Labor Day marks the traditional kickoff of the political-campaign season, although in recent years that season has never ended. The current financial/economic situation — and, most importantly, the unemployment rate — will be issue No. 1 in this fall's congressional and state-level campaigns. Yes, even larger than our local decisions about marijuana legalization and control of state liquor sales.
But just below the surface lurk foreign policy/national security issues that will grow in importance going into the 2012 national elections. An overseas crisis, or domestic terrorist incident, could become issue No. 1 this fall, if it were sufficiently large and dramatic. Let's sort these issues out. Some will be more important two years from now than they are today.
Iraq: Only some 50,000 U.S. troops, none in a combat role, remain stationed in Iraq. Present plans call for their withdrawal by the end of 2011. But there is a big question: What if, by then, the country remains unstable and Iranian and Al Qaida influence appears to be growing?
An Iraqi government is yet to be formed, many months after national elections earlier this year. Terrorist bombings and other incidents are again on the upswing. Their objective, of course, is to demonstrate that Iraqi military and security forces cannot maintain order within the country. This is the classic tactic, historically, of insurgent groups trying to undermine those in power. Ordinary citizens, anywhere, value daily security over everything else. When those governing cannot provide it, they are rejected.
Neighboring Iran has been infiltrating and funding Shiite factions and, additionally, providing arms and money to terrorists. It seeks to control, or have a major voice, in whatever eventual Iraqi regime emerges. Other Iraqi neighbors also have a hand in domestic intrigue there.
Why can't Iraqi leaders get their political act together? Can't they see that, without a functioning and publicly accepted central government, chaos could reign? The answer is that the country historically has been divided among Shiiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and factions within those groups, and there is no tradition of peaceful, democratic consensus-building among them.
Factions do not compromise; they contest each other for power. It is quite possible that, a year from now, not much will have changed from the status quo. That is, a credible, respected central government will not yet be in place, and those seeking power will simply be waiting for the U.S. to clear out before making their final moves.
Afghanistan: The situation there is even more perplexing. We have many more troops stationed in Afghanistan than in Iraq and they are actively in combat. Afghanistan, also, is a country without a tradition of viable, democratically elected central governments. It has over centuries shed outsiders who were confident of their power to change the society or control events.
The Taliban are not popular among ordinary Afghans. But, on the other hand, neither are local officials, perceived as corrupt and ineffectual. The tribal culture's traditions date back centuries. A well known Afghan saying: I against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; my brothers, cousins, and I against everyone.
The principal domestic industry there is production and marketing of narcotics. Neighboring Pakistan — playing a double game — allows Taliban and Al Qaida fighters and their weapons to move freely across the Pak-Afghan border and to find refuge on Pak territory.
President Obama initially pointed to a mid-2011 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since then, he and Pentagon leaders have clarified that mid-2011 would mark only the beginning of a drawdown.
We have made progress in recent months with special-operations forays against Taliban and Al Qaida leaders. But, longer term, there is no possibility whatever of a decisive military victory that could empower an accepted central government. The notion of "winning hearts and minds" is a nice one but largely irrelevant. Afghans will cast their lot with whomever can provide order and security in their immediate living areas. Time is not on our side.
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