POTUS and the Good War

by Joshua H. Liberatore

While most Americans are fretting over their 401(k) statements and debating the merits of POTUS’s stimulus package, our two dubious inherited wars “on terror” rage on unabated in theater, and oddly, given their exhorbitant price tags, remain unconnected to our economic woes in our conversations about how we as a nation will Recover and Reinvest. We often hear it remarked that November’s election functioned as a referendum on the war in Iraq (which was said that about the 2006 mid-terms as well), and our new POTUS has promised orderly withdrawal from that country by August of 2010, three months later than pledged and leaving a residual force of at least 50,000, but nevertheless a fulfillment of the “referendum” in a manner.

But what about the “good war,” which is to say the other one, in Afghanistan? In the refined genre of campaign rhetoric, especially for liberals, it has become fashionable to make the distinction between one’s “support” for the war in Iraq (bad) and one’s “support” for the equally dismal and profligate war in Afghanistan (good). How many times have we heard Democrats tagging a blunt criticism of the Iraq invasion with, ” . . . but I did support the invasion of Afghanistan,” which is to say, “We can be tough on terror too”? This is par for the course in contemporary politics, in which even liberals have to appear warlike in order to get elected. Let’s take a look at what POTUS has been saying about the “good war” since taking office.

The American people and the international community must understand that the situation is perilous and progress will take time. Violence is up dramatically in Afghanistan. A deadly insurgency has taken deep root. The opium trade is far and away the largest in the world. The Afghan Government has been unable to deliver basic services. Al Qaida and the Taliban strike from bases embedded in rugged, tribal terrain along the Pakistani border. And while we have yet to see another attack on our soil since 9/11, Al Qaida terrorists remain at large and remain plotting. (January 22, 2009)

The war in Afghanistan is considered “good” for many, albeit suspicious, reasons. Although the September 11th hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates (all nominally U.S. allies), they had apparently trained in Afghanistan and received funding and methodology from Osama bin Laden’s organization, which had set up shop in the desolated no-man’s land wrought by the Taliban. By October of 2001, Americans, it seemed, were ready to support some sort of plausible revenge scenario, even one as slippery and vague as rooting out a diffuse band of criminals, overthrowing the regime that harbored them, and cleansing the dreaded “safe haven”:

What we can do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for Al Qaida. What we can do is make sure that it is not destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons. And that’s going to require not only military efforts, but also diplomatic efforts. It’s also going to require development efforts in a coordinated fashion. And that’s why I’ve asked the Joint Chiefs that have produced a review. David Petraeus is reviewing the situation there. We assigned Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to the region. They are all working together. They will be presenting to me a plan. (February 1, 2009)

Although we are still waiting to hear the details of this proffered “plan,” most certainly it will involve increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan, and perhaps a graduated, direct shift of said troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. POTUS has already notified us that an additional Marine expeditionary brigade will deploy come spring and an Army Stryker brigade by summer, totaling 12,000 troops between them plus 5,000 “enabler forces.” According to the U.S. Army’s website, there are currently 38,000 American troops and about 19,000 troops from other NATO partners in Afghanistan. Given the current numbers, an increase of 17,000 troops represents an escalation of nearly 45 percent in the U.S. burden and 30 percent in the overall coalition, not a paltry increase by any standard. Most of these reinforcements will go to the opium-trading areas of the rugged southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan, where elements of the deposed Taliban are said to be hiding, and where unpiloted Predator drones continue to make regular cross-boarder sorties into sovereign Pakistan, despite local cries of cease and desist in the wake of civilian casualties, not to mention international law. Messy, messy business, and definitely not the change we need.

In terms of length, how long we might be there, obviously, that’s going to be contingent on the strategy we develop out of this review. And I’m not prejudging that as well. (February 19, 2009)

At POTUS’s first news conference, most journalists wanted to talk about the economy, but Ed Henry of CNN took the opportunity to ask about a “clear timetable of withdrawal” from Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, POTUS had taken some hits for advocating a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq (viewed by the many on the Right as a sign of weakness, inexperience, naiveté), but the presumed moral justification for ramping up the war in Afghanistan had allowed him, like John Kerry before him, to engage in some safe tough talk and burnish his foreign policy “credentials” by issuing stern warnings, at which one cringed. Now, as POTUS, he must resume that narrative:

The bottom line, though . . . is this is a situation in which a region served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans. And this past week, I met with families of those who were lost in 9/11, a reminder of the costs of allowing those safe havens to exist. My bottom line is that we cannot allow Al Qaida to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region. And we’re going to have to work both smartly and effectively, but with consistency, in order to make sure that those safe havens don’t exist. I do not have yet a timetable for how long that’s going to take. What I know is . . . I’m not going to allow Al Qaida or bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks on the U.S. homeland. (February 9, 2009)

Thankfully, POTUS has also made sure to remind his listeners that military power alone will not solve Afghanistan’s problems, from poppy agriculture to poor education and health care to crumbling infrastructure to a nonexistent economy. Indeed, many experts have argued that Afghanistan’s security will not greatly profit from additional foreign troops; what is wanted, rather, is economic aid, military training support, and general development. Complicating the military escalation is Kyrgyzstan’s recent decision to join Uzbekistan’s position in disallowing the transfer of military troops, equipment, and provisions through its military bases and airspace; that means that Central Asia is rapidly closing itself off to aiding the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. To Peter Mansbridge, of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, POTUS described a broader approach:

But I am absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means. We’re going to have to use diplomacy; we’re going to have to use development. And my hope is that in conversations that I have with Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper, that he and I end up seeing the importance of a comprehensive strategy and one that ultimately the people of Canada can support, as well as the people of the United States can support, because obviously, here as well, there are a lot of concerns about a conflict that has lasted quite a long time now and actually appears to be deteriorating at this point.

On the eve of POTUS’s exclusive CBC interview and first foreign trip, Canada had just announced it would not be renewing its commitment of troops to NATO’s forces in Afghanistan, effecting a total withdrawal by 2011. POTUS remained reticent on the subject, however, merely noting that 2011 was still a full three years away (and a full – count them – ten years after the U.S.-led NATO invasion) and that he would be “continuing to ask other countries to help think through how do we approach this very difficult problem”:

Mr. Mansbridge. Is Afghanistan still winnable?

The President. Well, I think Afghanistan is still winnable in the sense of our ability to ensure that it is not a launching pad for attacks against North America. I think it’s still possible for us to stamp out Al Qaida to make sure that extremism is not expanding but rather is contracting. I think all those goals are still possible, but I think that as a consequence of the war on Iraq, we took our eye off the ball. We have not been as focused as we need to be on all the various steps that are needed in order to deal with Afghanistan. If you’ve got narcotrafficking that is funding the Taliban, if there is a perception that there’s no rule of law in Afghanistan, if we don’t solve the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we’re probably not going to solve the problem. (February 17, 2009)

One country POTUS might ask advice from is Russia, who fought a bloody, protracted war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 that ended in painful stalemate. This war, too, was premised on political hegemony in the region (installing socialism) and protecting Soviet interests (oil and gas), and it was a dismal failure, a source of considerable shame to Russians who refer to it as “our Vietnam” and were still complaining bitterly about it in 1999 when I was as student in Moscow, where amputee-veterans begged for spare rubles in the subway stations, a daily sight that I’ve never forgotten. The initial invasion employed a staggering 80,000 troops, and though later deployments swelled above 100,000, a vast numerical advantage and obvious technological superiority were not enough to subdue the anti-communist Mujahideen, who with covert American funds, arms, and CIA-training, brought the Soviet colossus to its knees, and sent 14,000 young Russians home in body bags and many more wounded, maimed, diseased, and addicted to drugs. Afghanistan’s casualty figures, as might be expected, were measured in millions.

In his last overseas trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, the former POTUS – whose understanding of Afghanistan seemed to be shaped more by The Kite Runner than daily intelligence briefings – participated in a final press availability with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Both presidents fielded a question similar to the one Ed Henry asked our current POTUS two weeks ago. Karzai’s answer was instructive:

Well, sir, Afghanistan is in a cooperative arrangement with the United States and the rest of the international community. The decision in Afghanistan is to continue our cooperation with the international community until we have defeated terrorism and extremism and the threat that emanates from them to us, to our neighbors, and to the rest of the world. And Afghanistan will not allow the international community to leave it before we are fully on our feet, before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy, and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration billions and billions of more dollars – [laughter] – no way that they can let you go. (December 15, 2008)

Undoubtedly, this ranks as one of those “serious jokes” that only a supremely educated, polyglot, political survivor like Karzai could pull off without controversy, but its potential for veracity bears our attention. Karzai, whose popularity is waning, is up for reelection in August, and the supplemental U.S. troops are said to be purposed with securing a modicum of stability in preparation for those elections. At any rate, the announcement of a Canadian withdrawal is an early (if ten years into the conflict can be called “early”) but telling sign of what this “good” war might become in short order: a political and economic (not to mention humanitarian) catastrophe, a quagmire of historic proportions. Even if POTUS can’t be expected to remember and learn from the misadventures of superpowers past in Afghanistan, at least the CIA – who possess the unique benefit of having worked on both sides of bin Laden and other proto-Al Qaida militants – can. Let us hope they advise POTUS well.

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