Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dearth of a salesman:
Petraeus and the Afghan war

On this date in 1945, the hostilities known as World War II effectively ended when Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers. On the day before this date in 2010, according to NBC News’ Richard Engel, the last combat brigade in Iraq began repatriating its military forces from there back to the United States, began ending the war in Iraq the United States started seven years and five months ago — twice as long as the United States fought in World War II.

The war that’s left to finish, the one in Afghanistan, has been going on for nearly nine years. It continues as the domestic appetite for the Afghan war is rapidly diminishing. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Americans’ sentiments about Afghanistan and the continued U.S. involvement there found that 58 percent of the country has negative feelings about the mission, with 11 percent viewing it favorably.

Lopsided as those numbers are, they tell another story. 58 and 11, of course, doesn’t add up to 100. That remaining 31 percent of the poll sample, people either without an opinion or unsure what that opinion really is, may indicate the national mood more precisely than either the positive or negative responses. It reflects a kind of paralysis of opinion, either a deep ambivalence about the war or such an inability to envision what our next move should be, that they can’t venture a position on a U.S. Afghan scenario of any kind.

The NBC/WSJ poll also sampled the squishy but accessible attribute of confidence in a successful U.S. end to the Afghan conflict. Twenty-three percent of those polled are more confident of the outcome now, while 68 percent are less confident than before, the poll said.

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That poll and its divisions writ large symbolize the domestic war facing Gen. David Petraeus, newly named to head the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus huddled recently with NBC News’ David Gregory, in the general’s first interviews since taking command in July. The interviews, likely to be a rhetorical tank-and-Bradley show intended to shore up public support for the war, begin today on “Meet the Press” and will run throughout the week.

We can expect Petraeus to at least rhetorically sign on to President Obama’s “conditions-based” plan to begin the process of getting out of Afghanistan in July 2011, even while Petraeus the soldier will insist on the latitude he needs as the commander in country to press the fight against the Taliban, the better for a dignified exit from Afghanistan next year.

A deep national divide is obvious from the NBC/WSJ poll; the deep national dissatisfaction about the war may well be distilled in a Thursday editorial in The New York Times, a call for fresh endgame thinking about the Afghan war’s prosecution and for candor from the president on what the hell the metrics for success really are.

“[L]ike many Americans, we are increasingly confused and anxious about the strategy in Afghanistan and wonder whether, at this late date, there is a chance of even minimal success,” The Times says.

“Mr. Obama has promised to review his policy this December. We agree that the ‘surge’ and his new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, need time. But reports from the ground have been so relentlessly grim — July’s death toll of 66 American troops was the highest since the war began — that Mr. Obama needs to do a better job right now of explaining the strategy and how he is measuring progress.”

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In Saturday’s Huffington Post, columnist Dan Froomkin writes a piece headlined “Why Petraeus Can’t Make the Sale.” Froomkin explores the philosophical skirmishes going on between factions within the Obama administration over ending the U.S. role in the Afghan war. Among the, uh, insurgent views is one from the so-called Team B of Afghan strategists, analysts and policy wonks. This group, Froomkin says, plans to release a report in the near future, one that likely won’t be so much a popular read as a necessary one.

From the report, which Froomkin excerpted:

"We are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized. No matter how desirable this objective might be in the abstract, it is not essential to U.S. security and it is not a goal for which the U.S. military is well suited. There is no clear definition of what would comprise 'success' in this endeavor, and creating a unified Afghan state would require committing many more American lives and hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come."

All due respects to the headline writers at HuffPost, but Petraeus can’t “make the sale” because there’s nothing he has to sell besides a protracted and bloody holding action, and we’ve been there and done that before as a nation and we’re still paying for it, in too many ways, a generation after Vietnam.

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And all due props to The New York Times and the White House Team B, but the gist of their assessments came through loud and clear last Oct. 29. That’s when Christopher Preble, foreign policy studies director of the Cato Institute, said:

“Countering al-Qaida and disrupting its ability to carry out future terrorist attacks does not require a massive troop presence on the ground. Bringing more U.S. personnel to Afghanistan undermines the already weak authority of the Afghan leaders, interferes with our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world, and pulls us further into a bloody protracted guerrilla war with no end in sight. ... We should be looking for ways to extricate ourselves militarily from Afghanistan, not excuses to dig a deeper hole.”

The fact that two assessments of our stake in the Afghan war come to much the same conclusion nine months apart is exactly the problem — and the biggest challenge to the salesmanship Petraeus begins today.

Image credits: Petraeus: Robert D. Ward, Defense Department (public domain). U.S. war casualties: via MSNBC. Casualties chart: Market Data Group, The Wall Street Journal.

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