Sunday, March 29, 2009

Afghanistan War: with war fans like Bobo, the prospects are not encouraging

Obama: an Abraham Lincoln path, or a Lyndon Johnson one?

This segment of the PBS Newshour featuring Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and our Savior-General David Petraeus (Obama Sets Plan to Boost Afghan Stability, Confront Taliban and Al-Qaida 03/27/09), combined with neoconservative columnist David "Bobo" Brooks chattering later in the program about how wonderful the plan was (Afghanistan Strategy, Budget Pitch Top Week's News 03/27/09), induced a fatalistic feeling for me. It all sounds so promising. And we can find virtually identical statements from political and military leaders about Vietnam for most of that war and the same for the Iraq War. Mark Shields for once cited an actual poll showing that 51% of the public are opposed to the Afghanistan War. Although Holbrooke was referring to "AfPak", because the escalation clearly involves intensified efforts in Pakistan, aka, a further widening of the war.

Here's Bobo, who has been consistently wrong about pretty much everything to do with the Iraq War, gushing over the wonderfulness of the plan to escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

I think the thing that strikes me is that the president's plan flows very organically from what I was hearing on the ground, not only from the military people, but from aid workers, from U.N. people, from a whole range of people.

I think there's a rough consensus in the country about what to do, and the president's plan encompasses it. And the two big sides are the military side -- we're going to be sending a lot of Marines, especially Marines, but also a Stryker brigade to the south of the country, where the terrorists have essentially had free reign, and that's going to mean a tough summer, with high casualty rates this summer, and probably a five-year commitment. But there's a consensus you have to get the security.

But the other part of the plan is the civilian side. And we've had this huge military presence and a very small and not-so-effective civilian presence. But there is a consensus we really need to get heavily involved in the country for agriculture, but especially for law and order and governance, to give the local governing institutions some credibility. And this does that, as well.

So it is nation-building. It is a very big doubling-down. The president sort of tried to mask that over with some moderate rhetoric, but this is a big, long commitment, but it definitely reflects what people in the country think is needed. ...

And, again, you have to differentiate between the homefront and over there. The homefront, there is fatigue with the war, but we're going to be distracted. I think this will not be a big story, except for periodically.

But what struck me is, among the military, I mean, a lot of the people there served in Iraq. And the aid workers, too, served in Iraq. They've been out of the country in these really very harsh places for years and years and years. And what struck me was their incredible commitment to staying.

And the other thing to be said is, we are a much better military at this. One thing that struck me with talking from privates to generals, counterinsurgency is now bred in their bones. And that means they know there's no military -- purely military solution.

They all want to talk about governance. They all want to talk about agriculture, about schools. They know that's the way you win this war. So we are just a lot better at this.

And then the final thing to be said is, they much prefer the Afghan people to the Iraqi people, to be blunt about it. They think they're more cooperative, more welcoming.

And Mark said it's a very frustrating place. I mean, there are high school teachers who are illiterate. It's a very frustrating place, but there's more of a sense of common purpose, I think, than there was in Iraq. [my emphasis]
In other words, Bobo took a trip to Afghanistan and had various American officials and the occasional well-briefed soldier talk to him and feed him the official line and he thinks it's all wonderful. I can't even find particular passages to bold there. It's the straight-up colonialist rhetoric of modern imperialism (and "neo-imperialism", if you prefer). Just the terminology is somewhat updated. Now we have cooperative and welcoming people instead of welcoming "natives", our glorious military is fully prepared for "counterinsurgency", they're better prepared for this kind of war than they've ever been, and so on. Coming from Bobo, it doesn't inspire any confidence. Did I mention that Bobo has been consistently wrong about pretty much everything in the Iraq War?

He also devoted his most recent New York Times column, The Winnable War 03/26/09 online, to golly-gee praise for the neato-keeno new war plans. He says, "the Afghan people want what we want." Was there ever a self-deluded colonial power who didn't believe the same? "The Afghans are warm and welcoming. They detest the insurgents and root for American success," says Bobo. Rii-iiigt! Reading Bobo's column and realizing that people like this are cheering for the plan is even more depressing than his PBS schtick. I wonder if it wasn't a Freudian slip when he wrote, "it would have been easy for the U.S. to withdraw into exhaustion and realism". But much to Bobo's relief, the Obama administration rejected "realism" and instead decided to expand the war. We could be generous to Bobo and assume he was referring there to the "realist theory" of international relations. But that's not what the column says.

It's both frustrating and sad to me to see this escalation happening after the experience we're still having in Iraq. There's been talk about an exit strategy, but I'm not hearing one. Unless it's the "our exit strategy is victory" line the Reps were using about the Iraq War for a while. Supposedly we've backed away from a goal of making Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy, which would be a realistic decision as far as it goes. But how does that balance off against further expansion of the war in Pakistan? And has the Obama administration really defined the extent to which the Pashtun warlords and tribes that are doing most of the fighting present any danger of international terrorism directed against the United States? So far, about all I'm hearing is something along the lines of, the Taliban government of 2001 helped Al Qa'ida and Al Qa'ida attacked America, so now we a bunch of Pushtun rebels (and maybe a few international jihadists including Osama bin Laden) that we're calling "Taliban" and "Al Qa'ida" and we have to fight them forever. By bombing villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This PBS Newshour report on The Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan 10/10/06 and others on the same topic are very relevant background.

In an editorial of the day before Obama's new escalation strategy was announced, Deeper into Afghanistan 03/26/09, the San Francisco Chronicle recognizes the supposedly lowered goals but takes a cautious stance on escalation:

This outlook may be a recipe for a disastrous re-run of the Iraq experience. The two wars haven't rid the region of dangerous extremists, won allies or produced clear-cut ends.

But Obama has hinted in recent remarks that he's lowering expectations and limiting the risks in rethinking the Afghanistan war, now in its seventh year. Gone is the Bush-era dream of a thriving, democratic society built on Western-style freedoms.

In its place is a more basic goal. Obama's aim is to eradicate the Taliban extremists who hosted Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorists who launched the Sept. 11 attacks. The purpose is to stabilize, not remake Afghanistan, while keeping a close eye on next-door Pakistan where the same fighters are rooted. [my emphasis]
The editorial reminds us that Obama said just last weekend we needed an exit strategy:

In a "60 Minutes" interview this week, Obama made U.S. security the top priority. But for his war-weary listeners he added: "There's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

It's a clearly stated pledge, one that American voters should jot down to remember. A Gallup poll earlier this month found that 42 percent of Americans felt the Afghanistan war was "a mistake." Compare that to near unanimous support when it was launched months after the Sept. 11 attacks to uproot the Taliban.
Ray McGovern in Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President 03/28/09 writes:

Know why [Obama] did not mention a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessing the likely effects of this slow surge in troops and trainers? Because there is none.

Guess why. The reason is the same one accounting for the lack of a completed NIE before the “surge” in troop strength in Iraq in early 2007.

Apparently, Obama’s advisers did not wish to take the risk that honest analysts — ones who had been around a while, and maybe even knew something of Vietnam and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan — might also be immune to “cognitive dissonance,” and ask hard questions regarding the basis of the new strategy.

Indeed, they might reach the same judgment they did in the April 2006 NIE on global terrorism. The authors of that estimate had few cognitive problems and simply declared their judgment that invasions and occupations (in 2006 the target then was Iraq) do not make us safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.

The prevailing attitude this time fits the modus operandi of Gen. David Petraeus, who late last year took the lead by default with the following approach: We know best, and can run our own policy review, thank you very much.
As I said in my last post, The rhetoric from the Obama administration and the military sounds good. The problem is you can find virtually identical statement from the years of the Vietnam War and from pretty much any time during the Iraq War. Helena Cobban in Play It Again, Barry Just World News 03/28/09 compares Nixon's pronouncements on the Vietnam War to Obama's on the Afghanistan-Pakistan War.


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