Saturday, July 26, 2008

Warnings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan War

Zbigniew Brzezinski as Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor was one of the chief advocates and architects of US aid to the Afghan mujaheddin (aka, Muslim terrorists) to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now he's warning against overcommitting American and NATO forces in that country (Brzezinski warns against repeating Soviet experience by Daniel Dombey Financial Times 07/21/08):

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser and prominent supporter of Barack Obama, has warned the Democratic presidential candidate that he risks repeating the defeat suffered by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama has called for up to 10,000 more US troops to be deployed in the country, where the USSR once sent tens of thousands of soldiers only to suffer cataclysmic military failure.

But in an interview with the Financial Times Mr Brzezinski warned: "It is important for US policy in general and for Obama more specifically to recognise that simply putting more troops into Afghanistan is not the entire solution ... We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made ... Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper." (my emphasis)
At the Netroots Nation convention, sometime Obama national-security advisor Samantha Power was a participant in the War Pundits panel. In between sessions, I asked her if she thought, given the potentially huge demands of pursuing the Afghanistan War, if we really still had any vital interests there which would justify it.

She replied that she supported Obama's position that it was a necessary war because Afghanistan could again become a haven for Al Qa'ida terrorists and, she said, that was already beginning to happen. She mentioned that one of our advantages in Afghanistan is that we have other NATO troops actively participating. But she also said that Obama as President would need to recognize that he will have to articulate a clear strategy and convince the public that it's necessary.

At the War Pundits panel, a questioner also asked about the Afghanistan War. Power emphasized the point even more strongly about the need for a clear strategy in Afghanistan, saying that at this point we really don't have one.

I took her two answers together to mean that she thinks that presently the current administration has no sound strategy in Afghanistan, and that Obama has yet to articulate one, either. I didn't have the impression that she is an unreflective hawk on the Afghanistan War. She seems to recognize that it's a very risky situation and doesn't seem to imagine that there is some easy answer.

Dombey comments that Brzezinski "depicts himself as a supporter who has declined to join the Obama campaign because of his unwillingness to be kept quiet or on message during the duration of the election."

"This is a very dangerous period of time with very unpredictable consequences," he said, referring to tensions between Iran and Israel and the US. "You have three countries doing a kind of death dance on the basis of confusion, division and fear.

"If we end up with war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran at the same time, can anyone see a more damaging prospect for America's world role than that?" he asked. "That's the fundamental foreign policy dilemma at the back of this election. A four-front war would get us involved for years ... It would be the end of American predominance." (my emphasis)
The "end of American predominance" doesn't sound like an inevitably negative thing to me. Especially if "predominance" means that we are going to be fighting needless and even criminal wars of choice like the one in Iraq.

John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School warns about putting simple faith in "surges", i.e., escalation in the numbers of troops, to accomplish US goals in Afghanistan (War Is More Than Just a Numbers Game: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan Britannica blog 07/23/08):

Those who say we never had enough troops there [in Afghanistan] — a chorus that includes Senator Obama — miss the point that levels of violence there were very low for the first five years of our occupation. Indeed, we didn’t go over 10,000 troops in country until 2006. This hardly supports the idea that we have never had enough troops there.

And now that we have over 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan [this apparently includes all NATO forces], the violence is flaring — in a few areas. Why? The reason is that the Taliban have generated much sympathy with the Pashtuns, who feel disenfranchised by the current government. The more troops we pour in, the more targets we’ll create for disgruntled tribesmen. A better solution would be to negotiate with the Pashtuns in ways that empower them, and to move US and NATO forces in country away from larger bases to an outpost network. Almost the same as in Iraq, except that the outpost network in this case will be more rurally based.

For those who still see greater numbers as the key to victory, let me just remind us all that the military mantra in Vietnam was the call for ever more troops. Well in excess of half a million soldiers at one point. And yet the situation continued to worsen. No, numbers are not the answer in irregular warfare. (my emphasis)
I'm not convinced about Arquilla's suggestion that creating an "outpost network" is the new strategy we need in Afghanistan.

But his post is a real reminder that the superficial chatter from the McCain campaigns and McCain's fan-boys and -girls in the national press about the alleged success of The Surge is distracting attention from what really happened in Iraq during 2007. Violence has receded to pre-2006 levels. But the increase in American troops had little to do with that result as it actually came about:

In Iraq, violence fell for two main reasons: 1) Al Qaeda over-reached in Anbar, alienating Sunnis and making them susceptible to dealing with us; and 2) We shifted some troops off of large operating bases to a dispersed network of small outposts, enabling us to deter violence or respond much more swiftly to it. I had been lobbying since 2004 for the adoption of this "outpost and outreach" strategy (see the discussion in Chapter 7 of my new book, Worst Enemy). It was great to see the immediate impact - a sharp drop in violence - of these changes.
That's actually a very incomplete summary of the reasons, too. The use of bribery in the form of payments to former Sunni insurgent groups played a big role, though this policy militates against the alleged political goals of The Surge to further internal political reconciliation.

Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to impose a cease-fire for much of 2007 on his JAM (Mahdi Army) was also a key reason for the relative decrease in violence toward the end of 2007.

And the really ugly side of that "success" that McCain and the Republicans certainly don't want to emphasize is that the sectarian violence has resulted in a large degree of "ethnic cleansing", although in Iraq it would probably be more accurate to call it "sectarian cleansing" or "religious cleansing". Juan Cole explains in A Social History of the Surge Informed Comment blog 07/24/08:

For the first six months of the troop escalation, high rates of violence continued unabated. That is suspicious. What exactly were US troops doing differently last September than they were doing in May, such that there was such a big change? The answer to that question is simply not clear. Note that the troop escalation only brought US force strength up to what it had been in late 2005. In a country of 27 million, 30,000 extra US troops are highly unlikely to have had a really major impact, when they had not before.

As best I can piece it together, what actually seems to have happened was that the escalation troops began by disarming the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. Once these Sunnis were left helpless, the Shiite militias came in at night and ethnically cleansed them. Shaab district near Adhamiya had been a mixed neighborhood. It ended up with almost no Sunnis. Baghdad in the course of 2007 went from 65% Shiite to at least 75% Shiite and maybe more. My thesis would be that the US inadvertently allowed the chasing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs out of Baghdad (and many of them had to go all the way to Syria for refuge). Rates of violence declined once the ethnic cleansing was far advanced, just because there were fewer mixed neighborhoods. (my emphasis)
The refugee problem which Cole mentions there has also been a major factor. The International Crisis Group issued a report dated 07/10/08, Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, which says:

A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale. It started not because of the military action, but two years later, when American efforts to rebuild the country faltered, violence escalated, and civilians became the targets of insurgent groups and sectarian militias. And while exact numbers are uncertain, the scale of the problem is not in dispute: today, Iraq’s refugee crisis – with some two and a half million outside the country and the same number internally displaced – ranks as the world’s second in terms of numbers, preceded only by Afghanistan and ahead of Sudan. While the security situation in Iraq shows progress, the refugee crisis will endure for some time and could worsen if that progress proves fleeting. (my emphasis)
It's worth keeping in mind that the two worst refugee crises in the world right now are in the two countries we're actively involved in "liberating": Afghanistan and Iraq.

And with the refugee problem already greater in Afghanistan and Iraq, what will it be like in Afghanistan after further escalation of the war?

Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel also calls for Rethinking Afghanistan The Nation Online 07/22/2008:

[I]t is troubling that as he shows sound thinking on Iraq, Obama also continues to talk about escalating the US military presence in Afghanistan. (This holds true not just for Senator Obama, but for most Democrats in Washington, who argue mantra-like that we need to leave Iraq in order to free additional troops to serve in Afghanistan.) Shouldn't serious thought be given to how Senator Obama's necessary agenda for healthcare and progressive economic reform might be sacrificed to yet another trillion-dollar war without end?

That's why I would urge Senator Obama to ... think long and hard about the dangers to his agenda – both domestically and internationally – of extricating the US from one disastrous war and heading into another. ...
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