Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Into Afghanistan

Almost- almost- hidden between an explanation of the history of our involvement in Afghanistan and of the justification for continuing our military presence in south Asia came the meat of President Obama's speech on December 1 at West Point:

And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops wil begin to come home.

So there it is: we are ratcheting up our military (and civilian) effort and after awhile, will begin to draw down our involvement.

Obama's address has been criticized on many fronts. On the conservative, critical remarks by two Red State bloggers reflect some of the disgruntlement with the speech.

Moe Lane remarked disparagingly "President Obama spoke 4,582 words in his primetime Afghanistan war speech at West Point last night. He said “al Qaeda” 22 times. He mentioned the “Taliban” 12 times. And here’s how many times the Democratic chief executive used the word “victory” — 0." And Jeff Emanuel complained "If only we were so lucky as to have a President who actually recognized that history existed before January 20, 2009 — something that he and his administration simply refuse to do (with the sole exception to that rule being the amazingly unprofessional and unpresidential non-stop banging of the “blame-everything-on-my-predecessor” drum)."

It's hard to imagine any two comments less sensible. No one, not even anyone on the right, has defined what "victory" would mean in central or southern Asia. The word exists mostly as a rhetorical device to whip up the base and to imply that the President (or whatever Democrat is being attacked at the time) is slightly unpatriotic, albeit more obliquely and tastefully than Dick Cheney's charge that Mr. Obama is giving "aid and comfort to the enemy." President George W. Bush came closest to defining victory- "Mission Accomplished" is what he called it. How did that work out for you?

Mr. Emanuel is not the only Republican who complains that President Obama frequently demeans his immediate predecessor. It's tough for these conservatives to be reminded of the miserable failure the most conservative President of the post-World War II period was. Generally, history, and facts, are things so many conservative Republicans find distasteful. Last night, Obama noted

I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions. We have been at war now for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.

Exactly what part of this is untrue? With any sense of embarrassment or humility, the right would acknowledge, perhaps silently: at least he didn't point out that the stakes in Iraq pale in comparison to those in Afghanistan. Or that actual 'victory' in Iraq is elusive and would do little for either the stability of the U.S.A. or of the region.

Some criticism from the left also misses the mark. Tristero at Hullabaloo asks "But if mostly what they're doing is teaching, then why are 30,000 more American soldiers needed in Afghanistan? Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations recently responded to such skepticism in The New Republic when he explained

training and combat are not exclusive of one another. The former requires the latter, and to field a large Afghan force faster will require more, not fewer, U.S. combat troops.

To build an indigenous security force in the middle of a war is not like teaching math to high school students--it cannot be done successfully by a handful of teachers in classrooms with chalk and blackboards. To field Afghan troops quickly without breaking them in the process requires close partnership on the battlefield, with experienced Western combat units that provide on-the-job training, mentoring, confidence-building, fire support, and stiffening in actual combat. And this requires Western troops, in large numbers, living and fighting together with Afghan forces at all levels of command. The faster the Afghans are to be fielded, the more Western combat forces are needed. If a large Afghan military is to be raised, then many tens of thousands of Americans will be needed, and those Americans will be exposed to combat, and to casualties.

And the process takes time even so. In the meantime, someone must protect not just key population centers but also the recruitment centers, supply depots, bases, and transportation connections needed to create the new Afghan formations in the first place. Close partnership with expanded indigenous forces is indeed the best way to pursue counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Tristero argues also that Obama's military goal was not made clear, suggesting that it might be to "capture/kill al Qaeda's leaders" whereas "the Taliban didn't attack the US, al Qaeda did." However, the President clearly understands this dynamic, having explained

Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

And the linkage with the Taliban:

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.

A safe haven, J. Alexander Thiel argued in foreign the day prior to the speech

remains practically and psychologically important to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was born in the Pashtun belt, and intermarriage and familiarity make this the "home field" -- far more than Somalia or Yemen. The jihads that drove out the "infidel" British and Soviet empires were launched here, and success in driving out the Americans would immeasurably bolster the reputation and fortunes of the militants.

Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation answers skeptics, such as David Thayen at Firedoglake, who believe that Al Qaeda, if sufficiently threatened in Afghanistan, could move its base of operations to Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan. He believes

The point about Somalia and Yemen is unconvincing. Jihadists based there have shown no ability to hit targets anywhere but in their immediate neighborhoods. Many years after September 11, there is scant evidence that any senior Al Qaeda leaders have relocated to either place. For its part, Somalia is probably too anarchic, and possibly too African as well, for the largely middle-class Arab membership of Al Qaeda. In theory, of course, it's always possible that Al Qaeda could pick up and move elsewhere. But, with the exception of a few years in the 1990s, Al Qaeda has now been based in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a generation. This is the region where its leaders feel comfortable, where they have put down roots. If they didn't leave even after the United States conquered Afghanistan in late 2001, it seems unlikely that they will in the future.
The point about Pakistan serving as a safe haven is a bit more complicated. After all, what good does it do to secure Afghanistan when Al Qaeda and the Taliban are headquartered in Pakistan? Actually, plenty. "Defending Afghanistan will not eradicate a terror network in Pakistan," explains Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman. "But failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give Al Qaeda new momentum and the greater freedom of action that an expanded geographical ambit will facilitate."

The obstacles to "a successful conclusion," as Obama termed it early in the speech, are enormous and the policy may not work. As Thiel argued on Monday, "Afghan stability will not be accoomplished through a strategy whose principle objective is to exit." One hopes that the timetable for departure of American forces is not determined by the specter of Vietnam or domestic political factors but by U.S. security considerations.

This is not, after all, Vietnam- not only for the reasons advanced by Obama, but also because success in Afghanistan is far more critical than it would have been in southeast Asia- or in Iraq. President Bush, in applying vastly greater resources to the effort in Iraq, was reaching for the low-hanging fruit and avoiding the far more difficult, and important, task of fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. And as Thiel notes of a nation with an estimated 80 to 100 nuclear warheads, "Pakistan's stability is directly affected by Afghanistan's stability (and) one of the greatest impacts we can have on Pakistani stability is to enhance Afghan stability."

President Obama at least appears to have a fairly good grasp of the consequences of failure in Afghanistan. His may not be the optimum approach, but withdrawal or continuation of the status quo would have carried an unacceptable risk.

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