Friday, October 30, 2009

"Fixing" Afghanistan


Among the many incompetent decisions of the Bush Administration were its decisions to team up with camera-friendly, English-speaking, but exceptionally corrupt leaders whom it hoped would rule over Afghanistan and Iraq. With Iraq overshadowing Afghanistan, not many people paid attention to the regime of Hamid Karzai, until the recent election fraud. Now his corruption, unpopularity, inability to govern outside of Kabul, and familial ties to the drug industry are getting considerable media attention.

We're dealing with similar phenomena in Iraq and Afghanistan - ethnic allegiances that trump the concept of national unity. It seems pretty clear that in both countries the factions that don't feel that they will benefit from "national unity" govenrments, or don't feel that they'll get a suitably proportionate (or disproportionate) share of power, influence and money through a democratic process, are content to wait us out. Years ago, George W. Bush told us that "The Surge" would be a failure if it didn't bring about significant, quantifiable political progress. It has turned into an escalation that certainly has helped segregate warring factions, but the political progress we've been repeatedly promised seems to be at a standstill. Meanwhile, following his seven years of neglect, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating - although my guess is that the Karzai family's wealth is now assured for generations, even in exile.

Proponents of continued war in Afghanistan have no suggestions on how to achieve national unity. They have no plan for defeating the Taliban (the Taliban being native to Afghanistan and borne of the numerically dominant Pashtuns, 40% of the nation's population). They have no plans for defeating corruption. Some explicitly eschew the notion of rebuilding (or is it building) the country. They offer little explanation beyond nebulous talk of al-Qaeda getting its safe haven back (one it presently enjoys across the border in the territory of our ally, Pakistan), as to the U.S. foreign policy interest in perpetuating the occupation. Still, they insist, we must fight the war until we "win", whatever that means.

First case in point, David Brooks, who serves up an appeal to anonymous people he contends are authorities on... something:
[The people I consulted but choose not to identify] are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.

These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.
There's an inherent tension here: If in fact the military experts trust Obama to make good policy choices, then they trust him to make a good decision as to whether the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan or end the war. That should pretty much end the debate. Instead, Brooks turns it into some sort of test of toughness. Sure, Obama could do the "intellectual, good policy choice" thing and end the war, but then the unnamed, tough-guy military experts would accuse him of wimping out. While I'm sure President Obama is touched by Brooks' concern, somehow I doubt that he's too concerned about sticks and stones from "experts" who don't even have the courage to attach their name to their superciliousness.
Most of them, like most people who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, believe this war is winnable. They do not think it will be easy or quick. But they do have a bedrock conviction that the Taliban can be stymied and that the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be strengthened. But they do not know if Obama shares this gut conviction or possesses any gut conviction on this subject at all.
Funny, how every single expert Brooks (supposedly) consulted said exactly the same thing, coincidentally exactly what Brooks believes, and like Brooks offers nothing but empty-headedness when it comes to explaining how a war in Afghanistan might be won, how we would create a stable government for Afghanistan (even if we discard any notion that it be progressive or friendly to the West), or how we would keep a post-occupation government from devolving into the same type of ethnic warfare that followed the end of the Soviet occupation. The various warring factions of Afghanistan know that the occupier always leaves. To a degree, Brooks knows this:
And if these experts do not know the state of President Obama’s resolve, neither do the Afghan villagers. They are now hedging their bets, refusing to inform on Taliban force movements because they are aware that these Taliban fighters would be their masters if the U.S. withdraws.
But doesn't that betray Brooks' fundamental ignorance of Afghanistan? He sees, I guess, a nation of urbanites from Kabul, and "villagers" in other areas. Pasthun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen? What's the difference, right? A commentator who knew enough to be discussing this issue might be skeptical that "villagers" who aren't Pashtun, who don't want a return of the Taliban, are afraid to cooperate with the U.S. - if he was truly speaking to experts, it's not like any of this is a secret.
Nor does President Hamid Karzai know. He’s cutting deals with the Afghan warlords he would need if NATO leaves his country.
Get real. Karzai may be corrupt but he's not stupid. If Karzai's government fails, he'll be on the first plane out of the country.

It's wonderful to speak of what we can accomplish for women in Afghanistan, something that seems to be at best an afterthought for people like Brooks, but it's not clear that we're being particularly successful in that goal even now, let alone that improved status and opportunity for women can be sustained in the event of U.S. withdrawal, whenever it occurs. On the other hand, it's useless to talk about Afghanistan as a "safe haven" for al-Qaeda, when they already have a safer haven in Afghanistan.

The simple question for war proponents is thus, "What does victory look like", with the equally simple follow-up, "How do we achieve it?" Brooks has no answer, save perhaps for a blank stare, so he implies that it would be wimpy to withdraw before the undefined concept of victory is magically achieved.

Second case in point, Charles Krauthammer, who is having a major temper tantrum over the fact that G.W.'s many policy failures are being described in accurate terms. Never mind that Bush's incompetent strategy in Afghanistan, and his choice to pursue a war of choice in Iraq led to seven years of neglect and deterioration of military efforts in Afghanistan. Darn it, Krauthammer supported all of that and how dare Obama question Krauth... I mean Bush's competence. Look how he soft-pedals Bush's incompetence, both in Afghanistan and Iraq:
In both places, the deterioration of the military situation was not the result of "drift," but of considered policies that seemed reasonable, cautious and culturally sensitive at the time but that ultimately turned out to be wrong.
I wonder if any of the anonymous "experts" consulted by Brooks would agree with that... that "we'll be greeted as liberators" was sound policy for going into Iraq with insufficient troops to provide even basic post-war security, or that "we need those troops to invade Iraq" was a good reason to neglect the situation in Afghanistan.
The logic of a true counterinsurgency strategy there is that whatever resentment a troop surge might occasion pales in comparison with the continued demoralization of any potential anti-Taliban elements unless they receive serious and immediate protection from U.S.-NATO forces.
Yet, again, we're not going to stamp out the Taliban in Pashtun areas. We may cause it to recede during a period of escalated combat, but Afghanistan is the Taliban's home. It's not going anywhere, and its members will wait us out. So again we have a recipe for endless war and occupation, without any thought toward what a victory will look like or how it will be achieved. We may end up with better segregation of warring ethnic factions, and a sufficiently "stable" governing structure that (assuming we can convince Karzai to stop committing election fraud) could conceivably vote on post-occupation power-sharing. But is there any reason to believe that the government we leave behind will be any more stable, or any more resistant to civil war, than the government left behind by the Soviets?

Seriously, enough with the attacks on Obama. If you advance the continuation or escalation of the war in Afghanistan but can't articulate a strategy for victory, let alone articulate what a victory would look like, you have nothing to contribute to the debate.

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