Archive for the Afghanistan Category

Modern Military Atrocity: The Case of Sgt. Bales

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, U.S. military manpower, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The alleged rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales in an Afghan village that ended with 17 dead Afghan civilians has caught the public attention because the acts atrributed to the 38-year-old father of two were so brutal, ghastly, and repulsive. They are a textbook case of war crimes–more specifically crimes against humanity–and are, as such reprehensible and intolerable. Whether Sgt. Bales is the perpetrator (which seems fairly well established) and whether there are special mitigating circumstances such as mental condition are properly the province of the military court that will try him, and there is no intent here to prejudge or predict the outcomes of that process. There is, however, reason to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred, at least partly to try to be sure it does not recur.

Let me begin with what may be a controversial proposition: the massacre in which Sgt. Bales allegedly engaged is probably not as unusual as some would have it. I operate on the assumption that such incidents, while not common, probably occur in most conflicts. In some cases, they become known in more or less detail–the My Lai incident in Vietnam, Wounded Knee during the western Indian wars, and the Bataan death march, for instances, are all examples, and I suspect that virtually all wars of any duration produce such incidents. This dores not condone them; it simply acknowledges that nasty things happen from time to time in war. What distinguishes the current episode is how quickly, how widely, and in what detail its has become known. The question is whether episodes like this one, including the publicity it engenders, are simply a part of modern warfare. For essentially three reasons, I think the answer is yes!

I present these factors in no particular order of importance. The first is the impact of the electronic revolution, and more specifically, the loss of private behavior that is a consequence of the electronic revolution in communications. Unlike previous periods of time, there is essentially no private behavior in public places any longer: somebody is going to see, record, and transmit accounts of any bad behavior in which essentially anyone engages–or at least anyone engaging in or contemplating untoward behavior has to assume that is the case. This realization has multiple implications for a wide variety of formerly private behaviors, but in war, it means that anything one does may well–probably will–become public. Since war is about violence often committed in highly emotional situations, one must assume that stress-caused actions, some of which are not glorious or praiseworthy, are going to be recorded somewhere by someone. That is just a fact of the modern world, and all soldiers need to be drilled very thoroughly in that reality, if they are not already. This phenomenon is neither good nor bad, although it can be both in different circumstances. But one cannot deny that it exists. In some earlier, unmediated times, the Afghan incident might have gone unreported and blame unassigned. No longer!

Second, the nature of modern warfare may make incidents like what happened in Afghanistan more likely than before. Modern war, particularly the kinds in which the United States has engaged in the past half-century, has two salient characteristics that reinforce the point. The first is that these wars are asymmetrical. This means, among other things, that the enemy does not fight under established rules of warfare. often does not wear uniforms that distinguish it from the general population and often uses youths as fighters, for instance, and this means that the American soldier entering hostile territory does not necessarily know whether he is among friends or foes. This knowledge has to be enormously stressful for the individual soldier, and probably inevitably, some will snap. The fact that most wars are in developing world countries where American forces are physically distinctive, are sometimes viewed as unwelcome intruders, and where the interests being served may be ambiguous makes dealing with these kinds of war zones even more difficult. It is frightening enough when one faces a hostile but distinguishable army; it is an additional source of difficulty when trying to attain abstract goals in a very foreign and hostile environment.

Third, an possibly most controversially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fairly clearly demonstrated the limits of the all-volunteer force (AVF) concept. The problem of such forces, of courses, is that they will inevitably be comparatively small and expensive, and they cannot easily be expanded except by recourse to outside contractors who are simultaneously more expensive and less reliable (certainly less controllable). the current force was not built for all-out employment over a decade of continuous employment–no military force is. Because ut cannot easily be expanded (more people won’t volunteer), the only way to handle the burden is to recycle the existing force through multiple deployments in the kinds of hostile, stressful environments described above.  Sgt. Bales, after all, was in his fourth deployment when he allegedly attacked the Afghan village, and his history is not unusual. There are physical and, we are increasingly learning, psychological limits to the amount of combat stress that humans reasonably can be expected to endure. 

These three factors are neither a full explanation of the Afghan incident nor do they offer an ecuse for its occurrence or Sgt. Bales’ alleged role. Rather, they are some of the factors that affect modern warfare and which will, almost inevitably, lead to future instances that are not dissimilar to that in Afghanistan this time. None of them is easily solvable, if they can be solved at all. The genie is out of the bottle in the electronic revolution, and it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that vivid reportage of atrocities like this one does not appear is to insure the instances don’t happen in the first place. The nature of modern war, however, virtually ensures that people will come under stress and behave badly in the future and that whatever they do will become publicly available for all to see. The overuse of an overextended military probably in turn makes the likelihood of regrettable behavior all the more probable. Until someone can devise a way to keep the chain of factors from being engaged, one can, regrettably, only expect more of the same. 

Do any of these factors exonerate Sgt. Robert Bales. That is a judgment for others to make based on the real evidence in this trial. What it does suggest, however, is that Sgt. Bales or whoever killed those 17 innocent civilians was subject to forces that he or they probably did not recognize or understand and that, moreover, this is not the last time it will happen.

Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.

The Rising Cost of Stupidity and Brutality

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.

The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.

The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.

This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.

This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.

The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.

Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed. 

These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.

The Pakistani Traitor and the CIA: A Strange Parable

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, Pakistan, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The government of Pakistan is currently holding in custody Dr. Shakeel Afridi, a physician accused of treason, and is threatening to try and execute him. The action for which the treason is alleged is the assistance that Dr. Afridi provided to the CIA in its successful efforts to locate, target, and assassinate Usama bin Laden, who was hiding, more or less openly, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.

The pretext on which Dr. Afridi was operating was what the Los Angeles Times, among other sources, labeled a “phony vaccination campaign” that had the apparent purpose of innoculating Pakistanis against various diseases but which was more focused on obtaining a DNA sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. Dr. Afridi was the physician who was conducting these vaccinations as a ruse and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of bin Laden. As such, he was clearly acting as the agent of a foreign intelligence agency (the CIA), which constitutes espionage but not necessarily treason, particularly as alleged by the government of Pakistan. Definitions of treason–and more specifically high treason–which the Pakistani government specifies against Dr. Afridi, normally includes “betrayal” of one’s own country and consciously working with the government’s enemies to harm or overthrow the government. Working for the CIA could be considered betrayal of the country if one assumes that the United States is the enemy of Pakistan; it is hard to understand how this allegation can be leveled against someone working for an ally of Pakistan, which the United States presumably is supposed to be. Moreover, it is hard to make the intellectual leap to this collusion and some action intended to harm or overthrow the government of Pakistan, unless bin Laden is somehow an important part of that government, which he was not. Something, as the old saying goes, is rotten in Denmark.

The case of the vaccimation doctor is, in fact, a parable, and yes, a strange one, of U.S.-Pakistani relations generally. The United States and Pakistan are allegedly partners, have even been formal allies, and are supposedly united in the common quest to act in unison against terrorists and those who would destabilize and overthrow Afghanisan’s regime. Yet the Pakistani government treats the United States virtually as an enemy when it comes to the execution of actions designed to carry out their joint mission, such as assassinating bin Laden.

There are, of course, good reasons for the apparent anomaly represented by this situation that act as a parable for the future of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. One can accept the idea that Dr. Afridi did in fact violate Pakistani laws in working for the CIA and that Pakistan has a right to try and punish transgressors. It is also true that the harshness of the charges and possible consequences of a trial for treason are harsh, arguably excessive, and that they will further alienate a U.S. government that has been less than delighted with Pakistani attitudes about the bin Laden operation all along. Try to find someone in the U.S. government, for instance, who believes nobody in the Pak government knew absolutely anything about where bin Laden was hiding “in plain sight” in the home of Pakistan’s military service academy. You won’t find many takers.

Presumably, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Servcie Intelligence (ISI) is up to its neck in all this. ISI acts as a lone ranger in carrying out what it believes to be Pakistan’s best interests, and these often conflict with those of the United States. ISI created the Taliban, after all, and is not going to abandon them, since it believes they are a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. ISI is also up to its ears in terrorism, including the training and dispatch of Kashmiri “freedome fighters” and others in the badlands provinces of Pakistan (NW Province, FATA, etc.) along the Afghan border. Their self-perceived interests and hose of the United States could scarcely be farther apart, and that is not a condition likely to change anytime soon.

The upshot is that the United States and Pakistan are at effective odds on a range of mutual interests that their papered over comity cannot hide. Pakistanis complain consistently about US intrusion in their country through missions against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by American drones and the like. The Pakistanis complain these are violations of Pakistani sovereignty, which they are, but mostly it is posturing for the purpose of impressing anti-American sentiment against Americans. Americans, for their part, wonder why the United States continues to funnel assistance to a regime and people who not only do not like us much, but who also oppose our objectives in the region. There are no simple and compelling answers to that dilemma.

The parable becomes more and more relevant as the United States moves inexorably toward disengagement in Afghanistan. What the United States and Pakistan see as the future of a post-American Afghanistan are not, to put it mildly, identical. Pakistan wants a weak, pro-Pakistani government in Kabul, one that will pose no threat to Islamabad, and this means a government that is also anti-Indian. The Indians, unsurprisingly, want and are working toward the opposite outcome: a pro-Indian, anti-Pakistani Afghanistan that will help in the encirclement of Pakistan. The Paks thus want a postwar Afghanistan where the Pashtuns–and especially those with some affiliation with the Taliban–are well placed, whereas the Indians prefer that power effectively reside with non-Pashtuns. The United States wants a stable postwar Afghanistan that is resistant to terrorist reimposition, thereby reinforcing the notion the U.S. has actually accomplished something positive in the country. What the Afghans want is largely beside the point.

As the American involvement starts to wind down in Afghanistan and the players begin to jostle for position, the contradictions in what the outsiders want in Afghanistan will become more apparent, and one prominent aspect of that posturing that will be a victim is the fiction that the United States and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on these matters. Just ask Dr. Afridi, if you can find the prison cell in which he is apparently being held largely incognito by our allies.

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.

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?