The more one hears the discussion among Democrats about the war in Afghanistan, the more one feels that it is a serious handicap that Barack Obama has no personal experience of international relations or of foreign policy or military service, beyond such experience as one gains as a first-term U.S. senator.

His vice president, Joe Biden, has a great deal of legislative experience in these matters, and knows a lot about foreign affairs, but from hearing him speak and reading what he has written I feel no confidence in his judgment, which seems entirely the conventional wisdom of the policy community and the newspaper editorial pages, with nothing original or questioning in it.

That is to say, Vice President Biden knows everything about America’s foreign relations, but it only adds up to all that “everybody knows,” and the United States is not in a situation today that recommends the conventional wisdom as a guide to future policy.

On Afghanistan, there seems to be no coherent reason or vision as to why we are there. To “catch” Osama bin Laden, nearly 10 years after his crime? But you don’t have to take control of a country of 250,000 square miles and 33 million people in order to catch a terrorist leader. (Especially when it is taken for granted that he is in Pakistan.) You don’t have to take it upon yourself to solve Afghanistan’s internal social problems or to “defeat” (how, no one knows) the Taliban military, political and religious uprising in the country. What has that really to do with Americans?

Biden is reported to oppose “doubling up” in troops to “win” the Afghanistan battle, but because he believes Afghanistan is the wrong war and Pakistan the right war (which has not yet even started). This seems also the view of the Obama adviser Bruce Riedel, who headed an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan some months ago, and published the findings in a recent issue of The National Interest magazine in Washington.

His and the vice president’s position seems to be that while Afghanistan has been important enough (as a so-called nest for al-Qaida) to be worth a war, Pakistan offers a much better and more important war because it harbors not only bin Laden and Taliban but nuclear weapons as well. If you are looking for a real war, they seem to be saying, the prospect of Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists in possession of nuclear weapons makes a much more exciting war scenario than a losing counterinsurgency campaign in poor, landlocked Afghanistan, where the enemy is armed with locally made assault rifles and maneuvers on motorbikes.

It is one of the poorest countries on Earth, lacks nuclear weapons as well as any ability to build them, and has no significant resources other than agricultural land on which opium poppies flourish. Once, before all this started, its geographical location interested U.S. oil interests as providing a route for a pipeline to carry Central Asian oil to the sea. But today there are cheaper ways for moving oil than by a pipeline across a country at war.

The following scenario appears to seduce people in the Obama administration. Al-Qaida will take control of the Taliban (which is not an ally of al-Qaida, but has merely given the organization hospitality). The Taliban will take control of Pakistan away from the country’s rather highly regarded army (of nearly a million and a half active and reserve personnel), and Pakistan’s population of 176 million.

Afghanistan is composed of 33 million people. The Taliban is a minority political movement drawn from the Pashtun population, which makes up 40 percent of the total. The rest are Tajiks (26 percent), Hazaras (19 percent), Uzbeks (6 percent) and others, none of whom have displayed any desire to conquer Pakistan. Not even Hindu India would want to conquer and try to rule Muslim Pakistan, which would result in nothing but trouble for the Indians — although they might wish to eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent; but nuclear deterrents exist in order to deter other countries from eliminating the first country’s deterrent, and thus far this has worked.

A retired CIA counterterrorism chief named Haviland Smith has suggested in a newspaper article that Obama trapped himself during the campaign into having his own war (like most other recent presidents). He made the promise to leave Iraq, and to defend against Republican accusations of weakness he announced that instead he would fight the real war in Afghanistan, theoretically against bin Laden. Now Obama is caught, and has handed the war over to his military advisers, who assure him that they know how to win wars, even though they are at a loss to explain what would constitute victory in this one.

My own feeling is that the situation is worse. I think the American government now has become institutionally a war government, which finds its purpose in waging war against small and troublesome countries and peoples, in the generalized pursuit of running the world for the world’s own good. In this effort, one war is pretty much like another, and every president, to be re-elected, needs one.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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