Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Big Picture: Don't Get Bogged Down in Afghanistan

Yesterday, without even an official explanation, President Obama ordered 17,000 additional troops to go to Afghanistan over the spring and summer. There are now 38,000 troops, so this would mean that the troop presence would increase by half. I think this is a very bad idea. Based on Afghanistan's history and its current situation, by far the most likely result will be more deaths of Afghani civilians and of American soldiers, harm to our world reputation and our national security, waste of precious resources, and distraction from pressing needs at home.

Unlike President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, it is relatively easy to understand President Obama's decision to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. First, the September 11th attacks were planned and orchestrated there, with Al Qaeda protected by the theocratic and frankly evil Taliban, so on its face it sounds eminently justifiable to send soldiers there to defeat a Taliban insurgency. And as the Strike says, politically Obama and the Democrats have backed themselves into a corner : from the time mainstream Democrats began to break with the Republicans on the Iraq War in early 2004 they have believed that they had to avoid the political disaster of being painted as "anti-war peaceniks". They needed to show they supported some war, and Afghanistan was the convenient one to support; now they weren't opposing the Iraq War because they were "weak", but because they wanted to fight harder in a different war and take revenge on Osama bin Laden. John Kerry pushed this line in typically ineffective fashion, but Barack Obama was more persuasive: he said in 2002 that he opposed the Iraq War but not all wars, and during his time in the Senate and as a candidate, he demonstrated his centrist credentials by showing that he did support a war - the one in Afghanistan. So the fine line Obama believed he needed to toe to appease both the anti-war base and "reasonable centrists" has resulted in the expansion of an unwinnable and devastating war that has already lasted 7 1/2 years.

Obama could only justify the continuation and expansion of the war for these political/ideological reasons - "I've got to fulfill my campaign promise, the Democrats can't look like the retreat-and-defeat party" - because strategically the plan will most likely be a disaster. A targeted military action with the support of almost the entire world to capture the leaders of Al Qaeda and destroy its infrastructure, followed by leaving as quickly as possible, was the only effective strategy in Afghanistan. We did not do that effectively back in 2001, and it is far, far too late to make up for that failure. Now our only solution is to get out as soon as possible.

I would love it if our troops could go in there, take down the Taliban, and create a functioning state in Afghanistan to relieve people from misery, both for moral reasons and because that would remove a central breeding ground and hideaway for truly evil outfits of homicidal theocrats. But, a) I think the continuation and expansion of the war will prove extraordinarily ineffective at achieving that goal, and will cause great harm to Afghanistan and America b) as discussed above, I'm concerned that these worthy goals were not the real motivation for the decision to send more troops.

Begin with a). Thousands of years of history - from Alexander the Great to the Romans and on and on through the British, the Soviets, and our current adventure there - have proven very clearly that an occupying power can not control Afghanistan. In fact, the foreign power, despite its enormous advantages in wealth and military power, has found that the result of the war is an Afghanistan even less in line with the power's goals than before the war started, at the cost of great blood and treasure. Reading the progression of articles about Afghanistan over the past year has made it very clear that the longer we fight there, the more money we pour in there, the worse the effects: more American soldiers are killed, more Afghani civilians are killed, America and the government it backs loses even more credibility and becomes more and more hated, this strengthens the Taliban insurgency, and the Afghani government becomes more and more corrupt and less and less useful to Afghani citizens. It is now the most corrupt government in the world, and it doesn't even have control over embassies in the heart of its capital city. It is very very difficult to believe that more military action will somehow turn this around, rather than continuing to make things worse. Indeed, there's every reason to believe that our involvement undermines stabilizing democratic forces and strengthens the Taliban. Our military intervention almost inevitably results in American troops killing civilians, causing public outrage. The Taliban then tells ordinary Afghanis "how can you support the American-backed government when the Americans are killing you? We are the ones who stand up to them, not the sell-outs." This is a pattern repeated in Iraq, earlier in Vietnam, and for decades with Israel in Palestine - the occupiers' support for a 'democratic' government only undermines democracy and strengthens the extremists on the other side. The failure of democracy and the growing strength of extremist opposition only further "necessitates" increasing our intervention, and so the destructive cycle continues. We can't expect the Taliban to break it - their very survival depends on its continuance. Only Obama can stop and consider the consequences of our actions.

All I can see are more dead and injured American soldiers, more Afghani civilians dead, more credibility for America-hating and Taliban-supporting among ordinary Afghanis. And all I can see are billions upon billions of dollars so desperately needed at home wasted there. And if we want to do good for the rest of the world, and improve our reputation and credibility and security, then we would be far better off receiving the good will of pulling out of Afghanistan, rather than the enmity this action is surely creating with ordinary people throughout the world, people who want to believe in America as a force for good, want to believe in Barack Obama and his new era, but have learned to distrust America's intentions and fear the consequences of our "idealistic" interventions.

And ordinary people in the Middle East and elsewhere have good reason to distrust Obama's intentions. It is important to remember that as much as we believe in him, he is still a politician who takes many if not most actions for political reasons. I believe some of the major reasons he is expanding the war are to fulfill that campaign promise, and to show people that even though he didn't serve in the military and he's a Democrat who opposed the Iraq War, he is not a peacenik. Needless to say, these are terrible, morally abhorrent reasons to send young men to die, and it's the same reasons Kennedy and especially Johnson expanded the Vietnam War: "they can't think I'm weak". We saw how well that worked out. Also, I think he's wrong politically. Polls show that only 32% support expanding troop commitments in Afghanistan, while 29% oppose and the rest are undecided, and these confirm the general sense that most people are a) far too concerned about the economic crisis, and b) wary of foreign invasions after the Iraq debacle, to punish Obama in any significant way for deciding instead to wind down the war in Afghanistan. A war that costs more lives and money will only become less popular, as the Iraq and Vietnam Wars have shown. Lyndon Johnson's catastrophic conclusion to his Presidency shows how an unwinnable war can ruthlessly drain the President's focus, the public's morale, and the nation's budget, crippling efforts to help people at home. Finally, the consequences of recent American military adventures in the Middle East demonstrate the perils of blowback: military intervention in the name of security creates more instability, more terrorism, and actually makes us much less secure.

For all these reasons, I strongly oppose Obama's decision to continue and expand the war in Afghanistan.

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