Strange Bedfellows

It seems that Ralph Peters – best known as an unfailing advocate of the Chechen school of counter-insurgency tactics – has jumped aboard the “get out of Afghanistan now” bandwagon:

Yet, in Afghanistan, we’ve put the bulk of our efforts into turning a vast flophouse into the Four Seasons — instead of focusing ruthlessly on our terrorist enemies. It’s politically correct madness.

What we really need is just a compact, lethal force of special operators, intelligence resources and air assets, along with sufficient conventional forces for protection and punitive raids. More troops just mean more blood and frustration.

Peters has been remarkably forthright with his lack of concern for humanitarian considerations in the past, so his enthusiasm for withdrawal should give my liberal and non-interventionist friends pause. It comes as no surprise that a strategy consisting of indiscriminate air strikes and brutal special forces incursions would appeal to Peters; after all, he simply does not care about civilian casualties. This, of course, is the reality that more sophisticated advocates of withdrawal – Andrew Bacevich, George Will – continue to elide. Not only does withdrawal risk turning over an entire country to the Taliban – a group not known for its humanitarian sensibilities – the only viable strategic alternative risks more indiscriminate killing. We know that air strikes in Pakistan have incurred massive collateral damage over the past several years. We know that an over-reliance on air power leads to civilian casualties. A few years ago, liberal advocates of withdrawal were sounding the alarm over our indiscriminate use of air power in Afghanistan. Now they’re advocating a strategy that virtually guarantees an upswing in long-distance bombing.

Granted, some people may argue that we should wash our hands of the whole mess, limit our involvement to logistical and intelligence support for the Afghan government, and resist the urge to lob more ordinance into Central Asia. Given the Taliban’s resurgence, I still don’t think this is an ideal strategy, but it at least avoids the pitfalls of the Ralph Peters approach. The problem with this view is that it’s a political impossibility: can you imagine President Obama, already pilloried for his supposed weakness on national security, announcing a decision to not only withdraw from Afghanistan, but to indefinitely suspend (or radically limit) air strikes? If anything, the political logic of withdrawal demands more bombing to bolster the president’s national security credibility.

Much to my chagrin, The Weekly Standard has the most sensible assessment of this strategy’s probable outcome:

Now consider the alternative. It is 2014, and in places like Helmand province most people have not seen a Coalition serviceman in years. When they do come, they come at night, break down someone’s door and take away someone’s father or brother, who is usually never seen again. This is, however, a much less common occurrence than the sudden descent of incredible destruction from the sky. Again, this usually happens at night, and in the morning the news spreads of how many women and children were killed, how there were no militants in the area, et cetera. The national government fell in 2013, and what was left of the Afghan army retreated to the north, where it achieved some level of dominance and where the situation has come to resemble the pre-9/11 struggle between the Northern Alliance and the Pashto-dominated Taliban.

I am emphatically in favor of rethinking the scope of our political and military ambitions in Afghanistan. Aside from guaranteeing security and a certain level of basic administrative competence, I think we should leave the governing of Afghanistan to the Afghans. Withdrawal, however, strikes me as both morally callous and strategically unsound.

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36 thoughts on “Strange Bedfellows

  1. But… what do we want to accomplish?

    “Withdrawal, however, strikes me as both morally callous and strategically unsound.”

    Let’s say I agree with that. We can drop a handful of soldiers into the meat grinder every month, fair enough. At what point would withdrawal cease to be morally callous and strategically unsound? The answer to that last question seems to me to be when Afghanistan is successfully transformed into something approaching a Western Culture.

    I see no point in the immediate, or even middling, future where Afghanistan (outside of Kabul) won’t revert to howling barbarism when we withdraw.

    Accusations of callousness aside, am I incorrect in that particular assessment? (I’d love to be incorrect in that particular assessment, by the way.)

    Given that primary assumption, what are we hoping to accomplish by occupying-but-not-colonizing Afghanistan?

    We’re not even talking about OBL anymore (every time I’m willing to say “dude’s gotta be dead by now”, the CIA confirms a new tape), we can’t transform the culture into one where withdrawal would be anything but morally callous and I don’t understand what strategy we are following that would make withdrawal strategically unsound.

    I have no idea what our Afghanistan goals would realistically be (if killing OBL is no longer a realistic goal… and I don’t know that it is).

    What are we hoping to accomplish?

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    • To clarify:

      It seems to me that we are in a “if we withdraw, bad things X, Y, and Z will happen” situation. I agree with that.

      I don’t see that situation ever (like, ever) changing. It is true today. It will be true in 2016. It will be true in 2024.

      Given that X, Y, and Z will happen no matter what when we withdraw, why not withdraw now rather than later?

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    • I think I’m following you Jay. I can’t say I disagree. On Iraq in particular I’ve always been of the opinion that as the invading force that toppled the existing government that we had a moral responsability to help them put things back together. A sort of you break it you buy it mentality.
      Afghanistan gives me pause though since there isn’t really a serious claim that it wasn’t a wretched hell hole even before we swooped in. Where I am scratching my head and puzzling actually runs further back to their previous war where we, along with the Saudis, executed a proxy war against the Soviets via the local religious groups. What I’m pondering is whether we owe the Afghans something morally for our long existent meddling in their affairs.

      But certainly if we’re going to stay there needs to be concrete reasons why and concrete goals and benchmarks. Oh and importing our war on drugs into the country along with our war on terror is idiocy of the highest order.

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      • Yeah, I considered including a paragraph about how we needed to hook Bayer and Glaxo-Smith-Klein with the poppy dudes (and offer a subsidy if it came to that) to make sure that the farmers were getting money from The West and that their attitude towards the Taliban would be that “they were bad for business” rather than “the only game in town that doesn’t drop firebombs on my fields”…

        But I didn’t want to sound crazy.

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        • Does it sound crazy if we buy Afghanistan’s opium crop? Why, exactly? Is it because being anti drug is supposed to be sane? If so, then this is contrary to millenarian human experience. Forget Bayer, et al. Why not have US govt pain killers for hospitals? Would cost less? Who knows. But it would accomplish what you say: change people’s attitudes towards us and the Taliban.

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          • Because the government will never, ever, ever, ever, ever end The War On Drugs. There’s too much money, too much power, and too much influence at stake.

            They would rather the poppies be sold to people who will make black tar heroin than be sold to a corporation that will use them to make Tylenol-3.

            This will allow the government to continue to fight The War On Drugs.

            Forever.

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  2. I’d find this article convincing if anyone anywhere could explain to me how we would could possibly be successful in Afghanistan. You say “I think we should leave the governing of Afghanistan to the Afghans.” That sentence makes no sense since there is no functioning Afghan government.
    If we truly wanted to let them govern themselves, we should withdraw.
    Also, let’s not pretend the occupation isn’t extremely deadly for the Afghans. The idea that we’ll kill more Afghans if we’re not occupying their country seems like the height of neocon nonsense. People who supported the Iraq war (e.g., TWS) are not qualified to opine on foreign policy. That’d be like asking Kanye for advice on award show etiquette.

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    • Kirk, to your latter point, you’re somewhat mistaken. The calculus is that if you conduct a raid looking for terrorists in a Afghan village either by A) driving a team of marines in and hunting for the dude or B) swooping by with a drone or an airplane and dropping a bomb on the house you think he’s in.

      In scenario B you’re very likely to inflict high civilian casualties whether or not you get your target. In scenario A you’re much less likely to suffer collateral damage but you’re much much more likely to have a bunch of dead marines on your hands. The calculus is that if you withdraw and thus eliminate option A then you’re left only with option B and the casualty rate increases.

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      • That assumes that the number of raids is a fixed number–the only question is whether we do it with infantry of air power. But if we were withdrawn from Afghanistan, then the number of raids would be far less. If you’re going to convince anyone left of TWS that withdrawing will increase civillian casualties from allied forces, you’ll need a better argument than that.

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  3. Interesting points, Will. I have come to the position that no matter how unrealistic total stability (or certainly democracy) are in Afghanistan, that we can achieve higher levels of security. This will require more cooperation from Pakistan, and I have no idea how to go about securing that. Still, withdrawal probably isn’t the answer for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the “off-shore” option which is simply bad, bad, bad foreign policy.

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  4. We can argue about our committment to Afghanistan all we want to but we’re missing an important point: Obama made our commitment to Afghanistan part of his campaign rhetoric (who knows why) and has reiterated this commitment periodically since then. Now his handpicked commander gives him the strategy to fulfill these promises and Obama hesitates—in public, no less. This was supposed to be the so-called war of necessity. Now what? It’s no longer so necessary? Even as an ordinary citizen, I’d find it hard to follow Obama if he betrays his commitments so easily. As a leader of a foreign government, I’d find it impossible to do so. Better find another ally who is more reliable.

    What’s going on here?

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    • The clusterfuck that was the Afghan election is a big change. Lots of other factors have gotten worse since January in Afghanistan. Staying the course just to prove that he has a big dick to war mongers like yourself is not good strategy–unless by strategy you mean getting more Afghans and Americans killed.

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      • By strategy, I mean the strategy Obama’s general gave him and he’s still sitting on. This is presumably the strategy that Obama asked him for because it’s the strategy that is designed to fulfill the commitments Obama himself has made. I haven’t even mentioned my own opinion except to try and highlight the political angle here: I think that the political effects of Obama’s backing down are obvious.

        Why am I now a war monger? Or is anyone with a somewhat different opinion from yours to be demonized this way? Either you’re with Kirk, or you’re a war monger.

        For your info, I fully support withdrawal from Afghanistan as soon as possible. I can’t see we have any interests there besides making it impossible for al Qaeda to operate there. We did that years ago. I fail to understand why Obama put so much emphasis on it or why it’s the “necessary war.” But since he’s the president, it’s his call. Let them have the Taliban, democracy, or the Prophet of Lollipops, for all I care. Just so they can’t threaten us or be a safe harbor for other who threaten us. I think that this strategic threat was neutralized back in 2001-02.

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          • So, I’m not a war monger any more? How did that happen?

            I’m not scoring any points at all. I’m just trying to see the political effects of Obama’s backing down from his commitments. If he makes campaign promises and then reiterates them at different points as president, then I’d expect him to honor those commitments. If he doesn’t, then there’s no reason for me to trust him in the future. This just seems like common sense to me.

            What do I want? I want the president to honor his commitments even if I disagree with them, which is the situation here. At this point I think greater damage will be done to our national security by withdrawing than otherwise, just because of the prior commitments Obama would be trashing. But I’m not completely convinced of this either. It’s just an opinion.

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              • I shouldn’t even respond to this because it’s so obviously mean-spirited. What does Bush have to do with this discussion? You’re just trying to be sarcastic or whatever, to no purpose whatsoever.

                Who said, “never?” I say that in this situation he shouldn’t because there are so many people who have already taken his commitment to the bank. I’m not interested in discussing when a president can or should back down or not in the abstract. This strikes me as just silly.

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                • If you’re going to say that this is a situation where he shouldn’t change course, but not that a president never should, then it seems to me you are inviting the question of how you make that determination.

                  Bush is relevant here because he is Exhibit A for what can happen when a president is unwilling to back down or change course even after overwhelming evidence is available for an extended period that he is wrong. That said, I agree that there is a salient difference, which is that Obama is merely trying (insofar as he still intends to pursue his initially stated objectives, by whatever means he deems necessary) to, as you say, fulfill a policy position on which he campaigned and which he reinforced once in office. It is not the case that there is overwhelming evidence on the table that that.

                  But I believe you go too far when you suggest, first, that he has elected not to grant a substantial portion of the request that has come up from the CINC. He has not made that determination that I am aware of — and has has already granted a previous 20,000-troop increase on taking office. It boggles my mind that this short interval of deliberation that his is taking about further increases should spur such an outcry from hawks. Given the change in public support for the war, it seems to me such deliberation would be his solemn duty as the one and only person who must decide whether to put those additional Americans’ lives in jeopardy. But I suppose that’s just me.

                  A second way in which you overstep is in the suggestion that should Obama deny McChrystal’s request or grant a substantially smaller increase, that Obama thereby falls in breach of his own policy commitments. It may be reckless and unfair to those on the gound, but it is not the case that uniformed commanders dictate resourcing levels to the civilian leadership on pain of having the mission declared unachievable. It is part and parcel of military service to be given a mission and told to complete it with the resources that are made available to you. If Obama were to deny McChrystal’s request for more troops but keep the mission intact, he may well be guilty of giving tte military an impossible task (he may be guilty of that regardless), and of mistreating those under his command by underresourcing their mission, but if he nevertheless tasks the force he fields according to the policies he laid out in the campaign and since, then in fact he has not abandoned that policy pronouncement. Keep in mind that, after all, the Afghanistan policy Obama laid out in the campaign and since is one of counter-terrorism, specifically preventing Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for further attacks against the West. There has since been some drift toward the sense that counterinsurgency is a necessary means for that end (largely because Petraeus and McChrystal made that determination). This second troop increase is itself further subordinate means to the end of a counterinsurgency campaign, which is in turn a means to counterterrorism. I have written elsewhere in this thread that I think the counterisugency means are necessary for a counterterror strategy that allows us at some point to leave Afghanistan. But it may be that the president will determine that was has essentially happened in these first months is that a large-scale debate has taken place about what are in fact necessary means for a counterterror mission in Afghanistan, and that given the costs involved, a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign cannot be undertaken by the U.S at this time. To me that would leave open the question of what the endgame of a non-counterinsurgency counterterror effort would be (ie in what year would we conclude we can cease drone warfare?), but such a decision would be consistent with the stated goal of disrupting, dismantling an defeating international terrorist networks and denying them space in Afghanistan . . .

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                  • It is not the case that there is overwhelming evidence on the table that that.

                    Sorry, please read that as follows:

                    *It is not the case that there has been overwhelming evidence on the table for an extended period that the policy Obama is pursuing cannot achieve its ends, or that the wrong means are being used to achieve it.*

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                    • Some obviously would disagree with that, but it is intended to be taken in contrast to the U.S. experience under Bush II in 2003-2006, where evidence simply mounted and mounted that the approach being taken was misguided, and that evidence went unheeded until the message was finally sent clearly via the voting booth.

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                  • It amazes me (OK, I’m naïve) that people will be all gung-ho that Afghanistan is the “necessary war” and that Bush “dropped the ball” there as long as Obama is using this language but when he vacillates, they do as well. What happened to make it the not-so-necessary war now? We didn’t “drop the ball” after all? As long as Bush was in office, the conventional wisdom was that we should be devoting resources to Afghanistan instead of to Iraq, which was just a “sideshow” to the real war, against al Qaeda. Now, Iraq is more or less forgotten and for some reason we now should be leaving Afghanistan… What happened to “the ball?” Didn’t we drop it by not devoting resources there? Now what are we doing? Would it be called a “touchback” according to the logic of those who were screaming “dropped the ball” for so many years?

                    Bush is relevant here because he is Exhibit A for what can happen when a president is unwilling to back down or change course even after overwhelming evidence is available for an extended period that he is wrong.

                    This wasn’t the sense of the “you must have loved Bush” remark, but what the hell… Bush did not back down, of course. He surprised everyone that wanted him to by planning the surge. He especially surprised Iran, who must have assumed that he would follow the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations to withdraw. Bush forced them to realize that they couldn’t achieve their goals in Iraq, even if we couldn’t achieve ours either. This had a huge effect on the balance of power in the region: it effectively shifted the balance in our favor. True, we did not achieve the “democracy building” goals, but the larger picture is our national security and the balance of power that underlies it. The surge was “changing course.” How can you say he was “unwilling to change course” when he obviously did so. He got a new strategy and a new sec defense and commanders to go with it. Explain why that is not “changing course.” It took two years to change course but that doesn’t seem all that long to me, considering the massive bureaucracy involved and the fact that the new strategy meant creating new military doctrines and not only strategy and tactics. The process that Petraeus followed to do this took time but it was obviously solid. Bush had one chance to change course.

                    In today’s situation, Obama is not changing course but only vacillating about the course he wants to take. He has announced repeatedly that he wants to take the population-centric COIN course that Bush took in Iraq. Now he’s supposedly considering a strategy that would simply hunt down the hajis etc etc. That’s not changing course because he never had a “course” to begin with. McChrystal has said that the current strategy will fail. Isn’t this strategy the one you advocate here, of just using drones and special forces to hunt down the hajis?

                    Given the change in public support for the war, it seems to me such deliberation would be his solemn duty as the one and only person who must decide whether to put those additional Americans’ lives in jeopardy. But I suppose that’s just me.

                    This is the whole reason for Obama’s “deliberation”: public opinion has shifted, especially public Democratic opinion. While Bush was in office, Democrats were all over themselves about how we “dropped the ball” in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the “necessary war,” whatever that means. Now they’re not so sure, once they have to make the decision themselves. Should the president make national security decisions based on public opinion, especially his party’s opinion? You’re far from alone in saying “yes.” But I disagree. The president is not elected to follow public opinion but to have strategic vision to improve our national security position. Obama plainly lacks such a thing.

                    the Afghanistan policy Obama laid out in the campaign and since is one of counter-terrorism, specifically preventing Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for further attacks against the West.

                    This is plainly false. This goal was attained under Bush years ago. Obama expanded it to include Pakistan and he himself invited the Petraeus COIN population-centric strategy in his campaign statements and later, as president. He hired Petraeus, Gates, and now McChrystal, to do just that. Now he’s vacillating but that’s only because of public opinion, not because he has some competing vision of US national security. Changing course based on public opinion is the road to disaster, which is the road we’re on right now, thanks to Obama.

                    I can’t see how the “drone warfare” and special forces strategy that you support would work if we’re not in the country. Drones and special forces cannot be launched from Okinawa. If we’re not in the country, we’re limited to precision-guided bombs and so forth. This will obviously cause more death and destruction than the COIN strategy McChrystal is pushing.

                    Obama is clearly more interested in domestic affairs than in national security policy or in foreign affairs. He inherited the Afghanistan conflict, although he has clearly made it his own both in his campaign and later. His nightmare must be repeating LBJ’s experience where Vietnam brought his presidency down and destroyed his legacy of welfare-state reforms. These are solely political calculations. They have nothing to do with national security. Therefore, they will destroy the trust allies must place in our policies.

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                    • 1. I cited dates during which I meant that Bush didn’t change course in Iraq depite mounting evidence that he should: 2003-2006. Obviously, in 2007 he changed — but not in contravention of conventional wisdom as you suggest. Conventional wisdom had long called for a greater troop commitment. He did move against public opinion at that point — in favor of long-ignored military advice — but he was late in his second term at that point, and his legacy was tied up in the war either way, so there was little to lose politically for him.

                      2. I agree that those Democrats who supported candidate Obama’s plans for Afghanistan who now call for hasty withdrawals lack consistency. But it is not just them who have driven support for the war down in the country at large. And generally you are right that national-security decisions shouldn’t be dictated by public opinion — but there is one clear exception: the decision to commit large numbers of ground forces to a war that does not have a clear exit strategy. In that case, a lack of public support is not a political but rather a material policy factor that must be taken into consideration. As I believe has been quoted here at the League in recent days (maybe it was elsewhere), John McCain made this point most eloquently in his forward to David Halberstam’s The Best And The Brightest:

                      It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.
                      No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.

                      Domestic public support for a war (to say nothing of the support of the public on whose behalf we would be fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan should we choose that course) is a critical condition for sustaining the effort. That’s why it isn’t inappropriate political consideration to take the fact of falling support for the effort into account, though I certainly don’t deny that political self-preservation must creep into the decisionmaking at some point. If we want completely to insulate the decisions of our political leadership from political considerations, we should choose them by means other than election.

                      Now, as to what Obama has committed himself to in terms of a policy purpose in Afghanistan, I think it is possible to read his statements (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032700891.html?sid=ST2009032700916) in different ways (http://www.tnr.com/blog/william-galston/will-obama-follow-through-his-afghanistan-promise; http://www.slate.com/id/2214726/; http://www.slate.com/id/2214726/). I think it’s fairly clear that a strategy borrowing from the COIN toolchest was selected as a means to a counterterrorism goal. To me, that doesn’t amount to a policy commitment, though it’s understandable that McChrystal would view it as such. Along with the overall approach adopted, he was hired as a means to an end. That is why his views should be kept in perspective.

                      If you can produce something I haven’t seen where Obama embraces counterinsurgency unambiguously as a policy end in Afghanistan, and he also doesn’t eventually grant the majority of McChrystal’s request, then I’d grant he’d be breaching a policy commitment. But I don’t believe that such a document exists. And just to reiterate, at this point we are not talking about an actual denial of a request by the ‘handpicked commander’ of the strategy POTUS committed himself in view of the allies to as official U.S. policy, etc. etc. Rather, all this hyperventilating is a reaction to nothing more than a moment of consideration before proceeding with an escalation of a war with uncertain outcomes at best. It stretches the imagination to try to comprehend how such consideration could be viewed as other than prudent, no matter what previous commitments are on the record. You say you want presidents to act in national security decision without reference to pure political considerations: isn’t such deliberation as we’re seeing this week from Obama exactly what you’d want to see in a president operating in that fashion? There are clearly political imperatives cutting both ways here: the obvious optical problem of changing course regard the pursuit of a major policy goal; decreasing support in the country and in your party for the course that had previously been planned. Those political realities are there no matter how focused on policy he is, so taking those as given, wouldn’t you want a president to be sure to take the time necessary to make the right decision on the merits? Or is the essence of the leadership that you want to see simply to hew rigidly not just to the policy goals that have been set out, but also to the means that have been selected to pursue them?

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                    • Also, as I said, I don’t support a drone-and-small-team-assault-only approach, because I think it is ultimately more open ended than an attempt to bring about a situation where Afghanistan polices threats emanating from within its borders itself. But there is no sense in launching a full-steam into such an effort if we don’t think it can be sustained politically here in the U.S. over the course of the time it would take to succeed even in the best case. In that sense Obama is making decisions not just for himself politically, but for future presidents as well. In that context a substantial shift in public opinion on the question is a material question, certainly as weighty as what various allies might think were we to change course to avoid sinking hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in an effort we already know we don’t have the will to complete (the suggestion of which in public opinion is a new fact certainly since Obama was elected, and even since he outlined the current strategy). My guess is that most potential allies would be heartened that we displayed the sense to avoid that outcome — especially those who are currently sharing the burden in the effort in question, and who deserve for us to make a realistic judgment now about the whether our commitment will be steadfast enough to avoid dragging them with us into a long, costly effort that ultimately doesn’t have the staying power to achieve its ends. Surely these factors justify due deliberation on the president’s part.

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    • Making a different determination from your subordinate about the resources to commit to an endeavor — much less merely taking a short interval to prudently consider that determination — does not the betrayal of a policy commitment make. The tail doesn’t wag the dog — the president isn’t subject to the whims and preferences of his field commanders to be in good stead with his policy statements. Policy objectives are usually stated in terms of intended ends, with processes to determine necessary means to follow. The request of the commander of a particular effort are not the last word of the U.S. government about what means are necessary — or can be afforded — to a given war aim. The president and the Congress are.

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  5. What do you mean by “leave the governing of Afghanistan to the Afghans”? Is there some way that our interventions in governing led to a fraudulent election and widespread corruption? Otherwise, it would seem that if we are to remain engaged on the ground, which is something I support, it is clearly necessary for us regularly to intercede to try keep politics there as much on the level as we can. It seems to me the election fraud represented more a failure to involve ourselves in promoting legitimate practices than it was a residual effect of our actions. (I’d be open to evidence to the contrary.) To me this is the problem with all the new fundamental qustioning of the Afghan campaign — though the fact of the questioning is absolutely essential — ultimately I don’t think that a rethink gets us away from what I view as the simple fact that the only long term counter-terror strategy that results at any time (which is to say decades hence) in actual disengagement is a counterinsurgency and even a nation-building one. But I am in a distinct minority in believing those are effectively not disentagleable.

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    • Those first couple questions sound pushy, but I actually mean them sincerely. Do we believe that a U.S. political disengagement from Afghanistan would lead to less corrupt politics there? Isn’t it the case those who advocate a military disengagement (not you, Will, I realize) propose continued political and diplomatic engagement and economic aid as the keystones of an alternative course? What is the nature of our interest in the political situation of Afghanistan in general? If we were to disengage militarily — thus removing the threat to our decisionmakers of the political kryptonite of a failure of a major military campaign — would we particularly care about political corruption in Afghanistan? What would a post-military-disengagement diplomatic mission look like in a situation in which Taliban (albeit perhaps moderate elements) were controlling greater and greater parts of Pashtun-majority territory? What would be the effect of the resulting drone war on that diplomatic mission? Does this end in helicopters?

      It just seems to me that there is a certain in-for-the-penny-in-for-the-pound logic to the situation, which I expect Obama ultimately to accept (more or less as he said he would).

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    • I have heard a theory that what we call “corruption” is the way “it has always been done”. It’s not hard to jump from “it has always been done this way” to “this is the culture”. It’s not hard to jump from there to “reducing corruption is, effectively, changing the culture”.

      If we are going to be engaged in “changing the culture”, I don’t see how we need anything but a much more colonial philosophy.

      Additionally, I don’t think that we’ll be able to do anything without that colonial philosophy. We may be able to hold stuff off, but it’ll fall apart the second we leave and revert back to “the way they’ve always done it”.

      Without the philosophy that we are there for the long (seriously long) haul, we are merely holding a wolf by the ears.

      It’s not a sustainable situation and one that I think be best ended sooner than later.

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      • Jay,

        There is not doubt that when all is said and done, this may in fact turn out to be the clearest way of seeing the situation, whether we come to it in retrospect or sometime sooner. I’m not convinced it’s the case, but it’s absolutely possible. I’m considering corruption here largely within the thought experiment in which we decide we need to continue a military effort there, which, unless it becomes a pure anti-terror mission, to me it seems must hinge on sustaining a minimally legitimate government, which in turn is I believe precluded if corruption remains above a certain level, even though I entirely agree that it is folly not to accept that a certain level of corruption is also part of the established political culture. Clearly if this second level is naturally higher than the level above which a legitimate government is precluded, that’s pretty much that.

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  6. Michael Drew,
    1.

    Conventional wisdom had long called for a greater troop commitment.

    True, but it was for 400,000 troops or more.

    He did move against public opinion at that point — in favor of long-ignored military advice — but he was late in his second term at that point, and his legacy was tied up in the war either way, so there was little to lose politically for him.

    The surge was not defined by “more troops,” but by a new COIN strategy. Thirty thousand new troops were called for. Conventional wisdom (i.e., anti war Democrats, like Obama) said it was “too little, too late” and so forth, which meant that “the surge will fail” as so many said. I can’t see what the fact that Bush’s legacy was tied to the war has to do with this. Why would that make his decision any more or less important? The point is that it was against public opinion and it enhanced US national security. This is an example of the president doing his job. The example of Obama “deliberating” in public about a policy that he himself has ordered is an example of waffling according to the whims of the public. That certainly is not his job.

    Bush waited until after the 2006 elections to put his changes in operation. This was clearly a vote-losing strategy for Bush because clearly they were in the works long before that. But getting more votes by displaying his changes before the elections (and probably before they were ready to operate) would have sent the wrong message to the troops in the first place. That message would have been that their CinC will make military decisions based on public opinion. I’d love to hear you argue that this would enhance troop morale.

    Bush never deliberated in public Obama-style before he announced the surge. It just seems like common sense to me that if the president is going to make such deep changes, he must do it fast. Such Obama-style deliberation will only make him seem weak, which in itself is a hit on our national security. This is our situation today, no matter what the benefits of this or that policy are.

    The president is given pretty much a free hand in national security and foreign affairs by the constitution. If public opinion turns against him, then the constitutional way is to just vote him out next time. But trying to guide national security and foreign affairs by following public opinion is a twisted interpretation of his responsibilities. It’s like teachers teaching the test instead of the subject matter to their students. It just seems a bit corrupt to me. Machiavelli’s words are strangely applicable to Obama:

    It may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they offer you blood, their goods, their life, and their children, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt. And the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined; for the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service.

    2.

    I agree that those Democrats who supported candidate Obama’s plans for Afghanistan who now call for hasty withdrawals lack consistency.

    Glad we agree here, although you put it in a much nicer way that I would. And, of course, they don’t really lack consistency because their overriding concern is with public opinion and future votes. When they could get votes by beating the Afghan drum, they did that. When they could get them by doing the opposite, they did that too. So it’s really quite consistent. It just isn’t consistent with any kind of coherent national security policy.

    The McCain quote you put up only reinforces this point: in Bush’s case, the government did not lack the resolve McCain calls for; in Obama’s case it does. So, in a way, we’re both right here. Since Obama lacks the resolve, the honorable course is to withdraw and not continue to waste people’s lives. But my point is that this is no way to run a railroad. The president is elected to have resolve and to follow through on his vision for national security policy.

    3. [You forgot to continue your numbering] I agree that nothing is decided yet. I’m probably “hyperventilating” like you say. Point well taken and all that. On the other hand, it’s the public deliberation that I find counter productive, not the deliberation in itself.

    Consider this: Obama received McChrystal’s recommendations on 30 Aug. That’s almost a month ago. We’re talking about it now because of a leak, which was plainly caused by frustration with his inaction. In this same time period, Obama has found time to play politics with state governors like Patterson, or play politics with the Virginia elections. He finds time to lecture us on the grave danger global warming poses, not to mention his absurd health care media blitz. Likely Taliban control of Afghanistan doesn’t rate a minute of his vaunted oratory, nor does Iran’s nuclear capabilities—they and North Korea would seem to be the only nations exempted from his disarmament goals.

    Regardless of my own opinion about Afghanistan (see above), this is weak leadership and the nation does not deserve it.

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  7. More for Michael Drew,
    It looks like the NYT report tends to support my position here and tends to deny yours: Obama Considers Strategy Shift in Afghan War – NYTimes.com
    Quotes follow. Emphasis mine:

    “The problem for President Obama is he has made the case in the past that we took our eye off the ball and we should have stayed in Afghanistan,” said former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. But now that he is in charge of the war, Mr. Cohen said, Mr. Obama is discovering “he doesn’t have much in the way of options” and time is of the essence.

    Mr. Cohen added, “The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reverse it.”

    The options under review are part of what administration officials described as a wholesale reconsideration of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago. Two new intelligence reports are being conducted to evaluate Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.

    In looking at other options, aides said, Mr. Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to the anticipated troop request from General McChrystal. But the review suggests the president is having second thoughts about how deeply to engage in an intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well.

    Although Mr. Obama has said that a stable Afghanistan is central to the security of the United States, some advisers said he was also wary of becoming trapped in an overseas quagmire. Some Pentagon officials say they worry that he is having what they called “buyer’s remorse” after ordering an extra 21,000 troops there within weeks of taking office before even settling on a strategy.

    You just know it’s a bad idea if Biden is promoting it:

    Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

    A shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a focus on counterterrorism would turn the administration’s current theory on its head. The strategy Mr. Obama adopted in March concluded that to defeat Al Qaeda, the United States needed to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network. Mr. Biden’s position questions that assumption.

    Mrs. Clinton, who opposed Mr. Biden in March, appeared to refer to this debate in an interview on Monday night on PBS. “Some people say, ‘Well, Al Qaeda’s no longer in Afghanistan,’ ” she said. “If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast Al Qaeda would be back in Afghanistan.”

    At the time he announced his new approach, Mr. Obama described it as “a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy,” and said “to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.” The administration then fired the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, and replaced him with General McChrystal, empowering him to carry out the new strategy.

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    • Within what you highlight:

      The strategy Mr. Obama adopted in March concluded that to defeat Al QaedaThe strategy Mr. Obama adopted in March concluded that to defeat Al Qaeda, the United States needed to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network. , the United States needed to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network.

      Not the conditional phrasing. It is of the form I describe. Objective: “to defeat Al Qaeda.” How to do that: “keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan.”

      If Obama subsequently concludes he was mistaken that the latter is the only posible way to achieve the former, or if he concludes that regardless such an effort cannot be sustained to a successful conclusion or ultimately cannot be afforded, it is prudent for him to act according to that judgement rather than hew to a particular means to an end that hasn’t changed, merely out of concern for what allies (many of whom, again, are on the hook for that decision, and so are interested in it being right) might think should he change course. They’ll respect the sense he shows in my view. And I’ll just keep saying it: he is merely considering these factors, hasn’t made a decision that I am aware on. This is a lot of condemnation to pin on merely applying due consideration to the questions.

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