Monday, August 10, 2009

Rethinking the necessary war

“Afghanistan: Barack Obama’s Iraq.” It’s a dire, downbeat geopolitical linkage that’s been offered for months as speculation by the media and Pentagon analysts. It’s a turn of phrase couldn’t be more ominously apt, more frighteningly possible than it is right now.

The recent and self-explanatory evidence of growing U.S. fatalities; the views of military experts here and abroad; and a frank assessment made recently by the senior American military man on the ground in Afghanistan suggest that if Iraq was George Bush’s Vietnam, Afghanistan has the potential to be President Obama’s Iraq: an exhausting, unpopular, ruinously expensive barbed-wire albatross draped — and tightened — around the neck of a young and confident president with myriad other things to do.

The Wall Street Journal, for all its potential to brandish that customary Murdochian edge, that tinge of snark that runs through News Corporation properties like some renegade DNA, may have done a masterful job of headline distillation today. The Journal shouted “Taliban Now Winning” on a story about the difficult U.S. effort in prosecuting what’s been sold to this generation as World War II was portrayed more accurately for an earlier one: “the good war,” the necessary conflict, the one that we had to fight and to win.

“The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency's spiritual home,” the Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel reported Monday.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal would no doubt beg to differ with the Journal’s downbeat characterizations. It’s a reflex of American military leaders: accentuate the positive. But McChrystal, apparently unsolicited, gave The Journal his own time line for progress.

“Gen. McChrystal said his new strategy had to show clear results within roughly 12 months to prevent public support for the war from evaporating in both the U.S. and Afghanistan,” WSJ reported.

“This is a period where people are really looking to see which way this is going to go,” he said. “It's the critical and decisive moment."

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Don’t kid yourself. That deadline is more for domestic consumption than anything else. The American public isn’t likely to have the appetite for continuing a war that’s already gone on twice as long as our involvement in World War II. That national impatience reflects a fear that the conflict is more about American interests than the world’s interests.

“There are fears that this could become a U.S. war rather than a NATO one,” Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, told The Independent on Jan. 25. “With other NATO members already planning to scale back, the U.S. could find itself isolated. Rather than being an international operation, it would become another 'coalition of the willing,' as in Iraq – though with the crucial difference that the Afghan mission has had a United Nations mandate throughout."

To go from the casualty count, Americans’ fears are well placed. According to the reliable iCasualties Web site, 14 Americans were killed in Afghanistan in July 2007. Twenty Americans died in Afghanistan in July 2008, a 40 percent increase. In July 2009, 45 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, a 120 percent increase over the year before.

And 12 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan so far in August already.

Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic party op, had a clear-eyed perspective when he spoke to The Week in December:

“Afghanistan has the potential to become what Iraq was for so long for Bush — a quagmire without exit.

“No President could give up the fight to capture Osama bin Laden and close down the terrorist redoubts. But a pragmatic President may be forced to conclude that we can’t remake Afghanistan in our own image—that it’s time to negotiate a ‘very limited’ deal that advances our security while freeing us from a rocky quagmire half a world away.
Before too long, that may be the only option we have left.”

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The reflexive American military reaction — put more boots on the grounds and Predators in the sky overhead — isn’t necessarily a solution. Increasingly, it’s not even an option. One senior military official, referencing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, said it plainly for The Journal: “How many people do you bring in before the Afghans say, ‘You're acting like the Russians’? That’s the big debate going on in the headquarters right now.”

What Gen. McChrystal called “the critical and decisive moment” could be characterized another way. Malcolm Gladwell called it “the tipping point”: in popular culture, a point of no return, the moment at which an oddity becomes an obsession. In the context of the war in Afghanistan, the critical and decisive moment there will yield another one, in Washington.

President Obama’s strategies for the Afghan war are under fire, and not just from the Afghan-based insurgents. What’s happening is as much a critical and decisive moment for a young administration as it is a decisive moment for American military might under siege in a part of the world that we truly do not understand.

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Colin Powell, in a moment of distilling frankness that the Bush administration he served didn’t have the good sense to see, characterized the American invasion of Iraq and the ensuing unpredictables as like what he thought would befall the hapless fumble-fingered customer at a Pottery Barn store:

According to a 2004 book by Bob Woodward, Powell told President Bush before the March 2003 invasion that, if he sent U.S. troops to Iraq, “You know you're going to be owning this place.”

In a phrase: “You break it, you bought it.”

The good folks at Pottery Barn, owned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc., dutifully objected to Powell’s metaphor, stating that on those infrequent occasions when a customer breaks something, it’s written off as a loss.

The current conflict in Afghanistan might be, to borrow the obvious if inaccurate phrase “Pottery Barn II.” It differs a little from the Powell calculus, but, ironically, the outcome could well be the same. We didn’t break Afghanistan; our role there is more surgical, less massive than it was in Iraq. Our entrance in Afghanistan didn’t damage the country outright; indeed, a national election is set for next week, despite the power of warlords and tribalism in Afghan society.

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But the U.S. mission of ridding the Afghans of the Taliban and its monstrous repressions of women and intellectuals, and of minimizing inter-tribal conflicts could keep the United States there for years.

Michael Moore, the filmmaker and Obama supporter, knows what’s at stake for the new president. Interviewed in the Aug. 20 Rolling Stone, Moore revealed a sense of nuance and distinction we can only hope Team Obama shares, a recognition of just how far an outsider, any outsider can go to create change in Afghanistan, and who’s ultimately responsible for change in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban are not an invading force — they are citizens of Afghanistan and it is up to the Afghan people to decide whether they want to be oppressed by a group of religious fanatics. It’s not the business of our country to be in Afghanistan right now. I feel so bad that Obama had to inherit this, and he clearly hasn’t been given the right advice. Because it will, a year from now, become his war, just as Vietnam became Nixon’s war.”
Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. U.S. Afghanistan casualties chart: WSJ Market Data Group. Powell: Still from NBC News' "Meet the Press," October 2008. Choppers inbound: Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, CJTF-101 Public Affairs.

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