Sunday, May 04, 2008

Escalating the Afghanistan War

As violence continues to escalate in Iraq, the Cheney-Bush administration is escalating the war in Afghanistan: Pentagon Considers Adding Forces in Afghanistan by Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker New York Times 05/03/08. Myers and Shanker report:

The Pentagon is considering sending as many as 7,000 more American troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies, senior Bush administration officials said.

They said the step would push the number of American forces there to roughly 40,000, the highest level since the war began more than six years ago, and would require at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq. (my emphasis)
The thing that strikes me with the current situation in Afghanistan is that I see about the same amount of hope for constructive outcomes from further counterinsurgency warfare in there as in Iraq. This war has been going on for six and a half years now. There is no short-term prospect for stablility. Security is rotten. The government under Hamad Karzai barely controls Kabul, and is largely ineffective in the rest of the country.

NATO's protracted war in Afghanistan has become a serious problem in itself. Whatever chance nation-building had there in 2001-2, that window of opportunity has passed.

Dick Cheney and George Bush decided to concentrate on "regime change" in Afghanistan in 2001 as the first priority, not focusing on attacking Al Qa'ida concentrations. And they apparently didn't care much about building an Afghanistan that would be more than a failed state. In fact, their warlord-oriented strategy in the Afghanistan War has made it even more likely that Afghanistan will continue as a failed state heavily dependent on narcotrafficking for years to come.

I've found myself quoting Digby a lot lately because, well, she has a lot of worthwhile things to say, as in Don't Look Over There 04/09/08. I've also been pretty much on her wavelength about media issues lately, because I've started to wonder whether Dick Cheney or the collapse of American journalism is the bigger threat to democracy. (My current answer: Cheney is the bigger danger in the short term, East German-style journalism in the long term)

I'm surprised that the European democracies haven't bailed on the NATO mission in Afghanistan already. The Afghanistan intervention is more unpopular in Germany than the Iraq War is here. One poll I saw reported recently said 86% of the German public is opposed to it. German diplomats are already quietly promoting an exit strategy among the allies. (Our press is so caught up with other critical matters like Obama's bowling abilities to pay much notice to such things.) Germany has national parliamentary elections coming up next year. I'm guessing that sentiment that strongly against the intervention will make itself felt more and more leading up to the elections.

I supported the original Afghanistan intervention. I'm tempted to say I thought it was a good idea but Cheney and Bush screwed it up, because that's what "liberal hawk" enablers of the Iraq War are using as their standard alibi on that war. The truth seems to be that this adminstration didn't really want to do the Afghanistan intervention at all. Rummy grumped that there weren't any good targets to bomb. Instead, he tried to make it a showplace for his fantasy vision of high-tech, "light-footprint" warfare, essentially a notion that he could make a strategy like backing the Contras of Nicaragua in the 1980s work.

But the cold US national security interest was destroying the capabilities of the Al Qa'ida terrorist band, which was heavily concentrated in Afghanistan at the time. The Battle of Tora Bora in early 2002 was the last chance to achieve that. But, instead, Bin Laden and many of the best-trained Al Qa'ida cadres got away to kill again.

From that point on, the Afghanistan intervention became just another partisan war, i.e., a counterinsurgency. There may have been - with heavy emphasis on may - an unusual opportunity in the very particular political conditions of 2001 to make Afghanistan some kind of UN protectorate that would have wound up by now as a stable state with a functioning government that would be less friendly to Al Qa'ida type operations in the future. There was an amazing amount of sympathy in the world, including among Muslim nations, for the US in the wake of 9/11. It's hard to imagine any conditions where that level of sympathy for the United States will occur again, ever. (Even then, Latin American nations managed to curb their enthusiasm, though few Americans seemed to notice in the hyper-patriotic atmosphere after 9/11.)

But the disaster in Iraq has made me skeptical of the most optimistic scenarios like that. After all, even a UN protectorate would be a colony by another name. American commentators and analysts don't seem to have much trouble recognizing that the long Soviet war in Afghanistan was disastrous for the USSR, that they showed bad judgment and recklessness in getting involved in that counterinsurgency in the first place, and that they were making a sensible decision from their viewpoint in leaving.

My ideas for a solution? The best chance for the intervention in Afghanistan - physically decimating Al Qa'ida in 2001-2, is long past. Unless you buy the Republican notion that Bin Laden and his band of fellow fanatics are a menace comparable to the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War, I don't see how the benefits of continuing the Afghanistan War outweigh the costs.

The best sound-bite formula for a solution that I could come up with would be: Concentrate on the intelligence efforts and security procedures in airports, ports, etc., to prevent terrorist attacks. Accept the reality that 100% security comes only in the same place perfect peace occurs, in the grave. The risk of terrorism can't be 100% eliminated. And we need to recognize that fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran and whereever else we think a violent Muslim fanatic may be living has enormous risks of its own.

When it comes to such military operations, I think we should adopt Jerry Brown's slogan from the 1970s, "Lower your expectations." Cheney and Bush have proven what a fool's errand it is to think we can just knock off any regime we find inconvenient and reconstruct a model state on a blank slate in whatever country we choose.

I think we need to shut down the NATO military operation in Afghanistan and work through the UN to do whatever it can (which probably won't be much) to stablize that country. With both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we need to concentrate on intelligence and law-enforcement methods to arrest or otherwise contain anti-American terrorist threats there.

We also need to focus on the fact that nuclear nonproliferation is far more important to the physical security of the US than whether some village in Godawfulstan or Godforsakenstan is run by radical Salafists. The US needs to push nuclear disarmament forward everywhere, including for ourselves, and also in South Asia and the Middle East. Vitually everyone agrees in theory that the biggest terrorist threat is a terrorist group getting a functional nuclear weapon.

That may sound more utopian that achieving model Western-friendly governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those goals are feasible and focus on priority threats. Belligerent old white guys like Dick Cheney and Maverick McCain may obsess more about whether Bin Laden will accuse them of having small wee-wees if we withdraw from hopeless military situations. But any sensible foreign and military policies will take full account of the costs and benefits of our options. And will look at the risks of continuing existing policies, as well as the hypothetical risks of worst-case future scenarios.

I understand the practical politics of the Democrats' current position of promising to escalate the Afghanistan War while withdrawing American troops from Iraq. But if they win the Presidency and implement such a policy, we can reasonably assume that the Republicans won't be nearly so forgiving and tolerant of the problems a Democratic President will face in Afghanistan as the Dems have been to Cheney and Bush over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghanistan War could be the thing that wrecks the chance for a new Democratic era of reform and sensible foreign policy.

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