Thursday, October 08, 2009

Taking on the so-called 'middle-way' in Afghanistan

I read an article recently about the war in Afghanistan and what the U.S. should do next. There is, unfortunately, a growing movement to either draw our forces out completely or basically stay the course. {EDIT: And, as I've recently discovered, a major propaganda effort by the Council on Foreign Relations via the mainstream media.}

I've been wanting to write about what I think should be done in regards to the war in Afghanistan. This article in Time magazine written by Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb, seemed to me a good way to get things started.


“But there is a real and strong middle option: to put ourselves and friendly Afghans in a position to manage future terrorist threats in that country without a major U.S. combat role. We can accomplish this by doing what we actually know how to do: arm, train, divide the enemy, contain and deter." ~ Leslie H. Gelb
Speaking of phony choices, I’ve noticed this false choice being made among the punditry on the cable news shows. We’re given a “choice” between A) surging a larger number of U.S. troops, up to 40K, to simply keep the peace indefinitely or B) training an Afghan army to defend itself and stabilize the country. This imagined “choice” is nothing more than a disingenuous ploy to characterize a surge as nothing more than throwing more combat troops at the situation. In reality, whether we send 10K more troops as Mr. Gelb and others suggest or we send 40K more troops, an increase in training Afghans to manage, rebuild and combat insurgency is going to take place. This is what is taking place now. This is what will take place then. Of all the uncertainties surrounding what we’re going to do, this much is certain.

The REAL difference between the two primary options being debated is A) creating the conditions in which training and rebuilding in the nation can actually take place or B) continuing the training we’ve been doing under conditions too hostile to actually accomplish anything substantive.

Mr. Gelb suggests that we, somehow, do “what we actually know how to do: arm, train, divide the enemy, contain and deter.” Surely he doesn’t necessarily mean in this order…

The fact is, you can’t accomplish much training and certainly no sustainable rebuilding in a nation which is completely unstable. You damn sure can’t do any containing through mere training alone. There has to be some semblance of order, stability, or else you run the risk of everything you create being destroyed; everyone you train being killed.

As many analysts and members of congress have been pointing out lately, without a significant increase in security forces there will not be the breathing space required to train Afghanis to do more of their own heavy lifting. This, unfortunately, is a reality that people like Leslie Gelb, conservative columnist George Will, former Senator Max Cleland, Vice President Joe Biden and many left-leaning Democratic politicians seem to completely ignore.

Speaking of which. Just the other day I watched Hardball with Chris Matthews. Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland was on the program and the two of them seemed to have it all worked out that since al-Qaeda is mostly based in Pakistan now we should just attack them there. Now I don’t necessarily disagree, although this is far easier than it sounds considering that Pakistan is a sovereign nation, it is (loosely) an ally, the populace there tend to despise and distrust us, and the country does have nuclear weapons. But we certainly can't do this in spite of the situation in Afghanistan.

My thoughts upon hearing this exchange was: haven’t we done this before? Isn’t this why we went into Afghanistan in the first place? Wasn’t the goal to destroy al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power because they were harboring al-Qaeda?

While we did remove the Taliban and dealt a serious blow to al-Qaeda, terrorists like bin Laden escaped to Pakistan and the terrorist organization survives to this day. So now the solution is to leave the place destabilized and defenseless just as the Taliban is operating next door and has already gained control over significant parts of Afghanistan? Talk about whack a mole…

Peter Bergen asked in his article in TIME magazine this week, “If a pared-down counterterrorism strategy works no better the second time around, will we have to invade Afghanistan all over again in the event of a spectacular Taliban comeback?”

This is exactly what came to my mind as I was listening to Max Cleland suggesting that we should basically chase al-Qaeda around the globe, never bothering to leave these countries more stable, more secure and less likely to become a haven for al-Qaeda again.

What will we do when we have no security apparatus in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda simply moves from Pakistan back to Afghanistan to avoid our attacks on them there? Do we go back into Afghanistan? Do we just keep chasing them back and forth? Do we think this will make the region more stable? Make us more friends in the region? I’ve heard of ping-pong diplomacy, but I think this is a radically dangerous new take on it. All I can say is thank goodness these people are not deciding U.S. foreign policy.

“Counterinsurgency strategy requires clearing and holding territory, which cannot be done without transforming a corruption-riddled, anarchic and poverty-stricken state into a functioning market democracy. That goal is totally beyond American interests and capabilities and promises only endless war. Nor does the all-out approach help us in Pakistan, whose leaders continue to nurture long-standing alliances with the Taliban as a counterweight to India, Islamabad’s real worry.” ~ Leslie H. Gelb
And your plan would do what to address the crisis in Pakistan, Mr. Gelb? Zip-o. Frankly, it’s a red-herring for Mr. Gelb to bring up Pakistan in the context of this surge. The situation in Pakistan is an extremely complicated and serious one. It is also outside the realm of the discussion on a surge for Afghanistan. We must address the situation in Pakistan regardless whether there is a surge or no surge.

As for whether or not surges are successful, the last time I checked, the surge as well as some intelligent application of ‘clear and hold’ tactics actually improved the situation in Iraq substantially.

I opposed that surge in Iraq at the time, by the way, in part because I opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. To me it has been a travesty and I could not justify adding more wrong to something that was wrong from the beginning. But I also opposed it because the situation in Iraq seemed completely hopeless, while the numbers of troops that were going to be part of this “surge” seemed, based on what I’d read, to be wholly inadequate to contain the chaos that existed. Thus, I opposed it. I was wrong. The surge, among changing some of our tactics in Iraq, like working more with the locals, it has been successful. (What will happen to Iraq once we inevitably pull the bulk of our troops out of Iraq, remains to be seen)

Today I believe that a surge and similar change of tactics in Afghanistan could also be successful. As a matter of fact, through all the debate two years ago about the surge in Iraq (and long before), I kept asking myself and anyone who would listen: Why aren’t we doing more in Afghanistan? Afterall, that was the war of necessity. That was truly the central front on the war against al-Qaeda. And it still is.

It's unfortunate that a lot of people seem to have lost sight of this. In fact, a lot of folks on the left who had opposed the war in Iraq used to claim the same thing—that the war in Afghanistan had been justified and necessary. But ever since Iraq has become more stable—and a situation which seems to be on its way to being resolved, at least in terms of troops coming home—leftists (and newly discovered anti-war activists like conservative columnist George Will) seem to have had a change of heart. Now all of the sudden the war in Afghanistan is a hopeless debacle, and if we just pack our stuff and go home all will be well.

I'd be the first to admit, I've been saying it for years, that the war in Afghanistan has been ignored ever since we entered Iraq. The Bush administration neglected the situation there, which has contributed to the destabilized situation that we have today. But that is no reason to give up today, now that we have a president who is actually given the theater the serious attention it deserves. It is no reason to believe that Afghanistan is the hopeless, unresolvable situation that some anti-war leftists would like for us to believe.


I don't want to be too harsh here, Mr. Gelb did bring up some good points, and I think he’s correct about some things, like focusing on forging a more elite Afghan army, one that is both capable and willing to fight the insurgency, as well as working with warlords and tribal leaders to keep the Taliban at bay. But none of this can be achieved without creating a more stable and secure Afghanistan in the immediate future. To do this, Gen. McChrystal seems to think he needs about 40,000 more soldiers. If so, I hope the Obama Administration gives him what he needs. At critical times President Bush didn’t in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why both theaters turned into the debacles that they did.

I would suggest that those who think status quo (with more trainers) or drawing-down in Afghanistan should consider some history. Lobbing missiles at laboratories and training camps didn’t keep al-Qaeda in-check during the Clinton Administration. Using a much smaller occupation force than military experts like Gen. Shinseki recommended to the Congress didn’t create a stable or even tolerable situation in Iraq. Keeping a “light footprint” in Afghanistan over the past 8 years clearly hasn’t worked either. There is absolutely no reason to believe that simply staying the course—continuing with a small, overwhelmed fighting force in Afghanistan and training police and military in a chaotic war zone, is going to bring better results in the past.

Yes, al-Qaeda and similar groups are operating in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. Yes, we have to do something about this in the foreseeable future. But we cannot, we must not allow Afghanistan to go back to being a haven for al-Qaeda. Even setting aside our moral obligation to help rebuild a nation that we destroyed out of necessity (and a nation we declined to rebuild in the 1980’s after we helped them defeat the Soviet occupation), we have an imperative responsibility to ensure that al-Qaeda is contained, forced to operate under extreme duress, and denied the safety of a home base to plan, train, and launch terrorist attacks from.

Fleeing Afghanistan will not accomplish this. Scaling down or even maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan, this as the Taliban continues to gain strength and ultimately gains control over the entire country, will not accomplish this. This is the real deal. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran recently stated at the Washington Post, "If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, [...] the overall U.S. effort to stabilize Kandahar -- and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan -- will fail. "


President Obama was absolutely correct when he stated, “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

The war in Afghanistan is not blood for oil, it’s not some neoconservative adventurism. It should not be dismissed as such. It should not be compared to Iraq. The same arguments used against the Iraq war, too, should not be made against Afghanistan. They are two completely different wars fought for two completely different reasons. More folks on the left really need to come to terms with that.

I sincerely hope that more people start coming to their senses and stop buying the arguments being made by people like Mr. Gelb. I'd recommend they read more articles like this, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.


{EDIT: I posted a comment on The Daily Beast regarding a similar argument posited by Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, at the Washington Post.}

{EDIT: Fareed Zakaria, who serves on the board for the Council On Foreign Relations, repeated the same sort of rhetoric Sunday on his CNN program as his cronies, Richard Haass and Leslie Gelb, have. This is turning out to be a real propaganda effort by the Council On Foreign Relations. Which, frankly, I find a bit alarming. It makes me think of a sort of left-wing version of the neoconservative Project For the New American Century and their efforts to bombard the media, and use their political influences to effect policy as they did, particularly in the run up to the war in Iraq. I will give credit to Stephen Biddle from the Council on Foreign Relations to making a good case for ensuring the security in Afghanistan on Mr. Zakaria's program.}

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