Korb is Wrong on Afghanistan

Posted: April 23, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Lawrence Korb recently debated Katrina vanden Heuval in the second of three films for RethinkAfghanistan.com, a project of BraveNewFilms. Korb works at the Center for American Progress and is one of the driving intellectual forces behind the liberal embrace of the Afghan war under the Obama administration. He posted an addendum to his remarks, which reflect the bad assumptions driving liberals, and especially Democrats, to embrace military escalation in Afghanistan.

The single most important remark for understanding Korb’s support for war comes in the last paragraph of his post:

Despite the neglect of Afghanistan on the part of the Bush administration, we must remember that it is the central front in the War on Terror.

I must admit, I am exhausted by repeated attempts to pound this into the head of liberals, but here we go again: The War on Terror is a metaphor designed to bludgeon the progressive movement to death. Write that in stone. Tattoo it somewhere on your body where it will hurt. The phrase “War on Terror” blunts dissent, it undermines progressive values at home, and it plays directly into the hands of al-Qaida’s propaganda. People who perpetuate the War on Terror metaphor are, knowingly or not, undermining progressivism, justice, and peace.

Recall George Lakoff’s excellent takedown of this metaphor in 2006.

Literal — not metaphorical — wars are conducted against armies of other nations. They end when the armies are defeated militarily and a peace treaty is signed. Terror is an emotional state. It is in us. It is not an army. And you can’t defeat it militarily and you can’t sign a peace treaty with it.

First and foremost, it was chosen for the domestic political reasons. …From within the war metaphor, being against war as a response was to be unpatriotic, to be against defending the nation. The war metaphor put progressives on the defensive. Once the war metaphor took hold, any refusal to grant the president full authority to conduct the war would open progressives in Congress to the charge of being unpatriotic, unwilling to defend America, defeatist…

Once adopted, the war metaphor allowed the president to assume war powers, which made him politically immune from serious criticism and gave him extraordinary domestic power to carry the agenda of the radical right: Power to shift money and resources away from social needs and to the military and related industries. Power to override environmental safeguards on the grounds of military need. Power to set up a domestic surveillance system to spy on our citizens and to intimidate political enemies. Power over political discussion, since war trumps all other topics. In short, power to reshape America to the vision of the radical right — with no end date [emphasis mine].

…Domestically, the “War on Terror” has been a major success for the radical right.

…Metaphors cannot be seen or touched, but they create massive effects, and political intimidation is one such effect. It is time for political courage and political realism. It is time to end the political intimidation of the war metaphor and the terror it has loosed on America.

It is time for progressives to jettison the war metaphor itself…

So again: Korb’s basic frame corrodes progressivism at home and inspires militarism abroad. So, please, folks, do us a favor: Drop this frame, or stop calling yourself a progressive.

The specifics of Korb’s justifications are specious at best. He claims that more troops are necessary to protect the local population:

President Obama’s decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops and 4,000 additional trainers for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, is a necessary first step to reversing the deteriorating security situation in the country.

But, he’s ignoring the failure of past surges to protect the population:

A troop surge has already been tried—and it failed. In 2007, the number of US/NATO troops was increased by 45 percent. During that surge, more civilians were killed than in the previous four years combined.

Korb has couched his support for military escalation in Afghanistan within a larger strategy that increases “civilian experts and diplomatic resources, and the adoption of a regional approach is also necessary to correct American policy in Afghanistan.” But yesterday’s New York Times reports that those posts will largely be filled by reservists and contractors:

In announcing a new strategy last month, President Obama promised “a dramatic increase in our civilian effort” in Afghanistan that would include “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to augment the additional troops he is also sending.

But senior Pentagon and administration officials now acknowledge that many of those new positions would be filled by military personnel — in particular reservists, whose civilian jobs give them required expertise — and by contractors.

Furthermore, no matter how many people we field for the components of a “humint” (human intelligence) and “hearts and minds” campaign, they will be useless if they can’t communicate with the locals. And guess what, they can’t:

The United States needs “thousands” of Pashto speakers to have any chance of success in winning them over, said [Chris Mason, who was a member of the Interagency Group on Afghanistan from early 2002 until September 2005], recalling that 5,000 U.S. officials had learned Vietnamese by the end of the Vietnam War. “The Foreign Service Institute should be turning out 200 to 300 Pashto speakers a year,” he said.

But according to an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources, the United States has turned out a total of only 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak Pashto, and only two of them are now serving in Afghanistan – both apparently in Kabul.

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California trains roughly 30 to 40 military personnel in Pashto each year, according to media relations officer Brian Lamar, most of whom are enlisted men in military intelligence.

That indicates that there are very few U.S. nationals capable of working with local Pashtuns on development and political problems. The National War College’s Goodson said the almost complete absence of Pashto-speaking U.S. officials in Afghanistan “belies the U.S. commitment to a nation-building and counter-insurgency approach.”

All this is not to say that we should oppose the development and supporting civilian civil society components of a given Afghan strategy. But, let’s be crystal clear: the civilian “surge” and hearts-and-minds/human intelligence components are being used to help sell a military escalation, and neither of those components exist in any meaningful way. For Korb to appeal to these phantoms as justification for throwing what we do have–more troops–into Afghanistan is horribly dishonest.

Korb is a smart guy, but he needs to open his eyes. This proposal of the administration’s may look good to him on paper, but in reality it’s predicated on the existence of capabilities we lack and which we cannot create and field in time to protect ourselves, the Afghans and the Pakistanis from the consequences of a military escalation in Afghanistan.

One more important point from Lakoff’s article:

You don’t win or lose an occupation; you just exit as gracefully as possible.

  1. […] want to bring you Derrick Crowe, who has responded to Korb’s post with one of his own, “Why Korb Is Wrong on Afghanistan.”  Crowe rips apart Korb’s arguments, particularly the central contention that […]

  2. […] want to bring you Derrick Crowe, who has responded to Korb’s post with one of his own, “Why Korb Is Wrong on Afghanistan.” Crowe rips apart Korb’s arguments, particularly the central contention that […]

  3. […] Korb is Wrong on Afghanistan posted on April 27th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

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