Thursday, September 03, 2009

Escalating the Afghanistan War

The Afghanistan War is a mess. Still. As it will surely be for years until we declare we've accomplished some mission or other and get out.

I may have posted this before, but it's worth reading more than once, anyway, The War We Can’t Win: Afghanistan & the Limits of American Power Commonweal 08/14/09:

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed - much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. ...

Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible. Not for nothing has the place acquired the nickname Graveyard of Empires. Of course, Americans, insistent that the dominion over which they preside does not meet the definition of empire, evince little interest in how Brits, Russians, or other foreigners have fared in attempting to impose their will on the Afghans. As General David McKiernan, until just recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing with previous nations,” adding, “I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” McKiernan was expressing a view common among the ranks of the political and military elite: We’re Americans. We’re different. Therefore, the experience of others does not apply. [my emphasis]
A McClatchy/Ipsos poll just found that a majority of the public now basically oppose the Afghanistan War (Poll: Most Americans oppose more troops for Afghanistan by Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers 09/01/09). With the Republicans busy accusing Obama of being a socialistfascistmarxistforeigner, our super-patriotic and devoted-to-war Republicans aren't spending much time and energy these days attacking anyone who criticizes Obama's war policies in Afghanistan as being America-haters and allies of The Terrorists. Those as we will still below, the screaming hypocrisy of it isn't deterring some from making the argument. But with his own Party increasingly opposing him on the war, and the Republican Wrecker Party not enthusiastic about trying to wrap Obama's war policies in the flag, the public opposition to the war isn't likely to decrease very much. Unless there were some real "game-changing" event.

Spencer Ackerman reports on the developing Pentagon demand for additional troops for the Afghanistan War in Gates Signals Troop Increase Likely in Afghanistan The Washington Independent 09/03/09. There is a real military logic behind asking for more troops as the military situation becomes more frustrating and untenable. But it also makes a good alibi for our glorious generals when they want to spin a stab-in-the-back story: we demanded more troops but the gutless civilians in Washington refused.

Then there's Bob Dreyfuss at his Nation blog with Afghanistan Apocalypse 08/26/2009 and Afghanistan Apocalypse II 08/27/09. In the first, he describes a Brookings Institute panel he attended which featured Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings, who somehow manages to pass himself off in Pundit District 9 as having been opposed to the Iraq War. Dreyfuss describes him more accurately:

O'Hanlon, a well-connected, ultra-hawkish Democrat who backed the war in Iraq, said that the chances that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will lead congressional opposition to the war in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 are zero. "Congress will not pull the rug out from under Barack Obama, before the mid-term elections," he asserted, calling the very idea "unthinkable" and "political suicide."

O'Hanlon, who had just returned from Afghanistan, acknowledged that McChrystal is "fully aware that, right now, America is not winning this war." But he gently scolded Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, for saying that the war is "deteriorating." If Mullen goes around saying that in public, even after the addition of 21,000 US troops in 2009, he makes it harder to convince Americans that the war is winnable. O'Hanlon strongly favors adding yet more troops, but he didn't provide numbers on how many forces the US will need ultimately. If the United States can turn things around, "In four to five years we will be able to substantially downsize." [my emphasis]
Dreyfuss concludes his account of the panel discussion:

Sadly, like Richard Holbrooke, who two weeks ago told a Washington audience that he can't define victory, none of the panelists bothered to explain what victory might look like either - only that it will take a decade or more to get there.
His second post describes another panel, this one at the Heritage Institute:

A key point of the Heritage Foundation presenters ... is that it is critical for the White House to shore up declining political support for the war -- which is already opposed by a majority of Americans, who've told pollsters the war isn't worth fighting. So the White House is caught between two bad options: if it continues to gloss over problems like the fraudulent election, it will develop a Vietnam-like credibility gap as the truth becomes clear. But if Obama tells the truth, an American public already soured on a hopeless war against a vaguely defined enemy ten thousand miles away, with rising US casualties and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions of dollars, is very likely to decide that it's long past time to get out.
War supporters generally argue some form of the "credibility" argument that if we pull out of a war, even if there's no good reason to stay in it, that would show The Terrorists that our leaders suffered from insufficient testosterone. And then bad then would happen. Somehow. Dreyfuss observes:

Here's the reality: First, if we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban may or may not take over. Most of the Afghan population hates the Taliban, and the non-Pashtun minorities won't roll over and accept a Taliban victory even if we aren't there to fight alongside them. Second, even if the Taliban do take over, or set up a statelet in the south (consolidating areas already under their control), they may or may not invite Al Qaeda to join them. Al Qaeda already has a base, in Pakistan, and so far they've been unable to use that base to attack much of anything outside the war zone. Besides, the Taliban isn't the same thing as Al Qaeda, and they may find it politic not to re-ally with Osama bin Laden's terrorist band. And third, Taliban-style Islam and Al Qaeda-style terrorism is fast losing support among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia, and there's zero evidence that the re-establishment of a Taliban state in Afghanistan would do much, if anything, to excite Muslims. In fact, it's easier to make the argument that radical Muslim extremists are energized by the US presence in Afghanistan and the concomitant jihad, and that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would calm passions, not inflame them.

Those facts didn't prevent the team at Heritage -- like the team at Brookings two days ago -- from issuing dire warnings about cataclysms to come if the US doesn't prevail. [my emphasis]
I would that when you read most any account carefully, the fighters the Pentagon, the Obama administration and our broken press corps call "Taliban" actually have little direct relation to the "Taliban" regime ousted in 2001.

Dreyfuss also reports that the developing Afghanistan War stab-in-the-back theory came up:

General [David] Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, stressed in his presentation the importance of domestic US propaganda for the war, saying that a key to the success of the US enterprise in Afghanistan is to "rebuild popular support" for a sustained US effort. Barno's main argument was that the Taliban's strategy is to "run out the clock" -- yes, he used a football analogy! In other words, the Taliban expect that US political support for the war will force a US withdrawal before we can "succeed." (I wanted to ask him if he was aware that precisely the same analogy was used in Vietnam, that the Viet Cong and Hanoi wanted to outlast the US invasion. How ironic.) Okay so far, I guess: but then Barno moved dangerously close to the Republican right's line that anyone who doesn't support the stay-the-quagmire policy is committing treason. "The idea of an exit strategy," said Barno, "plays into the hands of the Taliban strategy." That, to me, is an outrageous affront, as if differing political views about the war are "playing into the hands of the Taliban." Barno should be ashamed oh himself! But he's not. He really believes this crap.
Dreyfuss, who has done extensive analysis of the "blowback" aspects in the US confrontation with violent Salafi Sunni terrorist groups, notes:

Needless to say, it was the far right, the neoconservatives, and the Reaganauts who spent billions of dollars to support the Islamist nutcases in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, they're very upset about acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping Talibans. But a generation ago, these very same acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping thugs were our anti-Soviet freedom fighters. No apologies were heard at Heritage.
Dreyfuss describes another participant as comic relief. But after our experience with the Cheney-Bush administration, we also know that people with downright kooky ideas can become important players in foreign policy in a Republican administration:

Comic relief at the Heritage Foundation event was provided by David Isby, a self-described "military expert" and apparent loony right-winger. His two gems: (1) "We need a relationship with Afghanistan like that we have with Israel." And (2) "Every mosque in Afghanistan on Friday preaches propaganda for the enemy." Leaving aside his idiotic comment No, 1, and taking up the second idiotic comment, Isby seems to believe that the problem in Afghanistan is that the people who live there are Muslims. He proposed some cockamamie idea about how America could help reinvent Islam in Afghanistan -- a proposal that, if the Taliban got ahold of it, would adorn every recruiting poster they print. (I know that they don't actually produce recruiting posters. It's a metaphor.)
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