Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is America’s “Man in the Stans”–Afghanistan and Pakistan, that is. Handpicked by President Obama to be special representative to what is at present the hottest of hot spots in the muddled global war on terrorists, Holbrooke is among the Washington influentials who is now urging Obama to hurl tens of thousands of additional troops and tens of billions of additional dollars into the Afghanistan war effort.
Why should America do that? What victory do we seek? In August, Holbrooke responded with a diplomatic quibble: “I don’t use the word ‘victory’ but ‘success’ instead.” Okay. What success will we achieve? Well, dodged the man who would commit untold numbers of people to their death in this hellish land, “success” really can’t be defined. “We’ll know it when we see it.”
On such gossamer wings does America’s Afghanistan policy fly.
This war has slogged on for nearly nine years, making it longer than America’s involvement in World Wars I and II combined. We’ve already spent $228 billion, 826 Americans have been killed (nearly 200 so far this year), and Obama’s summer surge has muscled up America’s Afghan presence to 68,000 troops (plus another 42,000 from NATO). Yet the Taliban forces we’re fighting are stronger than ever, and our own military commanders concede that not only is the war going badly for us, but the situation is rapidly “deteriorating.”
Still, most military chieftains and Obamacan hawks say we must do more of what we are doing, only do it better so we can win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, which will require the infusion of more troops and treasure. The president has already requested $68 billion for the war in 2010 (an $8 billion increase over this year), and he is pondering a much greater escalation that would dispatch from 10,000 to 45,000 more Americans into what has now become “Obama’s war.”
As he ponders what to do, so should we. In a speech at the VFW’s national convention on August 17, Obama asserted, “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” Yet, the only rationalization he has offered are a couple of alliterative generalizations, declaring that our goal in Afghanistan is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies,” and that his strategy is to “clear, hold, and build” that country in order to make the people secure.
What does this mean? Is this what Americans should be doing? Is Afghanistan the place to do it? Is it worth it?
These are basic questions that need to be discussed not only in the confines of the White House war room but also in America’s Great Room of open public discourse. After all, we are the ones who will pay. Our loved ones, our public treasury, our nation’s ideals and world reputation, our hopes for Obama’s presidency–all could be buried in this war, just as happened to us some 45 years ago when LBJ heeded the pleadings of his advisors to escalate the Vietnam War.
But there’s been no dialogue. We’re just told that the Pentagon and the president will decide during the next couple of months how the mission will be “resourced” (military-speak for bodies and bucks).
However, most Americans have their backs up and are in no mood to cheer this throbbing beat of war drums. As shown in the latest polls, 57% are opposed to the Afghanistan war (CNN); seven out of ten Democrats say the war is not worth its cost, with nearly two-thirds of activist Dems saying they feel “strongly” about this point (Washington Post/ABC); less than half of Americans–46%–approve of Obama’s handling of the war (AP); and 56% oppose sending more of our troops there, with opposition rising to 61% among 18-to-34 year olds, the age group that would do most of the fighting (McClatchy News).
The public’s innate opposition to this war is correct, and the more we learn about realities in Afghanistan, the more our opposition makes sense. Afghanistan involves a mess of issues, and each one refutes the claim that this is a war of necessity that requires us to escalate our involvement. America tends to be sent into wars on a wave of lies and misconceptions–Iraq and Vietnam being painfully fresh examples. Here are four bogus claims by those hawking an expanded Afghan war.
1. WE’RE THERE TO WHIP AL QAEDA.
President Obama made this clear in his VFW war whoop: “Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.” Thus, we must secure Afghanistan so it can no longer be a “safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”
Strong stuff. But logically flimsy. First, al Qaeda vamoosed from Afghanistan long ago. Let me repeat: The actual enemy we’re out “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” is no longer in the country where we’re preparing to fritter away more American lives and money on a long, long campaign to “clear, hold, and build.”
Al Qaeda’s main base is now in neighboring Pakistan, our nuclear-armed “ally.” The U.S. has been giving more than a billion dollars a year to the Pakistani army, which periodically rattles its swords at al Qaeda and other militant Muslim extremists encamped in the country–but it has no real intent to drive them out. Instead, Pakistani officials actually nurture some of the villains we’re after because those forces can be useful in other efforts that Pakistan’s leaders consider more important to their national interest than our “war on terror.” Meanwhile, a July poll found that 59% of Pakistanis share many of al Qaeda’s attitudes toward the U.S., and almost half of those support al Qaeda’s attacks on us!
Still, America’s war hawks cling to their core assumption that Afghanistan is where al Qaeda really wants to be. Thus, say the hawks, the key to defeating the terrorist network is to keep them from returning to Afghanistan by turning this impoverished land of fractious, unruly, disparate tribal fiefdoms into a Westernstyle nation with a central, democratically elected government. They are out to reshape the country–politically, economically, and militarily–so that it would be able, on its own, to reject al Qaeda’s return.
Whew! That’s quite a plan. Even if their assumption is correct, however, and even if it is somehow possible for us to unify the country’s clashing ethnic groups and Westernize them to the point that they would stand in unity with us against al Qaeda–where next do we take our magic culture-altering machine? As archconservative commentator George Will asked last month, “Must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen, and other sovereignty vacuums?”
The hawks are fundamentally wrong. While Afghanistan could be an attractive terrorist base, it is not at all crucial to al Qaeda, which now has many “homes,” including fiery spinoffs in Indonesia, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as in enclaves in France and England.
Al Qaeda is an amorphous, disjointed international movement that spreads on its own, emerging here and there under local leadership that often has different goals and strategies–essentially linked by nothing more than a burning resentment of Western military, cultural, political, and corporate power. It communicates and organizes through the internet, which is everywhere (and nowhere). It has no battalions or cumbersome military hardware to move from one front to another, nor does it have a central command (a Pentagon, or even a president) that has to be in “a place.”
By investing so much to block off Afghanistan as a safe haven, we’re not blocking out al Qaeda at all-we’re blocking ourselves in. If al Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan, neither do we.
2. WE’LL SAVE THE PEOPLE FROM THE TALIBAN.
Here we go again, stumbling into ancient ethnic enmities we know nothing about, as we did in Vietnam and Iraq. The strategy-our troops are to liberate the Afghan people from the violent, intolerant, iron-fisted abuse of local and regional Taliban rulers, who practice a barbaric Islam and are aligned with al Qaeda-is cartoonish. There are three problems with this picture:
First, the Taliban is by no means a monolithic, unified organization. While some members do fit the profile above, the group is mostly a hobo’s stew that includes illiterate farmers, former anti-Soviet warriors (“freedom fighters,” Ronald Reagan called them back when they were considered our allies), roving bandits, opportunistic drug traffickers, and many hapless non-ideologues who’ve been coerced to join. Let’s be clear. As a group, the Taliban is a nasty outfit–especially in its rigid and brutal subjugation of girls and women. But not every member or even every leader is a barbaric thug, and the moderates are the ones we should be working with.
Second, the Taliban is not a surrogate for al Qaeda, and few members have any interest in mounting terrorist attacks on America. While some Taliban leaders did provide a haven to Osama bin Laden, there’s no credible evidence that they even knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance. But they paid such a price when the U.S. military subsequently ousted them from power that even the most militant Taliban leaders do not want al Qaeda back in their camp.
Third (and most significant), by targeting the Taliban as America’s enemy, the hawks are sinking us into an Afghan civil war. Taliban members are mostly from the Pashtun ethnic group (by far the largest in the country, making up 42% of the population), which has traditionally ruled the country. In 2001, however, when American troops overthrew the Taliban, we effectively disempowered not only the Taliban but all the Pashtuns, and we enthroned the Northern Alliance, made of up Tajiks and Uzbeks. The primary agenda of the Taliban is not global jihad but restoring Pashtuns to power–and we are on the side of their enemies in this national power struggle.
Worse for us, the hawks have effectively branded the Pashtuns as “insurgents”–outlaws battling the central government that we created, that we finance, and that our troops are now trying to protect and expand. Thus, without any serious questioning by our leaders, America’s mission in Afghanistan has metamorphosed from counterterrorism (going after al Qaeda) to counterinsurgency (defeating one side in a civil war).
3. WE MUST SUPPORT THE AFGHAN PRESIDENT.
A common problem with getting involved in other people’s civil wars is that you often get slimed with the sliminess of the side you choose. Meet Hamid Karzai.
He’s the “leader” designated by the Bush-Cheney regime at a meeting in Germany in December 2001 to form a national government in Afghanistan –a place that has no history of or desire for a central government.
Considered a Western lackey, Karzai’s so-called presidential authority pretty much comes to an abrupt halt at the city limits of Kabul, the country’s capital. He is so hated by the Pashtuns that he basically can’t travel into his own countryside. His government is infamously incompetent, openly corrupt, criminally abusive, and thoroughly despised.
Unfortunately, a key goal of Obama’s Afghan policy was to legitimize and strengthen the central government of our anointed one so it could soon take over the job of securing the country. A gullible Washington actually expected that the August 20th presidential election would be a showcase of improved governance.
Ha! As the world has now seen, the Western-backed candidate’s ballot-stuffing frenzy was so breathtakingly blatant that it’s obvious to all that he stole his 55% “victory.” Karzai and his government stand hopelessly disgraced by this farce, leaving Obama to mumble last month that the election “did not go as smoothly as I think we would have hoped.”
Moreover, who are we to insist on a strong central government in that country, much less one with a Western-style presidency? Indeed, Karzai’s top rival for president, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (what a great political name!), has pledged to pursue a different, independent path. As reported in The Nation by Ann Jones, Abdullah “promises to devolve power to the parliament and the provincial councils in a kind of decentralized democracy much more attuned to Afghan political traditions.”
4. WE’RE TRAINING THE AFGHAN ARMY.
The war hawks’ surge strategy is based on the notion that our increased troop presence will buy time, allowing our military trainers to expand and improve Afghanistan’s own security forces. The thinking is that we can quickly shift to them the burden of defeating the insurgency and securing the country. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our top commander there, has submitted just such a proposal to Obama, urgently calling for more U.S. troops to regain the military momentum during the next 12 months “while Afghan security capacity matures.”
Matures in 12 months? That’s a joke. The Afghan army is poorly trained, ill equipped, incompetent, and lacking any resolve for the fight we imagine for them. The police force, too, is all of the above, plus openly corrupt–it does such endearing things as setting up fake checkpoints so police can stop cars and demand bribes.
McChrsystal wants the Afghan army to grow from today’s 92,000 soldiers to 134,000 by next October, and then jump to 240,000 shortly thereafter, bolstered by a police force of 160,000. Growing it is one thing, maturing it is another, and no one seriously thinks that Afghan forces can even approach adequacy for years, much less in 12 months.
Mark Moyar, a national-security analyst at the U.S. Marine Corps University, points out that a doubling of indigenous forces in Afghanistan would not produce a doubling of security. In fact, he argues, it “is likely to cause quality [of the force] to fall.” Why? Because there is a paucity of qualified commanders to lead the existing force, much less a doubling of troops. This means that the few capable officers get spread too thinly, and inexperienced commanders are thrown into the breach. Experience shows that it takes “at least 10 years to turn raw soldiers into officers suitable for essential commands.”
By the way, the annual budget for the entire Afghan government is $600 million. It’ll take some $4 billion a year for the next ten years just to upgrade and support the country’s security forces. You and I will be paying for that while police departments in our own cities are forced to make major budget cuts.
Get it right
The good news is that we might yet be able to fend off the hawks, stop the escalation, and impose a commonsense strategy for exiting Afghanistan. Here are some encouraging signs: n Despite a full court press by the hawks, Obama himself has yet to agree to any escalation and appears to be questioning whether we should be there at all. “We have to get the strategy right,” he says. Right.
- Leaders of his own party–including Vice-President Joe Biden, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi–oppose the escalation, and such leaders as Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Jim McGovern are pushing for an exit plan.
- Some of Obama’s key NATO allies are backing away from Afghanistan. Italy is withdrawing its 3,100 troops “as quickly as possible”; the British people (now on their fourth war in Afghanistan) are widely opposed to their country’s involvement, and the prime minister has indicated he will not send more troops for an escalation; Spain is pushing a NATO withdrawal within five years; and Germans are in a turmoil over their leaders’ commitment to the war.
- The American peace movement–which was an early, large, hard-working, and passionate Obama backer in 2008–is finding its voice again and is mobilizing on the internet and in the streets against his war.
To get change, we have to get involved, get noisy, and get in the face of power.