Archive for August, 2010

How Many More Years in Afghanistan? For What?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 29, 2010 by whatafteriraq

In the past week, a number of retired or retiring military leaders have weighed in on the question of how much longer the United States should plan to remain in Afghanistan. Presumably, their assessments are prompted by the July 2011 date that President Obama has set to begin the withdrawal of combat forces there and their realization that nothing saubstantial is likely to have been accomplished by then. Putting aside for a moment the obvious questionof whether anything worthwhile can be accomplished regardless of how long we stay, these stern-looking, serious souls suggest that Americans should accustom themselves to the idea we will be in Afghanistan as long again as we already have been. Nine More Years? You have to be kidding!

But apparently they are not kidding, since, as best I can tell, none of them have a discernible sense of humor about anything, and certainly not this subject. Nine More Years? You have to have something funny in your drinking water to even consider such a proposal. Those who argue to keep plodding on like to portray themselves as the tough guy realistswho do not shrink away from tough decisions with tough consequences. But nine more years is not tough guy realism; it is Tinker Bell fantasy. Why?

For one thing, such an assessment assumes there is something WORTH such an investment for the United States, but they won’t tell us what it is. Al Qaeda? Have to prove they will be there if we leave and that keeping them out justifies the multi-billions/trillions we’ll spend keeping them out, and that is not only not easy, it’s impossible. A stable Afghanistan? There has never been one before, and aside from the ubiquitous Al Qaeda, why does the United States care one way or the other about Afghan domestic politics (especially when that caring is translated into treasure and blood). The defenses of American long term (to say nothing of short term) continued involvement in Afghanistan simply do not add up.

The only way to justify keeping the effort going is to ignore the geopolitical reality of the situation. Very simply, continuing this war is not, and never has been, a major geopolitical priority of the United States. There are no vital American interests engaged in the outcome. Certainly, it would be nice to Al Qaeda-proof the country, but Al Qaeda can be contained otherwise, and at a lot less expense than a major military adventure in Afghanistan that has absolutely no likelihood of succeeding. Saying that would probably not have been very popular at Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin’s rally in Washington yesterday, but it is nonetheless the truth.

In this vein, Foreign Affairs journal reached what I think was a new low in its just-released September/October 2010 issue, which contains yet one more baseless defense of the Afghanistan by the Army’s favorite suck-up, Michael O’Hanlon (“Staying Power”). Once an aparently rising star in the defense intellectual community, O’Hanlon has become the pro-Afghan War’s favorite lap dog, willing to defend without evidence any and all justifications for the continued (and endlessly continuing) involvement there. In summarizing the case for staying, O’Hanlon inadvertently makes the case for leaving. He argues, “a significant level of success–represented by an Afghan state that is able to control most of its territory and gradually improve the lives of its citizens” with “several more years of resolve” on our part. Control “most of its territory” and “gradually improve” people’s lives? That is an objective worth major American sacrifice? Foreign Affairs should be ashamed for publishing such drivel. Nine more years indeed!

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Israel and the Iranian Bomb

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The September 2010 edition of The Atlantic features a story on what it represents as Israel’s plan to attack and try to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities before Iran can get to the point of producing a nuclear weapon–a prospect the Israelis argue is quite imminent, meaning the attack could come quite soon.

The article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, is titled “The Point of No Return,” and it is decidedly more sanguine about these prospects than one would assume from the normally fairly restrained Goldberg. Indeed, Goldberg seems at least receptive to, if not enthusiastic about, the purported Israeli plan, whereas his colleague Robert D. Kaplan, usually more hawkish on such matters, counsels Kissingerian restraint (deterrence) in his companion article, “Living with Nuclear Iran.”

The possibility that Israel would entertain and possibly even commit to an attack aimed at destroying the Iranian nuclear program is certainly nothing new, although it has been a prospect that most of us have set aside as sufficiently lunatic or far enough in the future to be intellectually avoidable. The Atlantic article strips away both of these veils, showing that the intent to attack permeates a great deal of the Israeli decision process (notably the top) and that the prospects are upon us. Goldberg indeed hints that he believes such an action is probably inevitable.

At the risk of distorting Goldberg’s argument, it strikes me that it has three basic parts. The first, and most familiar, is that the Iranian nuclear program represents an intolerable existential threat to Israel. In one sense, this is entirely true: Iran in control of a few deliverable nuclear weapons that the Israelis could not intercept (which may be the real meaning of the Iranian drone aircraft announced this week) could indeed destroy so much of Israel as to threaten its existence. The nature of that threat, however, needs qualification the Israelis rarely add.

First, Israel has arguably become “the state that cries existential threat” in much the same way as the little boy cried wolf. It seems that every threat the Israelis face is labeled existential, and that Israel responds militarily with actions/provocations that either make the threat worse or produce new threats. Israeli policy in Gaza is a poster child for this problem. Second, the Israelis act as if they were alone in all this. Not so. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have posed physical existential threats to one another since the perfection of the ICBM, and we have learned to adapt to and deflect the problem. Our mechanism (which is the Kissimgerian solution) is deterrence, an approach the Israelis reject because they Iranians are allegedly crazy, meaning they cannot be deterred. Third, the Israelis have posed an existential threat to Iran (and the rest of the Muslim Middle East) for over 40 years. The Israelis say that situation is different, because they would not attack anyone. If you were the head of an Islamic government in the area, would you accept that argument?

Second, the Israelis apparently think there is agood chance they can get away with an attack, because they have done so in the past with attacks against Iraq and Syria. Maybe so, but maybe not. Syria and Iraq were much more defenseless than Iran and were considered far less important than the Iranians. Iran is, after all, a very large, populous country with a wealth of natural resources that much of the world covets. Syria, in particular, is none of those things. Will the world sit so idly by in Iran is attacked? I, for one, do not want to find out.

Third, the Israelis are counting on American support for this endeavor–or at least that the U.S. will dampen opposition to the action. One Israeli air force officer even suggests it would be better if the U.S. did the bombing for the Israelis, since we have superior assets for such an attack. President Obama has, quite predictably, declared that no options are off the table in this situation, but a U.S. surrogate attack on the Israelis’ behalf is presumably right at the edge of the table, ready to be pushed off.

If any other country in the world proposed anything like what is discussed in this article, the international condemnation would be thunderous; even in the deeply divided partisanship of current American politics, if it was not Israel making the threat, both sides might suspend their guerrilla political war long enough to issue a condemnation. If the Israelis go ahead and make the attack (which, by the way, will almost certainly fail to destroy the Iranian program) the only places there will be rejoice will be in Jerusalem and the Republican National Committee.

This whole idea is ludicrous beyond description, and needs to be treated as such. If the United States government has not already done so, it should issue a private warning to the Israelis that they are strictly on their own and that their action will be condemned by Washington as quickly and as resolutely as was the joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. If Israel unleashes these dogs of war, let it deal with the consequences alone. We have and should continue to support and protect Israel; we should not suborn Israeli aggression.

Think Again: Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Like many other people who are opposed to the current waqr in Afghanistan, I am constantly amazed at some of the arguments used to justify our continued futility there. To try to reconcile these, I have decided to borrow the “Think Again” format from Foreign Policy to answer a few of the arguments supporters make. This material, I should add, was previewed during a talk I gave last week to the “Hilton Head for Peace” group on Hilton Head Island, SC.

1. We had to go into Afghanistan.

Well, yes, but! It is true that it was entirely justifiable in October 2001 to attack and eradicate Al Qaeda, a task at which we failed because of the inadequate commitment of resources that were withheld to help prepare for tthe idiotic invasion of Iraq. Since the Taliban was shielding Al Qaeda, one can even justify helping tip the ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban to make our assault on Al Qaeda easier. Once that mission was accomplished/failed, however, the rationale for sticking around–especially for nine years and counting–to prop up the Karzai government is not only less compelling, but basically indefensible.

2. A favorable outcome is vital to American interests in Afghanistan and the region.

Well, that depends on which interests one is discussing, and since these possible interests tend to contradict one another, some distinction is necessary. If we are talking about interests in Afghanistan itself beyond keeping it from being an Al Qaeda refuge (which, given the worldwide dispersal of Al Qaeda, is a questionable goal), what interests? We also have interests in Pakistan (the world’s sixth most populous country–with nuclear weapons), and it isn’t clear how the war is helping there. And then there is Iran, which can only benefit from America being tied down in an increasingly unpopular war in the region.

A corollary assertion here is that the failure to remain in the country and “win” (see number four) is that we make the sacrifices of those who have died in Afghanistan meaningless if we do not stay. Does anyone but me remember Richard Rovere’s Vietnam book, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” named for an old Delta work song (“Waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on…”)? How the meaningless sacrifice of more American lives and treasure for no discernible benefits honors those who have already been sacrificed constitutes an argument that absolutely eludes me.

3. If we don’t stop the terrorists there, we will have to stop them here.

Absolute drivel and nonsense. What is the evidence to support this contention? The simple fact is there isn’t any and that this is just part of the right-wing scare tactic to get us to support this particular paranoid belief. Rather, one can make a much stronger case that our continued actions in Afghanistan makes attacks on the U.S. more, rather than les, likely, because they are motivating Afghans (who, up to now, have noticeably absent from terrorist ranks) to seek revenge against us for the damage and suffering we are (admittedly inadvertently) wreaking on Afghan civilians. Since they cannot seek direct retribution there, the argument increasingly heard is they feel we should be forced to suffer the same wrongs. This is really an argument for leaving, not staying.

4. If we persevere, we can win.

No we can’t. First, what do proponents mean by “win”? They generally won’t say, wither because they have no idea what winning there means (John McCain), or they realize that any objective definition is unobtainable. As I have said before in this space, outsiders do not win civil wars, which is what the war in Afghanistan is about. Last week’s Nation magazine listed four conditions that made the case in Afghanistan why we can’t prevail: 1) there are complex regional and ethnic differences we can’t overcome; 2) there is a long tradition of successful resistance to occupation there; 3) there is a tradition of decentralized tribal government that we can’t supplant; and 4) the country is susceptible to outside interference (by Iran, Pakistan, and India). The best we can hope for is a return to number 3), which is hardly what most of us would consider victory.

5. It is worth the cost.

You have to be kidding. The cost is astronomical (so much so that it is generally obfuscated), but can someone measure the benefits? I have never seen a serious accounting of the benefits of this war. Is it the mineral riches recently discovered under Afghanistan? If it is in reducing terrorism, the numbers are particularly hard to compute and are almost certainly negative. Countering terrorism is never cost-effective at the margins (the costs of countering terrorist initiatives can almost always be negated by the terrorists at substantially lower costs). This does not even address the very real questions of whether we can afford this war regardless of the benefits, given the state of the U.S. economy. Government economies that do not require participation by the defense/military establishment are pure sophistry.

6. If we leave the results will be disastrous.

Poppycock. I heard David Gergen, the quintessential pundit with no obvious foreign policy credentials, make this argument recently. The heart of it, familiarly enough, is that if we were to leave precipitously, it woud indelibly harm American prestige and the willingness of others to trust us in the future, and that Afghanistan would go to hell in a haybasket if we leave. This argument seems to ignore the counterargument that our totally feckless, quixotic current efforts are at least as damaging as admitting we can’t win and cutting our losses (as the Russians and British have been telling us for years), and it is not at all clear that the Taliban are not going to “take over” a loosely governed Afghanistan in the long run, regardless of what we do.

One could go on, but I will close with a thought borrowed from Mark Twain/Groucho Marx, both of whom have had attributed to them the quote, “I would’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” In the current international environment, a useful paraphrase for the U.S. government might be, “I wouldn’t intervene in any country that would invite me.”

The Wikileaks Papers

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , on August 1, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Yes, the title does mix together two conceptually related if temporally separated phenomena: the Wikileaks memoranda and the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. As the Wikileaks “scandal” unfolded a week ago, however, it was impossible not to hearken back to Daniel Ellsberg a generation ago. Different times, different kinds of document, but much the same effect.

The Pentagon Papers, for those who were not around at the time, involved Ellsberg’s leaking the contents of a classified Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, to the New York Times, which was subsequently published as The Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg, who has since become a venerable liberal hero, was excoriated for photocopying the document and releasing it, accused of heinous crimes (up to and including treason) that are now being directed at the hapless young Army private who hacked his way into Pentagon documents on Afghanistan that subsequently were released by Wikileaks. The documents that are part of the 90,000-plus record of Wikileaks, however, are different than the Pentagon Papers in that they are raw data (field reports and the like), rather than some official, if secret, intepretation of events.

Both Ellsberg and the private committed crimes in releasing the documents, since a condition of obtaining security clearance (and thus access to classified material) is that one agrees not to divulge any classified material under penalty of law. In both cases, the leakers found themselves in what they considered a quandary, since the documents they could not legally reveal represented, in their judgment, a more or less purposeful attempt to obscure the real situation in two wars from the public. In the end, both concluded the public’s right to know that the people were not being faithfully informed outweighed the government’s right to keep secrets. Ellsberg survived government attempts to suppress his activities; because he was in uniform when he did what he did, the Wikileaker will probably be dealt with more harshly.

The two documents do, however, serve a common end. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had been obscuring relevent, negative facts about the Vietnam War from the public, and their release helped undermine the government’s case for continuing the war and thus contributed to its end. Whether that was good or bad, of course, depends on what one thinks about the wisdom of the Vietnam war effort. The Wikileaks documents apparently (no, I have not read them either!) paint a similarly negative picture of the impact on the ground in Afghanistan, one that does not comport with any sense of “progress” against the Taliban. In the process, they reinforce the arguments of those who argue the war is futile and should be concluded post haste. Whether they will have the effect of shortening the war by strengthening the anti-war forces remains to be seen. Whether what they are attempting to accomplish is a good or bad thing depends on whether one thinks the war is a good idea.

It is impossible not to comment on some of the pure puffery that has come out of official (and officious) Washington about all this. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been accused of a good deal of misdeeds because of the leaks, in effect aiding and abetting the enemy by releasing information from our forces in the field to the Taliban. Much of this is pompous nonsense. One instance struck me as particularly egregious. The Wikileaks documents apparently reveal that the Taliban have used shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles against American helicopters in Afghanistan (in much the same way as the mujahadin did with American-supplied Stinger missiles against the Soviets). The announcement is a revelation because the American military had previously effectively squelched information the Taliban had these weapons, presumably to keep anti-war forces from drawing invidious comparisons between our effort and that of the Soviets. The Pentagon reaction, however, was that this was somehow a breach of operational, tactical intelligence, since some of the messages assessed the effectiveness of the attacks in bringing down American helicopters and thus helped the Taliban assess their effectiveness. What nonsense! Does the Pentagon expect us to believe that the Taliban, after firing these weapons, did not observe whether or to what extent they worked? Of course they did! This is all standard DOD CYA, the purpose of which is to obscure that we are not succeeding in the war.

The Wikileaks Papers will, of course, pass and become a footnote to this war in much the way the Pentagon Papers have; like the Pentagon Papers, they will be viewed as infamous or courageous depending on which side of the war one occupies. Personally, I was always thankful to Daniel Ellsberg, and I suspect I will remember the Wikileakers fondly as well.