Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan-Pakistan

Taylor Marsh is really, really enthusiastic about the Afghanistan War. As she shows again in Wherein Juan Cole Loses the Thread at her blog 01/26/09.

I plan to take something like a "trust but verify" attitude toward Obama's administration. That said, I'm pretty much deliriously happy about his first week. I just saw an AOL headline that he's giving his first TV interview as President to an Arabic channel. That should drive the wingnuts around the bend.

But Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is one area I always expected to disagree with Obama, because I disagreed during the campaign with his talk about expanding the Afghanistan War. Actually, I defended Obama's controversial response during the campaign to a hypothetical about firing a missile into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. I'm very dubious about the Israeli and now American practice of trying to assassinate individual leaders. But we actually have a real, legitimate reason to be going after Bin Laden and his Al Qa'ida group.

It's worth remembering at this point that Obama hasn't committed himself on what his strategy is going to be on Afghanistan-Pakistan. The administration's enthusiasm for that war seems to be considerably more restrained in practice than Taylor Marsh's.


Bob Dreyfuss, who doesn't seem inclined to cut the government any breaks, recently posted about statements by SecDef Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen (Afghan Escalation: No Decision Yet, Says Gates The Nation Online 01/22/09):

Significantly, in their answer, Gates and Mullen stressed that no decision has yet been made about adding troops. That's important, because it opens a window -- yes, it's a small one -- for opponents of expanding the Afghan war to persuade the White House that it's not a good idea. ...

The real point is that [the war against the "Taliban" is] a stalemate. Obama has pledged to carry out a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy. If that takes a month, or three months, or six months, so be it. There's no need to rush more troops there just because the generals want them. [my emphasis]
Even Tom Hayden is finding reasons for optimism, at least as of last week (Obama's Hopeful Revision on Afghanistan Huffington Post 01/20/09):

Peace advocates favoring a diplomatic solution in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be cautiously hopeful as they step up criticism of the expanding war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As a candidate, Obama continually pledged to escalate the military conflict by sending at least 20,000 more US troops. That will not change. But there is a major difference between an open-ended occupation and a presidential commitment to a "hard-earned peace." Obama seems to be repositioning himself in the direction of Afghanistan diplomacy while not retreating from his campaign rhetoric.
I believe I'm reading him correctly when I say Hayden assumes that Obama is trying to use any short-term escalation in the number of troops as part of a diplomatic approach that involves something like an exit strategy for the US.

Hayden is starting a new blog called Obama Notes. In his first post on 01/26/09, he offers more detailed comments on events over the last week. He makes a surprisingly harsh characterization of Afghan society, writing:

The outlook in Afghanistan-Pakistan is cloudy and grim. The president's latest goal of a "hard-won peace" is a realistic retreat from rhetorical belligerence. But one gets the feeling that no one knows what to do. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke suggests a Dayton-like accord but without the ingredients of Dayton. Where the Balkans consisted of ethnic blocs and competing nation states, Afghanistan resembles the Stone Age without stable tribal structures.

Another 20,000 American troops shortly will become twenty thousand new targets, one of whom certainly will be the last to die for a mistake. And every Afghan the Americans kill will give birth to more insurgents. [my emphasis]
I guess Hayden isn't as steeped in "Third World romanticism" as his reputation might suggest.

In any case, mission creep has become a serious problem in the Afghanistan War. The fact that we're firing missiles now on a regular basis into Pakistan, a country with which we are not at war and that has generally acted as an American ally in the "war on terror" is one part of the mission creep. The fact is that the original goal of killing or capturing as many of Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida group as possible has long since given way to a massive counterinsurgency effort against Afghan fundamentalist rebels ("Taliban") that have very little if any connection to what's left of Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida.

And the notion of counterinsurgency by air war is basically nuts, not to put too fine a point on it. Air support for ground forces is very effective. Rocketing villages based on shaky intelligence tips and killing a bunch of civilians, with or without getting a "high-value target" too, is not going to win hearts and minds among the people being rocketed.

While I realize their are complications in Afghanistan that are not present in Iraq (which has more than enough "complications" of its own!), e.g., the NATO role, we're at the point where the US has to recognize the limits of our own power in Afghanistan and find a real exit strategy. While Obama is still officially reviewing his policy there, it looks like he may well escalate in Afghanistan in a significant way. I think he's more open than Cheney and Bush to changing policies that don't work out the way he expects. But I expect to disagree with a lot of his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy the next year or so.

From what she's written recently, Taylor Marsh seems to have an "humanitarian hawk" position on Afghanistan, even suggesting that she wants to expand the mission even more to have the US and NATO directly guarantee women's rights on a long-term basis there. But nobility of goals doesn't remove the real obstacles and costs to be faced. And it's reckless to pretend otherwise.

Juan Cole responds to Marsh's criticism in Cole/ Marsh Debate on Obama's Bombing of Pakistan 01/27/09. He points out, accurately, that her position is essentially pure partisan polemics. Which doesn't always produce the best foreign policy ideas.

Glenn Greenwald also addresses risks in the nasty foreign-policy mess the Cheney-Bush administration has passed on to Obama and his team in Continuing Bush policies in Israel and Afghanistan Salon 01/26/09.

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