Saturday, January 16, 2010

And this is a defense of our Afghanistan War policy? (2)

This is the second of two posts on Rory Stewart's article in the 01/14/09 New York Review of Books, Afghanistan: What Could Work (article dated 12/17/09) making a case for Obama's Afghanistan War policy. (The first part was two days ago.)

As I said at the end of the first post, the way the top NATO/US Afghanistan War commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal describes has actual concept of protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban isn't the language of helping a legitimate government do it's job properly. It's the language of occupation and collaboration.

And it's far, far, from any limited mission of targeting Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida group of 2001. If our Congress could develop a majority sense of responsibility around it's Constitutional function in matters of war and peace, and if they could grow a collective spine, they would step in and block the execution of this expansive, open-ended, unending mission creep, which goes far beyond the Authorization of Force they passed in 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But our democratic culture is so corrupted that Rory Stewart isn't saying anything controversial when he states:

It is almost impossible to say what counterinsurgency does not include. But it almost always requires more troops. I first heard almost a year ago that General Petraeus was pressing for another 40,000 troops. When I finally saw McChrystal in Kabul in October, he had completed his report and formally requested another 40,000 troops. Obama could not refuse the bulk of the general's requests without being personally blamed for the future of Afghanistan.


Since Obama ran in 2008 explicitly committing to escalating the Afghanistan War, it's hard to guess how inclined he may have been to reject that request.

But the Constitution doesn't assign responsibility for deciding over war and peace to the latest faceless bureaucratic general who is in charge of making sure the military isn't blamed for being eager enough to expand a war. The Congress has the responsibility first of all, though you wouldn't know it from the overwhelming role Congress routinely concedes to the Executive Branch on war.

And what does it mean that Obama might be "personally blamed for the future of Afghanistan"? Such phrases have become so common that they hardly stand out any more. But who put the United States in charge of "the future of Afghanistan"? Much less President Obama personally?

Because Stewart is making a defense of Obama's Afghanistan War policies, it's particularly worth noting what he describes as the assumptions he sees behind them. Referring to Obama's speech at West Point of 12/01/09, he argues that Obama was articulating what he describes as a "call" strategy, using a poker analogy:

This was not, as they might have imagined, because he was lurching between two contradictory doctrines of increase and withdrawal, but because the rest of his speech argued for a radically different strategy — a call strategy — which is about neither surge nor exit but about a much-reduced and longer-term presence in the country. The President did not make this explicit. But this will almost certainly be the long-term strategy of the US and its allies. And he has with remarkable courage and scrupulousness articulated the premises that lead to this conclusion. [my emphasis]
In the first five paragraphs of that speech Obama enunciates the general justification for the initial intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks. The reasons he articulates there are essentially the reason I supported the initial intervention. And with some reservations based on fuller knowledge over eight years later, I would still say those are valid reasons.

The next two paragraphs in the West Point speech state a Democratic Party/Obama view of the Iraq War at this stage, a bad decision producing a war that is now being wound down based on a framework the outgoing administration endorsed:

Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq War is well-known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention - and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.

Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011. That we are doing so is a testament to the character of our men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance , we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people.
I would be happy to see a more rapid exit for Iraq. And, of course, this statement of our current position doesn't take a stand on the reasons for the current outcome. But this is one advantage of having a Democratic, foreign-policy "Realist" administration during the years in which hopefully US troops will be fully withdrawn. In the last years of the Vietnam War, the Ford administration contributed powerfully to the stab-in-the-back myth of the Vietnam War, in which our infallible generals won every battle and completely succeeded militarily but their Glorious Victory was undercut by the cowardly civilian elected officials and the dirty filthy hippies back home. With the caveat that Obama's handling of domestic policies have shown some remarkable suicidal tendencies from the Democratic Party's point of view, Obama's administration has a real interest in preserving the stance those those paragraphs incorporate: the Iraq War was a bad idea with horrible results, but we now have a decent exit strategy that we inherited from the Republican administration and we're implementing it.

What Obama's West Point speech does not do, however, is talk about the fact that the legitimate and practical core of the original Afghanistan intervention was to attack concentrations of the cadres of Osama bin Laden's Al Qa'ida group in Afghanistan and to kill or capture the maximum number of them in the shortest time possible. And to a large extent that was accomplished in the early weeks of the war in 2001-2. That's not to understate Rummy's disastrous, irresponsible failure at Tora Bora, in which its generally assumed that not only Bin Laden himself but hundreds of trained cadres escaped because of Rummy's refusal to send American troops into the mountains to get them. Stephen Biddle's monograph 2002 paper Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy (US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute; Nov 2002) has some good descriptions of the pitched conventional battles that the Northern Alliance fought against Al Qa'ida cadre under the close direction of American advisers and with the aid of American airpower.

But the notion of surgical strikes that cleanly take out a specific threats is a very treacherous one. And what was actually a secondary aspect of the initial mission, replacing the Taliban government in Kabul, has long since turned into a commitment to nation-building in a country that doesn't want a Western military force building their nation. And our war to defend the current pro-Indian government in Kabul against its internal enemies bares so little relation to fighting the terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11/2001 that "imaginary" has become an appropriate word to describe it.

Asymmetric warfare like that represented by Bin Laden's style of jihadism evolves continually. Al Qa'idi is not a reincarnation of the World Communist Conspiracy that was the ideological justification for the Cold War. To the extent that Bin Laden's group as such functions at all in the world, it largely has to be countered by police efforts and international cooperation among law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. How many more times are we going to kill "the number three man" in "Al Qa'ida"?

For all of Rory Stewart's interesting speculations about the encouraging implications of Obama's West Point speech, the concept driving his policy in the war that could well wind up destroying his Presidency is that the United States and NATO have a vital interest in preserving the Hamad Karzai government against its internal enemies. And that concept commits us to open-ended warfare in which a satisfactory outcome, even on Stewart's expansive timetable of 20 years from now, is extremely unlikely. We've long since passed the point in Afghanistan at which American involvement in a prolonged war has itself become a critical security problem. Even on the issue of international jihadist terrorism, it's hard to believe at this point that assassinating "the number three man in Al Qa'ida" every few months is going to outweigh the effect of Muslims around the world continually seeing reports of American rockets blowing a bunch of civilians to shreds in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

I think that Stewart has a point here in claiming that Obama's West Point speech adds a welcome recognition that American power has real limits, although it's scarcely a "revolutionary" thing:

Obama's central — and revolutionary — claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, "we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars." Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons — doing "whatever it takes" and "whatever it costs"—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don't have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.
This is certainly a welcome alternative to the absurd triumphalist rhetoric of the Cheney-Bush administration. But in itself, it's really nothing other that a liberal version of Realist foreign policy though, with a touch of Niebuhrian rhetoric tossed in. But Reihold Neibuhr was a major liberal supporter of the Cold War framework. And his own sense of limits lead him earlier than many of his fellow liberals to see that the Vietnam War was a disaster and a gross overextension of American power.

And a Realist couldn't help but notice that Obama is using this alleged "revolutionary" rhetoric to justify an escalation in the extremely risky environment of Afghanistan, an escalation for whatever reasons even Dick Cheney and George Bush didn't undertake on anything like the scale the current administration is doing. Even Stewart, who calls this a revolutionary aspect of Obama's policy, at the end of his article concedes that it is an "elusive insight".

And the truth is that even in the Beltway Village, it's likely that very few Americans actually care what happens in the future in Afghanistan, as long as it doesn't involve American planes getting flown into tall buildings. And in all these years of war in Afghanistan, I've never heard of any piece of evidence that showed that the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001 was actually involved in the 9/11 plot as such. In the initial weeks of the war, the rationale for replacing the government in Kabul was that the Taliban regime was heavily dependent on support from Al Qa'ida and was willing to fight to protect them. And so to achieve the primary target of doing maximum damage to Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida group, it was necessary to first replace the regime in Kabul. Whether or not that was actually the best approach is a legitimate question. But at least the rationale made sense based on what the American public knew at the time.

Now we're talking about supporting yet another corrupt Islamist government in Kabul against the warlords opposing it. And after only eight years of war so far, in another 20 years we'll have reached a point where things are tolerably okay from the American point of view? Wow, what a mission! At least our main banker China is getting some good oil contracts out of the deal!

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