American presidential advisor critiques the conflicts in the Middle East

Not only is the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan “the single most difficult foreign policy issue facing the United States today” but, according to Bruce Riedel, the war will define Barack Obama’s presidency.

On April 29, Waterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) hosted a signature lecture entitled “Obama’s War: Prospects for the Conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” At this event, Riedel, an adviser to three American presidents, most recently to Obama, spoke candidly on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war against Al Qaeda and the struggle against terrorism.

During the lecture Riedel probed the true reality of Obama’s inheritance from the Bush Administration and whether or not the American president will be able to achieve some form of success in the conflict-ridden region.

According to Riedel, the situation Obama inherited in Afghanistan and Pakistan on his 2008 inauguration was nothing short of “a disaster.” As of today, the war against Al Qaeda stands as the longest in U.S. history – outlasting both World Wars and Vietnam.

Of the contemporary conflict, Riedel believes it could have been over and won as early as 2003; however, it was lost as “[the U.S.] tried to fight this war on the cheap.” Riedel cites an ill-fated combination of an under-resourced Afghan mission and the Bush Administration’s decision to go into Iraq as explanations for the current quagmire. This series of events, according to Riedel, allowed Al Qaeda time “to regroup and reinvigorate itself” in order to effectively wage the war we see today.

While the Bush Administration’s approach to the region arguably set a daunting stage for any successor, the Obama Administration is not exempt from all blame. This is due to the reality that, according to Riedel, the corruption-ridden Afghan presidential election of August 2009 – in which Hamid Karzai was re-elected amidst mass accusations of electoral fraud – “happened on Obama’s watch.” As such, Riedel concluded that the Afghan election “fiasco”, viewed as a major setback to the entire Afghan mission, cannot be blamed on the Bush Administration.

While the situation on the ground appears dire, the definition of success sought by the U.S. and NATO forces appears in flux. Riedel explained that “30 years of war has left untold damage on Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In light of this, Riedel was certain that whatever democracy is to be established in the region will be imperfect. Furthermore, the goal should be stability in South Central Asia rather than grandiose visions of Western-style governance.

Interestingly, lecture respondent and University of Waterloo political science professor Ramesh Thakur said that democracy in the Islamic world is not illusive. He pointed out Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia as pillars of such successful governance.

As the Canadian military’s 2011 withdrawal date looms, many question whether such action will be detrimental to the mission as a whole. However, Riedel fell short of criticizing the Canadian withdrawal while emphasizing that a purely military solution to the conflict is not possible. In fact, Riedel stated that “in a war of ideals, winning the hearts and minds of the Islamic world is key.” All that is certain is that America and its Allies are receiving a crash course in the trials and tribulations of fighting a war while trying to create democracy.

“Wars consume presidencies,” concluded Riedel. In light of this, the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan will undoubtedly define Obama’s White House legacy.