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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

And Why Are We In Afghanistan?

The DFHs have convinced the nation about another misguided war.

A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Most have confidence in the ability of the United States to meet its primary goals -- defeating the Taliban, facilitating effective economic development and molding an honest and effective Afghan government -- but very few say Thursday's elections there are likely to produce such a government.

When it comes to the baseline question, 42 percent of Americans say the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan; about as many, 36 percent, say it is losing the fight.

The new poll comes amid widespread speculation that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, will request more troops for his stepped-up effort to root the Taliban from Afghan towns and villages. That is a position that gets the backing of 24 percent of those polled, while nearly twice as many, 45 percent, want to decrease the number of military forces there. (Most of the remainder say to keep the level about the same.) [...]

Should President Obama embrace his general's call for even more U.S. military forces, he risks alienating some of his staunchest supporters While 60 percent of all Americans approve of how Obama has handled the situation in Afghanistan, his ratings among liberals have slipped and majorities of liberals and Democrats alike now, for the first time, solidly oppose the war and are calling for a reduction in troops.

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels. Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel "strongly" that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan issue has crept to the sidelines of the national debate, but thousands of families are still directly affected. People still die; 6 more Americans fell today, and August 2009 could be the deadliest month in Afghanistan of the entire war. The President calls it a "war of necessity" and "fundamental to the defense of our people" but cannot credibly articulate what that actually means. Juan Cole identifies three main points that Obama makes about the war, which seem fine in isolation, but not in practice:

1. "This strategy recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan."

2. "This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war—that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance."

3. "And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals—to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies."

These three are praiseworthy points in themselves, but the question is how they work together. I couldn't catch the significance of al-Qaeda's move to northwest Pakistan for US military operations in Afghanistan itself. I agree that the key to success in Afghanistan is diplomacy, development and governance, but worry that the major emphasis being is put on sending more troops there and on highly kinetic military operations? And I'm not sure that the Taliban can be effectively disrupted by military means; why isn't diplomacy being mentioned in this third part?

I'd expand on this critique. The goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda has almost no place in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, where many Al Qaeda leaders are now stationed. Gen. Petraeus admitted back in May that Al Qaeda is no longer operating in Afghanistan - we're fighting a home-grown Taliban insurgency more nationalist than religious extremist in nature. You could make the argument that a Taliban able to take over the country could usher in Al Qaeda safe havens, but the Taliban insurgents are small in number, and have been unable to gain acceptance in anything other than the Pashtun areas. I agree with Steven Walt on this:

First, this argument tends to lump the various groups we are contending with together, and it suggests that all of them are equally committed to attacking the United States. In fact, most of the people we are fighting in Afghanistan aren't dedicated jihadis seeking to overthrow Arab monarchies, establish a Muslim caliphate, or mount attacks on U.S. soil. Their agenda is focused on local affairs, such as what they regard as the political disempowerment of Pashtuns and illegitimate foreign interference in their country. Moreover, the Taliban itself is more of a loose coalition of different groups than a tightly unified and hierarchical organization, which is why some experts believe we ought to be doing more to divide the movement and "flip" the moderate elements to our side. Unfortunately, the "safe haven" argument wrongly suggests that the Taliban care as much about attacking America as bin Laden does.

Second, while it is true that Mullah Omar gave Osama bin Laden a sanctuary both before and after 9/11, it is by no means clear that they would give him free rein to attack the United States again. Protecting al Qaeda back in 2001 brought no end of trouble to Mullah Omar and his associates, and if they were lucky enough to regain power, it is hard to believe they would give us a reason to come back in force.

Third, it is hardly obvious that Afghan territory provides an ideal "safe haven" for mounting attacks on the United States. The 9/11 plot was organized out of Hamburg, not Kabul or Kandahar, but nobody is proposing that we send troops to Germany to make sure there aren't "safe havens" operating there. In fact, if al Qaeda has to hide out somewhere, I’d rather they were in a remote, impoverished, land-locked and isolated area from which it is hard to do almost anything. The "bases" or "training camps" they could organize in Pakistan or Afghanistan might be useful for organizing a Mumbai-style attack, but they would not be particularly valuable if you were trying to do a replay of 9/11 (not many flight schools there), or if you were trying to build a weapon of mass destruction. And in a post-9/11 environment, it wouldn’t be easy for a group of al Qaeda operatives bent on a Mumbia-style operation get all the way to the United States. One cannot rule this sort of thing out, of course, but does that unlikely danger justify an open-ended commitment that is going to cost us more than $60 billion next year?

There's more at the link. As Cole says, nobody disagrees that Al Qaeda may want to attack America, but we should wonder about their capability, and seek to thwart that. And that's not a fight that can be had in Afghanistan anymore - they have no presence there.

Actually, we have morphed our goals in Afghanistan, from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, without anyone really challenging it. The commanders on the ground have decided that making America safe from potential safe havens in Afghanistan means ensuring the legitimacy of the government at every level, as if we can replicate this in every unstable government in the world or even in Afghanistan, a tribal society that has not really known centralized leadership. Indeed, we're only getting a minimal competence from the current government by allowing it to create laws that harm women and court Uzbek human-rights-abusing warlords to gain votes. If we really want to involve ourselves so deeply with a government like this, we should at least gain some semblance of a national security benefit, and yet none really exists, especially relative to the costs incurred in lives and treasure.

This, over everything else, is why public support is sapping. As long as this is a back-burner issue, that may not hurt the President - even in the poll, respondents give him generally decent marks for his performance on the issue, mindful of the knottiness of the problem. But I would argue it should hurt him to an extent. We have been in Afghanistan eight years, and at this point nobody can credibly explain our presence.

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