September 28, 2009

Which Way in Afghanistan?

Filed under: Afghanistan, Global War On Terror — Tags: , , , — Russ @ 4:27 am
In 2001 America had the opportunity and the justification to launch a big raid to capture and destroy Al Queda and, as punishment, knock the Taliban out of power. If the Bush administration had been acting in good faith to avenge 9/11 and apprehend or kill the AQ leadership, this would probably have been accomplished.
But Bush was really using 9/11 as a pretext of power, and the real target was Iraq. As always with the Bush crew, where they didn’t really care about what they were doing, they totally botched it. So it was in Afghanistan. (I’ve wondered whether the idea actually was that Osama bin Laden was more useful alive and at large, as a political bogeyman, than dead, and that they let him get away at Tora Bora. It’s possible, but we hardly need such explanations. Bush incompetence and half-assedness always lay at the root of everything he did.)
For the next seven years the Bush war was ad hoc, without strategy, without consistent funding or staffing, without sufficient forces. When the Taliban regrouped and reasserted their control of much of the country, Bush and his Pentagon simply lied about it.
As a result, Afghanistan is today a quagmire, and the question of the day is whether to extract the mired leg or plunge in with the other. It’s now that the long-feared Vietnam parallels begin to get triggered.
Obama is frequently being compared to Lyndon Johnson. The situation looks the same. A proclaimed domestic reformer comes into office saddled immediately with an existing war. Johnson thought his Great Society agenda depended upon a quid pro quo with Congressional hawks, that he give them their war in exchange for their votes. He also thought he was politically vulnerable if he wasn’t a warrior president. (This was rendered nonsensical when he ran in 1964 as the peace candidate; that he still had political fears after that was idiotic.)
So it seems nominally with Obama. He says he really wants to reform health care and the financial system, but also has to deal with this inherited war. But that’s really an illusion, since Obama definitely never needed any Republican votes to achieve anything, was never going to get them anyway, and seems to really like the Global War on Terror in principle. So if he ever really believed any of this LBJ parallel stuff, that’s just his personal demon. It’s not reality-based.
(I should also mention that LBJ sincerely wanted, ferociously fought for, often against odds, sometimes losing, his Great Society program. Meanwhile all the evidence is that Obama never really wanted finance reform or health care reform. So far he has certainly been unwilling to lift a finger to get either. So as rightfully tarnished as LBJ’s legacy is thanks to his Vietnam derangement, it would still be unjust to regard he and Obama as the same.)
If Obama really is having second thoughts about an Afghan escalation, he should remember that he’s had no problem breaking all his other campaign promises. So he shouldn’t worry about this promise, to escalate in Afghanistan. This is the one promise he should break.
Obama has compared American war policy to a large ship at sea. It takes time to make a ponderous turn toward a new course. That’s true; government policy has considerable inertia. But:
1. The point is nevertheless to turn as quickly as possible.
2. With an intrepid mindset, you can do it much faster. For example, although they don’t like to talk about it this way, one of the reasons they can’t withdraw troops more quickly from places like Iraq is because they’re protecting not American interests but the private interests of war profiteers. Another piece of dead weight is existing privateer contracts in these war zones.
Well, I think a good way of trimming down this tanker to a sleeker vessel would be to jettison these invalid concerns and illegitimate “interests”. If it’s true that there’s no right to strike against the public interest, it’s equally true that no one in government has a right to sign contracts against the public interest.
It’s all academic for the moment; tanker or speedboat, so far Obama is full steam ahead.
So where are we chronologically, compared to Vietnam? In one sense Obama is Nixon, taking on an existing war and making it his own. As Nixon and his new commander Creighton Abrahms came in with the “new” strategy of withdrawing troops, Vietnamization, and extending the war beyond Vietnam’s borders into Cambodia and Laos, so Obama has indicated that he cherishes a new emphasis on Pakistan, while his guy McChrystal wants to refocus the military effort in Afghanistan from search-and-destroy to pacification and Vietnamization. Richard Holbrooke, a pacification cadre in Vietnam himself, is gung ho about this program.
At the same time, the parallel is also to 1965 and LBJ. Here the newly elected president inherits an ongoing but still relatively small scale war and chooses to greatly escalate the troop levels and the scope of action. Thus Obama has already deployed 21000 more troops toward a total of 68000 by December (plus 75000 contractors, plus the fact that they’ve been rotating out support troops, whose positions are taken by contractors, while they rotate in more “trigger-pullers”; in this way they are escalating the combat troop level without additionally escalating the aggregate troop level), and McC is expected any day now to request anywhere from 10-45000 more, with the expectation being that Obama would end up authorizing the middle case of twenty-something thousand, what they’ve been calling the Goldilocks figure.
Or, that was the expectation, until Obama reportedly began to hesitate. In spite of denials, the brass has apparently been putting on the pressure. Last week they leaked McC’s classified report predicting failure without a large troop escalation. JCS Chairman Mike Mullen has been beating the drums for more troops to retrieve a “deteriorating” situation. Mullen, Centcom commander Petraeus, and McC had a powwow in Germany a few days ago. The bloodmongers in the media and Congress (republican and democrat) have been shrieking. It’s hard for me to believe Obama’s going to stand up to this kind of confrontation, even if he did end up changing his mind about the policy. We might end up with Obama himself becoming the McNamara here, in his mind no longer believing, but too weak to say No.
We can take this moment to point out another parallel. Just as Westmoreland could never give a coherent explanation of why the Vietnam war should be fought, but took it for granted and kept demanding ever more troops, so these admirals and generals today also offer no cogent rationale for the GWOT or for any of its theaters, beyond parroting neocon boilerplate. We’re of course not talking about something like WWII, where the point of the war was obvious to almost everyone, and it had to be fought to the bitter end regardless because it was total war. One would think that mercenary wars of choice, being fought for no obvious reason, and certainly no existential reason, call for explanations. But instead calling for escalation is simply what officer cadres in a professional military fighting mercenary wars do. It’s ingrained; it’s careerist; it’s inertial.
So when we turn to those neocons and their MSM megaphone, what reasons do we hear? Pretty much the same reheated Vietnam leftovers. Just as aggressive global Communism had to be fought everywhere or it would triumph everywhere, so now Islamofascism is the hydra who will keep sprouting heads if you don’t chop off the existing ones. It’s the Domino theory redux. Just as victory in Vietnam would set off a chain reaction sending communism on a triumphal progress through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so on until we’d have to “fight them in San Francisco”, as LBJ put it in a report to Kennedy while still VP, so if a fundamentalist regime can triumph in Afghanistan, down will go Pakistan, Yemen, and from there the rest of the Mideast and Central Asia, until we ended up fighting them in San Fran and other American cities.
Since this already looks dubious, since we already, through American-brokered elections, brought fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist regimes to power in Gaza and Iraq, not to mention the pre-existing Iranian regime, it looks like if dominoes are going to fall they’re going to fall anyway. And so far American arms have shocked and awed only in their fecklessness and inability to achieve what American leaders say they want to achieve.
So the jingoists have already trotted out the most malicious Vietnam tropes, “credibility” and even “honor”. These are of course moonshine, as Sherman would have called them. Needless to say America’s Vietnam disaster brought to the government only discredit and dishonor, abroad and for many at home.
What “credit” could Obama possibly seek today in Afghanistan? Credibility with terrorists? The concept makes no sense. If they are physically able to attack, they will attack. They’re not gauging America’s “moral fiber” the way it might have been done in Cold War brinksmanship. They care nothing for their perception of American resolve.
More important, it’s just as true today as it was during Vietnam that the best way to salvage credibility is to recognize when you’ve taken on a misguided project, horrendously expensive in money and blood, which you can never finish in any satisfactory way (where you cannot attain “peace with honor” in the stupid phraseology of 1969, “honor” being some nebulous substitute term for “victory”, but as a concept just as vague, empty, and bombastic), and make the decision that it’s not worth continuing. To keep going at that point is madness.
Meanwhile, just as the North Vietnamese were not stooges of the Soviet Union or China, so the Taliban is not controlled by Al Queda (and AQ itself is no longer the tight global network it once was; today terrorism is decentralized and generally far less professional, with “Al Queda” more a name than anything else, its professional cadre having been decimated – the war on terror has succeeded, to the extent it was meant to be just a reality-based war on terror).
But there is an incontrovertible stooge here, the mayor of part of Kabul, I mean Afghan President Diem, I mean Karzai. Karzai is an illegitimate kleptocrat presiding over a regime where corruption and impotence vie for supremacy. His latest theft has been any semblance of legitimacy for the election in which Obama vested such hopes (and for whose protection and integrity he dispatched those extra 21000 troops). This client will almost certainly never be any more legitimate, self-supporting, or morally worthy of support than any of the plutocratic and kleptocratic South Vietnamese regimes. If you want to build a nation, and a nation means a government, then there’s no nation to build. You can only temporarily clear, you can’t hold for long, and you certainly can’t build.
(Some are already playing the “blame Diem” card. If we could only get a good guy in there…It’s not that the very concept of “South Vietnam” is flawed. No – we just have some bad personnel.)
There’s other echoes. The frequent, reiterated fact-finding tours and “assessments” (redolent of the Peter Principle), as if you think asking the same question of the same facts over and over will eventually return a better answer. The gradually growing resistance in Congress (today we have Jim McGovern in the House and Feingold in the Senate taking the lead in calling for a timeline for withdrawal). The increasingly frequent atrocities.
There are some real contrasts. The most obvious and important is that today there’s no draft, nor is it politically conceivable that there could be a draft. This places a cap on how far the troop escalation can go (Mullen has been complaining about how overstretched the army already is, and yet he still wants to escalate in Afghanistan).
On the other hand, we’re no longer on the gold standard. This placed a cap on how far LBJ could economically escalate, as following Tet in 1968 a delegation of Europeans lectured him on how he needed to rein in the cost of the war, or else they’d have to think about demanding gold for their dollar holdings. It was probably that more than anything which signalled “peak war” to LBJ. He psychologically gave up after that.
Obama in theory faces no such limits. His administration has already shown a willingness to borrow obscene amounts to throw down a rathole – the bailouts. So presumably cost and debt would be no object for something equally stupid and useless like this war (only worthwhile things that could actually help people, like health care reform or a carbon cap, are to be subject to cost controls).
And perhaps the gathering depression will throw enough people out of work, render the masses desperate enough, that they wouldn’t need a draft to build a mass army. If the reserve army of capitalism gets big enough, and permanent war is the only job opportunity left…
But it won’t be possible to print that much cash without triggering hyperinflation. Gold standard or not, there’s a limit to how much borrowing you can do. Eventually they’ll have crammed so much cash down the world’s throat that it’ll have to be vomited back out, and that’ll be the end of the dollar. It’s difficult to see how they could keep waging high-input, high-tech, high-maintenance imperial war after that.
And then there’s Peak Oil…..
Also, “victory” in Vietnam, although unachievable, could at least be defined: the continued existence of the South Vietnamese regime, under its own strength, for a long enough time after American withdrawal that America’s honor and credibility could remain plausible.
But what constitutes victory in the Afghan theater, let alone the Global War on Terror? They have no idea. “We’ll know it when we see it” is the glib response of administration war hawk Holbrooke. This reply, a combination of know-nothing arrogance and desperation, can be taken as exemplary of the administration’s entire mindset.
So now Obama gets to be the decider. Almost no one, including Obama, questions the GWOT or its Afghan theater in principle. In spite of the efforts of McGovern and Feingold, it’s highly unlikely Congress would resist any level of escalation in the foreseeable future. (Although if the health care Progressive Block could hold together, that might embolden them to make another stand. As for the Republicans, don’t be surprised if they cheerfully vote against war measures. As extraordinarily hypocritical as that would be even for them, we know they care nothing for anything but money and political advantage. I imagine they’d be confident they could “vote against the troops” and then go back home and successfully blame it on the Democrats. Their voters would fall for it.) The military, the rightist thugs, and the corporate media are pressing him.
This doesn’t look like a situation where Obama fails to take the path of least resistance. But we’ll see.

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