30 November 2009

Obama's Fateful Mistake: committing more than 30K additional troops in the Graveyard of Empires

I have made clear here before my strong belief that there is no winning strategy, and no compelling national interest, justifying American presence in Afghanistan. I simply do not buy into any of the arguments that sending in more troops will have any positive effect whatsoever; quite the opposite. Andrew Bacevich has written about this, as have numerous others with direct experience in the region, including Robert Baer. In a nutshell, there is no way to "win" this war, and there is no longer any realistic casus belli based on suppression of radical Islamist terrorism. The Taliban is not al Qaida, as everyone who knows the region admits, and there is no significant threat of attack on American territory from Afghanistan. Our relations with Pakistan, a nuclear power with 165 million people, are of far greater import, and are only being made worse by continued American military action in Afghanistan.

Of course, one can always focus on the differences, but this escalation is very disturbingly reminiscent of Vietnam, circa 1965, with the same beltway/Pentagon vision of a plan that can't work, and prospects for ever-increasing demands from the military for more and more escalation, until eventually the total failure of the policy becomes so onerous and so manifest that the people will demand that the plug be pulled.

One big difference: in 1965 the majority of the public still supported the president's getting America more deeply involved in a war with no coherent US interests at stake. This time, they don't. So, although fewer American lives are likely to be lost, in some ways the situation is worse from a political viewpoint. I see this as a very dangerous and potentially devastating mistake on President Obama's part, which may very well sink his presidency, unless this apparent policy trend is reversed soon.

With each passing month, it becomes clearer. Withdrawal is the only reasonable option. General Petraeus himself acknowledged that there is no Qaida in Afghanistan. There is also no opportunity to bribe Sunni tribesmen to stop cooperating with those attacking us, as there was in Iraq. (The so-called "surge" had very little to do with it, and some of the money came from Saudi Arabia; but in any case there's just nothing comparable in Afghanistan). This is a very poor, tribal country, where we have already spent far more than the GDP of the country propping up narco-gangsters and corrupt pseudo-government officials (just like in Vietnam), and waging a war that can never be won. The only effect has been turning a population that once welcomed us against us. This has happened already.

President Johnson agonized over Vietnam, and he worried that the American people would stop supporting the effort, which of course they did, eventually. Bill Moyers recently broadcast an entire hour of Johnson's taped conversations from that formative time, and the parallels with the present dilemma jumped out. President Obama should pay attention to the fact that the American people already have withdrawn majority support for this war. This is not a minor consideration: our country has no business fighting wars the people do not support.

Which brings me to another point. Congress has no business continuing to tolerate the Executive making the decision as to whether war will or will not be prosecuted. President Obama is acting with Congressional authorization, as far as it goes. But it is time for the Congress to take its constitutional responsibilities seriously and direct that this war be brought to a close. The framers gave the warmaking power to Congress for a very good reason. If there is one overriding lesson to be learned from the entire postwar era, it's that giving the Executive de facto power to wage war is a huge mistake. It makes no difference whether the presidency is Republican or Democratic; carte blanche authorizations to commit or engage U.S. troops or war materiel abroad must not be forthcoming going forward: every decision to commit to military action beyond a brief emergency window must be under the control of the legislative branch. This is what our constitution requires, and the longer we tolerate deviance from it, the less our government resembles the representative system the framers of the Constitution intended.

This war is heading for nowhere but disaster, at a time when far more pressing needs present themselves for attention from our limited resources here at home. We must bring this fiasco to an end. The President should ask Gates, Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal for a realistic plan to extricate us from this country as soon as humanly possible consistent with protection of American lives and reasonable conservation of resources. Any of them who fail to comply or publicly obstruct the president's intentions should be summarily dismissed. I think particularly McChrystal (who unquestionably lied about the Pat Tillman affair and was insubordinate in publicly calling for troop increases before a decision was made), should be eased into retirement as soon as practicable anyway.

What else can we do? We can and should ask the Saudis to step in and offer financial aid to their fellow Muslims, and contribute to humanitarian aid for a time. We can try to convene a U.N. sponsored Peace Conference, and enlist the aid of countries in the area, including China, in offering development aid to Afghanistan. We have done a lousy job, due mainly to corruption both of contractors and the so-called government there, at building schools, hospitals, and economic infrastructure, which are the very things that could bring the people of that unfortunate country out of the desperate poverty and universal unemployment that makes them see the Taliban as a better option. Other countries may have greater success in offering to fund and carry out development projects, which we can support to some extent. But regardless of the success of such an effort, we must announce the intention to withdraw, and carry it out in an orderly and reasonably rapid manner. Ultimately, the building of a nation in Afghanistan is not our responsibility. Moreover, given the lack of support for the effort here at home, is not a good enough reason to maintain a military presence in that country any longer than is necessary to bring that very presence to an end.

UPDATE 12/1;   In a nine-minute Special Comment on 11/30, Keith Olbermann expressed views similar to mine.

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