Archive for the Afghanistan and Election Category

Winding Down in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by whatafteriraq

With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.

The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.

Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).

Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.

Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.

These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.

General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.

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Afghanistan: An Intermestic Moment

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , on June 26, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s long anticipated announcement of a schedule for removing American fighting forces in Afghanistan last week elicited the familiar and predictable howls that seem to follow anything that this chief executive does. Some thought he proposed too much, some not enough, and hardly anybody thought he had it just right. What’s new?

The president’s action and reaction to it almost perfectly exemplified what some political scientists (including this one) refer to as “intermestic policy.” The term refers to policy issues that have both an INTERnational and a domESTIC component, hence the name. Most foreign policies have some intermestic aspect to them: there is hardly any issue in the foreign policy realm that does not have some domestic impact, and vice versa. The impact is that it reduces the boundary between foreign and domestic politics, a boundary that used to be sancrosanct. An old saw has it that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” the implication being that purely political concerns should not extend into America’s relations with other countries, toward whom it is only right and patriotic to maintain a common face.

In today’s environment where absolutely everything is political and highly partisan (what Pat Haney and I refer to as “hyper-partisanship in our new foreign policy text), the boudary represented by the water’s edge has been swamped; it is literally under water itself. In the most prominent issue areas with an intermestic cast, the domestic and international elements of policy intermix, confuse one another, and make sensible policy more difficult to maintain. The United States policy toward the war in Afghanistan is a classic example of this phenomenon run amok.

Look at the war through the dual lenses of international and domestic politics. The international (foreign policy) concern is with the effect of various endings of the war on the international environment and America’s place in it. Clearly, the major concern is the status of a post-war Afghanistan in relation to international religious terrorism, most obviously associated with Al Qaeda. There are two basic arguments to be made about this aspect. One is that without a “victory” in Afghanistan, the country will likely revert to being a haven for terrorists (as it was during the latter 1990s), meaning that continuing the war until a satisfactory outcome is achieved (and however that is measured) is vital. From that vantage point, and given the assessment of the situation on the ground (we are not yet winning), the president’s decision is premature and damaging to efforts to reach a satisfactory ending, and thus the withdrawal is too much. The other side is that the outcome is excessive to the cost, that it is unlikely to be achieved by outside military force and that, since the successful decapitation of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not worth the effort because the threat has been sufficiently reduced to allow a successful effort with far fewer forces. From this vantage point, the withdrawal is not nearly enough.

The domestic side has two different aspects that are not necessarily connected intimately to the international dimension. One is that public opinion has turned decisively against the war, with those who want out altogether becoming a progressively larger part of majority which dislikes the war. Clearly this majority thinks the president did not go far enough. Among those who support the war, most wrap themselves tightly in the flag and argue that to do anything but continue would dishonor those who have sacrificed (an honor presumably served by sacrificing more Americans). The other argument is economic: at a little over $100 billion a year (and I personally suspect that is a “low ball” estimate), the United States simply cannot afford to continue the war. This justification has little to do directly with the international worth of the effort, and more to do with deficit reduction.

When one stacks up the pro and con arguments, the negative arguments are most strongly represented in domestic concerns–and especially the affordability argument in the current economy–whereas the more muted arguments in favor of staying in tend to be more international, associated with the military’s reluctance to abandon an enterprise in which they are heavily invested. The “inter” and the “mestic” thus come into conflict and, most tellingly, result in a debate where one side simply does not address the other. Those who want the U.S. to leave on economic grounds make an after-the-fact defense of the lack of need to continue, but they don’t really address systematically nor refute those who maintain our interests will be weakened if we do. Similarly, those who believe we should stay admit the war is expensive but that the outcome overrides the negative economic impact. Neither side refutes the other position convincingly.

President Obama is caught in the middle of this. As president, he is both chief executive in all the domestic senses of that term and commander-in-chief, with overriding foreign policy responsibilities. He (like any president) can avoid neither the “inter” or the “mestic,” and thus ends up sitting on the fence. Critics–on both sides–generally have the luxury of avoiding these distinctions, since they bear no direct responsibility for outcomes. The view may be better from the top of the fence, which is higher than the ground below, but it also makes whoever sits there a better target for the shoes hurled whenever the incumbent opines from the fence top.

There is nothing that can be done to remove the intermestic element from foreign policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and the system simply needs to find a better way to conduct its foreign policy when it knows that whatever it does will affect American citizens directly and thus become political, because some will benefit and others will not in any circumstance. The grease that could make that process smoother and ultimately more productive is a less partisan, super-charged political atmosphere, one that is less hyper-partisan. No one should hold their breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Goldilocks and Afghanistan: How Big a Withdrawal?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s stated promise to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, a commitment he made when he committed 30,000 additional troops to the war early in his presidency, is coming near. The major question is how large a withdrawal he will order, and what the consequences of whatever size drawdown he chooses, will be. He is, of course, suffering from no shortage of advice on what his decision should be, much of it tinged liberally with partisan political and iedological/strategic underpinnings. When one thinks about the prospects, an analogy between the situation and Goldilocks assessment of the three bears’ porridge may not be inappropriate.

What to do about Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly in this era of foreign policy hyper-partisanship, become a political fight that divides those who support continuing the war and those who do not (the latter being the preference of the majority of Americans in polling results). The arguments against the war–and thus for a large withdrawal that is the first step toward a total pullout (at least of ground combat forces)–tend to come from liberal Democrats, although parts of their arguments appeal more broadly. Supporters of the war and thus opponents of any substantial troop withdrawal tend to be conservative Republicans who believe either that the mission is too vital to be abandoned or compromised or who believe there has been adequate progress that a successful conclusion may be within reach. 

The two positions deserve at least some elaboration. The opponents, whose chief spokesman increasingly is Massachusetts senator John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic nominee for president in 2004), make at least three separate arguments for pulling back. The first is that the United States cannot afford to continue to drop $10 billion a month into Afghanistan given current economic conditions at home. The expenses are particularly odious because they are inflated by the costs of “nation-building” associated with the Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, a cost that could be reduced with a smaller commitment with smaller troop numbers. Second, they argue the situation can be handled with a more concentrated effort aimed at the remnants of Al Qaeda, which requires neither large numbers of “muddy boots” on the ground nor the levels of financial resources currently being expended. Third, the scaling back is further justified by the successful elimination of Usama bin Laden (and subsequently his heir apparent), leaving the terrorist organization is some level of disarray. Not so openly discussed are the further assumptions that the war is probably unwinnable under any circumstances and that the Karzai government does not really warrant continuing American support (part of the reason the war is unwinnable).

Supporters, of course, disagree with this assessment. Their arguments are most sharply made by active participants in the war itself, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus. Both of these officials have argued that progress has been made but that it is, in a phrase first used by Petraeus but adopted by Gates, “fragile and reversible.” The heart of the argument is that real progress is being made and that a precipitous drawdown would endanger what has been accomplished. In Gates’ own words, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away kust as the enemy is on its back foot.” In an interview with 60 Minutes, Gates drew a football analogy, warning against abandoning the field when the U.S. was on the enemy’s “two-yard line.” Critics, of course, find these descriptions of progress to be overblown.

It may be instructive that neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their positions as the decision, whatever it may be, is being implemented. Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), has already been nominated to replace Gates as Secretary of Defense, and when questioned by senators (notably John McCain) about whether he agreed with the Gates assessment in confirmation hearings, he was noticeably circumspect in his answers. Petraeus has been tapped to replace Panetta to head an agency that has historically had a more jaundiced view of the Afghan adventure; his appointment also takes the general off the hook as the commander of what may be a sinking ship.

So what will the president decide? As usual in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington, it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” set of choices. He cannot avoid withdrawals altogether, because to do so would be politically too injurious, reneging on a public promise and alienating his natural constituent base on the left. He cannot order a massive withdrawal, because doing do runs the risk of the entire enterprise going south before the 2012 election, and certainly inflaming the core of the GOP right. That leaves him with options inside the extremes, ranging from a token to a moderate to a sizable reduction. So what will the President choose to do?

The pressures are both strategic and political. Strategically, it boils down to a dichotomy that favors the extremes. If the war is important, progress is being made, and a favorable outcome is within reach (essentially the Gates argument), then it makes sense to continue and thus order only a token reduction (say 10,000 of the 30,000 added previously by Obama). If who governs Afghanistan is not important to the U.S., progress is not really being made, and the prospects are endlessly indecisive, then it makes equal sense to cut our losses and get out as fast as possible. Thus, a maximum withdrawal is the answer. The problem is that there is not great agreement on any of the conditions (importance, progress, end state), making a decisive strategic decision difficult to make.

The political pressures all point to the 2012 election. What decision will most help/least hurt the president’s reelection prospects? Since almost no one publicly argues the war will be over (especially favorably) between now and then, the question is what action today will have the least injurious effects on the election then? Since we cannot ramp up an instant victory, that means adopting an approach that will result in the smallest possible losses and, most critically, that insures the situation will not have visibly deteriorated between now and election day 2012. That suggests a moderate withdrawal–enough not to look entirely like a token, but not enough to throw the situation into peril. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. How does a reduction of 15-20,000 sound?

Afghan Withdrawal by 2014

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, U.S. defense budget, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 21, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The NATO summit occurred this past week in Lisbon, and the major news that came out of it was that NATO ministers agreed to continue the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the technical name of the mission there). According to the comminique at the end of the meeting, the focus of the agreement was to continue the commitment of declining numbers (unspecified) into 2014, when all combat tasks will have been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), leaving only a residue of NATO noncombatants (including American troops) behind. In other words, an Iraq-style drawdown and post-combat situation whre the U.S. is out but not out simultaneously.

This settlement, as it is chewed upon, regurgitated, and swallowed, is likely to please nobody, most of all the Afghans themselves (the Taliban has already called the decision “irrational”). People (myself included) who believe the active involvement of the United States should end much faster, are going to maintain that leaving NATO forces on the front lines will accomplish little substantively and simply represent greater human and material sacrifice for the troops and the Afghans themselves while not materially improving the prospects for the post-war peace. If one believes the war is unwinnable, as I do, three or more years of combat is a tragic waste. The NATO conferees anticipated this reaction (which will be more pronounced in other NATO countries than in the U.S.) and offered the bone that “if circumstances agree, it (withdrawal of combat troops) could be sooner.” How about tomorrow?

Critics on the other end of the spectrum will also be unhappy because of the simple fact of establishing any kind of deadline. Their consistent refrain about such deadlines (in Iraq, for instance) is that they simply encourage the opponent to wait out whatever the deadline is, wait for us to leave, then seize the moment. In their minds, setting a deadline is little more than a deferred form of surrender. 2014 is sufficiently far enough away so this objection will not be loudly raised at this point, but as the date grows nearer, it will. This criticism, of course, is only valid if one accepts the proposition that the war is in fact winnable in some sense, if one is perseverant enough to pursue it long enough. We are, after all, still hearing this argument about Vietnam, which has been over for 35 years.

The designation of 2014 also must be viewed through the lens of 2012–the next presidential year. It is a curious choice that, like so many the Obama administration has made recently, appeals neither to his core constituency or probably to the independent middle. Obama supporters on the left are pretty uniformly disappointed in Obama’s Afghan policy and want out now. The “shallow” withdrawals that NATO describes for 2011 are going to make them unhappier than they already are. It will not drive them into the arms of the Tea/GOP candidate, who is likely to adopt a “stay the course” position on Afghanistan, but it could make them less enthusiastic supporters of the campaign or even, at worst, cause them to sit out the election. The date is also unlikely to win any support from the right, which opposes any specification of withdrawal dates and would not vote for Obama if he promised to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years.

That leaves the swing vote in the middle. They voted for Obama in 2008 and against him in 2010. Nobody seems to want to court them very badly. They are almost certainly going to be repelled by the Libertarian nut jobs the Tea Party has foisted upon the Congress, and they are generally less than enthusiastic about the deficits the administration is running up–part of which, of course, are powered by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Which way they go in 2012 will determine who enters or stays in the Oval Office in 2013. The shape of the economy (and especially the unemployment rate) will likely determine who they vote for, but Afghanistan will play a part as well, on two grounds. First, budget cutting/balancing is going to be a major part of the 2012 campaign, and by then, the public may well have figured out that anything like a balanced budget is impossible without a major defense contribution. But where does that contribution come from? Since Americans also overwhelmingly say they favor a robust defense, they will not support major cuts in ongoing defense expenditures. If that is true, where can one look for cuts? Afghanistan virtually jumps off the page of candidates. Second, if the war continues to go poorly (as it likely will), the middle may decide overwhelmingly that they want it to end. Would Obama buck such sentiment?

The most hopeful interpretation of the 2014 deadline is that those who chose it did so because they know they are going to exceed it. The Afghans fairly clearly do not want us around for three more years, and most of the NATO allies join American public opinion in that assessment. A 2014 withdrawal date is dismal news–the worst case–and if we can exceed that expectation and bring the troops home sooner, wouldn’t that be grand? And wouldn’t we be grateful when we enter the voting place (assuming much of this happens before November 2012)? Does this all sound kind of cynical? Yes it does, but given the mess we are in right now, any shard of hope is to be grasped.

Baghdad Bombings and Afghan Peace

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There is a curious peace process going on in Kabul. It is curious partly because it is so low key and private. Of course, diplomatic processes are supposed to be held behind the curtain, so that the participants can negotiate freely and reach compromise outcomes that could look like, and be exploited by, opponents as defeats if one knew negotiating postures in advance. While that is actually a sign of the health of the process, it is still curious in an electronic age where secrets of any kind are increasingly impossible to keep. Hopefully someone involved will tell the rest of us how they did it after the process is over–at least unless the process included draconian mutilations of attempted leakers.

Another source of curiosity is the American role. When the talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban began, the American role providing security for and ferrying Taliban negotiators to Kabul was widely publicized for a couple days, but since, there has been not a word about that continuing role–and it certainly does continue. What is interesting about this aspect of the process is that the Taliban actually trusts the United States to act in that capacity. What is more interesting is what this willingness says about the United States and its attitude. What it says to me is that the United States desperately wants to find a way out of Afghanistan and will do virtually anything short of a unilateral withdrawal to find a way out.

A third source of curiosity is exactly what role outsiders are playing in whatever talks are ongoing. The American role is especially veiled: what outcomes does the United States want? What is it willing to accept short of what it wants? And what leverage does it have to move the process toward what it wants out?

One can offer tentative answers to these questions. The answer to the first (what do we want?) is that the United States wants out, but in a way that we can plausibly argue victory (at least in some vague way) or, more minimally, the absence of defeat. That translates into a post-agreement Afghanistan that is non-Taliban and has a strong, stable government. This latter requirement is almost certainly unattainable (Afghanistan never has a strong stable government, and there is really no party that can lead a plausible attempt to create one). That leads to the second question (what, short of our preferred outcome, will we accept?).

The answer to that question is crucial, and it depends on two calculations. The first is domestic in the United States. Like it or not, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign for 2012 is in full motion, and the critical Afghanistan question it faces is, what about Afghanistan will do the president the most good (or create the least harm)? The answer again seems two-fold. By a healthy majority, the American people want out of Afghanistan, an outcome with the secondary benefit of possibly saving money and thus appearing fiscally responsible. Thus, getting us out or well on our way out before 2012 makes political sense. However, there is a second part of the answer: to make the political right, who believe Afghanistan is a righteous cause, the withdrawal has to look like it is done on American terms: there must be an appearance of victory/lack of defeat. An outcome that does this will not gain the support of the right for Obama, but it will make their opposition less convincing and maybe even less shrill (picture Mama Grizzly here). The other consideration is what the parties themselves will accept. It is gradually being recognized (and I suspect we will find later is the real joint interest that created the possibility of talks) that what virtually all Afghans want is for the Americans and their allies to be gone: Karzai so we will quit hectoring him about honest government, the Taliban so we will stop shooting them. If that is the case, they have reason to accede in a peace process wherein the Americans can declare “mission accomplished” and depart.

This brings us to the Baghdad bombings. In the past week or so, what had been passing for tranquility in Baghdad has been shattered by a string of bombings by dissatisfied Iraqis. The process that has just been described for Afghanistan is indeed essentially what happened in Iraq for the past couple years, and what is now going on in Baghdad is its net result. The Americans came, stayed, and seemed intent on staying indefinitely. Faced with that distasteful prospects, the Iraqi factions came together and negotiated enough of a peace agreement to make it look enough like peace had broken out so the Americans, anxious to go, could conclude an arguably accomplished mission, and withdraw combat forces.

Everybody who knew anything about Iraq knew the peace would not hold, and the bombings are just the tip of the iceberg of lingering Iraqi instability. Peace has not taken hold in Iraq, and it will not for a while–but with a difference. The United States retains a physical presence, but we have withdrawn in a psychological, political sense. Nothing likely to happen in Iraq will affect the 2012 election. In answer to the third question about Afghanistan (what is American leverage?), the answer is close to zero, and no amount of proposed American postwar assistance (which we will probably welsh on anyway) will affect that much.

Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan? Almost certainly. The peace process will, in due time, produce what both sides and the United States can agree is an honorable, stable peace. No one involved will really believe that, but it is a necessary kabuki dance to a) get rid of the Americans and b) remove Afghanistan from the 2012 election campaign. Will the peace hold? The answer is about as well as it has done in Iraq, but like Iraq, if we have managed to establish a psycho-political distance from Afghanistan, who cares?

Afghanistan and the Election

Posted in Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War with tags , , , on October 31, 2010 by whatafteriraq

David Wood’s Politics Daily column today is worthy of the Halloween day 2010 in which it was published: a scary tale. In the column, Wood points out that among all the “issues” (such as they are) being debated in this off-year campaign, one is conspicuously missing: the war in Afghanistan. Despite public opinion polls that show a solid majority of Americans oppose continuing the contest and the fairly obvious lack of military progress against the Taliban, what to do about American presence in the mountainous Asian country long the grave yard of invaders does not seem to be an electoral matter at all.

Why not? At one level, it reflects simple political reality in this country. Americans may quietly oppose the war, but giving voice to that opposition is politically explosive, especially from the political right. If one supports ending the war, that person risks the wrath of the John McCain conservative wing of the GOP, which will scream appeasement, “cut-and-run,” and other incendiary epithets intended to raise serious questions about the opponent’s loyalty and patriotism–whether such criticism is justified or not. If one supports the war, libertarians likes the Pauls join hands with progressive Democrats to offer equally scathing invective about the futility of the war or minding our own business. A Democrat (Obama) can oppose the war, satisfy the party base, and be labeled a leftist pinko soft of terrorism. If the same Obama supports the war, the base is alienated and does not turn out on Tuesday. These are two losing hands to be dealt, and the politically prudent response has been to quietly fold, hope for the best in the nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and continue a status quo that pleases no one but also does not create much electoral rancor, as the current apathy demonstrates.

This division as the basis for apathy is a kind of insider Washington basis and evades the more basic possible cause for voter indifference, and that is the detachment the American people have toward the war (which is the real gist of the Wood piece).

The simple fact is that Afghanistan is NOT the American people’s war. It is, in the increasingly bitter language of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (as quoted in the article), “a distinctly unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them (the public) personally.” And he is right. As Wood points out, less than one percent of Americans agree to do military service, and since no American has been compelled into involuntary military service since 1972 (when the selective service system of conscription was allowed to lapse), that means that over 99 percent of the public never faces the prospect of being forced to come to grips with the question of whether participation in that war is worth their personal prospect of possible death in the name of the cause. Moreover, Wood asserts that less than 12 members of Congress currently have children in the military, meaning they do not have to face the prospect that their support may entail sending their own progeny to their deaths on Rudyard Kipling’s “Afghan plain.”

Would the issue be more salient if Americans had the ultimate prospect of service in Afghanistan hanging over their heads? If the Vietnam memory has any salience, those most vulnerable to induction certainly would express an opinion: 18-24 year-old males were the only demographic category that opposedVietnam consistently during the war. College campuses were, of course, the hot bed of that opposition, and weekly anti-Vietnam rallies were an ongoing part of campus existence. Try to find or organize an anti-Afghanistan rally on a campus today, and the response will be massive numbers of stifled yawns. The students who provided the involuntary cannon fodder of previous wars know they are in no danger of being used in that role. So who cares?

This situation is, in my view, appalling. As argued consistently in this space, there are abundant good reasons for the United States to get out of Afghanistan. The lack of any realistic prospect of success and the killer economic burden of the war are the two most obvious, but neither of these have sufficient resonance politically to cause us to change course. Why? On one hand, the smallest imputation of opposition raises a bevy of self-styled patriots who will call the opponent every right-wing name in the book. On the other, the natural opposition–those who might be forced involuntarily to carry out the continuing madness–know they won’t be forced to make any sacrifice in the name of the cause.

Is there a way out of this? Possibly the Afghans, sick to death as they all seem to be with their American guests who are incapable of realizing they have overstayed their welcome, will agree to enough of a peace agreement to give the administration a graceful excuse to exit. The other possibility is American opinion rising in opposition. For that to happen, some means of personalizing the war must be found. The most obvious candidate is reviving the draft, but if one thinks opposing the war causes a political firestorm, trying grabbing the conscription tiger by the tail and see what happens.

The voters will speak on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they will have nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan. What a shame.

The Afghan Peace Process

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There was encouraging news out of Afghanistan this week–for a change. That news was that the Karzai government in Kabul and the Taliban leadership (which part or parts unspecified) have entered into preliminary discussions about meeting face-to-face to pursue a peace settlement to their civil war, in which the United States insinuated itself in 2001 and out of which it seems unable to extricate itself. After a midweek flurry of coverage in which the initial sticking point seemed to be finding a place to talk where the Taliban would feel safe from capture and bland U.S. assurances that the idea of Afghans talking to one another was okay with us, the discussions have gone appropriately subterranean. Now we wait and see.

This initiative may not go anywhere, but it does symbolize the kind of process that will probably eventually lead to a meaningful attempt to bring what passes for peace to Afghanistan. A process involving the internal parties but without a visible, overshadowing outsider (i.e. American) role is clearly preferable to one in which the U.S. is clearly prominent. For one thing, it can resemble the classic, loya jirga methodology by which warring Afghan tribal factions normally conduct their business, including cessation of warfare among them that is such a recurring part of Afghan history. Second, it is an Afghan process that is more likely to produce an outcome with which the Afghans themselves feel comfortable than one that the Americans “impose.” Third, if the United States does not like the outcome enough, we do not have to embrace it. Fourth and most importantly, an Afghan-negotiated peace represents the cleanest way for the United States publicly to wash its hands of the entire situation–arguing that we have done our job and that the rest is up to the Afghans itself. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of the United States–extrication from a situation in which there is no reasonable hope the U.S. can plausibly achieve anything that resembles “victory.” This is Afghanistanization in practice, the legacy of Vietnamization and Iraqification.

What might an agreement acceptable to all (or at least most of the primary) Afghan actors look like. It must have two bottom lines: the Karzai government in Kabul must remain at least officially in power (although probably part of some power-sharing regime with the Taliban) and with the non-Pashtun areas of the country not under Taliban control–the status quo from a government vantage point. It must also leave the Taliban in effective control of the rural Pashtun regions (those dominated by the Ghilzai Pashtuns who are its base) and along the border with Pakistan, to hasten a retreat if peace breaks down (always a possibility in Afghanistan). In addition, the Taliban will require some symbols of power, such as more than token representation in the Karzai cabinet. Brokering exactly what that might mean (which cabinet portfolios the Taliban gets) will prove to be tortuous, as the ongoing Iraqi situation is testimony. Also, no agreement is probably possible (at least not from a Taliban perspective) if it does not include for a rapid removal of NATO/American combat forces from the country.

This latter part of the equation is the tricky part, because, as we are already beginning to see in Iraq, American influence wanes directly in proportion to the reduction of American forces in the country. As in Iraq, the United States would always retain the formal ability to reassert itself, but everyone will know that once the Americans pull out, there is no way politically to send them back.

This presents the United States with its greatest risk in this process. The United States can live with a power-sharing political outcome in Afghanistan, IF it includes a provision that the new regime will not allow for an Al Qaeda return to an Afghan safe haven. Such an agreement will almost certainly be part of any peace outcome: the Karzai government certainly does not embrace Usama bin Laden and his supporters, and the Taliban is likely to abandon their Pashtunwali commitment of hospitality to Al Qaeda in return for getting rid of the Americans. The question is whether the new Afghan regime will–or be able to–live up to such a pledge. It is an imponderable, and a chance the Americans will have to take.

Will such an outcome guarantee peace and stability in Afghanistan? Of course not. For one thing, such an outcome would necessitate a strong central regime in Afghanistan, and that almost never happens in that country. The outcome will have to be a reversion to basic tribal autonomy, and such outcomes have never resulted in long-term stability. Afghanistan is simply not a very peaceful place, and that is unlikely to change. For another, it must be apparent to all concerned that the current situation is a stalemate unlikely to be resolved decisively in one direction or another and that the alternatives are indecisive war without end or at least a peace respite. Better something than nothing.

From an American (and especially administration) viewpoint, the outbreak of a peace process is a rare window of opportunity to get ourselves out of this mess in  a way parallel in structure (if hopefully not in ultimate outcome) to getting out of Vietnam and Iraq. The appearance of peace and a settlement where the interests we have backed at least have a plausible chance at success (if not a guarantee) was the kind of atmosphere in which we got out of Southeast Asia and Iraq, and it is also the best environment we can hope for here.

I personally hope the Obama administration has realized all this and has been working hard and successfully to bring about the peace process the tip of the iceberg of which we saw last week. It is no revelation that the elections in two weeks are not going to go well for Mr. Obama, that the 2012 presidential election campaign will kick off no later than the second week of November of this year, and that the administration needs a triumph and issue to energize a skittish base. Moreover, the federal deficit would certainly benefit from an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Republicans would, of course, howl about the dire consequences of getting out, but they are not going to vote for Obama regardless of what he does there. Beginning an accelerating process of extrication from the morass in Afghanistan could be just what the doctor ordered.