Strategy and politics in Afghanistan

I bridle at the contention – apparently endorsed by all but one of the Republican presidential candidates – that a bunch of unelected generals should be dictating foreign policy. If President Obama believes that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, he has the right – nay, obligation – to get us the hell out.

But this latest move smacks of politics, not grand strategy, which is why I find it so risible. Instead of making a clear-cut argument against occupying Afghanistan indefinitely, Obama came out in favor of a halfhearted withdrawal that seems designed around a political timetable (I’m sure it’s entirely coincidental that 23,000 troops are scheduled to return home by September 2012) rather than any broader strategic objectives.

It’s the worst of both worlds: We’re staying, but our new strategy is designed to minimize oversight – it seems Congress can acclimate itself to a steady diet of drones, commando raids, and airstrikes just about anywhere outside the continental United States – while maximizing the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties. I’m open to arguments in favor of full-scale withdrawal, but it’s incredibly cynical to take credit for reducing our military footprint while sustaining an indefinite – but inadequate – presence on the ground. Adding insult to injury, I vividly remember Candidate Obama criticizing the very strategy President Obama has just adopted – indiscriminately air-raiding villages is evidently less of a problem when you’ve got a second term to win.

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20 thoughts on “Strategy and politics in Afghanistan

  1. I think this is the first step towards a “full” withdrawal (we almost never fully withdrawal from anywhere). It’s cynical politics, it’s gross; I’d prefer it lurching in this direction as opposed to the other.

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  2. Get used to it, buckaroo. Not only are unelected generals now running American foreign policy, unelected generals are now dictating America’s budget and spending priorities.

    Yes, the question of whether or not poor black kids in the inner cities will get vaccination is no longer determined by congressmen and senators, but by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a windowless room in the E-Ring. If the Joint Chiefs decide they need more expensive superweapons and more endless unwinnable overseas wars, say goodbye to those vaccinations for poor black kids.

    Whether or not senrior citizens will suffer savage cuts in their medicare benefits is not up to the president anymore: now it’s decided by a bunch of generals in a Pentagon conference room.

    Pentagon spending is untouchable. Therefore, whatever the generals decide they want, they get. Everything else in the annual U.S. government budget — everything else — gets paid for only after the military slurps up most of the feed in the trough.

    Want to know why the governor of Wisconsin is trying to outlaw unions? It’s because the Pentagon generals decided they wanted to expand the war, and then leaked reports back in 2008 that forced Obama to do exactly that.

    Wnat to know why we’re currently discussing 9% unemployment? It’s because the Pentagon generals needed more money for their expensive unworkable toys like the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, so there wasn’t enough money left over to pay for piddling little things like enough financial stimulus to reduce unemployment below 9%.

    Pentagon generals and colonels are the pharaohs of modern-day America. Their monuments are built on the bones of sick dying children and the graves of old men and women who died because of lack of medical treatment.

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    • From “Idi Amin” over at my sub-blog (why, I don’t know):

      Ah, so its the Joint Chiefs of Staff who will determine what poor black kids will receive vaccinations. Weapons:Good; poor black inner city kids: bad.

      Can you cite a single piece of evidence that shows one single inner city black kid has been denied a vaccination because of Pentagon spending? Just one–one’s more than enough. There is NO connection between discretionary spending and Pentagon spending–they travel down entirely different roads.

      Also, how about one single piece evidence that shows a “bunch of generals in a conference room deciding medicare policy and benefits.

      I know you’re probably kidding. If not, I’d recommend diluting that Kool Aid. Extracting all of your teeth to remove CIA plants of intelligence transmission. Wear a tin foil hate at ALL TIMES.

      As for your coup de grace, what monuments have been “built on the bones of sick dying children and the graves of old men and women who died because of lack of medical treatment.” Just one instance of a Pentagon general or colonel being buried on top of the bones of a sick dying child. Just on example.

      And could you please tell me why my family is still eating dog food? For the last 25 years or so. Dog food gets a pretty bad rap– I’m telling ya, I’ve been living on Alpo since I was 8 years old and I’m in perfect health. As a matter of fact, I can chew up a cow’s femur in less than 2 minutes.

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  3. I mean, if he was going to start withdrawing troops now and keep going, then some number was going to be withdrawn by November 2012, and that number is bound to become part of the political discussion. Not only that, but it should be part of the political discussion. So I guess I’m not really seeing the conspiracy there.

    As for the policy itself – by all means one could argue that he ought to stay in with a full commitment, or else get the hell out in full forthwith. And one could further argue that not doing either of those smacks of crass politics. But neither of those opinions are an actual argument that one of those other approaches is the better policy choice on the merits than what he is doing.

    My personal political conspiracy theory regarding the surge is that it now looks to me very much like Obama put on the 30,000 additional troops since the beginning of 2010 very much so that he could then withdraw them, in almost their exact numbers, and take political credit for withdrawals that nevertheless left the mid-late-2009 levels more or less status quo going forward. I think Obama does not want to withdraw to the extent of lacking significant force with which to attempt to influence events on the ground there – i.e. he doesn’t what to “lose Afghanistan.” And, frankly, I don’t blame him; on the merits I don’t want Afghanistan lost, and I don;t wnt it to happen on this president’s watch, and I am willing to support a healthy commitment of U.S. ground forces there for a long period of time to see that doesn’t happen. I don’t trust that Taliban and associated forces can be prevented from taking Kabul only by drones and a skeleton CT force. But I know that I am WAY out of the mainstream on that question in America by now, and I don’t believe the president is wrong to bow to public opinion in making his decision on what size to make that force and what kind of time frame to commit them to. Public support strength is a *material consideration* for national leaders when deciding how to proceed in ongoing and prospective wars, and President Obama *ought* to take it into account as he makes these decisions.

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    • I think you’re right on about your ‘conspiracy theory’.

      If all coalition forces left tomorrow, the current government and its army would be able to maintain control of Kabul. The Taliban neither has the conventional force strength nor the ability to reconstitute it as they were able to in the 90’s.

      The Taliban taking over the South (and sustaining an insurgency in Pasthun pockets in the North) is a completely different matter and well within their ability. And the problem is nobody in the US government (except maybe Joe Biden) wants to risk this scenario, even though the drones and skeleton CT force should plausibly prevent a Taliban controlled Af-Pak border region from being a terrorist threat to the United States.

      Plus, eventually, some political form of the Taliban is going to be part of the Afghan government (or the ‘loyal opposition’) a la Sinn Fein. So the we’re going to have to learn to deal with them (or *completely* ignore them) one way or another

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      • If all coalition forces left tomorrow, the current government and its army would be able to maintain control of Kabul. The Taliban neither has the conventional force strength nor the ability to reconstitute it as they were able to in the 90?s.

        This could well be; I don’t claim to know it’s not the case. I just don’t know & don’t have a confident sense one way or the other. I’ve heard & read analysts say both things.

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  4. Will:

    It would seem wise to listen to the generals about what course of action given their subject matter expertise, just as we currently listen to Ben Bernankee who is not an elected official.

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    • Which is correct, but different than the first sentence of the original post which (also correctly) argued against ceding the actual decision making authority to unelected generals (or other persons)

      A good professional adviser in any endeavor gives multiple courses of actions, their costs and their benefits. They also give their own recommendation on which to take but also admits their own biases and premises and what the potential downsides would be. But ultimately, they are only an adviser, the real responsibility lies with the whomever is supposed to be making the decisions.

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