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Libya Is Europe’s Job

Posted in Libya, Middle East Conflict, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As conditions continue to deteriorate in Libya and the prospect of a bloody, protracted internecine conflict looms greater everyday, the question of outside assistance to end the conflict and to end the rule of Muammar Qadhafi increasingly enters the conversation. Inevitably, the possibility of the United States taking a lead role in whatever response the international community conjures is among the potential solutions. Thrusting the United States into a leadership role would be a mistake. Doing something about the unfolding tragedy in Libya is Europe’s job. The United States may be a part of the effort, but in a supportive, not a lead role.

Why should Europe lead? In mulling the situation from afar, I can think of four very obvious answers, although there may well be more: Europe is closer, it has historic ties to Libya, the beneficiaries of Libyan oil are mostly European, and any refugees who cannot be absorbed by Egypt or Tunisia are going to head for Europe. Let’s examine each of these for a moment.

The first point is proximity. Sicily and the toe of the the Italian boot are only several hundred miles from Libya. This means, for instance, that if the international community (in this case, effectively NATO) decides to do something militarily about Libya, Italy and Spain are logical launching points, especially for air strikes that are likely the first (and possibly only) form that direct intervention will take: non-American NATO forces can do that job much better than U.S. carrier-based aircraft. So let them!

Proximity is more than geography. Libya is economically tied to Europe much more closely than it is to the United States. Italy receives more Libyan exports than any other country (approximately 38 percent of Libyan exports are to Italy), and Libya’s other top five trading partners are, according to CIA Factbook figures, Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland; the United States finishes a distant sixth in receiving exports from Libya. The pattern of Libyan imports is similar, headed by Italy and Germany, in that order. The U.S. has no personal economic stake in Libya.

Second, Libya and Europe share history not shared with the United States. Other than a line from the Marine Corps hymn (“to the shores of Tripoli”) associated with the Barbary pirates during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, all lines tie Libya to Europe. Notably, Italy occupied the country from 1912 until World War II, and France and Great Britain shared mandatory responsibility after WW II. Presumably these experiences give Europeans a sense of understanding of Libya that we lack (although ignorance has rarely stopped us from bumbling into situations aboyut which we have no clue, e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan).

Third, about all that is important about Libya is its oil, and the United States doesn’t get hardly any of it. Petroleum IS the Libyan economy: 95 percent of its export income comes from oil, as does 25 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of government revenues (2009 estimates from the CIA). As import/export figures indicate, the oil goes to Europe; this suggests who should be primarily worried about it.

Fourth, there is the question of refugees. The flow has already begun, but is mostly foreigners (especially Egyptian) petroleum industry workers fleeing the war. If the conflict drags on and/or if there are increasing recriminations, that flow will almost certainly increase and include Libyans, and there is no indication that either neighboring Egypt or Tunisia can or will absorb them. If not, where will they go? You guessed it: Europe, and especially Italy, which is no longer a small craft voyage away from north Africa than, say, south Florida is from Haiti. These refugees cannot get to the United States unless we invite and transport them, which we almost certain will not do. The only wayto avoid the flood is for a reasonably quick resolution that includes the overthrow of Qadhafi. It is not hard to determine whose interests are particularly served by a quick resolution.

There are also good reasons for the United States NOT to take the lead. The most obvious is overcommitment. The United States is, after all, already mired in two Middle Eastern wars that are sapping American military and economic resources. Do we need a third war? Granted, intervention meets the recent criteria for such involvement: instability in a country where we lack either knowledge or understanding, but the negatives are overwhelming. Even the most feckless, clueless chicken hawks can hardly drag out the tried-and-proven “soft on national security” argument here; the United States does not have a sufficient dog in this hunt to even imagine sticking out military nose in the middle of this one. Europeans arguably do.

There is yet another reason for us to stay in the background that is seldom mentioned, probably because it is a bit embarassing. In recent days, as the Libyan armed forces have stepped up attacks on civilians, there have been increasing calls to capture and try Col. Qadhafi as a war criminal, presumably before the International Criminal Court (ICC or War Crimes Court). Great idea, and almost certainly justified, but if the international community is going to do so, it is best to have the Americans in the background, not up front.

Why? Simply because the United States not only is not a member of the ICC, but was (particularly under the neo-conservative influenced Bush White House) positively opposed to acceptance of the jurisdiction against Americans (on the grounds that the U.S. would lose sovereign control of its own soldiers). In this circumstance, how can the United States be the champion of bringing Qadhafi to justice before a tribunal whose jurisdiction we refuse to accept without appearing hopelessly hypocritical? The question is not rhetorical: the reason George W. Bush cancelled his plans to go to Switzerland earlier in the year was because he might well have been arrested on war crimes charges and potentially been brought before the ICC for actions taken by the United States in Iraq and at Guantanamo. The Europeans do not have the same problem.

The case for European, not American, leadership in dealing with Libya is, in my judgment, overwhelming. That does not mean that European NATO will step up to the plate and accept that responsibility, simply that they should. If they do not (as they well may not), Libyan blood will be much more on their hands than ours.


Inspector Clousteau, the Experts, and Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Pakistan, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by whatafteriraq

At the considerable danger of defaming one of movies’ greatest characters (the legendary Inspector Clousteau of the Pink Panthers series) and its incomparable star (the late Peter Sellers), U.S (and allied) policy is beginning to look like one of the bumbling French gendarmie’s most memorable adventures. The latest example of this remark, of course, is the revelation last week that talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government sponsored and facilitated by the United States were actually between the Afghan government and a clever Pashtun shopkeeper from Pakistan who presumably walked away from the process sniggering into the sleeve of his robe while holding tightly to a sizable wad of U.S. cash (no one seems to want to talk about that part–wonder why). Could it be that this enterprising native is the real Pink Panther?

Everyone, of course, is denying everything as they lift up the corner of the rug and sweep the whole thing into a lumpy pile under a corner. The Taliban have maintained all along they were not in negotiations with anybody, which everyone has assumed was a subterfuge to cover their participation in talks. Turns about they might have been telling the truth. The Karzai government is showing predictable 20/20 hindsight and saying they never did believe this guy and weren’t really talking to him. Instead, they maintain the British foisted him off as the real deal. The American explanation: well, we don’t really have one.

How in the world did this–or could this–happen. The answer, I suspect, lies in our legendary lack of expertise in, and understanding of–Afghanistan. The experts on whom we seem to be relying, it turns out, appear not to be so expert. One evidence was an “explanation” last week of how the phony baloney managed to trick everybody into believing he was the Taliban’s second in command: since we have nobody who has ever met any of these characters face-to-face, we don’t really know who they are or what the look like. Since, presumably, all Afghans (or at least Pashtuns) look alike, it was a natural mistake.

This gets at the heart of the matter. I have argued repeatedly that the fatal flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it is an absolute no-win situation, which even the casual observer can figure out. But we decided to go in anyway. Where were the experts, who almost certainly would have said, “Wait a minute here!”?

One of two things, in seems to me, offers an explanation. One is that we really have no experts, apart from members of the small Afghan expatriate community. Expatriates, however, tend to have axes to grind or personal agendas and are not the best possible sources of objective analysis. The number of academic experts is also pretty small, due to a lack of market historically for Afghan experts. The second is that the experts that do exist have been ignored or shunned. Real experts almost certainly counselled non-involvement in the civil war, and once it was engaged, argued for getting out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here the principle of “shooting the messenger” comes in: if these people were consulted and told the truth, they were undoubtedly exorcised because they provided the wrong answers to blissfully ignorant advocates of the American presence. Off with their heads (or at least banishment to policy purgatory)! This well established practice has roots in Vietnam and Iraq and seems so ingrained that it is hard to imagine why anybody with actual expertise would offer advice tha contradicts what policy makers wsant to believe.

So here we are, blisfully, in Thomas Friedman’s word, dropping “dropping $190 million a day to bring corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century,” with big smiles on our faces and a dogged determination we are “doing good” (or at least avoiding “bad”). That number, which adds up to about $70 billion a year and is almost certainly a low-ball estimate, keeps hemorrhaging along as the federal deficit soars. But, we may be getting our money’s worth: this is clearly the stuff of another revival of the Inspector Clousteau series. The only questions will be if Steve Martin or someone else plays the good detective and who the next Pink Panther may be.

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.

Karzai to U.S.: ‘Bug Off!’

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met this past week with interviewers from the Washington Post in his Kabul offices, the “highlights” of which were published in today’s (Nov. 13, 2010) editions. The message he delivered was short and to the point:  U.S.military operation in Afghanistan are doing more harm than good and must be stopped. Moreover, the Afghan people increasingly resent not only the American physical presence but the attempts by the Americans to attrite the Taliban using Special Forces to go after and eliminate their leadership. To summarize, his message to the U.S. government and population is clear: “We neither want you nor need you–bug off!”

This is an invitation that should be hard to ignore. If my ruminations in this space have been at all cogent, it is really the kind of opportunity the United States (at least the Obama administration) has been looking for–a way to extricate ourselves from an impossible situation while still claiming some shard of self-respect about having done so. Can we achieve a Nixonian “peace with honor” (his rhetorical goal while sneaking the country out of Vietnam) by saying sayonara to Karzai and the Afghans? Karzai certainly appears to be offering that opportunity. And there are certainly copious reasons to taker him up on the offer.

Why should the United States “cut and run” in Afghanistan and “abandon” our erstwhile allies? There have always been several good reasons to do so, and Karzai has added another: we are unwanted and unappreciated. At this risk of some redundancy, however, allow me to reitrate the case for taking Karzai up on his generous offer.

1. The United States is not and cannot “win” this war in any definable geo-political sense. Militarily, the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that General Petraeus helped to author and is trying to apply is not working, partly because it is inadequate conceptually (it only works when the target population is amenable to its success) and partly because there are nowhere near enough U.S. forces there to give it a chance. For COIN to work, the first and major requisite is providing security on an ongoing basis; the U.S. and its allies cannot do this amidst a hostile population (hostile at least partly, according to Karzai, because of its presence) with a force of 150,000 in a country the size of Texas. Politically, Afghanistan will never evolve a strong, representative central government, which is the political goal of our involvement: they never have had one, and nobody in the country is powerful enough to impose one. The effort, in other words, is Quixotic.

2. If even we could win, it would not be worth it. Other than keeping the Taliban from allowing Al Qaeda back in the country, what U.S. interests did the United States ever have in Afghanistan? Prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979 (which we had some small interest in opposing) and the birth of Al Qaeda, the answer was essentially none; other than Al Qaeda, that has not changed. Since Al Qaeda has now set up shop around the world, Afghan sanctuaries are no longer that big a deal, and the Taliban would almost certainly sell Al Qaeda down the river in return for an American withdrawal. If Al Qaeda is no longer an adequate reason for being there, why are we? Good question with no apparent positive answer. Even if Al Qaeda returns, is it worth our cost in blood and treasure? My answer is that is not unless one disinvents aircraft that can overfly Afghanistan and harass any Al Qaeda presence there.

3. The United States cannot afford its Quixotic, interest-deficient quest. Stupid extravagances are for the idle, more-money-than-brains rich, which the United States no longer is. The U.S. military needs some respite from ten consecutive years of deployment in harm’s way, and only our removal from Afghanistan can adequately provide for the necessary R&R. Moreover, the United States is pumping enormous amounts of monetary resources into the abyss at a time when spending less is the rhetorical goal of virtually every American politician across the ideological spectrum. Papa Bear and Baby Bear Paul are not right about much; they are right about this issue. Afghanistan is a money pit (and casualty pit) that we simply can no longer afford–especially since in the end, we are unlikely to get much (if anything) in return.

I am sure much of the political reaction to Karzai’s interview will be either to brush it aside (“even the best of friends have some disagreements”) or to use it to bolster U.S. efforts (“this just shows the need for redoubled efforts”), and only the political left (which wants us out) will embrace the interview. Karzai may have said these things out of personal conviction or because they were necessary positions for his government with the Taliban; it’s hard to say.

But who cares? The Karzai statements should be the basis for rejoicing in the United States, because he has provided us the cover we need to start our withdrawal. When your hosts tell you it’s time to pack up your bags and leave, it is boorish to stick around and outwear your welcome. Instead, Hamid is giving us a great opportunity to salute crisply, yell “HUA” (heard, understood, acknowledged), proclaim :mission accomplished” and get the hell out. Thank you for your suggestion, President Karzai!

What Price Dubious Glory?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Uncategorized, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The United States is in the midst of a deep and prolonged recession. That is certainly news only to those who have spent the last three years deep in the recesses of a cave somewhere far underground and inaccessible to cable television (not necessarily a bad condition). As the midterm elections approach, much of the political approbrium is over who caused this situation, who is continuing to make it worse, and how the situation can be overcome. That debate is, of course, acrimonious even in the terms of the acrimony that dominates what now passes for “normal” political dialogue.

There seems to be one thing that all sides agree on, at least in principle and in the long run: the government cannot continue to spend sizably more than it collects in revenues indefinitely; mega-deficits and a burgeoning debt are unsustainable. Democrats and Republicans, of course, disagree on how much and how soon this needs to be reversed: Democrats (at least the President) seems to think the problem can only be attacked once the current crisis is suromunted; Republicans, with no current responsibilities for managing the economy, think it should be done sooner.

But how? That question brings us to the title of this entry. How does the government go about bringing government revenues and expenditures into line with one another? The answers, easy to lay out, are a) to spend less, b) to collect (tax) more, c) both, or d) neither. Eliminate d) for starters, although that is what we are basically doing now, since it will simply perpetuate the present problems. That leaves three choices.

Spending less is the GOP solution, but it is flawed by the way it segments the candidates for reduced spending. My personal congressman, the notorious Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson says that we should reduce all discretionary spending by 20 percent of the next six years, and the result will be a balanced budget. But wait a minute! “Discretionary” spending presumably means controllable spending, or, in other words, spending that must be appropriated annually explicitly and which thus is done at the discretion of Congress. The largest item in the controllable budget–a good 2/3 of the total–is defense spending, and since Joe is a loyal Republican, he would exempt that from cuts, in which case his proposal would not even come close. Reduced spending without a defense contribution is simply empty rhetoric in budget reduction terms. Period. Raising taxes (allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) to expire is the Democratic solution, but by exempting everyone else from higher taxes, it is the equivalent of exempting defense from cuts. The responsible, adult solution, of course, is c), but that is politically difficult and, well, adult, so it can be eliminated for the time being.

Ted Koppel has recently reminded us that we are defense spending ourselves into the ground, fighting a “war on terror” that is bankrupting us while Al Qaeda sits in its caves sniggering at the amount of resources we are fecklessly expending on them. Others have suggested that the federal debt would not look so bad had we not spent an official $3 trillion in Iraq (probably more like $5 trillion), and whatever the tab now is in Afghanistan. When asked how he would deal with the current crisis, Ron Paul (with whom I rarely agree otherwise) sagely says we could solve it all by cutting back drastically on overseas involvements, expecially military involvements.

Such suggestions are treated by establishment types as pure heresy, the rantings of the naive, but are they? The United States currently spends almost as much as the rest of the world in basic defense spending, and that does not include most of the expenses for Iraq (those 50,000 troops still there are not free) and Afghanistan.

Fantasize for a moment. Imagine the state of the American budget if the United States no longer had any troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if the defense budget was subjected not only to the small cuts that Secretary Gates has suggested, but something like Joe Wilson’s 20 percent (roughly $100 billion) cut. Suddenly the shape of the budget is changed dramatically: spending cuts can be cut, and additional taxes might be unneeded. Option c) might actually yield to option d).

Heresy, you say! We cannot our defense without leaving the country at unacceptable risk. That is the conventional argument, but are its assumptions valid? At heart, the counter argument assumes that we are actually getting a real benefit from each dollar, and that each dollar in reduction emperils us. But is that true? Is the United States really more secure for a $3-5 trillion expenditure in Iraq? If so, how much more secure? Can anyone seriously argue that the additional security we have attained in Iraq is worth that enormous amount? What about the trillion or more already spent in Afghanistan? What has it bought? Is it worth the price?

In other words, What Price Glory? (For those too young to remember, that was the title of a motion picture about WW I that answered the question negatively.) Given that the military adventures we have and continue to undertake have not been unequivocal ttiumphs, that glory itself may be open to question. Thus, What Price Dubious Glory? Is it really heresy to suggest that this is a fair question?

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!

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.”