lost, then Obama didn't do the losing. Bush did. Instead of trying to aim for victory in Afghanistan, whatever that might be, Obama's true task may be to figure out how to extricate himself from it.