"It ain't over till it's over" and "It ain't over until the fat lady sings" may be cliches but both have the advantage of expressing self-evident truths. Nowhere are these truths more obvious than in states experiencing violent political unrest or that plus the add-on of foreign military intervention. Currently there are three places (one hesitates to call all three states) where the US is involved in endgames--or, at least, what the administration hopes constitutes such.
Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen are all in what it is hoped by decision makers throughout the West but particularly inside the Beltway to be entering the last chapter of their narratives of violent political unrest. There is no doubt but the people of the US and its allied states are war weary. It is increasingly difficult to muster and maintain support for any further involvement in the messy internal affairs of majority Muslim areas. Not even the dire warnings regarding the AQAP will stimulate any feelings of alarm in We the People. Libya has stalemate and lack of purpose written all over it. Afghanistan is a write off in the minds of many--all the more so since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The Afghanistan conflict is the only one in which any significant number of Americans is involved. This means it is the only one where we can take decisive action. The action most desired by many in both public and congress is an accelerated withdrawal. The arguments in favor of this are powerful. We have accomplished the main goal of our invasion--the death of bin Laden and the virtual destruction of al-Qaeda. The Afghan government remains inefficient, ineffective, corrupt, and a frightful waste of American money.
The Karzai regime wants to hinder our most effective operational concepts whether night raids or the use of tactical air power. At the same time he is resistant, to say the least, to our requirements that he clean up his house, work harder in the old governance reform thing, concentrate more on developing the Afghan National Force to the level where it can assume security duties on its own. On top of that, he and all those around him appear to be complete ingrates considering the billions of dollars and nearly two thousand lives we have expended in large measure to support the existence of his government free of extremist control.
From the American perspective it seems the Vietnam Syndrome is back in play. Congress using the deficit and federal budget constraints as justification will proceed to write-off the American lives and demand a firm timetable for total American withdrawal. It, and, in essence, We the People, will declare our losses in fisc and lives to have been a poor idea and move to cut our losses, ignore the remaining and threatening loose ends left hanging in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and turn our collective eyes inward once again.
Regardless of what Secretary of Defense Gates said the other day in Singapore, this will introduce yet one more era of neo-isolationism. There are more than a few within us who have surrendered Great Power status to the Chinese. Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) whose district includes Camp Lejune is a potent opponent of the war in Afghanistan as he was that in Iraq. The NYT points out that Jones is no longer a "pariah" in the party or unpopular in the district which he has represented since 1994. This means the Republican neo-isolationist wing is more potent than ever.
The combination of liberal Democrat and deficit hawk Republicans will have the juice necessary to assure that not only will the administration be supported in an accelerated draw down in Afghanistan but that our overall foreign policy will become far less ambitious. It may even carry the water necessary to assure significant, even enervating, cuts in the defense budget.
The net effect of any drastic, rapid cut out from Afghanistan means in real world terms that the US has lost the political will to oppose violent political Islam. To put it more cruelly but no less accurately, we will concede victory to the enemy who will, unsurprisingly, seek even greater success against us and the rest of the civilized world.
There is an alternative to a simple pull out disguised as something rather less humiliating. That alternative would be a combination of open negotiations with Taliban and continued military operations against that group and the ISI proxy, the Haqqani network. As we learned in Korea and again in Vietnam, the requirement for even limited success is the demonstration of continued political will in a both talk diplomacy and its violent twin, war. The will and ability to continue fighting--fighting well and hard--even as the endless palaver over very little continues in a seemingly pointless fashion constitutes the demonstration of continued political will which finally convinces the adversary to settle for the best terms we are willing to grant. There is no doubt that the Karzai government will join in negotiations. All that is needed is to bring the semi-secret limited contacts into the open while keeping our shooters at it in country.
Unfortunately, the probability of the current administration choosing this twin track route is as remote as the president admitting that he was out to lunch with his Libya "policy." Libya is, to paraphrase Omar Bradley, the wrong use of air power against the wrong enemy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had the US and others been serious about removing Gaddafi, troops would have been landed before the smoke and dust of the first air defense suppression missile strikes had blown clear in the desert wind. A quick removal of Gaddafi followed by an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces and the introduction of an international peacekeeping force from, perhaps, the Arab League, would have seen the job done in a timely and clean way. But, the leaders of France, the UK, and the US took counsel of their worst fears based on the inappropriate model of W. Bush in Iraq.
The leaving of Gaddafi is simply the start of the endgame in Libya. Where the endgame in Afghanistan will be some sort of coalition government which includes Taliban, the players in Libya are not so clear. There is a strange assemblage of tribal figures, regionalists, secularists, and political Islamists involved in the so-called transitional government. Their joint agenda beyond the removal of Gaddafi is the to-be-determined department. The same applies to the role to be played in the future by those Libyans who were genuine adherents of Gaddafi's theory of government. The foreign supporters of the rebels including the US have to put a major push on the transitional government to put a post-Gaddafi plan on paper at least.
Even if there is a post-regime change plan, this is no assurance that it will be put into effect. The Western patrons had best realize this. The Libya which comes into existence after Gaddafi may well not be a showplace of Western norms and values any more than will be the case in Afghanistan. The post-Gaddafi Libya will be an economic basket case filled with people with scores to settle. It will not be pretty. And, it will have the correct climate to encourage the emergence of adherents of violent political Islam. We will not be fond of that. But, it may not be preventable. Get a grip on it.
Everything that is true for Libya applies to Yemen--on steroids. This will be true to an even greater degree if Saleh escapes from Saudi Arabia and heads back to San'a. The probability of Yemen becoming a collapsed state is better than fifty-fifty even if Saleh stays in Saudi. It goes to near certainty if he returns. And, there is absolutely nothing the US can or will do directly about this. The most likely "winner" in Yemen will be AQAP which will bode ill not only for Saudi Arabia but the civilized world as well.
The situations in Libya and Yemen make what we do in Afghanistan all the more important. All eyes, particularly those of the adherents of violent political Islam, will be on what we do and don't do. Should we go the accelerated withdrawal route, the Mighty Men of the One True Faith will be emboldened greatly. But, should we demonstrate inexhaustible political will in the dual track of talk while shooting, they will be inhibited in their ambitions.
The choice will be soon in and near the Oval. Given the political imperatives at work it is likely that the wrong decision will be made. In that event we can save a little bit of money while cowering in our Homeland Security guaranteed bunker at the mercy at the next martyrdom seeker with a bomb or even no more than a gun show acquired semi-automatic weapon.
It's the world of the future, welcome to it.