A Plan for Afghanistan?

Former Bush speechwriter and neocon apologist Michael Gerson writes,

It is extraordinary — just extraordinary — that George Will should write a column urging American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan without mentioning the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It is as though Walter Lippmann urged his readers, in confronting the Japanese threat of the early 1940s, to forget Pearl Harbor.

It should be more difficult to forget 9/11 than it apparently is — the goodbye calls, the leaps from fire toward death, the continental economic consequences. The Afghan war was undertaken because the Taliban government, under Mullah Omar, sheltered a dozen al-Qaeda terrorist training camps that produced 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, some of whom were human weapons aimed at American citizens.

Well, yes, Gerson, that was why the Afghan war was undertaken. But that was eight years ago.

My understanding is that Bush Administration initiated the strike in 2001 using military plans left over from the Clinton Administration, drawn up after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Whether the plans were the optimum ones for conditions that existed in the fall of 2001 is a point I’m sure historians will debate.

The original military action in Afghanistan was limited to U.S., British and other special forces troops working with the Northern Alliance. This action had the appearance of a great and relatively easy success. It liberated (temporarily) a great many people from the reign of terror of the Taliban, who are really, really bad. It damaged the operational capabilities of the al Qaeda organization as it existed at that time.

But Afghanistan had been a political and economic wreck for many years, and putting it through the motions of being a democratic republic didn’t make it so. One reason the initial military action seemed successful is that the Taliban, for the most part, didn’t put up a fight but simply disassembled itself and re-blended into the general population. The Bushies also put way too much trust and invested way too much responsibility in the government of Pakistan, which contained large factions of Taliban supporters. So the Taliban were not so much defeated as they were temporarily inconvenienced.

And al Qaeda itself (the real one, not the “al Qaeda in Iraq” that didn’t exist as such before the U.S. invasion and which is only very, very loosely, if at all, connected to the al Qaeda that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks) still exists and is now operating out of Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

It is possible that no occupational force could have prevented a Taliban comeback, because political and economic conditions that had allowed the Taliban to take control in the first place didn’t substantially change after 2001. However, the U.S. and British forces that lingered in Afghanistan after 2001 had no coherent political or military strategy that, even theoretically, would have allowed us to leave Afghanistan eventually with the Taliban contained. So … FAIL.

U.S. neocons, who collectively can make a bag of hammers seem precocious, checked Afghanistan off their “to do” list and moved on to their long-time priority, Iraq. For most of the past several years, while most attention has been focused on Iraq, occasional news articles warned that the Taliban were re-taking Afghanistan. But righties stuck their fingers in their ears and went la la la I can’t hear you whenever one attempted to point that out to them.

Last year, the Obama campaign said many times that the Bushies were wrong to take their focus off Afghanistan to invade Iraq. Well, yes. Duh. However, we cannot turn back the clock to October 2001 and get a cosmic do-over. The initial reasons, right or wrong, for initiating a military action in Afghanistan are now matters of history. What needs to be clarified are the purposes our military are serving in Afghanistan now and if there is an alternative — other than just quitting — to years of bloody and fruitless occupation. (I’d prefer the just quitting, frankly.)

I appreciate that there are real global security benefits to rendering Afghanistan into a reasonably stable and not-terrorist-ridden country. Maybe that end could have been achieved had strong and smart policies been executed in 2001 and 2002. However, they were not, and I question whether any military or nation-building effort will succeed going forward from here.

Further, even if there were such a policy, the Bush Administration’s eight years of mismanagement and profligacy has left us with diminished capacity for military and nation-building efforts.

The Obama Administration announced its Afghanistan policy last March. The President said then that failure in the region would be a threat to nations around the world, and he may be right. But I question if there is much the United States can do about it. Maybe I’m wrong. But I really would like to see a Plan B that doesn’t involve military occupation, or unmanned killer drones, for that matter.

22 thoughts on “A Plan for Afghanistan?

  1. Is it too late for a Marshall Plan? That is what we should have done almost 8 years ago, but didn’t.
    And maybe it is too late. But, if we’re going to make a committment, I’d rather spend the money attempting to rebuild rather than occupy. Occupation (alone) leads to further problems between the population and the troops which results in escalating violence (see Iraq).
    Economic deprivation leads people to the arms of religious extremists, both here and abroad. We need to try to rebuild the economy. Provide farmers alternative crops to opium and guarantee a market. Build some sort of a manufacturing base for durable goods, especially those that can be used within the country. Guarantee education for all people, including, and especially, women.
    How do we do this? I have no idea. I’ve never been involved with nation building. But then, neither does the US have much experience in it. The only examples of nation building in our history were the the country itself, the US South after the Civil War (not quite a success), and Europe and Japan (successful for many reasons beyond just the Marshall Plan. Both Germany and Japan had histories of constitutional governments and market economics – Afghanistan doesn’t). And, of course, Iraq, and we know how that has turned out…
    To sum up, we’re in a mess. We can either battle the people, or battle FOR the people. Using troops solely to occupy is battling the people. Using the troops to maintain some degree of order while you build internal security forces, and bring in people from other nations to help plan and execute ways to improve conditions for the people, is to battle FOR them.
    Will the people there see anything we do as an attempt to help them? I don’t know. The history there suggests that ALL outside groups have been seen as occupiers. But if we’re going to go down, I’d rather go out trying to help. But then, what the Hell do I know, I’m a Liberal.

  2. Pingback: The Mahablog » A Plan for Afghanistan? | Afghanistan Today

  3. maha and gulag – both excellent assessments.

    This one is a real pickle. Even without the Taliban and al Qaeda, Afghanistan has always been a sort of Venus flytrap* of a country (*the plant, not the WKRP in Cincinnati character), for reasons largely involving its topography and clannish culture. Going all the way back to Alexander the Great, foreigners have been lured to Afghanistan, and got stuck there, waiting to die. I suspect even a smart president who didn’t have a Saddam obsession might have repeated that mistake, in the extremity of emotion that followed 9/11.

    But maha’s absolutely right, we can’t go back. We need to rethink the whole picture, fix what we can, and get the hell out. The last thing we need is for Obama’s Afghanistan/Pakistan situation to turn into Nixon’s Vietnam/Cambodia. Although I think it already has (don’t tell the New DFHs!).

  4. US gains absolutely nothing from this war in Afghanistan. They are occupiers no matter how an American sees it. Things would go back to the way they were (or worse) when we choose to declare victory and leave. We have created many more enemies/terrorists. Going to Aghanistan wasnt a bad idea but not knowing why and how makes it a complete lost cause. Without a clear goal of the war, you shouldnt expect anything different.

  5. First, I do not understand why the Obama administration doesn’t level with the world as to why we are there. I’m talking ‘today’ not why we went there eight years ago. First, if Pakistan is not a failed state, it is doing a pretty good job impersonating one. And it is a failed state with nuclear weapons. And those weapons can not only reach to Israel but to Greece and other south eastern NATO states.

    Failure in Afghanistan will bring a taliban type government in Pakistan.

    Second, is oil and gas. A pipeline from the Central Asian Republics (CARs) to the Karachi area on the Arabian Sea would deprive Gazprom and the Lukoil, both Russian, of a lot of income. The CARs and the Caspian basin may have the largest known reserves of natural gas on this planet.

    If, perish the thought, the government was honest with the public, we could have a discussion about what really is in our national interest.

  6. I suppose people who want to remake Afghanistan are well motivated. But I’ve never really gotten the link between that and Sept. 11. We were attacked by Saudi Arabians with Saudi Arabian money and Saudi Arabian ideas.

  7. Seems to me the talking point of 9/11 as rationalization for U.S. military action in the middle east was/is primarily for the teabag goobers who function mostly at the “my military/pro team/church/family/bowling fraternity can beat yours up, over and down–and here is my automatic weapon to prove it.

    All of the above analysis seems spot on about the reality of Afghanistan. What I don’t have any idea about is addressing the Pak-nukes issue, or what the near, mid- and long term fall out is for the U.S. and Britain for hitting the road.

  8. I’d prefer the just quitting, frankly.

    That worked well for the Soviets. For one thing, they aren’t mired in Afghanistan anymore.

    The problem with nation building is you have to pick somebody to head that nation. We have a fantastic track record of getting that all wrong. Random examples include the Shah of Iran; the government we stood up in Iraq, which is closely allied with our avowed enemy, Iran, and enemy of our avowed friend, Saudi Arabia (what a cock up that was); and let’s not forget that we backed this guy named Bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And didn’t we back Noriega?

    With a track record like that, I think we would do well to pack it up and go home. We do need to be worried about what happens in the region, but we’re not sufficiently competent to do anything about it.

  9. You know, on further reflection, I realized what many of may not know because you’re too young, which is that as far as our involvment in Afghanistan is concerned, it has many similiarities to the old Vietnam strategy.
    It’s the old “Domino Theory!” Pakistan will fall if Afghanistan does. And then there goes the rest of the Middle East…
    Really? What proof is there?
    Again, without a coherent plan, here’s what we’ll do. It’s the same strategy as 40+ years ago: let’s throw bodies to fill in the chasm in policy. The policy seems solid as long as the bodies are there to hold that platform up. There is no tactical reason, really, to keep troop’s there. What change will/can they make?
    So, the only reason to be there is to juggle our interest’s, the way you try to juggle smoke.
    Here: POOF! Have fun…

  10. TAPI plays a huge part in why “we” are there. Once again I point to Eric Margolis and his books “War At The Top Of The World” and ‘American Raj”. It’s all about Hegemony and power projection.
    If Afghanistan was a big training camp for Jihadis, the solution would to put a fence around it and call it a prison.
    Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, we’re in the worst financial shape since the great depression, and we can’t afford to spend billions chasing Bin Laden’s ghost just because we want to “win” Some don’t understand this is not a game of sport.. The Talibad do indeed suck, but there are about a thousand other places on the planet that suck as bad or worse.
    If Obama keeps pushing into Pakistan, he will blow his presidency, and will own an expanded was in Central and South Asia.He will suffer the same fate as Johnson.

  11. It’s not really the domino theory, I think.

    Nobody is saying that if Pakistan goes, so goes the whole mid-east … the problem with Pakistan going is that Pakistan will be gone. The nukes there are what makes this important. And Pakistan is teetering too damn close to the edge for anything like comfort.

    We don’t have a lot of choices here, really. Unless and until Pakistan stabilizes, we can’t really afford to just leave that part of the world alone.


  12. c u n d gulag,

    Ian captured my thoughts better than I did. There is no “domino theory” at play here. The Pakistani government is weak. The ISI is the power and the President can dismiss the government (prime minister and all ministers) and dissolve parliment.

    Having said that and reading the comments, diplomacy is the only answer. First, there needs to be a resolution on the Kashmir border situation. It is an ongoing festering sore since partition in 1947.

    Once diplomacy finds a solution to the Kashmir problem, most of the other problems will become much smaller.

    Troops will not solve the problems in Afghanistan. Again, more hard diplomacy, but it will be resolvable once the Kashmir problem is gone.

  13. Chief.
    Good point(s). I stand corrected. I think you and Ian have some very valid points; some things I didn’t think of.
    BTW – “Diplomacy?” I’d fogotten what that was until I’d looked it up. Hmmm… Might that have worked here before, or in other places? Maybe if we hadn’t had an “Oligarghy” for the past 8 years, things might have worked out differently. 🙂

  14. Great link, erinyes. And I agree 100% with your comments and the article written by Ray McGovern.

    And I agree that Afghanistan is going to cost Obama a successful Presidency .

  15. What a great series of comments! I am still thinking about Gulag’s first sentence:

    Is it too late for a Marshall Plan? That is what we should have done almost 8 years ago, but didn’t.

    The lack of foreign money in much of the world is tragic. I’m a supporter of George Soros’ ideas in regards to regretting a lack of development money in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He had been howling to the Clinton Administration for a second Marshall Plan devoted to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. George Soros has personally started the Open Society Institute throughout the region (nearly the only Non-Governmental Organization with resources in Bulgaria while I was a PCV there), he can’t work on the scale of the US State Department or Federal Government.

    The thing to keep in mind is its not too late! If the U.S. expanded USAID or began a new organization with an appropriate amount of money (lots) we could make a difference. My feeling was always people in Eastern Europe would have loved to undertaken large scale projects to preserve historic areas, improved basic infrastructure, or brought in new factories; they simply didn’t have the resources. We could make a lot of friends by walking in with a checkbook and asking people what they want done (*Note: it may be appropriate to keep the national governments out of the process – corruption is still very prevalent in national governments).

  16. A point I rarely hear considered in all these Nazi/ Japanese comparisons is World War Two ended three and a half years after Pearl Harbor. We’ve been getting sucked dry by two 6th rate powers, Afghanistan and Iraq, for twice that long, and we’re nowhere near done. Many have made the case that the Afghan war is what ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union. Are we very far behind?

    And oh yes, Joe Klein, if you happen to read this, I do love and honor our troops.

  17. We seem to forget that the planned invasion of Afghanistan had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with 9/11. That was merely a convenient red herring for the Bushies. In fact, preparation for military operations were well underway by March of 2001.

    One more time — according to several members of the former Clinton administration national security team (e.g., Richard Clarke), the plans for the invasion of Afghanistan were leftover from the Clinton Administration. They were drawn up after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, in October 2000, by al Qaeda. So they were not drawn up in response to 9/11, but they were drawn up to strike at al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

  18. That is definitely an interesting article Erinyes, but I can’t really get behind it.

    It seems to just assume that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and proceeds from there. I understand that viewpoint, because I always thought Iraq was unwinnable, so I definely see the logic of the thing, but I’ve never really felt the same way about Afghanistan. The problem with Iraq was always that the stated goals were ridiculously impossible from the start. Iraq was never going to turn into a basion of freedom and democracy, strewing flowers at american troops etc etc etc., and al queda was never in Iraq to begin with so we weren’t going to get a big victory there.

    Afghanistan tho … the stated goal there has always been to suppress al queda activity. Thing is, Afghanistan and Pakistan really have been the strongholds of al queda in the middle east, and us being there really does suppress them. Also, as Pakistan has become more volatile, us being there really has provided us an easy(ish) way to secure the nukes if we end up being forced to.

    The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a good end-game. Certainly not through purely military action.

    I think the obama admin knows that, tho. They have always been proponents of diplomacy where possible. So … I think what is going on here is that we’re drawing up to a point where we’ll be able to really successfully hold the lid on, while at the same time pursuing diplomatic options to get us to a place where those troops are no longer necessary.

    And no, more troops does not automatically mean more indescriminate deaths. One of the major problems we’ve had over the years in Afghanistan has been the fact that with so few troops on the ground, we’ve had to heavily rely on airpower and artillery, and we’ve ended up killing a lot of innocent people in the process. More troops on the ground means that we’re able to significantly curtail the use of air and artillery. I know there have been rules put in place to do just that. Now … the big question is, will our military follow those rules? If they do, it will be somewhat MORE dangerous for our troops, but somewhat LESS dangerous for uninvolved civilians. We’ll see.

    In other words … it’s not really possible to outline an end-game from a purely military perspective. This absolutely must be a combined diplomatic and military solution.


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