Monday, July 14, 2008

The Afghanistan trap

Obama's op-ed My Plan for Iraq New York Times 07/13/08. He directly challenges the McCain-Bush accusation that withdrawing American troops would be "surrender": "They call any timetable for the removal of American troops 'surrender,' even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government."

The Dems need to defuse that "surrender" meme more than they've done so far. "Surrender" conjures images like Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. One side giving up its war goals completely could be called "surrender". But Congress approved two official war goals for the Iraq War in October 2002: doing away with Saddam's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" and dealing with Saddam's nonexistent operational ties to Al Qa'ida, the latter including Iraq's nonexistent connection to the 9/11 attacks. Both those goals were accomplished before the war even started. Mission Accomplished! Let's declare victory and bring the troops home.

Unfortunately, Obama is now calling for 10,000 troops to be sent from Iraq to Afghanistan, embracing even more explicitly an open-ended escalation strategy there. For the Afghanistan War, Obama recommends "more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there."

Juan Cole warns in a blog post of 07/14/08:

I don't know whether Senator Obama really wants to try to militarily occupy Afghanistan even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s first. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public. (my emphasis)
Cole asks an important question on this war, which seems to have largely fallen off the radar screen of most liberal bloggers, and has become practically invisible to the Establishment press, though rising casualties there have recently put it back in the news. Nine US soldiers were just killed in a single attack. Cole writes:

When was the last time that an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Afghanistan by US forces? Is that really what US troops are doing there, looking for al-Qaeda? Wouldn't we hear more about it if they were having successes in that regard? I mean, what is reported in the press is that they are fighting with "Taliban". But I'm not so sure these Pushtun rural guerrillas are even properly speaking Taliban (which means 'seminary student.') The original Taliban had mostly been displaced as refugees into Pakistan. These 'neo-Taliban' don't seem mostly to have that background. A lot of them seem to be just disgruntled Pushtun villagers in places like Uruzgan.

There has now been a rise of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, on a scale never before seen. One killed 24 people in a bazaar at Deh Rawood on Sunday. Robert Pape has demonstrated that suicide bombings typically are carried out by people who think their country is under foreign military occupation. If the US keeps sending more troops, will that really calm things down? (my emphasis)
Actually, Pape's findings found that suicide bombing is particularly associated with peoples in countries occupied by foreigners of a different religion.

Between the dysfunction of our mainstream media and the lazy habits of thought in the politics of American foreign policy, we're on the verge of escalating the Afghanistan disaster long before we've gotten out of the Iraq disaster.

I keep thinking that under the unique conditions of late 2001, the initial intervention had enough international legitimacy to produce much better outcomes.

But maybe even that is over-optimistic retrospective thinking. The main mission that needed to be accomplished was to inflict maximum damage on the actual Al Qa'ida groupings then concentrated in Afghanistan. But both the military itself and the policymakers of the Bush administration were completely focusing on the notion of "regime change". The concept of transnational terrorism not specifically dependent on "state sponsors" was not much of a part of their worldviews.

We know from the facts of the Battle of Tora Bora that a lot more damage could have been done to Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida organization in those early months of the Afghanistan War.

But now we're in an open-ended, armed nation-building operation that started nearly seven years ago. In what is very possibly the most difficult nation on earth to accomplish that goal. We've established no timelines for ending US participation in the protracted war there. McCain is at least as clueless on Afghanistan as he is on Iraq, and that's saying a lot. And Obama's only plan so far for the Afghanistan War is to escalate what we're already doing.

And we know from our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq where that road leads.

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