Not Next Steps, but the Basic Questions

Some things are almost unnoticed:

Newswire services this morning reported that President Barack Obama is quietly deploying an extra 13,000 troops to Afghanistan, an unannounced move that is separate from a request by the U.S. commander in the country for even more reinforcements. The UK’s Guardian reported today that the extra 13,000 is part of a gradual shift in priority since Obama became president away from Iraq to Afghanistan.

There was not much comment on that in the news. The right obviously saw no way to spin that as Obama hating our troops and hell bent on giving up on our war in Afghanistan. That was slipping in more troops, and they’re all for more troops. And the left no doubt found the item embarrassing, as their guy was almost secretly escalating the war. The technicians pointed out that when Obama initially sent in additional combat troops, they would need logistical support, and it looks like this new group was mostly troops of that sort, the guys who keep things running and supplies stocked up. But the shift is clear, the growing emphasis on Afghanistan, not Iraq, is real.

That led to a quick email from a good friend, a Lieutenant Colonel with battalion command, involved in working out our Future Combat Systems, who said he was “miffed by the administration’s intentional lack of support for the Generals.”

The problem seemed to be how this was handled. Was doing this unannounced an intentional slap in the face, a message that Obama did not really have any respect at all for military?

Of course more support was great:

But we are doing it “quietly” instead of saying “if anything, I would like General McChrystal and our troops to be successful so while we figure out the exact right number and have political debates I will support him with thirteen thousand more troops.”

Nothing is crystal clear (no pun intended) but there is dissonance and resonance… at the moment we need some resonance from our leadership.

What can you say? The president should, of course, say he is behind our guys out there fighting and dying, loudly and publicly, and often. But the political atmosphere is poisonous. You have to do the right thing quietly these days, as the folks on each side will use the general and the president for their own ends, while the military is just trying to do the job at hand. Everyone is always saying, “See, this proves that…” – whatever. Others just want to solve the problem.

But do we have a system where elected civilian leadership directs the military. And anyone can say the elected civilian leadership is wrong, stupid, evil, treasonous, foolish – or the opposite. That’s bound to be messy, and ugly. And it can be deadly. But what’s the alternative? So you get these quiet changes, to hold down the noise, from both sides.

And then there’s one step up from the military issues – all that stuff about tactics and troop levels and logistics and that damned geography over there. There is the geopolitical thing. That’s one step up, a matter of what you are trying to do, overall, and why, and how it advances our national interests and reduces economic disruption and reduces the chance of blow-back conflicts between other nations. The general has his sphere, and the president his. Both want to keep them separate. Most folks don’t even see the difference.

But what is the plan in Afghanistan? One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers touches on that confusion:

Look: no one is for nation building. In the past, realists recognized the national interest at stake in our supporting deeply flawed governments against communist revolutions. The belief was that Communist revolutions were bad for us and bad for the people who suffered in their wake. The hope was that by resisting them and applying pressure, these societies might evolve overtime into something better.

This meant supporting some pretty nasty guys who tortured and killed people. Not a great choice but it’s the very essence of realism which expresses Henry Kissinger’s mordant witticism “it has the advantage of being true.” In other words, it was good for us (so we thought) and also good for them. You are correct that conservatives usually opposed these initiatives but supported wars once engaged – sort of the other way round with the liberals.

But here we have, in Afghanistan, a corrupt and ineffective government, in control of one city, or most of that city, and generally ignored everywhere else in the country, if that really is a country. We are not exactly supporting a deeply flawed government. We’re pretending there is one. So what are we doing? Are we going to create a nation?

Sullivan’s reader offers this:

Clinton brought the notion back into service after the cold war ended in Somalia when he escalated the mission from relief to nation building. There was no national interest explained at the time – only the humanitarian one that unless we stopped [aiding them], the famine would start again after we left. You make the call.

9/11 linked for the first time the idea of nation building directly to national interest. People like Tom Friedman and you analyzed the threat and came to the conclusion that so long as the Arab/Persian/Muslim world remained mired in various forms of undemocratic governance that were good enough for cold war realist purposes, it would fuel the Islamic radicalism that now threatened us at home and that if we had a hope of defending against it in the long term it would be by providing counter examples – societies that did not waste and torture their human capital, you reasoned, would be less likely to make more Mohammed Atta’s.

So instead of stability we decided on the Nietzschean exhortation “further into disorder.” This idea may be wrong but the alternative is the REAL conservative view expressed by people like John Derbyshire, namely, leave them alone and if they hurt us bomb them to smithereens, invade if you must, kill them all and then go home like we did in WW II. Do you have the fortitude for that? And even if you do, the WW II model doesn’t work with Pakistan or Iran or North Korea which, unlike Mexico (yet), have nuclear weapons.

This reader says that only leaves the Biden option – “convince yourself that our interests are being served by stand-off surgical strikes and small applications of troops.” But there’s only one problem with that:

That will allow you to support the president, argue resources should be applied at home and feel good about yourself. Until the next attack that is…

If we don’t build a nation there from scratch we’ll all die?

Sullivan responds:

For the record, I opposed intervention in Somalia. I opposed it in Darfur. And my view of the “further into disorder” argument has been chastened deeply by time. The Iraq war demands we learn its lessons. We do not have enough data yet, but I remain skeptical that Iraq is in any way stable yet, given the entropic forces within; but the US has done its best after doing its worst. And that is some opportunity for departure and leeway for delay. Obama has wisely kept his options open here.

But, he argues, with Afghanistan, the issue is the relationship between means and ends:

I fear another One Percent Doctrine syndrome in which what is actually a minor threat in the grand scheme of things becomes an obsession purely because that’s where the threat came from in the first place. Yes, it came from there. But remember what “it” was – 19 guys with box-cutters together with our advanced, free society.

So Sullivan has some questions:

How will continuing to occupy Afghanistan help foil another such nineteen? Even if we still believe that democratization is the best antidote to Islamism in the long run, we have to decide if this is the place worth using to make that point. Obama might, in other words, be making a reverse image of the Bush mistake: taking his focus off Iraq (which might still conceivably work) while pouring resources into Afghanistan (which could take decades of patience, money and lives).

So the issue is not true conservative or authentically liberal approaches to this, or pro-Obama or pro-McChrystal posturing, but “the best way forward here, and right now, muddling through in Afghanistan before major withdrawal seems the sanest option on the table.”

But for Sullivan, what tips the scale is the “total corruption of the Karzai government and the fact that Americans have been fighting there for almost as long as the Vietnam War already.” And this needs rethinking:

Maybe there are operational details that I do not know of that will shift minds in the White House toward the maximal McChrystal ramp-up. But it is also perfectly legitimate to ask if the country can or will tolerate another decade of young Americans dying over there for an abstract idea no longer clearly or obviously related to national defense. This is not just a matter of the Democratic base. I have no doubt at all that the GOP base will turn on the Afghan war with more passion if it continues to go south under Obama. …

My last refuge in this situation is actually to do what we realistically can, but to recognize the limits of what we simply cannot do. There is no ultimate solution for Islamist terrorism until it blows itself out. A quarter of the world is Muslim and, although we should help, this is their struggle, not ours. We do not have the power to do much more – which is anathema to the neocons, but true nonetheless. But to give the neocons their due, to have initiated one fledgling and still extremely fragile democracy in the heart of the Arab world is surely enough to satisfy the attempt to leverage democracy in the very long run against Islamism. In the meantime, we need to be totally, ruthlessly rational in discerning where the actual threat is, and not walking into any more traps.

And he says we have to face the truth:

We have to live with the constant threat of Islamist terror or perish trying to exterminate it everywhere. This is a practical decision and I do not claim to speak with the kind of knowledge that military experts do or that the Obama cabinet is now wrestling with. But this is a political call as much as a military one. I fear a mismatch between means and ends, I fear complacency on Iraq, and I fear the dashing of impossible expectations yet again.

Under those circumstances, how do you look into the eyes of the mother of a lost soldier and tell her it was worth a try?

Given that, deciding whether Obama insulted McChrystal by not saying more about the extra troops, seems small beans.

On the other hand, McChrystal’s adviser, Robert Kaplan, is calling for urgent decisive action from Obama – right now. And James Fallows is not:

If he or others can really establish that a decision right this minute about Afghanistan is indispensable – that this is a moment comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis etc – then, okay. … Otherwise, everything I’ve learned about politics indicates that impatience is almost always destructive, that especially when it comes to military commitments it’s crucial to think and think again, and that a president should be less afraid of being “inconsistent” than of making a big mistake.

Kaplan says not so fast – “Obama must capture the toughness and competence that Bush displayed as a war leader at the end of his term. Otherwise, in the coming months, the Democrats may be seen as having lost a war.”

Sullivan reminds us we’ve been here before:

I don’t think the debate here should be about the politics of the thing or the appearance of wobbliness or the perception of toughness. It’s high time the US conducted its foreign policy according to its own sober analysis of its self-interest rather than the need to be “tough” or to “save face” or to back up allies who will end up more alienated if we dig ourselves more deeply in to the Afghan ditch. Of course, the US is wobbly.

After eight years in Afghanistan, the American people are being told by the Pentagon that the only way forward is a massive increase in manpower and resources. Even if you think the Iraq surge was a success, the expense and risk and long-term wisdom of the same strategy in the vastness of Afghanistan is highly dubious – especially after a fraudulent election. …

Far, far better to mull this over and decide to get out of a hopeless situation than to carry on a doomed mission that will, in fact, kill Obama’s presidency (and a lot of young Americans) and advance US security by an indefinable amount. The more I mull this over, the more I think we should get out as swiftly as can be done responsibly. If we take a PR hit, if al Qaeda claims victory, so be it. America should define victory on America’s terms, not be yanked around by a bunch of braggart Jihadists. It was a necessary war in the first place; eight years later, it’s not so clear. Unless it’s very, very clear, the Powell doctrine should return.

There’s a reason for the Vietnam Syndrome – Vietnam. Only this time, the US is flat broke and the war is even more unpopular at home and intractable on the ground.

Of course the new PBS documentary won’t help. At the Center for a New American Security – “strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values” – there’s this preview:

John Nagl, Bill Mayville and Stan McChrystal make a good argument for a counterinsurgency campaign, while Andrew Bacevich and an especially pithy Celeste Ward make a good argument against pursuing such a campaign. All sides, in other words, acquit themselves rather well. All sides, that is, save for the Pakistani officials. An American watching this documentary might be of two minds as to whether or not we should pursue a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but he or she will also be of two minds as to why we continue to send so much money and other resources to a country whose leaders are either lying or delusional about the presence of anti-Government of Afghanistan insurgent groups – such as the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network – in Pakistan. The judgment of the documentary’s producers seems to be that Pakistan is more an enemy of the United States than an ally.

We may be arguing over the wrong problem.

But to return to the Lieutenant Colonel’s problem, Fred Kaplan, in Slate, argues that there is a way to solve the Afghanistan mess without sending a lot more troops or leaving the country entirely, what he calls Obama’s Middle Course.

That’s Obama’s MO of course, for everything, even if the conventional wisdom is that that there is no middle course – Obama must get all-in or all-out. But that’s a trap:

Many of those who recite this line are trying to box the president into escalating the war. Neither Obama nor any of his advisers is advocating an outright withdrawal. Therefore, this logic would dictate, he has no choice but to follow the urgings of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his commander on the ground, and send in 40,000 more troops, on top of the 68,000 that we have there already.

But there actually may be a middle ground, a way to accomplish the aims of a counterinsurgency strategy, just like the general wants, but with fewer troops than he’d like:

The principle of counterinsurgency is to focus much more on protecting the population than on chasing and killing terrorist-insurgents. The theory is that, if NATO and Afghan forces can provide security (and thus facilitate the supply of basic services), the Afghan people will shift their loyalty to their government and thus dry up the Taliban’s base of support.

The problem is that protecting all of Afghanistan, or even all the areas that the Taliban now threaten or dominate, would require many more troops than even McChrystal is requesting – by some estimates as many as 500,000 troops. Under these circumstances, if Obama agreed to send 40,000 more troops next month, it’s a safe bet that the generals would request another 40,000 next year.

An alternative approach, then, is to protect not all of Afghanistan but just a few of its largest cities – say, Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni – and to throw at them all the resources they can absorb: military, civilian, financial, the works.

The purpose of this would be twofold.

The first would be to prevent the Taliban from taking over the central government, which is the main reason for having Western troops there at all.

The second would be to create “demonstration zones” for the eyes of Afghans all over the country. If these zones really can be secured and supplied, if they are seen as enclaves of relative peace and prosperity, then Afghans everywhere will want the same thing and reject the Taliban (whose strength today stems less from their fundamentalist ideology than from their ability to provide order and services).

And he goes on from there, citing all those who see this as sensible, and maybe it is. But there is that sticky problem – “If the Afghan government is widely seen as illegitimate, Western soldiers fighting on its behalf can do little to make things good.”

Oh, that. Even McChrystal said that.

But are we at tipping point here, one that requires a quick decision? A. J. Rosmiller argues not exactly:

To be at a “critical juncture” implies that one side or the other is poised to decisively gain the upper hand and therefore to win. But the situation in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of that. I will likely have my pundit card revoked for saying so – nothing diverts attention like saying that a situation isn’t at a critical turning point – but it’s true. After eight years of fighting, two things seem clear: First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate.

Spencer Ackerman says breaking the stalemate requires substantial military progress:

The choices at hand would have to be something like (1) beating the shit out of the Taliban until it’s willing to accept a power-sharing deal in Province X in exchange for laying down arms; and/or (2) holding out the hope of national power-sharing in exchange for laying down arms and/or breaking with al-Q.

Matthew Yglesias wonders about that:

Suppose we could just maintain the stalemate. Life is uncomfortable for the Taliban and they can’t gain any further ground. But we’re not pouring the resources in to overrun them either. Still, the Afghan government is weak enough that if we withdraw the Taliban stand a decent chance of overrunning the government. But our aid and our training are making the Afghan forces more competent over time. Wouldn’t it make some sense for the Taliban to agree to a power-sharing deal that involves breaking it off with al-Qaeda? Importantly, under that situation it would also make sense for the Afghan government to agree to power-sharing, because if they’re not willing to strike a deal we could just abandon them and strike a deal with the Taliban. One problem with the “fight and win and then deal” scenario is that the better we do against the Taliban the more intransigent our Afghan allies are likely to become.

It’s a puzzle within a puzzle. And that isn’t winning. And not winning isn’t acceptable.

As the Lieutenant Colonel said, nothing is crystal clear. And it is unacceptable that he and his men, and his generals, feel as if the president is not behind them. But it is unavoidable. The question is now not so much what to do next. It’s bigger than that. It has come down to why we would do. That’s one pay-grade up.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Not Next Steps, but the Basic Questions

  1. raymond mcinnis says:

    AP: It’s a puzzle within a puzzle. And that isn’t winning. And not winning isn’t acceptable.

    As the Lieutenant Colonel said, nothing is crystal clear.

    Well it’s not “mcchrystal” clear either.

    And for the claim, “not winning isn’t acceptable”, remember a couple of things:
    one, obama inherited this mess.

    two, in iraq, if the definition of what was winning was a problem, let’s change the definition of “winning”.

    three, after 9/11, rather than concentrate on afghanistan, we had to go into iraq, and you know what happened there.

    i still think that pakistan is the problem. move pakistan and the problems associated with afghanistan are different, not any easier, but they are different.

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