Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What's the point of the Afghan War?

It is being reported that President Obama will send an additional 34,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of his soon-to-be-announced Afghan War plan.

He has called the Afghan War "a war of necessity," in contrast to the war of choice that was, and is, the Iraq War, and he wants now to "finish the job" in Afghanistan.

Which begs the question, what exactly is the job to be finished?

Here's how I put it back in May, when McChrystal replaced McKiernan and Obama, in replacing the old guard with the new, moved the war decidedly in the direction of counterinsurgency:

I'm not sure what to make of the move. The war has certainly been in desperate need of refocus, and perhaps a renewed focus on counterinsurgency objectives will get it back on track, or just on a track. The problem all along has been the utter lack of clarity. Has the war been about defeating the Taliban and hunting down al Qaeda? Has it been about nation-building? Has it been about bringing freedom and democracy to the Afghan people? Has it been about regional stability and security? Or has it been about something murkier, about American hegemony in the region, and perhaps about American access to oil and gas?

This lack of clarity has led many of the war's early supporters, including me, to turn against it -- or, I should say, it is one of the reasons I have turned against it. And while a counter-insurgency war may be no more defensible, and no more worthy of support, than the war without clarity, the war as it has been waged thus far, but at least a focused war, a war with a clearly defined purpose (and perhaps also with clearly defined victory), will allow for an honest and open debate about American objectives and about the possibility for success.

Obama is likely to announce his new plan in a prime-time address next week. Calling the eight-year-old war a war of necessity and defending the troop increase won't be enough. He needs to explain clearly what the goal is, how progress will be measured, and when the U.S. and its allies can pull out for good.

It's not enough just to send more troops, after all. The key questions to be answered are what those and other U.S. troops will do there, what the focus of ongoing U.S. and allied military engagement will be, and what will constitute, if not quite victory, reasonable success.

Otherwise, we can only hope that Obama opts for a middle course that emphasizes realistic expectations and achievable goals.


As for the troop increase, I think my friend Steve Hynd is right:

[34,000, including 23,000 actual troops, 7,000 members of a command HQ in southern Afghanistan, and 4,000 military trainers] is just about the number everyone was expecting and exactly enough to keep both the pro-war and anti-occupation camps dissatisfied. Obama must have decided he'd just piss everyone off equally.


So Obama has apparently split the difference, not just on troop numbers but on opposing domestic viewpoints. Those troops already on the ground are there to hold the domestic political line with their blood while Obama sets up the conditions both in Afghanistan and at home for a proper phased withdrawal. It's what he should have done in the first place and doesn't need extra troops to do so -- but extra troops are seen as a domestic political necessity because Obama and his administration are wusses afraid of the electoral effects of being called wusses by Republicans and their own neoliberal hawks. They're going to be called wusses anyway. As is too often the case, foreign policy is domestic politics that gets inflicted on foreigners.

Very well put.

Obama's policy will be meant to show strength, resolve, and determination. In reality, it just shows fear and cowardice.

I understand the demands of domestic political considerations, and that for political reasons -- and perhaps also for personal ones, as he may believe the whole "war of necessity" nonsense -- Obama doesn't want to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously, but it is disturbing, if predictable, that such short-term electoral concerns are allowed to guide foreign and military policy.

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  • Obama's policy will be meant to show strength, resolve, and determination. In reality, it just shows fear and cowardice.

    To charactarize Obama's approach as 'fear and cowardice' at this stage is, I think, premature, simplistic and a bit over the top.

    My take is that he does not want to leave Afghanistan in its current unstable state without having made a concerted effort to improve the situation. Given the history and culture of the region, it may not be possible, and if that proves to be the case, he appears to be considering a series of exits points over time.

    If I'm reading him correctly, I think he deserves a chance to try to mitigate the mess left by the previous administration, exacerbated by its hubris, neglect and ignorance of Afghanistan's peculiar political and power structures.

    If there's a political calculation here, I think it has less to do with appearances and more to do with wanting to avoid what happened after the Soviet withdrawal -- exploitation of instability by the Taliban -- and reinstatement of a safe haven for al Q. There is a moral component to this as well. Having overthrown the previous Taliban regime, we have an obligation to help Afghans restore some degree of stability.

    If we fail, we can at least walk away saying did the best we could under the circumstances, which is something we cannot say if we leave now.

    By Anonymous beep52, at 9:05 AM  

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