Afghan Hounds

Afghanistan is widely known for it’s beautiful long haired dogs, called Afghan hounds.   Right now, however, it is Obama being hounded by his decision on Afghanistan.   The right calls the 2011 deadline a ‘sign of weakness’ and something that ‘our enemies’ will use as motivation to hang on longer.   The left sees sending more troops to try to stabilize the situation as misguided and pointless.   To them Obama is weak in that he didn’t have the courage to end the mission.   Both left and right accuse him of playing politics with the war.   Others, such as Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight see it as political quicksand.   If he breaks his promise to leave he’ll be hurt bad; if he keeps his promise he likely won’t benefit.   Only a few loyalists don’t attack the policy from either the left or the right.

So what about the criticism?   The criticism from the right strikes me as unrealistic at best, disingenuous at worst.   It is unrealistic to expect the US to simply increase the scope of the war and continue indefinitely with a goal of defeating the Taliban completely.   We can’t afford that, we wouldn’t get NATO support for such an effort (we will get modest support for this plan), and it sets the US up for a humiliating defeat down the line.  I’m convinced that many on the right mistake rhetorical bravado for the realm of the possible.  Anyone can talk big about victory and ‘defeating the enemy,’ but talk is cheap.   Others like former Vice President Cheney, whose administration botched two wars and played a major role in driving the American economy into the abyss, have no business offering self-righteous criticism.

First off, Obama’s willingness to make a decision that he knew would satisfy no one is something I respect.   He is President, he needs to focus on the policy, not the reaction.   Those who charge him with playing small “p” politics are quite frankly dead wrong.   He and his staff certainly knew this would be the reaction, both left and right have been telegraphing their positions for a long time.   This was a politically risky choice, and Obama knows it.

A couple days ago, using a fictional conversation with Obama, I explained my take on the logic of the decision.   The US needs to get out, but getting out the wrong way could make matters much worse.   Getting out the right way requires the US try to pressure Karzai to make internal changes, convince Pakistan that the US takes the fight against terrorism seriously, and create an opportunity for the Afghan government to gain credibility with its people.   If this cannot be done in two years and with an increase in NATO support, it is indeed mission impossible.   In such a case, the US cannot stay, the war is unwinnable.

As a foreign policy analyst, I see compelling logic in Obama’s choice.   The GOP desire for an open-ended commitment until “victory” is achieved assumes that victory is possible.    It might not be, or it may only be possible at a cost much higher than the American people are willing to pay, or that is in our national interest to pay.   Obama has defined victory as a relatively stable Pakistan alongside an Afghanistan with a functioning government.    That cannot happen if the US were to simply leave as quickly as possible.   It might happen with the “surge” strategy he has put into place.  The 2011 deadline is important since it pressures the Afghans to take seriously the fact they’ll be responsible for their own security in short order.   What Obama has done is figure out a strategy to increase the probability of success at a price he thinks the country is willing to pay, and which does not inflict real damage on the country (which an open ended Afghan commitment might do).

The criticism from the left — and the anti-war right — falls more in line with my views, so I have a bias.  I think that increasing military involvement over there only means more people will die — Americans and Afghans — and likely will not affect the final outcome.   I think Obama should have made the tough decision to say “this war is over, if after eight years the Afghans are unable to maintain their security, then we can’t do it for them.”

Yet that’s easy for me to say on the outside.   Obama has to think of the implications of that choice, even if he agrees that we have to leave.    It’s one thing to be on the outside, a critic of US foreign policy under Democrats and Republicans, and say “stop the war.”   I have advocated a drastically reduced military budget and extremely few military commitments abroad for a long time.   To me the military is to defend the homeland, not to try to stabilize the globe.

Yet as President, Obama has to answer those who would say “what about Pakistan, what about the likelihood of a quick Taliban/al qaeda take over in Afghanistan if we simply left?  Would this help al qaeda plan a new terror attack?”   What Obama did was take those concerns seriously, but also demand an exit plan.   His plan is not really a surge, but a planned withdrawal.   To the world it sounds like the US is simply increasing its commitment to the fight in Afghanistan.  Many dismiss the 2011 start of troop reduction as a mere target likely not to be met.   I believe Obama is dead serious about meeting it, and hopes to extricate the US from both of the misguided conflicts during his first term.   He has decided to get us out of Afghanistan, but to do so in a way which tries to avoid worst case scenarios and at least sets up a chance for minimal success.

I hope it works.   I hope that the pressure on Karzai and the Afghans forces them to make concessions and deals with opponents, and move away from the corrupt and incompetent form of government they now have.   I hope the added short term muscle allows the US to make deals with mid-level Taliban and weaken that movement.   I hope the time this buys creates a chance to improve the stability of Pakistan.

If not, Obama will be hounded by the excess death and cost — human and monetary — of two more years of war with more American troops involved, with nothing gained.  If it does work, Obama will parade his successful Afghan policy as a triumph, hounding those who doubted him today.   It’s a gamble, but one Obama makes after careful deliberation and analysis of the situation.

  1. #1 by Josh on December 3, 2009 - 15:25

    I really don’t get politics. It’s all about “hounding” the other side, being afraid to admit faults, and constantly being worried about one’s image. All politicians seem to be like this, and it is why I could NEVER get involved with anything political.

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on December 3, 2009 - 16:22

    Okay so here’s my take from a military perspective intertwined with a bit of politics. I am hesitant to combne the two, because I think once the politicians hav authorized a war, with a clearly defined sense of what constitutes victory, then it should be a military manner from that point out.

    I agree with the surge strategy, although I would’ve gone above the levels approved by Obama, and quite frankly McChrystal as well, even with his knowledge that probably exceeds mine by a multiple of about 100. My solution would be a faster paced infusion of 100,000 troops (although reality dictates this to be a logistical nightmare, if not outright impossible in a post WWII era), regardless of UN allied commitments.

    What I see lacking in our military engagements since WWII, is a resolve to actually do anything. That somehow we’re trying to compromise even at the end of a hot weapon. It militarily makes no sense. If we are to engage in war (and in my belief this should most definitely be the drastic last possible decision to make), then we should bring forth the full might of the American military. The very reason that Korea ended in a truce, instead of a victory one way or the other, and the quagmire that was Vietnam, was our dear leaders in D.C.s insistence on running the war from home. We were allowed to unleash hell, but only within certain sectors, and often times pulled out and reengaged many many sectors of land away to start over essentially, only to return back to places we had already “won.”

    As for the statement of deadlines. I have no problems with deadlines, with a caveat. The mention of particular deadlines (which I believe even this one is a lot more flexible than being told, if history has anything to say about it) should be communicated to the Afghan government at the highest levels, but not publicly for the world to see. This public mention is more of a political grandstanding in my mind, in an attempt to appease people at home. If, as you say, he shouldn’t or isnt worried about reactions and the public that gives them, then the public address, which is easily accessible by our enemies, is a complete waste of time, and counterproductive.

    Granted we are not fighting the same types of traditional wars our grandparents had known, but there still is a way of killing our way out of war. It can be done, but you have to let it be done…and to conduct the military policy as it was created to do, without worry about what some anti-war advocates has to say that might influence some politician to have a soft heart and try to re-dictate policy.

    War is hell, on all levels. We have created vast armies accompanied by technological advances of the times since the beginning of time. They were created with one, and only one purpose in mind. However, somehow in this enlightened day of age, people have somehow got it into their heads that we an fight a moral war??? Pardon me, but there is no such thing. the term is an oxymoron that can never be justified.

    Sure, we send in humans who have kind hearts, most of them anyways, and we can show compassion. We can go after any soldier who rapes and pillages the local civilian population because of their hatred for them, or merely a drunken soldier has a bonafide brain fart. But the overall mission should always be of single mind. Once the dust settles, pull the armies out, and if the politicians want to start chattering away with all their ideas, then fine. But during war, every single word a politician utters is already a moot point, and usually offered by a guy who truly has no idea what the heck he is talking about to begin with.

    And that goes for Rummy, Obama, and any other political hack on an equal basis.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on December 3, 2009 - 18:32

      I disagree about Vietnam — LBJ gave Westmoreland every troop increase he asked for, up to well over 550,000. Johnson wanted to win, he didn’t want to be seen as having been defeated by, as he put it, “a raggedy ass fourth rate dictator.” The only thing he wouldn’t do are actions that he felt would risk widening the war to one that could become a US-Soviet conflict. Nixon did take political control and tried to manage a disengagement in a face saving way (he called it ‘peace with honor.’)

      Obama, I think, is in the same boat Nixon was. He inherited a war (from a Texas ranch owner!) that the public does not support, and which doesn’t seem in the fundamental interest of the US. He can’t go all out to throw the whole of the military into it because even that might not work, and the cost would be unacceptable to the public and overstretch the military needlessly. We also can’t afford it — we’re running huge deficits (LBJ at least had a surplus). Like Nixon, he has to find a way to disengage without losing face. Now, my own view is that Nixon stayed too long and caused considerable damage by not cutting our loses in Vietnam earlier. Obama risks doing more harm than good by trying to manage the withdrawal this way. But I see Obama’s plan as essentially a Nixonian effort to manage a defeat so it seems at least rhetorically like a success. Nixon did that in 1973, but by April 1975 it was clear that Vietnam was, indeed, a loss.

      • #4 by Mike Lovell on December 3, 2009 - 19:39

        “The only thing he wouldn’t do are actions that he felt would risk widening the war to one that could become a US-Soviet conflict.”

        This was my main point on Vietnam. Although I believe our first worry would’ve been full scale Chinese involvement before a Soviet conflict. We had the manpower there, I’ll grant you that, but if you look at our strategy and tactics during that war, we fell flat on our face, despite winning every single military engagement. that’s where politics got in the way. Now, the theoretical expanison to soviet/chinese full scale war…I guess you’d could say we we lucky to have not had Patton running the show over there….we’d have been halfway to Beijing before McNamara could even protest. Hence my statement of “We were allowed to unleash hell, but only within certain sectors…”

        As far as public support…thats one of those things where Obama has to decide if he’s sticking to his guns or listening to the polls? Kind of sticky situation no matter how you look at it. On the deficit, yes we can’t afford it, but then again when has that ever stopped any administration or congress from pursuing multi billion dollar programs, regardless of the nature?

        Here’s the thing. We need to make a decision, plain and simple. We’re either in it to win it, or we’re not. If we’re not, then we might as well pull out now. One could make arguments as to stability, but quite frankly that region hasn’t been stable for decades at least, since before the British pullout anyways. After 8 years the rhetoric needs to stop, and action has to be taken one way or another. And why we didn’t make an honest pursuit of bin Laden is beyond me. I thought that was teh primary purpose to begin with. One of the problems I had with the Bush Administration…lack of focus on the mission.

  3. #5 by Scott Erb on December 3, 2009 - 19:50

    I still don’t see how we could have “won” in Vietnam, given the domestic situation there and here. The main things Johnson wouldn’t do is use nuclear weapons or massively bomb the north in fear of killing Soviet advisors. Nixon would do the latter, however, especially as relations with Moscow and Beijing improved. I think both Johnson and Nixon recognized the war could not be won. General De Gaulle was convinced (due to French experience there) that there was no military victory possible there.

    In Afghanistan, well, I think Obama has made a decision. Obama is Nixon, it’s an attempt at “peace with honor.” He wants to get the US out, but he’s not sure how to do it. Gorbachev had the same problem with Afghanistan. I also think Colin Powell probably had it right with the Powell doctrine. As a Vietnam vet, he recognized that in a democracy public support is essential to win a war. It’s not just looking at the polls — but in a democracy if a leader takes a people to a war they don’t want, it can’t end good.

    Obama made it clear we’re not in it to win, but if we “leave the right way” we can avoid defeat. He said any victory would have to be won by the Afghan people and government, the US can’t do it for them — it’s not our fight at this point. So yeah, I think we should just leave. But Obama thinks leaving without trying to create conditions that give Afghanistan a better shot at success would be wrong, given what we’ve done so far. I’m skeptical, but…

  4. #6 by Mike Lovell on December 3, 2009 - 20:09

    well, you got one thing right for sure…Obama is, as it goes, stuck in the same shoes Nixon found himself in. However, in my opinion, if we leave without actual victory of some sort, it will be considered a U.S. defeat. No matter how much honor we leave with, the Taliban will show up with bragging rights that they have repelled a 3rd superpower.

    “I still don’t see how we could have “won” in Vietnam, given the domestic situation there and here. The main things Johnson wouldn’t do is use nuclear weapons or massively bomb the north in fear of killing Soviet advisors. Nixon would do the latter, however, especially as relations with Moscow and Beijing improved. I think both Johnson and Nixon recognized the war could not be won. General De Gaulle was convinced (due to French experience there) that there was no military victory possible there.”

    Well, number 1, I’m not implicating use of the nuclear option in that situation. What I’m saying is, we had the full capability (if allowed-which we weren’t) to take the battle all the way to Hanoi. A forced surrender agreement as a result. If those in the north wanted the communist model, then fine, we keep the demarcated line that divided north and south, and allow the south to retain its freedom as a separate country. I also think, again merely an opinion, had we done so, we may have been able to secure some sort of deal with the Soviets to keep North Vietnam as well as the Chinese in check from pursuing another push to the south, as we had done, albeit merely by truce, in Korea. That would’ve been a victory for us in Vietnam.

    As for DeGaulle, by the time the French-Indochina War occurred, the Foreign Legion was more a myth from the old days than a machine at that present time. The french military capabilities were truly hampered after the German invasion of WWII ran them over (like a car over a rabbit), as far as going it alone against any capable enemy force.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on December 3, 2009 - 20:23

      After Korea I do think LBJ and Nixon feared escalating the war via China or the Soviets. Going to Hanoi would risk that. That is a fear that has to affect what one allows the military to do, since the fundamental issue is the security and national interest of the country.

      Of course, Ho and his forces would have fought an insurgency against the US like they did against the French. Would winning in Vietnam really be in the national interest of the US?

      Nixon decided no. And I think Obama decided that even if the Taliban gets “bragging rights,” that in and of itself isn’t much. Ultimately we have to decide what is in the national interest, and I think the cost of eliminating the Taliban would be so tremendous (and take so long) that it would be undercut by domestic politics before it could be done, and it would leave us weaker vis-a-vis other threats.

      Now I have to go to class and relive 9-11 — seriously! (More on that later)

  5. #8 by classicliberal2 on December 3, 2009 - 23:15

    I think this discussion is, like almost all of the exchanges about Afghanistan, missing the point: What is “victory”? No one has ever been able to define it, not since the occupation began. All we get are vague platitudes about nation-building–creating “stability” and “credibility” and so on. The “enemy,” there, by this formulation–the only one we’ve ever been offered–is lack of a credible government and stable, non-hostile-to-the-U.S. social institutions. To point out the obvious, that isn’t an enemy that can be defeated with bullets. Societies aren’t pre-fab entities. You can’t design one and impose it on a people, particularly when you’re a foreign invader based thousands of miles away.

    One can try to recast our goals by recasting the conflict as being against the Taliban, but by occupying the country and by shooting the Taliban that remain, you just make more Taliban.

    Obama’s escalation can only make things worse.

    Yet again, he has capitulated to the conservatives at home, just as he has with every major policy initiative of his administration. The major conservative criticism of his speech that has emerged since he gave it? That he failed to use the word “victory” in it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: