Afghanistan and the Lady Gaga factor

If only President Obama had the power of a rock star to stop the war in Afghanistan.

Lady Gaga stopped a fight by fans on the floor of her D.C. concert this week. “Stop the music,” she commanded, “there’s no fighting in my show.” It worked.

Unfortunately, real life is not a rock concert. Gone are the days when it seemed that Obama could walk on water. But it seems the president has been doing some thinking about stopping the war in Afghanistan, and he expressed the beginnings of a policy change in his Oval Office address a few days ago.

First of all, although there is the caveat about weighing “conditions on the ground,” Obama made it clear to the American public that the U.S. will not have an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan. The date of next July for a gradual handover is back as a deadline. “Make no mistake: This transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s,” he said. This did not go unnoticed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who warned: “that’s an ambiguity in Afghanistan that could cause us to fail.”

What has brought on this subtle shift? It’s the economy, stupid. The war, which has already lasted 10 years, is costing the American taxpayer nearly $100 billion every year. Over the last decade, Obama said, “we have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has shortchanged investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”

So what’s the solution? The goal, as ever, is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists,” as Obama repeated in his speech, which was ostensibly about the end of combat operations in Iraq. But the solution in Afghanistan cannot be military. Need I repeat that no foreign forces have ever defeated the fearsome Afghan forces on their own territory? Time and time again, and NATO forces are experiencing this now in the Pashtun-dominated south despite the American “surge,” the Taliban melt away with every offensive only to return.

The Afghanistan Study Group, representing signatories from think tanks and academia under the umbrella of the New America Foundation, has just thrown its own conclusions into the mix. It backs a U.S. drawdown in the south, on the basis that the current counterinsurgency-based nation-building strategy “rests on a flawed understanding of the strategic stakes, and it undercuts our broader strategic goals.” More controversially, it recommends power-sharing and political reconciliation with the recognition that Afghanistan is a decentralized state. Talking to the Taliban is not something on which either the Obama administration or the government in Kabul has a united view. As the Harvard expert Michael Semple puts it: “there is no green light yet for an attempt at a grand bargain.”

For now, the commander in chief has continued U.S. backing for his strategy in Afghanistan, according to a poll released today by Quinnipiac University, with 65 percent supporting his decision to begin withdrawing next July.

But Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, warned on the university website that the president should note that “his strongest supporters on Afghanistan are Republicans and conservatives who disagree with him about most everything else, while those who usually back him, Democrats and liberals, are the least supportive of the war."

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