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Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation


we must rebuild our strength here at home . . . . the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” —President Obama, Dec. 1, 2009

NYTWe wanted to take time to try to make sense of President Obama’s speech at West Point last week in which he announced his decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by 30,000 over the next six months. We pray he knows what he’s doing. We can only imagine the risks and variables he has been weighing. Because he is a peaceful man by nature (the Nobel may have been awarded at the wrong time but it was not given to the wrong man), we are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And yet, even though he knows more than we’re privy to, we are still skeptical. Our favorite lines in the address were those quoted above. Perhaps the most painful part of the speech is its overall contrast with and cancellation of those fine-sounding sentiments.

There are truly no good options—all are fraught with unacceptable consequences: 360 degrees of damnation—and yet we feel the president has made a tragically wrong decision. Even though we were impressed by his methodical and deliberative approach to a maddeningly complex issue, and even though it is theoretically possible that with unlimited time, money, and the blessings of fortune this new “Way Forward” can work, we do not believe it will. There is too much reliance on military force, too many moving parts that have to come together just so. (There is a saying that whenever you have two Afghans you have at least three factions.) Of course the generals say they can do it—give ’em enough troops  and they’ll promise you anything. Hendrik Hertzberg writes in The New Yorker that Obama would have faced “a probable Pentagon revolt” had he chosen to withdraw starting now, and if such a decision had been followed by a large-scale terrorist attack he would face “savage, politically lethal scapegoating.” Very likely. This is the situation we’re in. Nicholas Kristof observes in his New York Times column that amid all the president’s consultations of experts, one important set of players not consulted were the tribal elders of Afghanistan. Without their cooperation, nothing will work.

After all the president’s careful deliberation and his public explanation, we remain unconvinced. We still want U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan (as well as from Iraq) as soon as possible, leaving only a small counterinsurgency force, a well-staffed diplomatic corps (the Foreign Service), Peace Corps–like builders of schools, hospitals and other constructive works (Kristof says that “for the cost of deploying one soldier for one year [estimated at about $1 million], it is possible to build about 20 schools”). And yes, the U.S. should (and of course would) retain the capability for drone attacks as used in Somalia and other places inhabited by al Qaeda. We also would like to know what Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser General Jim Jones recommended (General Jones said in October that at a maximum there are probably fewer than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan); both were reported to have been uneasy with the idea of a large troop increase, as was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

A 35-Year-Long Civil War

One of the principal reasons why we lack confidence in the Obama administration’s decision is that the U.S. government has failed to level with the American public regarding the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan and what would constitute “success” (much less “victory”). For one thing, they’re not acknowledging that the U.S. is mired in a civil war that has been going on for some 35 years—and, as in Vietnam, we’re backing a side that lacks popular support. The U.S. has been involved in this conflict since 1979 at least, covertly supplying arms to the mujahedin “freedom fighters” (remember Charlie Wilson’s War?) and, along with Saudi Arabia, encouraging the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as a bulwark against Soviet communism. How well has that worked out?

“. . . the reality, secretly guarded until now, is . . . [that] . . . it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. . . . That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. . . . The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire. . . .

“What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981); interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris), Jan. 15–21, 1998

Afghanistan’s civil war is a conflict between secular, modern, urban elites (such as Hamid Karzai, a former Unocal consultant, and his cronies) and the rural, traditional and religious Pashtun tribes. The so-called Taliban and insurgents, many of them, are not ideologically opposed to the West but simply want the foreign troops to leave their land. (Former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh calls them “taliban with a small t.”) The murky, multi-layered role of Pakistan is another complicating factor that also was not addressed candidly in the president’s speech—and likely could not have been without causing a diplomatic row.

We definitely do not relish the prospect of a nuclear-armed Pakistan being overtaken by al Qaeda or other extremists—of course, no one does—but why are China and Russia not actively involved in making sure this does not happen? Just as Russia has reasons to cooperate with the U.S. in trying to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons, so it should be actively concerned about Pakistan’s arsenal. And China helped Pakistan develop its nuclear program—why are they not worried? Is there something China knows that we don’t? Are these two powerful nations letting the U.S. do the policing for them? Is this part of what the U.S.’s indebtedness to China entails? How deep a hole are we really in? Those who know aren’t saying.

A further dismaying aspect to Obama’s decision is the almost immediate reversal of the president’s statement that the new strategy should allow the U.S. to hand over responsibility to Afghan forces and to begin withdrawing our troops by July 2011: within days his Defense and State department officials were tamping down expectations of early departure. And Hamid Karzai has said that Afghanistan will need U.S. help for the next 15 to 20 years. This depressing prospect has to be even more anguishing for the soldiers and their families, especially for those who are facing their third, fourth, or fifth deployments. Ready to get your PTSD on, soldier?

Read Steve Coll and Listen to Matthew Hoh

GhostWarsTwo of the most trustworthy authorities we’ve found on Afghanistan are former Marine captain Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the Foreign Service in Afghanistan in September, and Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (a book Obama is said to have read) and a writer for The New Yorker. In September Matthew Hoh wrote a powerful four-page letter of resignation from the Foreign Service, for which he had been a senior civilian representative in Zabul Province, lamenting, “I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war. . . . Like the Soviets [in the 1980s], we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.”

In his New Yorker blog published the day after the president’s West Point speech, Steve Coll wrote:

One problem was that the line of Obama’s argument suffered from its embedded and deliberately constructed contradictions. We are going in but we are going out; we are fighting to defend a vital national interest, but only to the extent that we can afford to do so. We must prevail in this struggle, but we must recognize that we have other challenges that are perhaps more important.

Speaking of being able to “afford to do so”: We acknowledge the potential risks of not “getting it right” in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan—we were in Manhattan on September 11—but we also see the damage done here at home by long neglect and cost-cutting and underfunding. (Funding for the flood protection system around New Orleans, for example, was cut by the Bush administration and shifted instead to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.) It seems deficit spending is acceptable for war but never for health reform or jobs programs. The additional $30 billion increase in military spending that the president projects for the Afghan war next year could pay for some mighty fine flood protection and coastal restoration for southern Louisiana. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a D in infrastructure and calls for a five-year investment of some $2.2 trillion to restore the structural integrity of the nation’s roads, bridges, levees, schools, transit systems, etc.

Even if the president’s careful deliberations resulted in a master plan for winning the Afghan/Pakistan war—by 2011 or any other year—we still would say no, it’s not worth it. By the time we win this war, or extricate what’s left of our military, there will be nothing left to live in here in the United States that they are supposedly fighting to protect.

What We Are For

So, to repeat: What we do want in Afghanistan and Pakistan is continued diplomacy and aid based upon consultation with local tribal elders—after all the time our officials have been in Afghanistan, there are some trusting relationships—and maintenance of ability to strike at confirmed al Qaeda targets if we know they are plotting or posing a clear and present danger to the U.S. mainland. We also hope the wise elders in Washington will work diplomatically with Iran as well as Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan to resolve long-term strategic issues. Russia and China should be in the loop, as well; these closer neighbors have a clear interest in regional stability.

What we want for America is a wiser, more sustainable level of public spending that benefits the people who pay the taxes. We want our fellow citizens in great numbers to realize, before it is too late, that this nation simply cannot afford to prolong this war. Opinion polls currently suggest that such understanding is not imminent. After eight years in Afghanistan, and more than six years in Iraq, and approaching $3 trillion in costs, and with soldiers committing suicide and killing one another and civilians here at home—what columnist Bob Herbert calls “Stress Beyond Belief”—how much more can this nation take? Is it time to take Congressman Charles B. Rangel up on his idea for reinstating the draft? Maybe it is as logical an idea under Obama as it was under Bush. And is it time, finally, to raise taxes to pay for the wars, as the United States has always done until this decade, and as recommended by Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? These and other sacrifices also went unmentioned in the president’s address.

These, then, are our thoughts on the president’s decision. We would have made these arguments directly to the commander in chief, but, mysteriously, our invitation to participate in the president’s strategy review sessions did not arrive in time.


Lyndon Johnson’s Escalation of Vietnam

Vietnam was mentioned above. The two wars are not the same, just as Obama and Lyndon Johnson are two different presidents at two very different times, but yet they have much in common—as you can see and hear for yourself in Bill Moyers’s well-produced “Journal” segment featuring LBJ’s taped phone conversations in which he anguishes over whether to pull out of Vietnam or go in deeper.


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2 Responses to “Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation”

  1. Rich Rubino Says:

    Mark, I agree with your analysis. First, I think there are many similarities between the predicament LBJ faced when he escalated our forces in Vietnam as well as the predicament Tony Blair faced in the Iraq War.

    Both LBJ and Mr. Blair decided to defy their base and proceed to send in more troops. In both cases, they became a pariah with their political bases on the political left which supported both men in their quest for office, LBJ in 1964 and Tony Blair in 1997. For Blair, the Liberal Democratic Party became vociferous in their opposition to his policies and many left-leaning members of Blair’s Labor Party abandoned their support of him.

    In the case of LBJ, Eugene McCarthy (D-MI) came within six points of defeating him in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire in 1968. The disenchanted left of the Democratic Party supported McCarthy. LBJ dropped out of the race. His Vice President, Hubert Humphrey lost the general election in part because many McCarthy supporters would not support him in the general election. Ironically, on domestic policy LBJ was probably the most liberal President in American history.

    As for the actual war, I call this: “Omar’s War.” The reason we are in there is because of the decision of one man, Mullah Mohamed Omar, leader of the Supreme Council of Afghanistan made. He refused abrogate Osama bin Laden or his al-qaeda coefficients who were staying in Afghanistan. This is what precipitated NATO into allying with the Northern Alliance and invading the country.

    The problem is that we are focusing much time on rebuilding Afghanistan rather than trying to hunt down Omar’s guest, bin Laden. We have been diverted from what should be our real goal. Al-Qaeda is not loyal specifically to Afghanistan. Rather it is a transnational movement which can metastasize itself in a multiplicity of nations. Accordingly, I often wonder if this is kind of a cat and mouse game. If we chase out the branch that is in Afghanistan or for that matter, Pakistan, will they just join move into another country. It seems to me that the war should be defined as the War on Al-Qaeda, not the country that elements of the organization are staying in.

    Unlike Hezbollah or Hamas, they are not a nationalist movement but a transnational organization. I think we should try to buy off the economic Taliban. We did this in Iraq with what we call the “Sunni Awakening” by bringing many low-level Sunni insurgents to our side.

    I think that a lot of the Taliban fighters, like many Sunni fighters in Iraq defend the Taliban not for theological or political reasons. They join the Taliban simply because they get they get paid.

    If we are to succeed in effectuated a stable government in that nation and succeed in jettisoning the estimated 100 al-qaeda members in that country, will that make a dent in the war with al-qaeda? Lets say that they do not reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan and the Taliban does not re-take control, will we truly be safe from al-qaeda? They are a supranational coterie not loyal to a nation. If we create an inhospitable environment for them in Afghanistan, what about Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, etc.? We are fighting a non-state actor. How do we defeat a non-state actor by creating stable governments and nations? They are not a nation state. I think we should, o launch some kind of a search-and-destroy mission against the al-qaeda elements in each nation? Or how about if the international community were to pay private detectives and other law-enforcement officials to find and capture al-qaeda. My point is that a win in Afghanistan is a pyrrhic victory. By bogging ourselves in one nation, we are just allowing al-qaeda to constitute and expand elsewhere?

  2. Levees Not War Says:

    Good points, Rich. I went back and searched text of Obama’s West Point speech: Osama bin Laden is mentioned only once, and not in the context of capturing him. This is another major omission, along with not discussing the war already going on in Pakistan that Jeremy Scahill wrote about in The Nation (“The Secret U.S. War in Pakistan,” Nov. 23 issue).

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