This morning, an op-ed in The New York Times by Bartle Breese Bull (that is a truly great name, by the way), the foreign editor of Prospect magazine, hit most of the issues that led me to leave Washington, D.C. I do not agree with much the piece, but the first two paragraphs describe my heartache to the letter:
BARACK OBAMA and John McCain have plenty of disagreements, but one thing they are united on is promising a troop surge in Afghanistan. Senator McCain wants to move troops to Afghanistan from the Middle East, conditional on continued progress in Iraq. Senator Obama goes much further, arguing that we should have sent last year’s surge to Afghanistan, not Iraq, that Afghanistan is the “central front” and that we must rebuild Afghanistan from the bottom up along the lines of the Marshall Plan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on board, too. He has endorsed a $20 billion plan to increase substantially the size of Afghanistan’s army, as well as the role and numbers of Western troops there to aid it. Polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans agree with the idea of an Afghan surge. A recent Time magazine cover anointed the fighting there as “The Right War.”
I plan to vote for Senator Obama (why this does not count as an “endorsement” will be the subject of another post). Senator McCain seems to me dangerously cavalier with regard to the details, and he has not resisted an opportunity to strike a Captain America pose whenever the issue of the use of force anywhere raises its head. And, of course, he aligns himself with men who use faith like a cash-cow and a validator of man’s worst tendencies. I worked with Obama’s staff in the past and have met him once, and I think he has the potential to inspire and lead a very beat-up country that is desperately searching for a new self-identity. But I am no True Believer. There are major elements of his worldview and campaign strategy that fill me with great trepidation, including a familiar appropriation of Christian language and symbols for campaign purposes and an opposition not to all war, but to “dumb war.” Those of us who see the fundamental incompatibility between the actions and teachings of Jesus on one hand and the use of violence in pursuit of national causes on the other should go into this next presidency with our eyes wide open.
(Michael Westmoreland-White posted about this topic a while back at Levellers.)
Bull uses his op-ed to try to temper American enthusiasm for “The Right War,” warning readers that Afghanistan is not a puzzle that will be solved by just doing what the U.S. is doing, only more and harder:
For those who remain unconvinced that anything short of ambitiously remaking Afghanistan would imperil America’s basic interests, here’s the big question: What sort of commitment are you willing to make? Dan McNeil, the American general who was NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan until he left in June, said shortly before concluding his tour that according to current American counterinsurgency doctrine, a successful occupation of Afghanistan, which is larger, more complex, more populous and very much less governable than Iraq, would require 400,000 troops.
How many of them would be killed? Except for the initial invasion and the isolated flare-ups in places like Falluja in 2005, Iraq has not been a “hot” war, but a slow-running insurgency. Were we to attempt to pacify all of Afghanistan, on the other hand, however, it would be nothing but heat, as Russia and Britain before us have discovered to their great cost. We’re already seeing higher death rates for our troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Episodes like the successful escape by more than 1,000 prisoners from a jail in Kandahar in June, or the overrunning of an American outpost by militants near Wanat in July, in which nine Americans were killed and 15 were wounded, have never occurred in Iraq.
The tools of violence the U.S. favors, air strikes, kill a great many civilians. At one point earlier on in the war, more non-combatants were dying from U.S. firepower than from Taliban or al-Qaida attacks. But the root of the problem with our strategy is on a deeper level than just the tactics of violence. Using violence to end violence is a contradiction in terms.
The American impulse to run around and make things “better” around the world is not in itself a bad thing. The problem is that we think guns, tanks, and bombs are good ways to build a new world. They aren’t.