Obama’s strategy is a pretty poor strategy

The Thinker by Rodin

Dear President Obama,

Can we go back to a lack of strategy regarding the Islamic State? Of course you were ridiculed by much of the media (and naturally Republicans) when the Islamic State started beheading American (and now a British) journalists and you confessed the United States did not have a strategy. Now apparently we have one. I realize I am in a significant minority of Americans, most of whom overwhelmingly support us going to war with the Islamic State. But I’d really prefer a lack of a strategy compared with your current strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.

It’s not that I object to the idea of getting rid of the Islamic State. It’s the methods that you are using that are unworkable. For the moment it involves a lot of American air power. Presumably dropping all these munitions is part of a “degrade” strategy. All I see is the tail wagging the dog. We are doing just what the Islamic State wants us to do.

It’s the same thing that Osama bin Laden wanted us to do after 9/11. He succeeded. It got our dander all up and before long we were invading Afghanistan and we compounded our mistake by also invading Iraq. Have we destroyed al Qaeda? Obviously not. Have we degraded it? Perhaps. Most obviously though we have not so much degraded it as fractured it. To cope, al Qaeda became a series of snakes rather than one snake. With no central leadership, it is now harder to kill. We’ve lobbed hundreds of cruise missiles at al Qaeda encampments in Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere. We even took out Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment for which you deserve praise. And yet despite hundreds of billions spent, and trillions in eventual costs, al Qaeda is very much alive. The Islamic State is basically an offshoot of al Qaeda. As far as al Qaeda is concerned, the Islamic State is too radical.

So apparently firepower alone, and even the presence of more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops in Iraq was not nearly enough to stop terrorism and sectarian violence. What our muscle does though is make us look like an Axis of Evil, fueling the recruitment of terrorists ready to fight and die for a holy mission, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants. Munitions can be replaced. They have the means to replace anything we blow up, and much of their money is actually coming from so-called friendly states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. To grow and keep growing they need more recruits for the cause, and all the fighting is certainly doing that. Muslims across Europe and even here in the United States are going to join the mayhem, and plenty more in the immediate area are also anxious to wreak holy war. Had we not invaded Iraq it’s unlikely the Islamic State would even exist.

We invaded Iraq in order to stop non-existent collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. By turning it into a lawless country, we allowed al Qaeda to establish a real foothold in the place. Ten years later it resulted in the Islamic State, which we now want to beat into submission using the same tactics that failed to work in the past. This is an effective strategy? No, it’s the failure to learn from past mistakes. It is folly.

Mr. President, I understand the pressure you are getting. Americans are seeing these grisly videos on YouTube, so cleverly produced by the Islamic state. They are carefully designed to outrage us and push our buttons. It worked. Americans want action. I was certainly revolted by the beheading of two American journalists. My instinctive reaction was the same as most Americans: let’s show them who’s boss by dropping some bombs. An eye for an eye. When I thought about it logically though, I looked at how great it is working out for Israel. That nation does not have peace. It has indefinite and increasingly painful warfare punctured by months or perhaps years of a pseudo-peace. Degrading and destroying the Islamic State the way we plan to do it is simply setting us up for future complex and increasingly worsening games of whack-a-mole. In the long term this does not make us safer, or make the world a more peaceful place. It worsens, not helps, our national security.

Any civilized person is going to think that beheading anyone is beyond outrageous and should not be tolerated. It is, of course, evil. And two Americans so far have suffered this grisly fate. What really bugs us though is that it happened to Americans. We were far less concerned about when Saddam Hussein’s police were doing it. If I had my option, I’d much rather be beheaded than suffer the fate Iraqis routinely experienced under Saddam Hussein. His torturers routinely cut off limbs, made people endure acid baths and even boiled people alive in acid baths. Sometimes this was done in front of their families. We’re not talking about a couple of people; we are talking tens of thousands, and likely a lot more. Only they were Iraqis, not Americans. At least with a beheading, death comes quickly.

While we find such punishments abhorrent (well, except for the Dick Cheney’s of the world, who are quite comfortable with waterboarding), this is par for the course in the Middle East. Beheadings happen regularly in Saudi Arabia. Syria tortures. Iran tortures. The new government of Iraq tortures, mostly Sunnis because the Shi’ites are now in charge. What’s unusual is finding a government in that region that does not torture. Like Americans venturing into North Korea, Americans who travel to these countries in the Middle East have to have some reasonable expectation that they will suffer fates like these too.

We cannot install civilization in this area. We cannot put sufficient forces on the ground to control this region, as we proved in Iraq. For all the current calls for retribution from Americans today, they won’t support a long-term occupation of this area and we can’t afford it.

I realize you are under pressure to show some results. Americans want instant results. We cannot win this fight, at least not like this. This is not a problem that can be controlled. America must give up the fantasy that we can order the world to suit our prejudices and predispositions. Trying to wage this war on the ground through proxies, which is how you want to proceed, is a strategy with virtually no chance of success. It’s a hopelessly tangled mess that we cannot and should not sort out.

Mr. President, part of the art of leadership is to candidly acknowledge what is possible and what is not possible. This is not possible. You should tell us American this bluntly. Let’s do what we can do to make things less miserable for those affected. Let’s make life better for the refugees. But please don’t think that we can solve this problem. We can’t and attempting to do so will only make things worse for us in the long term.

You of all people should understand this.

Stop it. Change course now. Tell America you have rethought your strategy. Let it be.

The last debate

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The Thinker by Rodin

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

Review: The Kite Runner (2007)

The Thinker by Rodin

Occasionally, such as in the movie W., you get an uncomfortably topical movie. The Kite Runner is such a movie because it feels too close to the present. Just this weekend, for example, Afghanistan attempted to hold parliamentary elections with at best mixed results: violence, low turnout and the usual fraud. The Taliban seem busy reoccupying major portions of the country. Thus is it hard to watch a movie about Afghanistan, particularly one as realistically portrayed as The Kite Runner, and not feel the need to turn away. We know the Taliban are nasty people. Do we really need to see their nastiness depicted in a movie, particularly a sickening scene of stoning a woman to death at a soccer arena?

With a movie with such grim topics, it helps if large parts of the movie take place in the United States, as is the case here. In fact, no part of this movie was filmed in Afghanistan. Rather, Western China (specifically Tashgarkan, China) was used as a Kabul substitute, and Kashgar and the Pamir Mountains in China were used to depict other parts of Afghanistan. You would be forgiven for thinking that the crew had somehow managed to film this movie inside Afghanistan, because it feels quite authentic.

The Kite Runner actually follows a long period of Afghan history, beginning with the period of the Russian invasion in the late 1970s and ending with the occupation by the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As you might expect, it is full of Afghanis, which means that you are almost guaranteed not to recognize anyone in the film. Do not let the lack of a prominent actor deter you from seeing the film, because it is gritty, very well done and perhaps too realistic. Amir, a talented boy, lives with his wealthy secular widower father in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Kabul. His father employs a servant whose son Hassan also lives with the family. Hassan does not look Pashtun, the prominent ethnic group in that part of Afghanistan. Outside the sanctuary of their house, he is fair game for a group of older Pashtun bullies, who also harass Amir for his association with him. Perhaps the boys merely mirror the social, ethnic and religious anxiety around them. Afghanistan has rarely known peace for long, and it’s clear that a Russian invasion of Afghanistan is imminent.

Boys being boys, they tune out much of the adult things happening in Afghanistan. Amir and Hassan are the closest of friends, even to the point of carving their initials into a tree. Amir is an inveterate storyteller and Hassan is his eager listener. Their passion, like most of the boys in Kabul, is kite flying. Amir and Hassan are gifted in the art of kite flying, which in Afghanistan involves contests to see if your kite can intersect other kites and cut their lines, setting them adrift. It’s a neat and harmless hobby that involves a great deal of skill.

Soon enough, Amir and Hassan’s relationship is torn apart, principally by the Soviet invasion. Amir and his father flee to Pakistan and eventually to the United States. The story resumes some twenty years later in the San Francisco Bay area. Amir’s wealthy father is reduced to clerking in the United States. Both are still vested in a small but vibrant Afghan community in the bay area. Without going into details, Amir falls in love with a prominent Afghan woman, his father suffers serious health issues he finds a compelling reason to return to Afghanistan under occupation by the Taliban.

It is the latter third of the movie, when an Americanized Amir returns to Afghanistan, which will both appall you and pull at your sense of pathos. Amir returns to a country he barely recognizes that is under the thumb of the ultra-orthodox and power crazy Taliban, then at the height of their power. His journey into Kabul is incredibly dangerous. It is depressing to see a city so shattered, with women reduced to wearing burkas and requiring male escorts, and with religious law meted out with impunity. It is even more depressing to think that no matter what we do in Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to be in charge again at some point, if they are not already by force of occupation in much of Afghanistan.

While the cast is almost exclusively full of Afghans, the film’s producers and directors are not. The story is based on a novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It is chalk full of adult themes and the nastiness that was and still is the present Afghanistan. It is also very well acted and directed. Its story is not very complex, but it is a very human story of largely ordinary people trapped by circumstances in a larger and messy conflict. The film won a number of awards. It generated some controversy because of a simulated rape scene involving Hassan, which made it dangerous for the actor to return to Afghanistan.

There is some disturbing violence in this movie, as well as many other sad scenes (such as seeing amputees with war or Taliban-inflicted injuries trying to get around Kabul). However, you also get a sense of Afghanistan and its complex culture. The movie’s only real flaw is it feels too close to the present. Perhaps this movie would have been better if it had been made a couple of decades later.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Our Afghanistan folly

The Thinker by Rodin

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan

The Thinker by Rodin

Tuesday in the Afghani city of Kandahar, five cars rigged with explosives detonated simultaneously, killing at least forty-one people and wounding at least 66. This is just one of the most recent and egregious incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan, which has recently seen a significant upturn in violence. In July, American casualties in Afghanistan reached forty-five, their highest monthly level ever. Great Britain also recently marked a sad milestone, suffering its 200th casualty in the Afghani Theater. The higher casualty rates recently is likely due to the presence of an additional 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, as well as a change of military strategy to root out the Taliban by moving our forces into areas they control.

If this strategy feels foreboding, it is because it eerily similar to what we did in Iraq, both years ago as well as very recently. At least in Iraq our troops are now largely out of harm’s way. The Iraqi government has had us move our soldiers out of their major cities. Our troop transports now move largely only at night. Coincidentally, American troop deaths in Iraq have plunged. Unfortunately, as much as the people of Iraq might wish it, their sectarian conflicts have not gone away. Recently, there have been renewed car bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the same ethnic tensions that existed while Saddam Hussein ran the country remain and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

From my perspective, we are repeating the same flawed strategy in Afghanistan that we used in Iraq. We are not learning from our mistakes. Granted when he assumed office President Obama was very careful qualifying what constituted success in Afghanistan. Nation building and instilling democracy are lofty goals, but are expendable if need be. Our new general in the Afghan theater Stanley McChrystal seems intent on winning through intense nation building facilitated by having American troops control Taliban occupied areas of the country. In addition to the 21,000 new American troops now in the theater, it appears McChrystal will soon be appealing for additional troops.

It seems reasonable to predict our future “success” in Afghanistan based on our “success” in Iraq using this strategy. Why do we need so many troops in Afghanistan? What is it that we are really trying to accomplish? In 2001, we went into Afghanistan because the Taliban were shielding Osama bin Laden and the core elements of al Qaeda. Our strategy then was quite effective. Al Qaeda did a quick tally ho across the border into Pakistan, where they did not have to deal with the hassle of our troops and exploding bunker bombs. According to experts, al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan. What remains of the top al Qaeda leadership (and it is likely that it is a shell of its former self) now exists in tribal northwest Pakistan. In short, we succeeded in our stated mission in Afghanistan: al Qaeda can no longer use the country as a place of organization, training and refuge for attacks against the United States.

We have also tried to foster democracy in Afghanistan. New national elections for Afghan president are being tallied this week. As in neighboring Iran, the eventual results look like they might reflect substantial ballot box stuffing. Our initial presence did drive the Taliban, an admittedly thoroughly loathsome regime from power. Inattention has allowed the Taliban to regroup. Our presence in Afghanistan has brought many good but likely temporal things, including some semblance of national government, economic growth, some restoration of women’s rights and more education to the populace. What our presence did not do, and really can never do, is allow complete control over the country. Afghanistan is far too large to be controlled by any occupying army. Even if it could be, occupying it will prove financially ruinous, as it has in Iraq.

Our expanded mission seems to be ensuring that the Taliban do not return to power.  Should the Taliban return to power, it is certainly possible that they will provide safe harbor to al Qaeda again. Most experts though do not believe the Taliban would be stupid enough to do this again. Al Qaeda’s goals have always been international. The Taliban has no such interests. It is a nationalist movement. It is interested in instituting a strict form of Muslim fundamentalism across all of Afghanistan.

Just as in Iraq, there has been a bad case of mission creep in Afghanistan. In this case, the American people seem to be saying that having been burned once in Iraq, we should not get burned again. A majority of Americans believe, as I do, that this war is not worth fighting. To the extent that we should have a role in the country, it should be to train Afghani troops, police and bureaucrats to secure, police and govern themselves, as we did with some success in Iraq. Regardless of whether democracy flourishes in Afghanistan in the future or not, Afghanistan is extremely unlikely to be part of a war aimed at the United States again.

Back in 2003, President Bush foolishly proclaimed Mission Accomplished on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The irony in Afghanistan is that President Obama could pull the same stunt and plausibly get away with it. We really have accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, at least as it was originally defined. Al Qaeda is gone and is unlikely to return. Even if they try to return, the Taliban are likely to throw them out, knowing they lost power by letting them in. In fact, our original mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished for several years now. We won this battle.

Granted, it might not make a great photo op proclaiming Mission Accomplished when Afghanistan seems to be teetering back toward anarchy. Violence today in Afghanistan may be as bad as it has ever been since we engaged our military there. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most of this violence is a direct result of our troops being in the theater. It is evidenced, not just by these car bombings but also by the many roadside bombings that are killing our soldiers, just as they did in Iraq. In short, many Afghanis, many of whom are also friendly to the Taliban but certainly not all, simply do not like having their country occupied. They are doing what most nationalists do in such circumstances: resisting through force of arms.

Thinking we can succeed in nation building through force of arms in Afghanistan of all places is foolish. To the extent we succeed in this expanded mission, it will not be because of military action, but because we helped create and provided effective aid and advice to the shaky Afghani government. Afghanistan has a long history of attempts at foreign occupation and none succeeded in the end. The USSR was the most recent country to fail spectacularly in Afghanistan. So will we, if we think we can build a new nation though our occupation, however benign and temporal our stated intentions.

It is up to Afghanis to chart their own way forward. Fortunately, despotic regimes like The Taliban rarely stay in power long. Any government that oppresses for too long meets resistance. In time, balance will be restored to something that approximates natural governance in Afghanistan. In the end, it is unlikely to look like a western democracy.

The only question for the United States is how many more lives we want to waste on a flawed military strategy after we accomplished our original goals. If we had the right general in the theater, which apparently we do not, he would be advising that this war cannot be won militarily, so we should no longer try. Instead, we should provide money and advice only and use our military inside the country only when we know al Qaeda has returned.

Wrong Target

The Thinker by Rodin

Somehow, I could sense that Benazir Bhutto would not survive the year. Maybe subconsciously she had a death wish. Martyrs often live larger in death than they did in life. On October 18th, when the exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister triumphantly returned to Pakistan after years of exile, 145 of her supporters died from targeted suicide attacks during her welcome home rally. Yet she was not deterred and either fearlessly or recklessly continued campaigning to win power again. Today we learn of her assassination, which quickly escalated into yet another mass murder triggered by a fanatical suicide bomber probably linked to al Qaeda. At least twenty others were killed in today’s attack.

From our distant perspective ten thousand miles away, her assassination is more sad evidence that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, should have been our real front in the war on terrorism. Sadly, it has all the right ingredients to be its front line. It is a sometimes democratic nation still without firm roots in democracy. It has known as much totalitarianism as democracy. It is a country that now has to grapple with whether it will be secular or theocratic. The Pakistani military rarely fights outside its borders. Instead, it spends much of its time unsuccessfully containing an emerging a civil war.

Unlike either Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nukes. Their nuclear weapons are outside of our ability to control them. Should Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan, they could be leveraged against us. To preclude that possibility, we may end up having to support its many totalitarian regimes. Democracy is a nice idea, but keeping nuclear arms from being used against us requires sane people in command. Dictators believe foremost in clinging to power, so they are unlikely to do anything too rash. This was why I was not surprised that we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after we invaded.

Its old news, but we took our eye off the real target. Instead, President Bush squandered the last five years chasing an illusionary Axis of Evil. By invading Iraq, he unbottled its repressed sectarian forces and put our troops in the crossfire. Troops that might have gone into Afghanistan where our real enemies lied went instead into Iraq to try to contain a bloody sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, since we elected to distract ourselves, al Qaeda’s leadership moved into the relative safety of lawless northwestern Pakistan. The area may be lawless, but Pakistan still considers it part of its territory, so it prohibited us from actually sending in our forces to engage al Qaeda there. There is irony that our greatest enemy found relative sanctuary and new strength from our erstwhile ally. That new strength was on display yesterday with Bhutto’s assassination.

According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having access to this intelligence, our administration chose instead to rattle sabers with Iran and thus inflame our diplomatic row with its leaders. Fortunately, with the release of this NIE we can at least rule out a preemptive war with Iran. You would think Bush and Cheney might have learned something from the Iraq debacle, but apparently not.

The irony is that if we really want to solve the war on terrorism, we need Iran’s assistance. It appears that it is reducing the number of arms smuggled into Iraq. Iran also helped us early in the war by lending its support to forces that undermined the Taliban. Iran is overwhelming Shi’ite. Al Qaeda is a force of Sunni extremism. Iran may be a quasi-democratic theocracy, but the last thing its rulers want is to be surrounded by states associated with al Qaeda. That was in part why they were providing arms to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq; they saw it in their own self-interest.

Iraq may appear to be our quagmire, but it is unlikely that our national security would be undermined if we left. The people who live there might have to fight a protracted civil war, but they consider our presence counterproductive. Surveys of Iraqis consistently show they want us out.

It is hard to see though what we can now do in Pakistan to defeat Islamic extremism. A few surgical strikes against the leaders of al Qaeda might be effective but it might also inflame anti-American passions and thus prove counterproductive. Following the Vietnam model and placing hundreds of thousands of our troops there will not solve our problem either for the same reason the British lost the Revolutionary War: there is too much terrain to occupy. It is ruinously expensive to occupy any territory indefinitely, as we are finding out in Iraq. Just as Vietnam endured a civil war, so Pakistan is grappling with what looks like its own internal war. Foremost, we would like to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons never get into the wrong hands. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will trust them to our safekeeping.

Thanks to Bush Administration bungling, our short-term options are now bleak. We may have to support Musharraf even though he is likely to continue to give democracy the short shrift. We would do so on the assumption that a dictatorship is preferable to wholesale anarchy. We can also keep pushing for democracy but it is tacitly understood that we will only be cheering for it from the sidelines and will not do anything meaningful to allow it to flourish. As we have learned in Iraq and Palestine, we have to be careful what we wish for. A democratic government in Pakistan may not be aligned with our national interests. However, it is likely that an enduring democratic government in Pakistan would promote long-term peace in the region.

As I have mentioned in other entries this war on terror cannot not won on the battlefield. It is a generational war that fades into gradual irrelevance by uplifting lives. The real causes of Islamic terrorism are not religious, but are a result of the persistent and pervasive feelings of hopelessness and the miserable living conditions within much of the Islamic world. To some extent, these conditions are fed by not embracing Western capitalistic values. (Note that few people in prosperous Qatar want to see the regime replaced.) Until governments there change to embrace the needs of the people, radical clerics will find they have a ready audience.

The United States must look long term. It is in our interest to quietly facilitate and fund as much humanitarian aid for the disenfranchised as possible in the Islamic world. This does not mean giving billions to Halliburton, but it does mean working discreetly with non-governmental organizations in the region and funding organizations like the Red Crescent to ensure they have the capital to change conditions on the ground. We also need to make our foreign aid conditional on meeting benchmarks for improving the living standards of people in a country. This conflict is about how Islam will fit into the 21st century. Right now, we are being used as proxies to inflame the conflict. We must change the dynamic and Pakistan is likely its front.

Our Coming Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Thinker by Rodin

The United States will not prevail in Iraq, and likely won’t prevail in Afghanistan either. Both are noble endeavors to try to remake the world into a saner and more peaceful place, but both efforts are doomed to fail. The underlying reason that we will fail will be our inability to understand the complexity of both regions of the world. We acted out of instinct and prejudice instead of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently we will fail, and the failure will change the nature of our nation profoundly.

There is a power greater than our armies and navies, greater even than our nuclear weapons that we conveniently overlooked. This is the power of the human will. Whichever side in a conflict has more of it will eventually win the conflict. In truth our country does not have the stomach for a prolonged conflict in Iraq. Bush gambled it all on the expectation that a quick victory over Saddam would put Iraqis in a mood to accept American ideas and American values for a future state and that opposition to the occupation would either not materialize or be easily squashed. This is the fundamental flaw that in time will be understood to be the reason we lost, but which this administration plainly cannot see. It is blinded by its ideology.

The truth of course is that while most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam gone, they had no interest in being tutored and mentored by Americans in how to set up and run their own country. Iraq, of course, is the cradle of civilization. While America was thinly populated by natives, they were setting the standards for education and commerce for the rest of the world. Even today Iraq is in many ways at the forefront of the Muslim world. Compared to countries around it, it is teeming with educated and bright individuals. Women live lives markedly better and participate more in society in Iraq than those in other Muslim countries, including Kuwait.

Iraqis are not children who need to be tutored in how to run their own country. Somehow they managed to construct all those hospitals, power plants and schools by themselves. If their infrastructure is now a bit shabby, it is the result of more than a decade of sanctions and our war, not because they are incompetent of managing their own country. They are not emerging from some third world society. The literacy rate is 58% (vs. 10%-20% in Afghanistan). 93% of children attend primary schools. Per capita income is $2171 per year. By American standards this is not high, but for the region is it very respectable. For example Egypt’s per capita income is $1530 per year, and we have been subsidizing and “mentoring” Egypt for decades.

In short, the United States is acting in a very condescending manner toward the Iraqi people. This is building resentment that is translating into resistance against their occupation because Iraqis are a proud people and used to doing things by themselves. Moreover the United States is demanding that Iraq change its long established methods. As this Marketplace Report demonstrates, Iraqi businessmen are leery of our American style contractor-subcontractor system where they must pay to participate. It’s as if everyone there drives on the left and we are requiring them to drive on the right.

Imagine if we had a Saddam Hussein running our country for the last thirty years. We would probably be very grateful if Canada sent in its army to oust our oppressive leader. But it wouldn’t take very long before we’d say, “Thanks, we can take it from here.” According to an independent Zogby poll of the Iraqi people this is exactly what most Iraqis believe and want. Some of the findings include:

– Only two in five (39%) said that “democracy can work in Iraq,” while a majority (51%) agreed that “democracy is a Western way of doing things and will not work here.” Shiites – who suffered the most under Hussein and who make up the majority in Iraq – are more evenly split about democracy (45%-46%), while Sunnis are far less favorable.

– Asked about the kind of government that would be best for Iraq, half of all respondents (49%) said they preferred “a democracy with elected representatives guided by Sharia (Islamic law).” Twenty-four percent prefer an “Islamic state ruled by clerics based on Sharia.” Only one in five (21%) preferred a “secular democracy with elected representatives.”

Three out of five made it clear that they wanted Iraqis left alone to work out a government for themselves, while only one in three want the United States and Britain to “help make sure a fair government is set up.” Two out of three Iraqis – and seven in 10 Sunnis – want U.S. and British forces out of Iraq in a year.

What to expect in the future? It’s not too hard to figure out, but the longer our army occupies the country the more resistance against us will increase. This should not be surprising. Those who have a vested interest in having America out of Iraq have had time to network and to bring in the skills and arms needed to sap the morale of our Army. Not surprisingly a Stars and Stripes poll of our forces in Iraq found that half of our troops there describe their unit morale as low. As attacks increase expect these numbers to go up. 49% of those surveyed said it was unlikely they would remain in the military when their term of service ended.

The logical thing to do would be to declare victory and leave. Our mission was to defeat Saddam. We have done that. It might made sense to keep an air base in the Iraq regardless, just in case Saddam does try to make a come back. That way he could be quickly taken out again. The people of Iraq might well descend into internecine conflicts when we leave, but that is the likely scenario in any case. If a government there does not command the respect of those it governs, it will not work. And any government in place that is being overseen by the United States is unlikely to be supported by the Iraqi people. Read Riverbend’s blog for more background.

In Afghanistan we can hope that a new government with a new constitution will emerge, but the likelihood is that while one will be put in place it won’t work in the long term. Afghanistan is a country created by the British. It has no unique national identity. Rather it is a collection of ethnic and tribal areas. If it makes sense for these tribes to affiliate they will, but indications are that ethnicities will want to manage their own affairs and centralized government is unlikely to work in the long term. The Russians tried to occupy Afghanistan and failed spectacularly. If Communism can’t be made to work there, American style democracy is unlikely to work their either. All we can really do is try to strike at al Qaeda and Taliban elements where we can find them. But most of these elements are now in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; it is a safer place for terrorist at the moment and generally protected from our military forces.

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

It is a shame, but not surprising, that pretty much all the Democratic candidates except Dennis Kucinich say we have to stay the course in our war in Iraq, despite the obvious evidence that our strategies are fatally flawed. Yes, we should feel a natural obligation to finish what we started, but we should not blind ourselves to the reality that we are unlikely to be able to actually finish what we started. We need to limit our attacks on those who aided and abetted the September 11th attacks only. Anything else will be seen as more American imperialism and likely to inflame more hatred and bad feelings against us. In the end that is counterproductive to our national security.