Some problems cannot be solved, rectified, or un-SNAFUed. Some messes cannot be tidied up. That’s the plain truth of it. And I say that’s the case with Afghanistan. I think that whatever beneficial result might have been obtained there slipped away late in 2001 and was irretrievably lost in 2003.
In the early paragraphs of his speech yesterday, President Obama restated the reasons for the military action in Afghanistan in 2001. In 2001, I thought those were legitimate reasons. Eight years later, those reasons are moot. Bringing them up now as a reason for further military action in Iraq strikes me as a “gassing the Kurds” argument.
(For those who don’t get the reference — in the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, righties screamed incessantly that Saddam Hussein must be deposed because he was “gassing his own people.” But the gassing to which they referred took place in 1988. It was a little late to ride to the rescue.)
At this point, there are these are the issues that need to be addressed:
- Can anything of tangible benefit to the United States be accomplished by further investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan? And is that benefit worth the cost? Put another way, is that benefit obtainable for the amount of blood and treasure we are willing to pay?
- Would our abandonment of Afghanistan enable a genuine threat to the United States?
- Would our remaining in Afghanistan enable a genuine threat to the United States?
I lack the expertise in Afghanistan to even pretend to know the answers to those questions. President Obama’s argument for escalation in Afghanistan is that it would serve a genuine national security objective. There remains a connection between the the Taliban, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan, he said. He administration’s purpose is “narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.”
Now, I don’t disagree with the objective. The Taliban are (is?) thoroughly malevolent. From what I know of them, they are less interested in striking the U.S. than in enforcing their toxic religious ideas in the Middle East. However, they are a destabilizing influence in the Middle East, and the stronger they are, the more support they can offer al Qaeda. So there is some benefit in “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating” them.
However, would the action the President outlined yesterday be effective enough to be worth the cost? I am skeptical. Juan Cole really, really doubts it. David Ignatius, on the other hand, is mostly supportive, although not without quibbles.
Another way to look at this issue is to consider the resources we have to spend on national security and how most effectively to use them. Thomas Friedman argues that our resources would be better put to use by “nation building” here at home and by developing energy sources that are not oil. Very basically, Friedman says oil money keeps repressive Middle East regimes in power, and the repressive regimes create a context that grows violent extremism.
Indeed, in the speech, the President said,
That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.
I hope he means that.
Reactions to the speech from Left and Right are mostly negative, although for different reasons. Negative reactions from the Left mostly boil down to “it’s too much like Bush,” or “it’s not a big enough departure from Bush.” Many lefties don’t agree that there is a substantial benefit to be purchased with additional blood and treasure. Either Obama will keep us bogged down and hemorrhaging in Afghanistan, or else whatever might be accomplished with this escalation will disappear as soon as we leave, so what’s the point? Lose/lose.
Possibly the most controversial part of the speech was the President’s announcement that we will begin to withdraw troops in July 2011. However, as Fred Kaplan points out, the pace of the withdrawal will depend on a lot of matters outside of our control. Thus, quagmire remains a real possibility.
Reactions from the Right are mostly that the speech wasn’t rah-rah enough. For example, Andrew Malcolm complained that in he speech President Obama didn’t once use the word victory. Bush was a better war president, see, because he used the word victory a lot.
Righties on the whole refuse to acknowledge that military victory is an outmoded concept. As somebody once said, when the enemy is a stateless movement, not a government, trying to achieve “victory” through military power is like playing whack-a-mole with mercury.
Righties also refuse to acknowledge the finite nature of America’s military and other resources. They don’t want to pay taxes, but they want the federal government to be infinitely resourceful; good luck with that.
I had hoped Obama would declare that nothing will deter him, as commander-in-chief, from prevailing in Afghanistan. But it turns out a lot of things might deter him. He listed a few of them: the cost of the war, its length (if more than 18 months from January 2010), the failure of Afghans to step up to the task sufficiently. He hedged.
It’s called “being honest,” Fred. We had eight years of George W. Bush mouthing meaningless words about “victory” and “resolve” that had little connection to anything happening in the real world. President Obama was acknowledging that there are limits to what we can do, and those limits are getting tighter all the time.