Friday, September 11, 2009

Republicans' Practical Joke; President's Unwinnable War

September 11, 2009, 7:00 a.m.

9/11 -- Eight Years and Out
(brought to you by*)

"You lie!" A member of my family with a twisted sense of humor has come up with an explanation for S.C. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson's otherwise inexplicable outburst ("You lie!") during the President's health care address to a Joint Session of Congress Wednesday evening (Sept. 9th). See Robbie Brown and Carl Hulse, "Heckler’s District Mostly Supports the Outburst," New York Times, September 11, 2009, p. A15. According to his theory the boorish behavior came about as a result of a trick his fellow Republicans played on Wilson. Before the President's speech the Republican caucus gathered to plan its post-speech strategy. Most of the discussion was as serious as that caucus' discussion ever gets. But, unknown to Wilson, this next part was not.

The whole thing grew out of a bet entered into one day, long before the President's speech. A Republican bet one of his colleagues, "I'll bet you $1000 I can make Joe apologize to the President." "What? Are you nuts? He'd never do that. Why would he?" Other caucus members were contacted (all but Wilson). The matter of the $1000 was dropped, and all joined in. Following their pre-caucus planning about what to do after the speech they began talking about what to do during the speech.

The pre-arranged consensus that finally emerged was that when the President mentioned that his plan would not provide health insurance for illegal immigrants the entire Republican membership would shout out in chorus, as loud as they could, "You lie!" Wilson was persuaded, thought it a great idea, and fell for it. As a result, when the time came his was the only voice to ring out in the chamber and he was forced to apologize to the President. Who says Republicans don't have a sense of humor? Bad taste and poor timing perhaps, but a creative sense of practical jokes.

Afghanistan. When members of the House and Senate are not shouting at the President or each other they are now beginning to hem and haw about sending more troops to Afghanistan. Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, "Obama Facing Doubts Within His Own Party on Afghanistan," New York Times, September 11, 2009, p. A1.

Why is there no one to stand and speak out, like the little boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The emperor is naked"? -- in this case, "This course of action is nuts!"

From my perspective, what we should do about what we're confronting over there is kind of a no-brainer.

Our military, especially at the top, has some very bright, analytical, broadly well educated, thoughtful and responsible individuals. But they have two, often disparate, responsibilities.

One is to participate, when asked, in the early stages of evaluating options for the most appropriate response to a trouble spot, global strategies, and foreign relations.

The other is, once the decision has been made by the president to undertake a military operation, to request the levels of personnel and other resources thought necessary to execute that military mission.

In the case of Afghanistan, General McChrystal has wisely responded to this inherent conflict by preparing for the President not one, but two, reports -- the first his evaluation of how things are going and what's necessary to make them better, and the second his best guess as to what he will need if the President wishes to continue to treat our role in Afghanistan as a "military" one.

His first report candidly acknowledges, in effect, why our interests in Afghanistan are ill suited to military operations.

(Some of what follows is mine alone, and some based on what he -- and numerous other military officers over the past year or so -- have said.)

There's no "there" there. Afghanistan, as a "nation," is essentially ungoverned and ungovernable. Political, economic, police and military power rest essentially with regional war lords, tribal and religious leaders. There is little infrastructure in the form of the kind of roads we're used to in our Interstate highway system; electric, gas, water and communications networks. Large numbers of Afghans have very little education. The treatment of women is horrible. Corruption is a widespread way of life at all levels. The recent election was riddled with fraud and may likely produce more divisiveness rather than unity in the society.

Our actions result in financing our enemy. There is very little to the Afghan economy, or "GDP." Unemployment is high; one of the nation's primary needs, General McChrystal noted, is a "jobs program." Ironically, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan they eliminated the drug trade. We have permitted it to flourish; Afghanistan is once again the world's leading supplier of heroin (including to the United States). It is this drug money that creates the ability of the Taliban to acquire ever more sophisticated military weaponry -- in addition to the thousands of improvised explosive devices ("IEDs") that have succeeded in killing unprecedented numbers of American soldiers during July and August of this year.

And it now turns out that as much of 20% of what U.S. taxpayers are providing to private contractors in Afghanistan is being siphoned off with bribes to the Taliban. So in a very real sense, we have created the funding for both sides in this war: our own troops and those who are determined to kill them (as a result of the bribes we pay and the increased drug trade we've enabled).

It's not exactly our favored terrain. The Taliban live there. We don't. We wear easily identifiable uniforms. They don't. They know the terrain. We don't. Going through those mountains would not be an easy hike even if you were on vacation and there were no danger. But you're not, and there is. They know how and where to hide. We don't. It's relatively easy for them to ambush our soldiers. Harder for us to do the same.

Why it is that the more we fight the less we win. There is solid evidence that the more troops we send in (with the resulting "collateral damage" in the form of dead women, children and innocent men, the destruction of their homes and buildings) the less the local population supports our being there, and the more fighters the Taliban are able to recruit, arm and send out to kill Americans. In short, our military operation involves the execution of a self-defeating strategy.

Although it is doing remarkably well under the circumstances, the military is also severely handicapped by the mission imposed upon it by the White House and the Congress. It is ill defined, shifting and irrational.

Wrong enemy, wrong country. It was Al Qaeda that attacked us 8 years ago today, not the Taliban. To the extent we want to fight the Taliban anyway, instead of Al Qaeda, note that they are coming into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, when Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, makes about as much sense as going to war with Iraq because of what some Saudi terrorists, and their Saudi financiers, did to us on 9/11. Increasing the terrorist population in Pakistan really does constitute a threat -- one that we are intensifying by our own actions. Moreover, as the AP's headline reveals, Mike Corder, "McChrystal: No Major Al-Qaida Signs in Afghanistan," Associated Press, September 11, 2009.

The futility of containment. We are not at war with a "nation." Make no mistake, "we're not paranoid, we have real enemies." What is a mistake is to think that, if only we can run Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, out of Afghanistan, or Pakistan -- something we clearly cannot do -- we have "won." We will not have won. One of the feminist movement's bumper stickers in the 1970s read, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." Well, neither does Al Qaeda need Afghanistan. Terrorist plots can be hatched in any apartment in any city in the world -- or village, mountain retreat, or desert -- and have been. Training camps can be based in any dysfunctional country -- in other words, any one of a large number of potential destinations.

There can be, by definition, no truly effective "exit strategy." If our goal is to create a self-sustaining, stable, secure government and environment for the Afghan people (and it's not clear what our goal is), that is possible only if we will treat Afghanistan as our 51st state and stay there forever. That is certainly one possible scenario. World War II ended over 60 years ago and we still have troops in Germany and Japan. We still have troops in Korea. We have troops all around the world. If we had the troops, financial resources (Afghanistan costs us close to $100 billion a year), and will -- none of which we do have -- we could decide to stay in Afghanistan, too, for 50 to 100 years. Since I don't think we're able to do that, even if we wanted to, we're going to have to leave at some point. When we do conditions will likely revert, as they did after the Russians left, and after we left (or got substantially diverted by Iraq) the first time. So long as that is the seemingly inevitable result, what exactly is the long-term advantage of our staying another 5 years rather than 5 months?

Going to do it anyway? What will it take?

For all the reasons listed above, and the many more that could be added, we need to get our brave fighting men and women out of Afghanistan. That seems to me obvious. It is not only senseless and ill considered, it is actually counterproductive to try to conduct a "war" there. Will there be consequences, adverse consequences, when we leave? Of course. Whenever we leave there will be -- although there will also be local benefits. That's not the question. The question is whether the adverse consequences of staying -- which are pretty well known by now -- so far exceed those of leaving that any rational benefit-cost analysis suggests we should get out as soon as reasonably possible.

Then the question becomes, if the President and the Congress continue to dilly and dally over the matter, and decide to go ahead with this folly and send in more troops anyway, how many should that be?

As General McChrystal puts it, "My position here is a little bit like a mechanic. We've got a situation with a vehicle and I've been asked to look at it and tell the owner what the situation is and what it will cost to make the vehicle run correctly and I will provide that. Now I understand that the vehicle owner has to make a decision on what the car is worth, how much longer he intends to drive it. Whether he wants it to look good or just run." Mike Corder, "McChrystal: No Major Al-Qaida Signs in Afghanistan," Associated Press, September 11, 2009.

That is to be the subject of General McChrystal's second report.

My own view is that the numbers being talked about are but small fractions of the numbers that would be necessary to provide "stability and security" for the Afghan people (one of the goals sometimes mentioned). I think it would require something more like a total of 250,000 to 350,000 troops, rather than another 20,000, to bring anything like "stability and security" to that country.

This morning I discover that Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who just returned from Afghanistan, is talking similar numbers -- albeit he hopes these numbers will be provided by the Afghans rather than the U.S.: 240,000 troops and 160,000 police. See Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, "Obama Facing Doubts Within His Own Party on Afghanistan," New York Times, September 11, 2009, p. A1.

In my judgment the likelihood of that happening is "somewhere between slim and none at all," and that even if it did the chances are good that it would bring analogous (though not identical) problems of corruption and tribal loyalties to those we've confronted in Iraq.

We put a cap on presidential terms. A president can only serve for eight years. Perhaps we should put a similar cap on our wars of choice: If they can't be won in eight years the president has to stop, leave, and start a war somewhere else.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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