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Friday, December 04, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

As a loyal citizen and a loyal Democrat, I hope that the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will produce a good result. Yet I cannot believe that it will. At worst, it will bring us to the end of the road to hell George W. Bush started us down almost exactly 8 years ago by bringing Islamists to power in Pakistan. At best, it will tie down our resources and attention for another three or four more years, only to produce an inconclusive and unpromising outcome rather like the one we can now see in Iraq. Meanwhile, I cannot believe that it will be politically advantageous to the Administration--certainly not among the voters, as opposed to the punditocracy of Washington, D. C.

In my opinion--and I could be wrong--this latest step is a victory for Osama Bin Laden and all he represents. 9/11, I have come to believe, was, from Bin Laden's perspective, a political master stroke. He wanted above all to discredit the Muslim regimes allied with the United States--and by provoking the invasions of two Muslim countries by George W. Bush, he gave a big boost to Islamic radicalism. The loss of Taliban power in Afghanistan was a setback that has now largely been made good. The elimination of Saddam Hussein was a boon both for Bin Laden and for Iran. What Bin Laden must fear more than anything else, and certainly more than his own death, is that he might return to the obscurity he so richly deserves. President Obama's decision insures that that will not happen any time soon.

For twenty years I have been teaching courses that relentlessly harp upon the same point: the results of any military action ultimately depend on its political effects, which in turn depend on political factors. Our policy depends on two political assumptions: that Afghanistan can create a viable government, and that Pakistan will prove itself at long last a dependable ally. Try as I might, I cannot put any faith in either assumption. We still have not found our way around the great unmentionable of the situation in Afghanistan: that the Taliban has come back in large part because powerful elements within the Pakistani government want it back in power in Afghanistan. And we are also refusing to face another unmentionable: that our policies in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan have made the Taliban a much more significant threat within Pakistan itself.

This evening as I drove home from work I heard Secretary of State Clinton proudly announce that NATO had pledged an additional 7000 troops. I was sad to think that for the next two years at least, the senior Obama national security team will be focused upon the fate of one of the poorest and remotest nations on earth, simply because, nine years ago, a terrorist attack on the United States was plotted there. I still think that the idea that we must create friendly, cooperative states in Muslim areas where states have failed or never existed is neither justifiable nor, above all, cost-effective. Attacks can be plotted anywhere and Bin Laden is now surely living in Pakistan. As my friend Andrew Bacevich explained two mornings ago on NPR, putting American troops in Afghanistan is not the way to head off new attacks in the west.

I am also worried about the purely military problem in Afghanistan. Empires based on naval supremacy such as the British in the last three centuries and the United States in the last 60 years do best in coastal regions. Afghanistan is landlocked and our supply lines, from Pakistan and Central Asia, are politically and militarily vulnerable. The longer that we keep large forces in ungovernable Muslim areas, the more sophisticated IED's will become.

I was sad listening to President Obama the other night because it seemed at times that he was trying to be himself and George W. Bush at the same time. I was particularly shocked when he accused terrorists of defiling the Muslim religion--it may be true, but it is not the place of non-Muslims to say so. He is taking a huge gamble, counting on his already enormous worldwide prestige to lead the world to fall in behind this new step--but, like JFK at the Bay of Pigs, also betting much of it on a very questionable enterprise. And he is taking a bigger risk at home. It is not generally understood that Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 initially pulled back from world affairs, and that until at least 1938 he ran a far more isolationist Administration than Herbert Hoover. He knew his most important work was at home. So is President Obama's.

Obama's decision has already won grudging endorsements from some Republicans (although the opposite decision could have done the same.) Given the overwhelming prejudice of our foreign policy establishment towards military action, he, like Lyndon Johnson in 1965, made the consensus foreign policy decision--which does not in the least make it the wisest one. I suspect he has disappointed a great many people around the world, but I hope it all works out.


surrey said...

But in my opinion here is no goal in Afghanistan then how Afghanistan will produce a good result?????????????

Anonymous said...

The fact that 8 years ago Afghanistan produced 35% of the world's heroin and now it produces 93% was no where mentioned in Obama's speech .I figure that the heroin production produces about 1 billion dollars a week in revenue.US eyes in the sky know where every poppy field is and their potential yield . Doing away with the poppy production is more in the US national interest than investing in trying to supress the Taliban by military means IMO .

Toronto real estate agents said...

alohamac: Maybe the heroin producers from the rest of the world lowered their production...

But seriously.

I'm not surprised by Obama's decision, it had to happen sooner or later, but I'm kind of suprised by his new rhetorics, which reminds me so much of George Bush.


Anonymous said...

The administration's decision has at least managed to do one thing: get the anarchists off the bandwagon.


As for the victory - let me cite an afghani speaking to an american:

"You've got all the watches, we got all the time."

Anonymous said...

"To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected. Yet there are certain failings against which it is especially incumbent that both men of trained and cultivated intellect, and men of inherited wealth and position should especially guard themselves, because to these failings they are especially liable; and if yielded to, their- your- chances of useful service are at an end. Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities - all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who "but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier." "

Patrick Skelly said...

As a loyal Independent, the third of four consecutive generations of veterans (although I was not in combat), and a historian of small repute, I do not agree with your assessment.

You build upon "Our policy depends on two political assumptions: that Afghanistan can create a viable government, and that Pakistan will prove itself at long last a dependable ally. Try as I might, I cannot put any faith in either assumption." I agree that these assumptions should become realities.

But I believe that Pakistan will not become a dependable ally if Afghanistan does not have a viable government, and that the present and forseeable Pakistan government will not act, of its own volition, to make that happen. Yet for us to take on Pakistan directly would be a fatal escalation of regional hegemony.

Were we to fly away from Afghanistan now or next year, it would be the death knell for America as a dependable international power. I regret that we took on the missionary and big-brother duty in Afghanistan, but having done so, we must to raise that nation's competence as we are finally doing in Iraq. To abandon Afghanistan now dishonors our nation.

The 'Obama plan' sets us on a thoughfully planned course to achieve a proper goal in and for Afghanistan. And I have friends who will be in this upcoming surge. I pray that in two years we see the goal being realized and have planned a good endgame.

Roy Bakos said...

Can anyone explain what "victory" in Afghanistan is? Really, not to be trite here but really explain what it means to win here? I have not yet heard one example of what victory here, or in the whole "war on terror" is.

It seems to me that this is just a continuation of policies that have kept the military-industrial complex in charge of the U.S. and the world since the end of the Cold War (which is actually the real end of WWII since no one ever de-tooled after that war). Another proxy war in in another poor place that has been decimated by proxy wars for over a generation now with no way of "winning" and no way to end it. Orwell would love the 21st Century.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Bacevich, a retired US Army colonel, Vietnam War veteran, and Boston University professor of history, said on the radio show “Democracy Now’’ on the president's decision: “He seems to assume that war is a predictable and controllable instrument that can be directed with precision by people sitting in offices back in Washington, D.C. I think the history of Vietnam and the history of war more broadly teaches us something different. And that is, when statesmen choose war, they really are simply rolling the dice.’’

It is quite clear, based on the current administration's pronouncements, that they neither know much about history nor care for it.

Anonymous said...

The withdrawal date is totaly imaginary and contrived and not based on reality. But it did sound good as a pacifier for pacifists during the surge speech. Secretary of defence and secretary of state both disagreed with it the day after. Here are the pertinent quotes:

HILLARY CLINTON: We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in January 2011, we can begin a transition. A transition to hand off -- responsibility to the Afghan forces.

ROBERT GATES: We're not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time.... Our military thinks we have a real opportunity to do that. And it's not just in the next 18 months. Because we will have a significant -- we will have 100,000 forces -- troops there. And they are not leaving-- in July of 2011. Some handful or some small number or whatever the conditions permit, we'll begin to withdraw at that time.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser:

You might find the following article insightfull.

What the United States Must Overcome in Afghanistan


Anonymous said...

"Were we to fly away from Afghanistan now or next year, it would be the death knell for America as a dependable international power."

Please god, not this argument AGAIN!

Look, it's "reasoning" like this that's turned countless idiocies into full-fledged catastrophes. In life, we typically don't admire people who cling to self-destructive courses: We call them "idiots". We certainly don't add them to our list of "reliable" people.

The Obama "strategy" is nothing more than deferring a difficult decision. It'll divert the morons and criminals who inhabit the Beltway Versailles. But nobody who matters -- not our foes, not our allies, not our creditors -- is going to be fooled. What Obama's non-decision shows that we **still** cannot cope with certain unpleasant consequences of our vastly diminished place in the world. In fact, on the whole our "leaders" can't even really discuss our new realities, let alone grapple with them.
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.”
- the President of the United States

Mr. Kaiser, what is your perspective, as a historian, on JUST WAR remark?

Haven't we seen this before?

ginstonic said...

I love this blog. For the most part it has inspired the most intelligent, rational public commentary/debate I have come across. Thank you Mr.Kaiser and to all who comment.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser states in the article that
"I was particularly shocked when he accused terrorists of defiling the Muslim religion--it may be true, but it is not the place of non-Muslims to say so."
I find this comment to be rather silly. It would be like saying that non-Catholics should not be able to comment on Priests who commit child sex abuse. Another example would be secular opinion against those religions/churches that do not endorse gay righs.
I think everyone has a right to comment on the darker aspects of anyone's religion.
His comment almost seems to fit in with my percieved need for the left to appease Islam while not extending the same courtesy to other religions.

Anonymous said...

" ... not the place of non-Muslims to say so."

You assume he is not a Muslim I take it?

Bozon said...

I have to say that if Alfred McCoy's accounts, of the recent history of Afghanistan, and of American efforts there, are correct, then 'nation building' is about the last thing one can anticipate from Western efforts there. Some other agendas have to be under way, one can only hope. 'Nation building' of the kind our folks have previously attempted to do cannot be one of them.

Maybe some knowledgeable persons will set me and you all straight on this.

All the best
Gerald Meaders