Wednesday :: Nov 11, 2009

NYT: Biden, Rahm & Obama Skeptical About Afghan War Escalation


by Turkana

Recent reporting, relying on unnamed sources, has claimed to know President Obama's intentions, in Afghanistan. An article by Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger, in today's New York Times, also uses unnamed sources, but it corroborates previous reporting, and it also seems to fit what's really going on, behind the scenes.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are coalescing around a proposal to send 30,000 or more additional American troops to Afghanistan, but President Obama remains unsatisfied with answers he has gotten about how vigorously the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan would help execute a new strategy, administration officials said Tuesday.

What's new, in this report, is the following:

Three of the options call for specific levels of additional troops. The low-end option would add 20,000 to 25,000 troops, a middle option calls for about 30,000, and another embraces Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for roughly 40,000 more troops. Administration officials said that a fourth option was added only in the past few days. They declined to identify any troop level attached to it.

Mr. Gates, a Republican who served as President George W. Bush’s last defense secretary, and who commands considerable respect from the president, is expected to be pivotal in Mr. Obama’s decision. But administration officials cautioned that Mr. Obama had not yet made up his mind, and that other top advisers, among them Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, remained skeptical of the value of a buildup.

The schism within the administration previously had been reported. Emanuel also previously had been on the record, saying that the president had yet to make a decision. That he, himself, sides with Biden appears to be a new and very welcome development. Significant experts publicly opposed to or deeply skeptical of an escalation, but who are not members of the administration, also include former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, Senate Arms Services Chairman Carl Levin, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry; and former Marine, Matthew Hoh, who served in uniform both in Iraq and at the Pentagon, then as a civilian in Iraq, before becoming the senior U.S. civilian in Afghan hotbed Zabul province, resigned last month, to protest the continuing war.

That the president himself is skeptical and circumspect about escalating a war is a very good thing, and such a welcome change from the previous administration. That so many significant voices are weighing in against the escalation is cause for hope that he will find an alternative. But before making his decision, these would seem to be among the key questions that need but do not have definitive answers:

1) As previously noted, the president already escalated the war in February, and in September decided to replace 14,000 non-combat troops with combat troops, while contracting out the non-combat replacements. The result has been month after month after month of record American troop deaths, in Afghanistan, with the annual total already having surpassed its previous record, in August. Meanwhile, the Taliban have only grown stronger. So, what will more troops accomplish? Why would anyone think a war strategy can succeed?

2) What is the goal? Al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan. The Taliban are now based in Pakistan. The Afghan "government" has no credibility, and has been frustrating the Obama Administration, for months. The Afghan people, themselves, want us to leave. Also as previously noted, the Bush Administration long ago lost this war. It cannot be fixed. The only thing going well in Afghanistan is the opium trade. Which is going very well, indeed. So, what is the strategic goal, and how are we supposed to accomplish it?

3) How does this end? This is the simplest and most daunting question. A good answer has yet to be seen. At what point is the unnamed goal supposed to be accomplished, allowing our troops to leave? How do we get from here to there? How long will it take? What will be the human, geopolitical, and financial costs?

The simple truth is that none of these three key questions have good, or even plausible, answers. Escalating the war means endless war until someone decides it's simply over. That the Taliban are cruel and monstrous is not, in itself, an excuse for continued war, when war itself is not solving anything. It's time to try a different strategy. As Juan Cole wrote, in August:

I think support for the Afghanistan war depends on the administration effectively tying it to concerns about Americans' safety and security. And since that argument is so hard to make convincingly, I can't see how public support for the war is going to come back. With dozens of U.S. troops killed in July, moreover, people are hearing more bad news than good.

What I think is true is that a poorly executed Afghanistan policy could turn Obama into a one-term president. It is too early to judge exactly what Obama's policy will be in Afghanistan, but it should become clear within a few months. So far, Obama has not made the case and hasn't explained what the end game is.

And then the worst possible people will be back in power, leading to more failure, on literally every policy. President Obama did not create this disaster, and he has tried to turn it around, but it cannot be won militarily. The skepticism of his Vice President and his Chief Of Staff are well-founded. Let's hope they have the final say.

Turkana :: 8:01 AM :: Comments (20) :: Digg It!