06 December 2009

realistically speaking, realism says really?

Milling about political forums online and Afghanistan came up, as things like this often do, and I was asked to explain what the logical problem that Obama created by campaigning on the "good war" theory of Afghanistan and why this shouldn't be so surprising to his supporters.

---- If I agreed that this war was necessary for our national security and interests, yes it would mean that (...support more troops..). I don't. So I would be leaving Afghanistan yesterday if that were possible.

It remains in our interest to combat al Qaeda physically where possible. But I don't see how we couldn't deter the Taliban from allowing institutional support via an international terrorist group without occupying the country(s) that they hold political sway in. The argument that we need to play whack a mole with countries who harbor terrorists has never been persuasive to me (whacking actual terrorists themselves, rather than resistance to occupation forces, is a different issue than their influence over governments and public support within different regions). The argument that we could, in the process of that, introduce "democracy" and that this would improve our national security and international standing is even less impressive. I'm quite sure nobody has instituted democracy and its traditions of human rights protections at the point of a gun in the entire history of the world. The one possible exception is the American Civil War, and one can glance at textbooks written by Southerners glossing over Reconstruction's benefits as oppressive intrusions and the subsequent periods of violent resistance and Jim Crow law to see that even that failed in large measure.

Bottom line conclusion: cut the losses and get the hell out because we should never have stayed in the first place. There was no greater national security interest (or any other sort of state interests, with the possible exception of cornering the opium market, certainly not the fighting of a "drug war") once Bin Laden escaped for the military to stay in the country. Period. We have special operations units and the FBI/CIA/NSA and everybody knows it. I don't see how that isn't or wasn't enough and that wars of empire and outright aggression are needed instead. Fund the necessary intelligence and black operations needed to kill or detain people who actually need killing or detaining because they are threats to international and national security. Moreover, if deterring countries that harbor and fund terrorism was our real and governing issue, then Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would have been among our primary targets back in 2001-03. It looks to me like deterring a particular variety of terrorism is more important, which is hypocritical and hence a valuable recruiting tool for our enemies.

If you assume, as I do, that much of the underlying problem is a sectarian/religious conflict within the Islamic world, then picking sides within that is probably not in our interest. Nudging the winning side toward something like liberal human rights, sure. Making sure it doesn't spillover into wider regional conflicts, sure. Bombing and occupying Muslim countries on the "wrong" side, no. That just paints a target on us.

There's also the matter of the percentage of private contractors being used as "troops". It's higher in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq. I'd rather just pay the actual troops more if we needed more of them. Apparently the evasion of rules of engagement and rule of law are more important still than troop levels. To me that suggests we have bigger problems with our strategy than we could resolve by putting more actual troops in.

The real problem for most people (particularly Obama supporters) is not that we're over there still, or even committing to be over there for longer. It's that this wasn't exactly a surprise but has become so. He addressed the Afghanistan/Pakistan status versus Iraq deliberately and at multiple occasions during his endless campaign stretch. Apparently people were not listening? I am not sure what his logic was of equating "not Iraq then or now" with "more Afghanistan today". I think I can buy the argument that "not Iraq" would have helped "more Afghanistan" 7 or 8 years ago. I didn't understand how that situation, where we were using special operations and air power to annihilate or capture targets of interest and/or support Afghani rebels and ground troops against a militant regime with minimal ability to rally the public to resist, equates to the situation now, where we are using ground forces to occupy a nation and drone strikes to attack positions of interest in a low intensity war setting fought against people who are now capable of being rallied by militant regimes because of years of occupation and the local corruption we replaced the militancy with. Really, the only way this was a winnable and "just cause" is if there was a legitimate regime installed and supported by public considerations freely that is being repressed by militant forces of terrorism (from either within or without the country, Pakistan is a better analogy for this than Afghanistan). Since it is an illegitimate regime supported by us or narco-terrorist dollars, it's not a winnable scenario.

The next domino is that we're now again subscribers to the domino theory. That somehow abandoning Afghanistan, even the limited half-assed solution Obama is using of timetables, abandons Pakistan (or more importantly Pakistan's nuclear arsenal) to the fate of being overthrown by militant Islamists. I don't follow how that argument made any sense in the 1950s and 60s when it was used to get us in and then keep us in Vietnam for a decade. It really makes no sense with a government that has a modernized army and a modestly powerful central government that it wouldn't fight back or accept assistance to fight back against attempts to overthrow it. If Canada were suddenly overthrown by French-Canadian separatists and lets say the population of parts of Louisiana started making noises and throwing molotov cocktails at the rest of us, we wouldn't fight back? Seems to me like the realistic scenario is to tell Pakistan to deal with its own problems and get its own house in order and then ask what, if any, support it needs from us to do that. It doesn't seem insensible that they would want us to stay in Afghanistan (except that their military doesn't really want us to put more troops in any more than the American public did), but this is because it serves THEIR national interests by shifting the responsibility for fighting to OUR military.

Therefore, the best case scenario is to leave Afghanistan, let the Pakistanis deal with their own internal security problems, lean on them and India to inch closer to some settlements over Kashmir and their other regional differences to give them some breathing room in which to do so, and return militarily to the region only if the Taliban again becomes an internationalist problem by supporting terrorist organisations (which we could then target over the Taliban itself). We can certainly make strong statements about human rights abuses and offer whatever means we find appropriate to nudge the extremist philosophy they use to govern toward the modern world (be that threats or money/aid with very big strings attached to it, like for example information on militant terrorist groups operating in or near Afghanistan). The problem is not Afghanistan. It's international terrorism. Until, or unless, this understanding becomes a central feature in our national strategies, we'll keep having these endless commitments of troops in places that they can do no good for safekeeping our national security and sovereignty.

The full problem for Americans, especially those that supported Obama last year more fully than I, is that they didn't ever hear him explain what the justification for military operations in Afghanistan was and nobody could be bothered to ask. "Not Iraq" is no longer good enough.

(I include myself in those who didn't bother to ask, Afghanistan was not nearly as important an issue for 1 as the general global economy/trade or the terrorism issue more generally simply because whether we are there or not people will be there killing each other in various forms and ill-conceived purposes for violence and 2, I personally didn't expect that whatever the real reason given was, we would be leaving anytime soon either. "Tough on crime" laws are more likely to be overturned than the US leaving a war like this mid-battle)
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