Thursday, July 17, 2008

Afghanistan/Pakistan: the new "Vietnam"?

Pashtun tribesman - photo by Thomas Cole

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As a blogger and as a columnist, I'd love to always be original or be a huge expert on a specific subject, but I am what is known as a "generalist", a jack of all themes and a master of none.

If I pride myself on anything, it is on my taste in experts and guides. I have learned who to ask, what to ask, and who
to trust and when to trust them and when not and to all of this and all of them, I owe my living.

I happily stand on the shoulders of giants and every now and then, they put me in range of a slam dunk.

Two of my all time favorite experts, William Pfaff and Juan Cole, have both written about Barack Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan. A strategy which might be defined as "out of the frying pan (Iraq) and into the fire (Afghanistan). Briefly, to take troops from Iraq and take them to Afghanistan to "fight Al Qaeda".

Pfaff and Cole both coincide in their advice: Bad idea, don't do it.

Please read the quotes below with great care.

Age before beauty, first at bat, William Pfaff:
Barack Obama has announced his intention to commit himself to another disaster in the making. As president, he would dispatch reinforcements “to fight Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” During the campaign has repeatedly attacked George Bush for going to war against the wrong enemy, Iraq, in the guise of fighting Al Qaeda. Now he will reinforce the fight against the Taliban, once again in the guise of fighting Al Qaeda. The Taliban are not Al Qaeda, any more than the Iraqis were. There is a civil war going on in Afghanistan. There may soon be a civil war in northern Pakistan. The Taliban are involved in both, and the United States has every interest in staying out of both.(...) At one point in their tangled history they afforded hospitality to their fellow-traditionalist Muslim, the Saudi Arabian Osama ben-Ladin. That was their big mistake. The Bush administration made the bigger mistake of becoming entangled with them, for which the United States will eventually be sorry. Barack Obama should think again about what he proposes to do.
Now for Juan Cole:
If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.(...) We who admire him don't want Afghanistan to become an albatross around the neck of a President Obama. I am old enough to remember one of the things that nearly killed the Democratic Party as a presidential party in the US, which was the way Lyndon Johnson let himself gradually get roped into ramping up the US troop presence in Vietnam from a small force to 500,000, and then still not win. Afghan tribes are fractious. They feud. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.
Both Cole and Pfaff coincide that Osama bin Laden is not really the issue. I myself believe that Tora Bora was the unique chance to get him and the US blew it. After that the USA has "taken the bait" and fallen into Bin Laden's trap and should extract itself forthwith.

In the middle of the above extract Juan makes, for me, the most important point:
We who admire him don't want Afghanistan to become an albatross around the neck of a President Obama. I am old enough to remember one of the things that nearly killed the Democratic Party as a presidential party in the US, which was the way Lyndon Johnson let himself gradually get roped into ramping up the US troop presence in Vietnam from a small force to 500,000, and then still not win.
Why is this so important?

Two important premises that I argue from after reading Pfaff and Cole:
  • If Barack Obama is sworn in a President of the United States, his first objective, as it is the objective of every young man who has ever been elected president, will be to get reelected president. 2012 will loom before him like a chimera and will color his every thought, his every word and his every action.
  • Democrats with no military experience are obsessed with not being viewed as wimps (Republicans like Bush and Cheney are too, but the Republicans don't attack them). President Obama, not the world's most mannish boy to begin with, will want to prove beyond a doubt to everyone here and abroad that he has big, big, big, cojones.
That need to prove his masculinity was what broke Lyndon Baines Johnson, perhaps the only potentially great president after Roosevelt and cost a million dead Vietnamese and 50,000 dead Americans.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the smartest, big hearted, can do, practical and experienced men to ever sit in the White House. Barack Obama is not worthy to tie LBJ's sandal, or at least nothing in his brief public life would give him any right to presume so. Therefore I think Obama would be much more vulnerable than Johnson to prove he had the "right stuff". That is the formula for disaster, because, don't kid yourself, to "win the war" would finally lead, escalation by escalation into an invasion and dismemberment of Pakistan and that is the abyss, the bottomless pit of America's self destruction if ever there was one.

Quite reasonably you could point out that McCain is also in favor of "winning".

Sure he is. The only thing he has going for him is that people may doubt his health, sanity and temper, but nobody, but nobody, anywhere, is ever going to doubt John McCain's cojones. Which means that if it becomes obvious to military experts that America has to pull out of Afghanistan or suffer the same fate there as the Soviets did, McCain will be able do it without anybody (especially the "Republican attack machine") calling him a wimp or doubting for one moment his patriotism. He has that credit, which would be vital in this situation.

As to Iraq: finally the US will have to content itself with the "legacy" of having removed Saddam Hussein and created a freely elected government in Baghdad. Drawing the line under that would allow Americans to still think that they are somehow "special" and save another few trillion dollars and God knows how many lives.

As Pfaff says,
Barack Obama calls the Iraq prime minister’s demand for an American troop withdrawal schedule “an enormous opportunity.” He is right, and it must be accepted. This is what the majority of the American public voted for, but didn’t get, from the midterm American election of 2006.

Instead the Bush government gave Americans the surge. The surge has resulted in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s demand for a phased American withdrawal from Iraq. Bush expected the surge to produce victory, whatever that might mean, and the right to dictate the terms on which the United States would stay in Iraq, not leave.

Those terms were made known earlier this year: total American exemption from Iraqi law (meaning extra-territorial legal status), veto over Iraqi government decisions, control over Iraqi military and police operations, authority to arrest and imprison Iraqi citizens and foreigners, immunity for American contractors from Iraqi law, and control of Iraq’s airspace.

The surge did the opposite. It created the conditions for Maliki’s demand that the U.S. and its allies leave. General David Petraeus built cement walls in cities to separate Sunnis from Shi’ites. This meant reciprocal ethnic cleansing in sensitive areas, to suppress conflict.

Petraeus paid Sunni tribal groups to fight foreigners – the self-named “al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” – and to keep order in their areas. He encouraged the Maliki government to impose its authority on the radical militia controlled by the young Shi’ite leader, Moqtada al-Sadr.

This created the conditions in which rival power groups, as in Basra, provisionally settled the power issues at stake between them, which would have (and possibly will again) produce conflict when the occupation ends.

The surge segregated groups, imposed truces, and made provisional arrangements to buy peace between factions. It thus created conditions in which the Iraqis want the occupation to end.

Some in Washington don’t want this because the Pentagon has built bases throughout Iraq it certainly does not want to give up, and the State Department has built in the Green Zone the world’s biggest American embassy, complete with tennis courts, swimming pools, leaking roofs and flooding toilets, and a fast-food shopping mall complete with blast shelters, just for Americans, and is anxious to move in and run Iraq. Is all this to be sacrificed to an unwelcome Iraqi sovereignty?

No one knows; but it begins to look that way, as according to the latest reports, American and Iraqi officials have now abandoned negotiations, leaving it to a new American president to take up the matter.

Barack Obama, if elected, would do well to immediately accept the Maliki demand, and leave no U.S. forces behind that could pull Americans back into Iraq. Give the Iraq government what it wants, and leave the disaster of the past six years totally on the account of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney
Who knows, if the US did that, maybe someday,
when today's dead have turned to dust, the Iraqis might even feel grateful.

But to use that retreat to up the ante in Afghanistan, thus ignoring the experience of both the British and the Russians there, would be the height of folly and lead to disasters that would turn the Vietnam horror into a dry footnote in the theses of future Chinese historians. DS


RC said...

With your contacts David, what do hear about OBL's whereabouts these days anyway?
And even if he were lasered off the face of the earth, right now, what would that change? Or let's say, for the sake of the timing, lasered on November 15 2008? Could we declare some kind of victory and get on to health care? Or Finance Corporation bailouts or?
OBL is a little superfluous at this point, no?
Further, is there really some stage of the game when we will have captured the # 2 or # 3 AQ guy in every scratchy Muslim cliffside theatre of engagement for the final time?
It seems so much like the War on Drugs. In fact, with a little tweaking, AQ can become the FARC!
Then we can just merge the Terror and the Drug Wars and save on rhetoric if nothing else.
Have you spoken to Juan about all of this?

oldfatherwilliam said...

You mean to say I've been relying on a Generalist? I should have become suspicious when I agreed with all your points.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

As they say in the Caribbean, "is what have the generalism, mon."

stunted said...

Cole's qualifying if's ("if the Afghanistan gambit is sincere," and "if playing it up is politics") go right to the heart of the problem with Obama--he has no clear identity. Indeed, the vagueness is intentional as it allows his supporters to paste any quality they desire in a leader to his persona; to make any progressive position they long to see implemented in America his, since he has long-since been annointed the progressive candidate. All he has to do now is cross his fingers and wait out the calendar because any hedging he does on issues dear to his constituency (FISA, abortion, funding religious groups to do government work, voting for renewal of the Patriot Act, voting for a wall to keep the wetbacks out, using only public funds for election campaigns, and now moving our war effort from Iraq to Afghanistan) will be seen as the posturing necessary to seize the Oval Office, which apparently is just a phone booth. Once Obama steps inside, he will shed the posturing and become the man-who-will-change-everything-for-the-better.

Now this is nothing new, but it most certainly is not change that you can believe in. In fact, Americans would do well to shed the beliefs and take on the realities you will have to wrestle with. Killing Afghans and Pakistanis instead of Iraqis is not bringing anyone to justice; it is not progressive; it is suicidal war. Taking corn out of the food chain to make green fuel for our living-rooms-on-wheels may win you the state of Iowa, but it is not progressive; it is deliberately starving those out of our lofty sight. Voting to continue the abrogation of habeus corpus is not progressive. Voting to build walls to keep out the unwashed is not the politics of inclusion; it is demagoguery, as is trying to be all things to all people.

His supporters are now indulging in the politics of fear. It's Obama or chaos. Supreme Court appointees are invoked as a scare tactic. The New Yorker should shut up because anything that could possibly help the heavy-breathers is to be self-censored for the greater good of an Obama presidency. This man could support a return to slavery to restart the economy without the "progressives" batting an eyelash.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

You just hit the ball out of the park.

Joe said...

If Obama escalates our involvement in Afganistan, three certainties will follow: l.We will be unsuccessful; 2, Republicans will attach Obama; and, 3, Democrats will attach Obama unlike the way they have treated Bush. Obama will barely last 4 years and the Republicans will be back in power.

Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar /Helluvafella!) said...

If Obama escalates our involvement in Afganistan, three certainties will follow: l.We will be unsuccessful; 2, Republicans will attach Obama; and, 3, Democrats will attach Obama unlike the way they have treated Bush. Obama will barely last 4 years and the Republicans will be back in power.

Indeed, i think it entirely likely that the oiligarchs and pollutocrats are not too seriously opposing Obama at the moment is because they want to let the Dems (represented by a NEGRO) fail spectacularly, which anyone will do who tries to undo the mischiefs and malfeasances undertatken by the busheviks this decade.

Or they may simply cut right to the chase, steal the "elecion," install Bombin' John and carry on as before.

But either way, nothing is going to change...