As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Villagers Let Their Freak Flag Fly

This is a reversal:

President Barack Obama, who pledged during his campaign to shift U.S. troops and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, has done little since taking office to suggest he will significantly widen the grinding war against a resurgent Taliban.

On the contrary, Obama appears likely to streamline the U.S. focus with an eye to the worsening economy and the cautionary example of the Iraq war that sapped political support for President George W. Bush.

"There's not simply a military solution to that problem," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week, adding that Obama believes "that only through long-term and sustainable development can we ever hope to turn around what's going on there."

Less than two weeks into the new administration, Obama has not said much in public about what his top military adviser says is the largest challenge facing the armed forces. The president did say Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the struggle against terrorism, a clue to the likely shift toward a targeted counterterrorism strategy.

After Obama's first visit to the Pentagon as president, a senior defense official said the commander in chief surveyed top uniformed officers about the strain of fighting two wars and warned that the economic crisis will limit U.S. responses. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was private.

I think the reporter is playing mind-reader a little bit. What's happening right now is a strategy review. Wisely, President Obama is actually looking at the situation and taking input from everyone, even detractors. Publicly, those who will be closest to making the decision are offering a very balanced view, full of warnings and caveats. Bob Gates' Senate testimony this week was quite honest.

Gates, a cautious advocate of bolstering U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he worries that “Afghans [will] come to see us as the problem, not the solution, and then we are lost.” He warned that increased levels of U.S. troop deaths in 2009 were “likely.”

In December, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, stated that he needs an increase of nearly 30,000 troops “for the next few years” — in other words, a sustained troop increase, not a brief surge in U.S. forces as occurred in Iraq in 2007. In the last few days Obama administration officials have begun telling reporters off the record not to presume that the president has made a decision on the size or duration of any prospective troop increase.

Gates said Tuesday that he backs McKiernan’s request — but signaled that the troop spigot would not remain open. “I would be very skeptical about additional force levels beyond what Gen. McKiernan asked for,” Gates told the Senate panel. A former senior CIA official during the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gates recalled that “the Soviets couldn’t win that war with 120,000 troops and a ruthless approach” to Afghan civilians, since they adopted “the wrong strategy.” [...] “Above all,” he said, “there must be an Afghan face on this war.” More important to Gates than increasing U.S. troop levels, he said, was increasing the numbers of Afghan security forces, and he said the government of Hamid Karzai supports a U.S.-backed effort to increase the Afghan National Army to 130,000 troops from its current 80,000, though he said he was unsure “even that number will be large enough.” At several points in the hearing, Gates worried that the U.S. was losing support from the Afghan people, saying that the U.S. has “lost the strategic communications war” to the Afghan insurgency about U.S.-caused civilian casualties. Proposing a policy of “first apologiz[ing]” when U.S. troops kill civilians in error, Gates said, “We have to get the balance right with the Afghan people or we will lose this war.”

Gates was adamant that there's no military solution in Afghanistan, and that the goals should be minimal, narrowed to denying Al Qaeda a safe haven. “If we set as the goal [creating] a Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose,” he said. Similarly, this week Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said to the Washington Post "I don't have enough troops in the United States military to make the difference that needs to be made" in Afghanistan.

Some of this may come from the large protests against the President's first forward action in the region, an airstrike in the Waziristan area that killed civilians. This may have shown that aerial strikes will only inflame the population and possibly turn Pakistan toward religious parties. While the theory behind additional troops is that less airstrikes would be necessary, it would increase the foreign occupier footprint at a time when the population is less supportive of them. The fact that NATO help appears unlikely is being factored into their thinking as well, as is the relative weakness and corruption of the Karzai government. While top officials press Karzai for more, there is a lot of thought to throwing Karzai over, or at least not offering him any support, in the next Presidential election, which has now been postponed until August due to the rising violence. So it looks like no big decisions have been made.

Throughout this there have been great, strident voices contextualizing the situation in Afghanistan and warning against a deeper commitment. Barnett Rubin, Juan Cole, Steve Clemons and Scott Ritter are just a few. What's been notable in the past couple days is, while the Administration undergoes this strategy review, the chattering class is going nuts. Newsweek decided that eleven days and a noncommital stance was enough to call this "Obama's Vietnam," as if he ordered the invasion in 2001 and neglected the war for seven years. They've somehow justified this by distancing from dirty hippies who analogize every war to Vietnam, and then... analogizing the war to Vietnam:

"Vietnam analogies can be tiresome," they write. "To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential "quagmires." But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways."

And you should have seen Bob Woodward on ABC this morning, yipping away with "What is the strategy?" and "Why aren't we leaving yet," sounding like a latter-day Country Joe McDonald. And there have been other big-picture pieces in the print media.

I agree that troops shouldn't be committed in the absence of goals or strategy, and it's good that the establishment is starting to question the slow roll in Afghanistan. Forgive me, however, for questioning their motives. Although Obama is engaging in a deliberative process, it is characterized as a rush to war. They are making up for their own past while they analogize to the distant past. Obama stumbling into his own Vietnam "fits" for them. It's the perfect narrative and they're going to sell it.

I think it's very unsettling. The public is very split on Afghanistan and could be persuaded on either side. While I'm personally against escalation, I'm willing to deal with the outcomes of my decision. I don't think the Village is. They're interested in putting their imprint on the story no matter what happens. So if Afghanistan falls into chaos with an escalation, then Obama is stuck in a quagmire. If it falls into chaos without an escalation, then Obama make a strategic mistake and the blood is on his hands. Even if it succeeds, the voices will be raised about when we can leave. And throughout it all, there will be talk about how the commitment overseas will constrain Obama at home and ruin all of his plans to restore and transform the economy. They are not arguing in good faith, and while I'm glad to have a real public debate about Afghanistan, I think it's worth thinking about why the Village has put on their tie-dye and gone wild in the streets.

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