Archive for November, 2009

Barack Obama and the Ghost of LBJ

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Obama foreign policy, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama has apparently reached his decision on Afghanistan, which he will explain to the public on Tuesday night. If early leaks intended to get us more used to–and presumably comfortable with–the content are correct, he is going to give General McChrystal most of what he wants, although with some time constraints (the “off ramps”) and implicit implications that the commitment is constrained, not open ended. Details to follow.

I personally believe he has reached the wrong decision, that Afghanistan is an impossible quest best left to those supposed hard, realistic Don Quixotes who cannot see a lost cause when they see one. TheWashington Post offered what is probably the consensual rationale for going ahead: doing less won’t work, and although we aren’t sure doing more will, it is the best we can do. Let’s double down on that inside straight and ignore what Einstein said about insanity. Anyone who believes this all will end well has a far more intimate relationship with the tooth fairy than I do. In my view, the only way to quite losing in Afghanistan is to leave. Period!

What about the ghost of LBJ? As older readers will recall, LBJ was faced with three contradictory imperatives in 1965. First, he wanted to push the package of reform measures collectively known as the Great Society and including landmark civil rights and entitlement programs. Second, he decided that he was not going to be the president who lost Vietnam and thus ordered a series of escalations that predictably did not work but mired the country in that conflict for eight more years before the public became so sick of it that we finally left. Third, he had to figure out how to pay for all this. His options were deferring the Great Society and financing Vietnam with actual money, raising taxes so he could pursue both simultaneously and fiscally responsibly, or by fiancing both with red ink (deficit spending). Then, as now, there was no political stomach for the fiscally responsible course of tax increases, and LBJ feared if he did so, his domestic priorities would be in jeopardy. In these circumstances, he chose to pursue both the Great Society and the war and pay for it without raising taxes. The result, of course, was substantial deficits that helped lead to an economic crisis in the years after the war was over.

President Obama faces a similar scenario today. The economic stimulus, reforms in education and health reform form his version of the Great Society, and the war in Afghanistan–whether it is otherwise reminiscent in other ways or not–is his version of Vietnam. With these competing priorities, he also faces the question of how to pay for all this, and his options are similar.

Recent estimates suggest a certain symmetry to his options: the price tags of health reform and the war in Afghanistan are estimated to be about the same–about $900 billion over the next decade. In terms of programs, he has three choices. He can pursue health reform and pay for it with Afghanistan savings; he can finance Afghanistan and defer health reform to pay for Afghanistan (which is what the Republicans basically want him to do); or he can pursue both programs. Guess which one he will choose?

To give away the answer, assume he chooses door number three (pursuing both). How does he pay for it? Choosing the option means that cutting other spending is probably not even close to meaningful, so he has two choices: raise taxes or bleed red ink. The GOP, certainly not known for its responsibility or helpfulness in these matters, opposes both: no new taxes and no more deficits. Their answer is to junk the current health reform package and let the “market” solve the problem. Chalk up one more for the health insurance lobby! In their most pious possible way, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et. al. will intone they want both to protect national security and to make the population well–just not the way Obama suggests. Beyond cutting taxes and genuflecting before the Market Gods, the Grumpy Old Party, of course, has no clue.

This leaves Obama in an impossible position that is somewhat of his own doing. He has painted himself into a corner by labeling Afghanistan a righteous war vital to the United States (a “war of necessity”) and thus can hardly sneak away from it. At the same time, he will not back away from health reform, which is to him what the Great Society was to LBJ. I do not know how he feels personally about the only truly responsible, “big boy” option (raising taxes, probably substantially), but he is not dumb enough to press for this in an election year. If he mumbles a lot on Tuesday night, this is why.

There is one more unsettling BHO-LBJ comparison. LBJ desperately wanted to be remembered for the Great Society, a legacy that includes many familiar programs like Medicare, but what he is mostly remembered for is Vietnam. Obama, I suspect, wants mostly to be remembered for health care and other domestic reforms. But will he be remembered principally for the failure in Afghanistan that is as certain as the commitment he makes on Tuesday? It is not a happy prospect.

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Obama and Afghanistan: Damned If He Does…

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , , on November 20, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Within the next several days, President Obama will likely announce his decision regarding American strategy in Afghanistan. He has kept his counsel close to the vest on this, and I have no idea good enough to bet on what he will decide. One thing I do know for certain: regardless of what his decision is, it will be condemned loudly by part of the public. On Afghanistan (as well, apparently, as almost anything else he does), Obama is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t, quite apart from what “does” and doesn’t” may mean and the merits of whatever decision he makes.

The political debate could hardly be less helpful. Most of it has surrounded the request that General Stanley McChrystal has made for additional forces to fight and “win” in Afghanistan. One side says Obama should do what McChrystal wants, because he has superior understanding of the military situation. The other side says that sending more troops into that country is essentially pouring bad rersources (including American lives) after good. Both positions suggest their basis for pillorying the President if their position is rejected: fail to send more men and he is an unpatriotic fool endangering people’s lives; sending the men needlessly puts more personnel at risk for no good reason. Figure out the popular position among those options.

Part of the problem is that the debate starts from the wrong question. As Obama keeps trying to point out, the question of troop levels depends on what we seek to accomplish: what is our political goal? That goal can be either to assist in the establishment of a stable, anti-Al Qaeda Afghanistan or, more modestly, simply to try to create conditions that inhibit Al Qaeda use of Afghanistan territory, quite apart from who rules the country how. Once that determination is made (and as best I can tell, it has not been), then the question of strategy arises: what do we need to do to accomplish whatever goal we have chosen? At this point, the troop numbers become relevant, but not before.

Questions of strategy necessarily take us beyond the realm of the known to the unknown and,with any precise ability to gauge, the unpredictable. Is, for instance, the creation of a stable Afghan state possible under any conditions (history suggest caution) or, more particularly, under Hamid Karzai? Karzai says he will root out corruption (a major source of instability) and even convene a loya jirga to work out the details. Is he sincere? Will this work? Who knows? I don’t know, and if you say you do, you are lying (or at least stretching the evidence). If the goal is unattainable (or is so judged) , does it make sense to pursue it?

The same is true of the more modest goal of simply suppressing Al Qaeda. If that is the goal, it probably entails abandoning Karzai,and although other things about the equation are conjectural, it is almost certainly that his government cannot survive with the Americans to prop it up (his brave words of moving toward independence notwithstanding). It may be that the United States could strike a deal with a non-Karzai, probably Taliban-participating government to control, even destroy, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (what effect this would have on neighboring Pakistan is a separate matter). Is such an agreement possible? I don’t know. Might the Taliban lie and say they will cooperate on controlling Al Qaeda and then welsh on the deal? Could be.

Once one has decided what goal to pursue, then, and only then, do questions of troop levels and uses become relevant. If our job is to keep Karzai in power, then 40,000 more troops (possibly even many more than  that) may be needed and appropriate. McChrystal’s idea, apparently, is to use extra forces to shore up security in the cities while the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ramp up. Will that work? Maybe. Maybe not. But for sure, it is much more complicated than simply suggesting that war should be turned over to the generals. (Or,or that matter, for tritely saying war is too important to be left to the generals.)

President Obama faces a very tough decision, and what he should decide is nowhere nearly as clear as those screaming from one side or the other suggest. One thing, however, is clear about the decision: there will be vocal, shrill, even hysterical reaction–especially opposition–regardless of what it is. The bad news is that, indeed, the president will be damned regardless of what he does. The good news is that knowing that means he can make the decision regardless of its popularity and base his decision on what he considers the strategic rather than political merits. That may be the best possible atmosphere in which to reachsuha momentous decision. So let the bitching and moaning begin!

Veteran’s Day and the All-Volunteer Force

Posted in Afghanistan War, Military Reform, U.S. military manpower, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The United States has not forced the involuntary service of any of its citizens into the U.S. military since 1972, when it suspended the Selective Service system’s conscription of young Americans to fight in the enormously unpopular war in Vietnam. Since the beginning of 1973, the U.S. military has instead been based in the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) concept, meaning it is composed entirely of service members who volunteer for that duty.

As America’s veterans were being feted yesterday, there were inevitable comparisons between those forces who fought America’s historic wars and contemporary warriors. The patriotic remembrances of veterans in particular was quite complimentary, suggesting that today’s military is every bit as good as that which fought, for instance, World War II or Korea.

It is, however, a different force. The U.S. armed forces of the past were true citizen forces drawn from and requiring the support of all Americans; the AVF is not that kind of force at all, with both positive and negative implications.

Joseph L. Galloway, one of the true deans of American military reportage best known for his role in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and as co-author of the book “We were Soldiers Once…and Young,” captured the difference strikingly in his column marking yesterday’s Veteran’s Day observation: “Military service today,” he observes, “is reserved for the few who volunteer, unlike the days of big wars and conscription or the draft….Today in this nation of 300 million, fewer than 1 million wear the uniform, and with their families, bear all the burden and sacrifice of protecting and defending the rest of us who give little thought to those who pay the price of our freedom.”

This latter part of the statement forms the heart of what should be the legitimate question about the AVF in the present and future: does its existence free us of the need critically to consider the consequences of military activity because we know we will be personally unaffected by those consequences? Joe Galloway does not believe so, stating flatly, “It isn’t right and it certainly isn’t what those bold revolutionaries who ripped a continent out of the hands of a king at the risk of their own lives and property intended for the nation they created.” 

The AVF is, despite those reservations some (the present author included) have about it, not going away. Some people, especially within the professional military, like the force much better than the conscript-based force it succeeded 36 years ago. The quality of soldiers is better and their morale is higher (since they want to be there doing what they are doing), and there are far fewer disciplinary and other problems among AVF members (the tragedy at Ft. Hood last week, of course, reminds us problems are not non-existent). The AVF has performed at high levels in the eyes of its members and most observers, and professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen all blanch at the prospect of having to go back and to deal with a rank and file full of reluctant conscripts.

Having said that, the concept is not above criticism. One is that an AVF will inevitably be a smaller force than a conscript force, because less people will volunteer than can be compelled to serve. This means that it can only be used in situations where its upward manpower limits are not strained intolerably or succeeded, as has happened over the past decade. From a strictly numerical perspective, a conscript force would have been much better for Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, if some problem requiring large-scale American military involvement were to break out today with the force already tied down, the only way the U.S. could respond would either be by activating much larger parts of the reserves or by reinstituting the draft. Neither are happy political choices.

The AVF is also very expensive, in at least three ways. First, volunteer soldiers must be paid much more competitively than conscripts, since the AVF competes with society at large for their services. Second, one response to the limits on size of the AVF has been to contract out functions previously performed by members of the armed forces to civilian contractors. Such contracts are both expensive and raise lots of other problems such as accountability and contractor conduct. Third, the strains produced by having to overuse a small AVF include a myriad of post-service physical and psychological injuries and debilities only the tip of the iceberg of which are now apparent. To this point, all these costs have been reasonably cheerfully borne by a populace consoled by the fact that the AVF keeps the wolf of potential service away from most of our doors.

Will this continue to work in the future? The price of the AVF is going to be tougher to justify in the future, and continuing this basis for military manpower will mean the U.S. will be constrained in what it can do in the world in rhe future. That may or may not be a bad thing, but it is a question rarely raised in AVF terms.

The deeper and more troubling question is whether it should be continued. Veterans’ Day reminds us that military commitment and sacrifice has historically been a national burden, not one borne by those we hire to perform our duty for us (we have, of course, also done that, as in the provision for draftees to hire replacements on the Union side of the Civil War). Philosophically, the danger is that we become so disconnected from the military obligation that we forget that sacrifice is a national, not a minority, responsibility. I do not want to saddle the military with an unruly force, but I would like a force that is more representative of us all and which cannot be activated without a conscious recognition that we and those we all hold dear may be very personally affected.

As President Obama wrestles with the question of whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, I wish one of the factors he had to consider was how he would explain his decision to the American families whose sons and daughters would be drafted into the military to implement those decisions, especially since some would pay the highest sacrifice. Until 1973, all presidents faced that concern; wouldn’t it be better if they still had to?

A Critical Decision Point in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , on November 4, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Although supporters of the Afghan War (including the Obama administration) hate the comparison, the outcome of the recent runoff election fiasco in Afghanistan suggests a parallel with the American experience in Vietnam.

In 1963, the United States was supp0rting the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. His regime did not enjoy great support in the country, was notoriously corrupt and repressive, and Diem was a master at ignoring American advice about how to improve the situation in the country. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate, with South Vietnamese control gradually contracting to control of major cities, while the National Liberation Front/Viet Cong (NLF/VC) and their North Vietnamese allies increasingly controlled the countryside. It was increasingly clear that “our” side was going to lose unless something happened.

That something was the assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in late 1963 as part of a coup. The exact nature of American complicity in this action remains a matter of conjecture that goes beyond present purposes. Suffice it to say that the United States neither acted decisively to prevent what happened nor openly mourned the passing of Diem.

The death of Diem, however, created a critical decision point for the United States that may have its parallel in Afghanistan today. In Vietnam, retrospective (and the ignored advice of a few within and outside government at the time) suggested that the murder of Diem provided the United States to cut its losses in an unwinnable war by simply saying, in effect, “We have done our best here, but they cannot get their act together, so we are leaving.” That path was not taken; instead, the US backed a series of military governments and ultimately lost in Vietnam.

There are clear parallels today. Hamid Karzai is, in many ways, Ngo Dinh Diem. Understanding the frailty of historical comparisons, Marzai’s record is not that much different than Diem’s. In particular, an article in yesterday’s Washington Post by Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (whose book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is my favorite on Iraq), included a depiction of Karzai that entirely befitted Diem, arguing Karzai’s “record raises doubts about his willingness to take the steps necessary to reform his government.” Whether Karzai himself is corrupt or not is beside the point: his regime reeks of corruption. He has promised to root all the corruption out; so did Diem. Diem didn’t mean it; does Karzai?

The United States’s plan for additional forces also harkens back to those dark days of 1963. In recent days, we have been told that the purpose of the forces is to reinforce government control of major cities, leaving the hinterlands (which, of course, is the hotbed of insurgent support) to the Taliban while the government develops its own forces. This emphasis is grotesquely reminiscent of the map of Vietnam in 1963. Things did not work out so well then. Why should they now?

The bottom line of a comparison between 1963 and now is that the bogus election and small melodrama of the cancelled runoff provide the same kind of critical junction that Diem’s death did. The election outcome is an open sham, and everyone knows it. Does this mean there is a chance to ask the same question that was raised and discarded in 1963? Should we (or can we) say, “Hamid, you have had your chance and you’ve blown it. We are leaving, except possibly with some Special Forces to harass and chase down Al Qaeda. Good luck!”

I don’t expect anybody in government seriously to consider this alternative, but is it any worse than what we are doing now?

Electoral Transparency in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on November 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the half-Tajik opthamologist who finished second in the first round of the Afghan presidential election and who led the push for this coming Saturday’s runoff, dropped out of the race today. His stated reason for doing so was the Karzai government’s refusal to revamp the existing electoral process, and notably Karzai’s refusal to sack three election commissioners whom Abdullah charged were disproportionately responsbile for widespread fraud in the first election and whose continuation guaranteed a reprise of dishonesty. As a result, Dr. Abdullah told a news conference in Kabul, a “transparent election is not possible,” and thus he will not participate.

There is something wholly disingenuous about all this. Electoral fraud in that country is virtually an art form; saying that the election is likely to be rigged is hardly news or newsworthy. Rather it is a dog-bites-man story. A fair, honest, transparent election in Afghanistan, on the other hand, would be something else altogether, a real man-bites-dog tale. Nobody, presumably including Abdullah, really expected that to happen. The only real question was how skillfully the reelection of Karzai would be orchestrated, not whether it would occur. Would there be dishonesty and corruption? Of course. The only real question was how obvious it would be. A transparent Afghan election is virtually a contradiction in terms. 

Now the Potemkin village of an honest, competitive election has been torn down, and we are left with the naked reality of five more years of Hamid Karzai, except without the veil of having prevailed as the “people’s choice” in a competitive election.

What difference will this make? More to the point, will the outcome be viewed as “legitimate” either in Afghanistan or by the world (and especially the United States)?

It is, of course, impossible to argue definitivelywhat impact the change will have, because such an argument is based on counterfactual, unprovable premises. The only way to argue that an election in which Dr. Abdullah would have made or not made a difference would be to hold two elections, one with and one without his participationand then compare results. That, of course, will not happen, so we are all able to argue one side or the other of the proposition with no empirical possibility of being refuted.

Having said that, the internal outcome is unlikely to be much different with or without Abdullah. The real question around which legitimacy revolves is whether the voter outcome will be large enough and representative enough to bestow anything like a madate on Karzai. The answer before Abdullah’s drop out was probably not, and his withdrawal doesn’t change that calculation much at all. Why? The key to a representative turnout is getting the Pashtuns to participate, which they basically did not do in the last election. The reasons were largely Taliban intimidation and the lack of a candidate whom they supported. Both conditions still adhere: the Taliban will harass the process, and Abdullah is not a Pashtun, so the Pasthun would not have voted for him anyway. The Afghans already knew how the election was going to come out, and the withdrawal simply reinforces what they already knew–five more years of incompetent, corrupt rule.

Legitimacy of the government is Kabul is also a cornerstone of the American strategy for success in Afghanistan, but does that also take a hit? Not according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was quoted today (in an absolutely stunning bit of non sequitur) as saying, “When Karzai accepted a runoff without knowing what the outcome would be, that bestowed legitimacy from that moment.” Come again? Karzai agrees to stand in an election he knows his people will rig, and this legitimizes the process? Somebody is putting something strange in Hillary’s drinking water.

So what will this mean? Certainly it means Karzai will win, but we already knew that. Equally certainly, however, Karzai’s unopposed reelection will embolden cynics who argue that the goal of a legitimate government in Kabul is disserved and is, if anything, less likely than it was before. That, in turn, will make it tougher to argue that additional resources will lead to a better outcome in that country.

In our extremely partisan world of recrimination and counter-recrimination, those who want to continue U.S. policy will probably find this news shows even greater support for Karzai and strengthens his mandate, while opponents will argue it just intensifies the sham. At least we won’t have to stay up late on Saturday night to see who won in Kabul.