Archive for August, 2009

Conservative arch-pundit George Will will use his column in tomorrow’s Washington Post to urge President Obama to get our troops out of Afghanistan:

…forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now

When George Will and Senator Russ Feingold agree on something, you better listen to them.

The New York Times over the weekend reported that the anti-war movement is gearing up to challenge President Obama on Afghanistan:

A restive antiwar movement, largely dormant since the election of Barack Obama, is preparing a nationwide campaign this fall to challenge the administration’s policies on Afghanistan.

This is the best news I’ve read in months, and it couldn’t come at a better time. General McChrystal just submitted his strategic review to the Defense Department, and he’s expected to ask for as many as 20,000 more troops. That’s a recipe for increased casualties (both civilian and military), continued waste of national wealth and damage to our national security. These are just some of the effects of the war in Afghanistan documented in Rethink Afghanistan, which, by the way, the New York Times mentioned in their piece:

“Rethink Afghanistan,” …is being produced and released in segments by the political documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald. In six episodes so far, Mr. Greenwald has used interviews with academics, Afghans and former C.I.A. operatives to raise questions about civilian casualties, women’s rights, the cost of war and whether it has made the United States safer.

The episodes, some as short as two minutes, are circulated via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and blogs. Antiwar groups are also screening them with members of Congress.

I do have one quibble with the NYT’s characterization of the movement, however. Many of the groups mentioned have been consistent in their opposition to war, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican sat in the White House. While it’s true that many have been reluctant to publicly oppose President Obama, others have stood on street corners, badgered their representatives, held screenings of Rethink Afghanistan in their local communities, and worked against a massive public desire to sink into obliviousness now that George W. Bush is back in Texas. As Robert put it in the NYT piece, it’s been “lonely out there,” and the folks who’ve been out there from the beginning deserve a pat on the back for helping to swing public opinion against this war.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people working to kill the energy of the nascent movement to end the war in Afghanistan. Even some who were with us on Iraq are trying to stop the turning of the tide:

“People do not want to take on the administration,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org. “Generating the kind of money that would be required to challenge the president’s policies just isn’t going to happen.”

…Others, like VoteVets.org, support the American military presence in Afghanistan, calling it crucial to fighting terrorism.

Hide and watch, Mr. Soltz.

The New York Times pegs the original sin of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan:

In hindsight, several current and former administration officials say they have come to believe the decision to turn a blind eye to the warlords and drug traffickers who took advantage of the power vacuum in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was one of the fundamental strategic mistakes of the Afghan war.

Someone will have to explain to me how we’re not compounding the error by pursuing a continued counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting from the Taliban a government comprised of the above-mentioned warlords and drug traffickers. NYT’s Helene Cooper and Carlotta Gall, emphasis mine:

Administration officials have routinely complained of Karzai’s failure to crack down on corruption and the drug trafficking fueling the insurgency.

Should Karzai win, either outright or in a second round, Obama administration officials could find a president in Afghanistan who has engaged in so much deal-making that he may be even more beholden to warlords than before.

Warlords and drug lords like Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq and Abdul Rashid Dostum dominate the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. They’re one of several reasons why the government on whose behalf we’re fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not worth another American dime or drop of blood. (Stay tuned for a continuation of my series, “Meet Your Afghan Warlords,” to learn more about the thugs dominating Karzai’s regime.)

President Obama’s election was hailed by progressives as a bright, shining opportunity for the U.S. to regain its moral standing in the world. That’s not going to happen without a radical reordering of U.S. objectives and strategies in Afghanistan. As long as we continue to hold to the Bush-era assumption that terrorism requires a military response, we’ll remain in bed with thugs like these.

Get our troops out of Afghanistan.

I’ve been mulling over the dodgy answers (if you can even call them answers) given by Ambassador Holbrooke and Defense Secretary Gates when they were recently asked to define success in Afghanistan or to speculate about how long Americans should expect to be fighting a war there. In case you missed these, take a look.

Here’s my problem: this is a very basic question, and the answer is very simple. We’ve chosen counterinsurgency as our strategy in Afghanistan. Here’s the definition of victory according to The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, page six:

“Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.”

Also, not unrelated is this passage on page xxv:

“…civilians must be separated from insurgents to insulate them from insurgent pressure and to deny the insurgent “fish” the cover of the civilian ‘sea.’ By doing so, counterinsurgents can militarily isolate, weaken and defeat the insurgents.”

Defining success in Afghanistan is thus a very simple matter: Because the insurgents are the Taliban (whom we seek to defeat because their victory in the Afghan civil conflict would supposedly create an al-Qaeda safe haven), and because the Taliban is a movement inside the Pashtun ethnicity, we can precisely define the target population as the Pashtuns, who form the “civilian sea” referenced above that actively and passively supports the insurgency. So, they are the population which we must separate from the Taliban. We can thus restate the manual’s definition of victory by making it specific to the current conflict. According to counterinsurgency doctrine:

Victory in Afghanistan will be achieved when the Pashtuns consent to the government’s legitimacy and stop actively and passively supporting the Taliban insurgency.

That took all of five minutes, and I don’t have a government bureaucracy at my disposal to aid in my research, nor did my department publish the book. With that in mind, there are really only two possibilities:

  1. The ambassador and defense secretary actually do not know how to define victory within the U.S.’s chosen strategic paradigm of counterinsurgency (in which case they are incompetent and should be dismissed immediately); or
  2. They do in fact know the answer to this very basic question, and they don’t want to give it.

I don’t believe that #1 is true (although other criteria may prove them incompetent), and that leaves us with #2. That, in turn, leaves us with a question: why would these men not want to publicize the simple answer to the question of “success”? The answer, I believe, is that stating the definition for success out loud would allow for public discussion and evaluation of our strategy. U.S. policymakers want to avoid such an evaluation of where we are in relation to COIN doctrine’s definition of success for a very simple reason: our attempt at counterinsurgency has already failed.

For those that are new to this discussion, here’s a map showing the geographic distribution of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups.

CIA Map of Afghanistan Ethnic Groups, 1997

CIA Map of Afghanistan Ethnic Groups, 1997

That light green crescent in the south denotes the Pashtun homelands, which extend across the border into Pakistan.

Now take a look at this map from the BBC denoting the level of violence in each district in Afghanistan:

BBC Map Showing Violence Levels in Afghanistan

BBC Map Showing Violence Levels in Afghanistan

BBC explains:

The “areas of militant control” indicate Taliban strongholds; “high risk areas” where there has been major clashes with insurgents; and “medium” or “low risk” are where there has been some or little violence.

Reuters further explains that this map

was produced in April 2009, before a dramatic escalation of violence ahead of the August 20 ballot.

Note that the April 2009 date of the latter map means that it was produced before the launch of the major operation in Helmand earlier this year. The Afghan NGO Safety Office noted that the increase in troops in the first half of 2009 failed to disrupt insurgents abilities to plan and execute attacks against the U.S. and allies:

“attacks in Kandahar have grown >50% over the year and in Helmand they have stayed consistent with 2008 rates.”

Not only do the insurgents continue to mount attacks from within the Pashtun “sea,” but the Pashtuns have, by and large, rejected participation in the processes of the Afghan national government. In overwhelming numbers, they stayed home during last week’s election.

Meanwhile, turnout was paltry in southern districts where British forces and U.S. Marines all but held the door for Afghan voters. Obama dispatched 17,000 additional combat forces to Afghanistan ahead of the election, but the threat of Taliban violence and reprisal apparently kept voters at home.

The Times of London reported Thursday that only 150 of the several thousand Afghans eligible to vote in the Babaji area of Helmand province cast ballots. Four British soldiers were killed there this summer, a toll the newspaper recalled with the blunt headline: “Four British soldiers die for the sake of 150 votes.”

This is a disaster for a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration and the COIN afficionados within it were banking heavily on the election to flip the Pashtuns, who, according to Bruce Riedel (one of Obama’s trusted advisors on Afghanistan), had never bought into the central government’s legitimacy in the first place:

The Pashtun belt in the south has been disaffected from the beginning.  I think when we look back at this, the Pashtun majority in the southern provinces, to a lesser extent than the eastern provinces but certainly in the southern provinces, have never bought into the legitimacy of what happened at the end of 2001.  They may not all support the Taliban, but they have never bought into the legitimacy of erasing the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan.

The administration was counting on the election to draw the Pashtuns into the political process. The widespread fraud and the refusal of huge numbers of Pashtuns to head to the polls, however, shows that the strategy failed.

A report from AFP puts a fine point on it, emphasis mine:

In some Taliban strongholds, such as Logar province south of Kabul, residents said turnout was negligible.

“In my village there are more than 6,000 people. Only seven voted,” mechanic Mansour Stanikzai told AFP in the provincial capital Pul-i-Alam.

The reason we had the election was to give legitimacy to the government, and we have failed in that goal,” said analyst Haroun Mir.

Taken together, the ongoing use of the Pashtun homelands as the base for the insurgency and the Pashtuns’ rejection of the processes of the central government show that after eight years, 807 U.S. military casualties, $228 billion dollars (so far; the full cost will exceed half-a-trillion dollars) and more than 20,000 Afghan civilian deaths, we have utterly failed to convince the Pashtuns in Afghanistan to “consent to the government’s legitimacy and stop actively and passively supporting the insurgency.”

In fact, as Dexter Filkins’ article in The New York Times shows, the massive election fraud will make it impossible for even the United States to endorse the legitimacy of the Afghan national government until questions of election fraud are adequately addressed, putting the political element of counterinsurgency (referred to by the COIN field manual as the prime element of COIN) into indefinite limbo while more and more U.S. troops spill into the country.

In other words, the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan has been a total failure.

Reports indicate General McChrystal will soon ask for 20,000 more troops for this debacle. The President and Congress should say no and end our military involvement in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Americans know failure when they see it.

The Times breaks the bad news:

Four American soldiers died in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan today, making 2009 the deadliest year for foreign troops there since the 2001 invasion.

With four months of the year still to go, today’s deaths in Helmand province bring the number of foreign forces killed in 2009 to 295, according to the website icasualties.org, which compiles official data. The previous deadliest year was 2008, when 294 foreign troops died.

Civilian casualties are also rising. The Pashtuns rejected election participation.

It’s not working. It’s time to leave.

In an editorial board meeting with the Appleton Post-Crescent, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) said it’s time for a withdrawal timetable for our forces in Afghanistan. Feingold was the first U.S. Senator to publicly state the need for a withdrawal date from Iraq. Today he became the first senator to say the same about our war in Afghanistan.

“After eight years, I am not convinced that simply pouring more and more troops into Afghanistan is a well thought out strategy.  And I have raised this issue with the President, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, Mr. Holbrooke, the special representative to the area, and everybody else I can and have never been convinced that they have a good answer to the concern that I have, and that other people have.

It’s not surprising Feingold is dissatisfied with answers from Holbrooke and Gates. The former gave an uninspiring definition of success in Afghanistan: “We’ll know it when we see it.” The latter called how long we’d be fighting an active war in Afghanistan a “mystery.”

Feingold continued:

“So something I have not said before which I want to say here in Appleton is that I think it is time we ought to start discussing a flexible timetable when people in America and Afghanistan and around the world can see where we intend and when we intend to bring our troops out…

(Four) years ago I was the first senator in the United States – I announced it in Marquette, Wisconsin – to say we ought to have a timetable for Iraq.  I believe that activism was important in moving us forward and having elections where people said it’s time to finish it.

“So we have to be dead serious about security.  We have to maintain the ability to go after al Qaeda within Afghanistan.  It doesn’t mean we give that up.  But simply continuing operations there – and apparently there are going to be requests for many more troops – I’m not sure it’s a wise idea.”

Feingold has been out in front on this issue all year. Speaking with Jeremy Scahill on June 24, 2009, Feingold said:

“This is something I’ve been trying to hammer away at,” Feingold tells The Nation. “They admitted that it’s a problem, but where’s the follow-up? This administration is almost whistling past the graveyard on this issue.

Bravo, Senator Feingold.

(Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the threat the Afghanistan war poses to our security at Rethink Afghanistan, or by watching the latest segment, “Security,” on YouTube.)

Orly Taitz's doubts on Obama's birth certificate are more mainstream than Lawrence Korb's support for escalation in Afghanistan.

Orly Taitz's doubts on Obama's birth certificate are more mainstream than Lawrence Korb's support for escalation in Afghanistan.

It’s not easy to craft an argument more fringe than those of the Birthers, but Center for American Progress’ Lawrence Korb managed to get the job done in his recent wrong-headed piece on Afghanistan.

A recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 59 percent of Democrats want troop levels decreased in Afghanistan, versus 29 percent of Republicans. Roughly twice the percentage of Republicans support a troop increase in Afghanistan compared to Democrats. But here’s the thing: Republicans supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan comprise only 33 percent of their party, meaning that they are an even more fringe group than those who doubt/are not sure that Obama is a citizen–a group that claims an additional 25 percent of Republicans compared to the Surgers (let’s coin a phrase, shall we?). Surgers are the true extremists in American politics today.

That’s why it’s absolutely stunning to find a senior fellow of a supposedly progressive think tank like the Center for American Progress pushing Surger rhetoric.

Korb’s article admonishes the president to stop letting troop deployments in Iraq (and, implicitly, American public opinion) limit his troop deployments in Afghanistan. He calls a 21,000 troop increase earlier this year a “good start.” Korb’s piece includes all the assumptions that got us into the mess in Afghanistan in the first place: that the September 11 attacks were acts of war, not of grand-scale criminality; that Afghanistan was therefore a war of necessity, not of choice; that because it’s a war of necessity, the Afghanistan expedition justifies massive expenditures and commitment of personnel. In other words, Korb validates the basic frame of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and of Osama bin Laden’s dreams: the War on Terror.

There’s good reason for the fringe Right to be enthused about policies that fall in line with the War on Terror frame. As George Lakoff and Evan Fritsch wrote in 2006,

The war metaphor was chosen for political reasons. First and foremost, it was chosen for the domestic political reasons. The war metaphor defined war as the only way to defend the nation…Once adopted, the war metaphor…gave [the president] 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.

Osama bin Laden intentionally encouraged this kind of thinking as part of his anti-American strategy. According to a 2002 piece by Bruce Riedel:

Bin Laden’s goals remain the same, as does his basic strategy. He seeks to, as he puts it, “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world; he wants to bankrupt the country much as he helped bankrupt, he claims, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Now, notice that when Korb writes:

On the other hand, Afghanistan is a war of necessity. Our only choice after the Taliban refused to stop providing a safe haven and support for Al Qaeda was to go after those responsible for the attacks of September 11th.

He conflates “to go after those responsible for the attacks” with “a war of necessity.” There are only two groups of people who should be enthused about such a conflation: the radical Right and terrorists like Osama bin Laden, both of whom find this frame convenient for advancing their agendas.

Korb never says the words “War on Terror,” but his reasoning assumes the frame. Korb’s and others’ inability to shake this frame has me wondering whether some members of the progressive foreign policy community have Stockholm syndrome.  When Korb last trotted out his justifications for escalation in Afghanistan using this frame, I wrote:

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 progress, justice, and peace.

The War on Terror frame is dangerous, and the policies that emerge from it make us less secure while failing to stop terrorism. Given the effects of the frame on American domestic policy and politics, though, it’s not surprising that Surgers are the only ones left supporting the War on Terror centerpiece in Afghanistan. What’s stunning is that an outfit like the Center for American Progress allows the preferred framing of this fringe group to show up on their letterhead.

One more thing. Korb ends his piece thus:

Peter, Paul and Mary put it well when they warned us some 40 years ago, “when will they ever learn?”

Now, I know Larry just plucked a random song out of the air that contained a line useful for making his point (George Bush did the same thing all the time with Bible verses). The thing is, Korb could not have picked a worse lyric to make his point.  Here’s the full song, minus all the repetitions and the “long time passing” and the “long time ago”:

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

When will you ever learn, Larry?

(Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the threat the Afghanistan war poses to our security at Rethink Afghanistan, or by watching the latest segment, “Security,” on YouTube.)