Sunday, December 06, 2009

More on Afghanistan

So we're sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  But we'll start pulling them out in 18 months.  I expected better than this from the president; but it is a difficult and complex situation.  Back in October I thought through some of the issues with sending an army into Afghanistan, and you could have concluded from that, that I didn't think we should.  So now I'll look at some of the other arguments.

The first and biggest argument is:  the United States made this mess, the United States ought to clean it up.  You wouldn't let your ten-year-old walk away from a broken window with the argument that he had other things he needed to concentrate on.  That's roughly the position being taken by the folks who say, bring the troops home, we need to spend the money on health care / jobs / climate change / fill-in-the-blank.  It's true that we actually had a reason to invade Afghanistan (unlike Iraq); but the fact is we invaded.  And now some people argue that we can't afford it, we have responsibilities at home, etc.   Yeah, but we invaded.  We broke the window; we ought to sweep up the glass.

A second related argument will probably be pooh-poohed as old-fashioned.  OK, I'm old-fashioned.  We're getting a reputation as a nation that others can't depend on, because when the going gets tough, the Americans go home.  That wasn't the reputation we had in World War II, or even in Vietnam (until Nixon decided to cut his losses).  We've been building this rep since the first Bush administration, when George I let the Iraqi "marsh Arabs" think he would back them against Saddam, and then sat back while Saddam gassed them; it picked up steam when Clinton pulled the Marines out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk down" incident, because nobody at home was willing to accept American casualties.  We're in the process of pulling out on the Iraqi Sunnis (or so they could argue).  And now we've just told the Afghans that we're only there for another couple of years.  Believe me, the Taliban was listening.

If we aren't willing to finish these little expeditions, we shouldn't start them.  So in this case I'll say, very reluctantly, that Obama is right - at least right that we should send the 30,000 more troops. 

There were two very interesting op-ed pieces in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle that I'd like to bring to the president's opinion, although I think Gen. McChrystal may already understand them.  Both of them make the point that the central government in Afghanistan is an active hinderance to our efforts; both of them point out that Afghanistan has, in John Arquilla's words, "no history of successful democratic rule from Kabul."

John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, argues that we need to negotiate with the Taliban (Flaws in Obama's Strategy for Afghanistan), because many of the people who look like Taliban to us are actually Afghan patriots who regard us as invaders.  If we can treat them with respect and help them to develop their own societies, they may turn on the actual Taliban, whom they don't like either.  This is what happened in Iraq with the Sunni Awakening.

Mizgon Zahir, an Afghan-American freelance journalist, urges Obama to bypass the Kabul government and deal with local tribal elders (Afghanistan needs nation-building from U.S.), because Afghan citizens don't trust the corrupt government in Kabul.  Ms. Zahir argues that "community self-governance makes the most sense in a tribal country."  Afghans trust their tribal elders, and a true government can only be built on the basis of that trust.

If we pull out in 2011 with the Taliban just waiting to take over, we'll add Afghanistan to the list of people who believe that you can't depend on the Americans.


  1. Gen. McChrystal's "40,000 more troops" was to prevent the US from losing the war. "Winning" the war in Afghanistan would require, what, 400,000 soldiers?

  2. Hedera:

    We need to step back and ask some very objective questions.

    What are our ultimate aims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and how might we go about realizing them?

    What has always seemed perfectly obvious to me is that none of these three countries is a fertile ground for democracy. Islam has strong roots in all three places, and a theocracy or a dictatorship are very likely the only alternatives for national unity. I say this with the full cognizance of the consequences for these peoples under such regimes.

    Okay, if we can't reasonably expect to create cute little democracies in these places, what would we like to have as a consolation? Probably we'd be satisfied if we had something like what obtains in Saudi Arabia--those folks don't like us, but we need each other (the loving death-grip of mutual prosperity (need that oil)).

    I think we should simply leave these countries to their own devices, with one caveat: If the U.S. really believes that nuclear weapons can't be allowed to go "untended" in Pakistan, then we should simply go in, take them or dismantle them, and be done with it. Pakistani "sovereignty" by damned.

    As for Afghanistan, those folks don't want us there. Our puppet government is just an empty husk. Let it go. If the people lack the will to resist the Taliban, we may have to live with that.

    We've had at least two clear chances to grab Bin-Laden since 2001, and we simply refused to act. What does that say about our will? Al Quaeda is a stateless entity, carrying out plots with cell phones and off-shore accounts. Nothing (Nothing!) we do in any of these three countries will have any effect whatsoever on their ability to terrorize or plot or foment unrest. In fact, the United States has fallen directly into the trap that had been set for us, expending our treasure and soldiers on wasting guerilla operations whose end-result is the demonization of American presence in the Islamic world; we did exactly what Bin-Laden wanted us to do, what he predicted we'd do. How stupid are we?

    Russia--a much more cold-blooded and efficient fighting military than ours--couldn't prevail in Afghanistan, and neither will we.

    Three weeks (or three months) after we leave Iraq and Afghanistan, everything we thought we were "building" there will simply collapse or melt away. That's a fact that everyone should face squarely. It has nothing to do with American "face" or America's "reputation" in the world: The British and French and Russians and everyone else knows that--just as everyone knew that we would eventually "abandon" Vietnam. But Vietnam today is perfectly fine. We have "normalized" relations with them.

    We can no longer afford these delightful little foreign adventures, and there's no solid justification for our continued involvements. Obama never had the will to follow through on all his hazy campaign promises, and this is just another example. Ultimate compromiser, my ass. It's definitely now "his war" and his Presidency will likely go down the drain as a result--fully deserved, in my opinion.