Thursday, December 03, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan

December 3, 2009, 6:00 a.m.

He Can't Win, Can't Break Even, and Can't Get Out of the Game
(brought to you by*)
Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with neighboring countries. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Criminality, insecurity, and the Afghan Government's inability to extend rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic growth. . . . Afghanistan's living standards [are] among the lowest in the world. . . . . Expanding poppy cultivation and a growing opium trade generate roughly $3 billion in illicit economic activity and looms as one of Kabul's most serious policy concerns. Other long-term challenges include: budget sustainability, job creation, corruption, government capacity, and rebuilding war torn infrastructure.
-- "Afghanistan," CIA World Factbook

Here are some additional, illustrative details from that publication.

Afghanistan is a country of 652,000 square miles and 28 million people speaking over 30 languages with primary loyalties to regions, tribes and war lords -- over six square miles and 280 people for each of 100,000 troops. It's ranked 222 out of 224 countries in infant mortality at 152 deaths per 1000 live births. (The U.S. is 44th at 6.26.) Life expectancy is 44 years. Among Afghan women, 87% are illiterate (57% of the men). It's 208th in the world in number of Internet hosts. It has 7500 miles of paved roads (compared to our 2.6 million miles). It ranks 219th in the world in GDP per capita ($800; the U.S. is 10th at $47,500). Its total GDP ($22 billion) is roughly half of what the Obama Administration generously gifted to a single corporation as a bailout (the Bank of America, which in fairness says it's now willing to return to taxpayers).

Bringing this country to the vision implicit in some of our politicians' rhetoric not only cannot be done in 18 months, it cannot be done in 18 years. It would take generations. (As Tom Friedman put it Tuesday, "The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the 'war on terrorists.' To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders . . .." Thomas L. Friedman, "This I Believe," New York Times, December 2, 2009, p. A35.)

However serious the problems created by the Taliban, and Afghanistan's associated lack of security, they are dwarfed by those set forth above -- problems that even General McCrystal recognized in his report as essential prerequisites to resolving anything militarily.

Given that the presence of American troops produces increased Taliban recruitment and terrorist acts, adding more Americans, and keeping them there longer, reduces rather than increases our national security.

As in Viet Nam and Iraq, we are sending American troops into a country where they will inevitably be perceived as invaders or occupiers (and not the first in Afghan history and memory), do not know any of the 30 languages, religions, tribal customs and relationships, culture, history, and terrain of the country they are to "save." If that is not by definition "mission impossible" it is very close to it.

Even if more troops had a positive rather than negative impact, the addition of 30,000 is too little, too late. Most put the necessary troop strength at closer to 350-500,000 troops -- eight years ago -- to "secure" the country.

Our plans call for training Afghan police and military to make up at least part of that slack. Given the recruits' poverty, illiteracy, conflicting loyalties, acceptance of corruption, lack of education and experience, this is a task in almost no respect similar to American military training. Moreover, once trained the recruits remain largely undisciplined, inclined to desert (25% of the force leaves each year), and willing to change sides with perceived shifts of power or better financial offers.

I would have to agree with Senator McCain, other Republicans, and others, that putting an 18-month "exit" on our strategy may be a mistake -- in terms of Afghan and Pakistan support among other things. Survival for their people requires thinking beyond 18 months in predicting who will hold the power under which they must live.

The deadline is also disingenuous and inconsistent with the proposal. Getting out in 18 months, while perhaps a recipe for some measurable short-term gains, holds no more promise for permanent change than leaving now. Whatever the rationale may be for sending more troops now will be equally applicable to staying, or sending even more troops, later.

The Taliban are not a national, uniformed, fighting force along front lines. They are constantly shifting, indigenous, loosely organized, and interwoven into the civilian population, countryside and mountains. "Securing" an urban area from them, when possible at all, is at best a temporary achievement -- an area to which they can and will return as soon as we move our troops elsewhere in the country or leave, in our endless and unproductive exercise that is so very costly in American and Afghan lives, wounded, and dollars with no permanent accomplishment to show for it over time.

Even if it were possible to drive them out of Afghanistan, which it is not, they would simply move into Pakistan.

We're like a procrastinator who continues to work on every item on his or her "to do" list -- except for the one that has the highest priority. Given the characteristics of the Afghanistan population, and the challenges they confront, it is highly unlikely that they would have the inclination or resources to come to America to do us harm (especially when it's so much easier and cheaper to kill us in their home country). Their primary goal is to get us out of their country.

Our enemy remains the one we're least focused upon, and least successful in tracking down: al Qaeda (and other loosely organized terrorists with the will and resources to do us serious harm inside our borders). From the best information I've seen there are no more than 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They are in Pakistan -- and probably another 60 countries around the world. They are even more mobile than the Taliban. All they need to get organized is an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, or London, England, or any city in the U.S. To the extent they want to bother finding a training ground for terrorists there are plenty of countries available to them.

There are times when a president needs to select the best single approach to a problem, forget about consensus and pleasing disparate constituents, and just bull ahead. As I wrote last Monday, President Franklin Roosevelt put the Civilian Conservation Corps in place over the opposition of the U.S. Army (which had at least partial responsibility for administering it), and his Secretaries of the Interior and Labor. No telling what a "compromise" CCC might have looked like. As it was, he bulled ahead, had the legislation written, passed by Congress, and signed less than 30 days after taking office, with 25,000 employed by the end of the first week -- soon to be three million.

That's the kind of presidential leadership our Afghanistan adventure requires -- and didn't get. I admire President Obama, and concede it's likely he has access to a little more information than I have. But here's what I would have done:

1. Maintain a military anti-terrorism ability, yes. But one that is lean and mean, and available to rapid deployment to any spot on earth where needed for a single, brief operation -- not a conventional, uniformed, occupying force of tens of thousands, quasi-permanently stationed in a country to provide it "stability."

2. Spend most of the $40 billion a year it's going to cost us in Afghanistan on (1) intelligence gathering (personnel on the ground as well as electronic), (2) international cooperation and diplomacy, and (3) homeland security.

3. Focus our energies, personnel and resources on known terrorists, their evolving plans and operations.

Not only is it cheaper, it also works.

Staying in Afghanistan is self-defeating and counter productive.

You can't win
You can't break even
And you can't get out of the game
People keep sayin'
Things are gonna change
But they look just like they're staying the same
You get in
Way over your head
And you've only got yourself to blame
-- "You Can't Win"

Support the troops. Bring them home.

Here are links to earlier entries on some of the other hot topics from the past week or so that are now getting the most direct hits, along with links to "updates" in the form of subsequent news articles, among which may be the entries you came here looking for:
UIHC, Regents and UI.

"UI's Basketball Fees Self-Defeating," November 23, 2009

I'll drink to that: "UI Has A Drinking Problem," November 18, 2009 [see "Updates," below];

If UI has become a for-profit corporation . . .: "Corporatizing the University of Iowa; If We're Going to Do It, Let's Do It Right," November 17, 2009

Strategic Communications VP position: "Strategic Communications a Failed Strategy; Actions Speak Louder," November 13, 2009 [See "Updates," below]

Executives trip to Disney World: "Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009

"Contributions from patients" proposal: "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with numerous updates through November 4, links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories) [see "Updates," below]

Board of Regents and State universities' budget cutting: "Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009, 8:30 a.m. (with links to prior, related blog entries)

Spence break-in grand jury proceedings: "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009 [See "Updates," below]

School boundaries, school boards, and the ICCSD.
"School Board Election: Now Work Begins; It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper; Old Board 'Starting Off Backing Up' With Consultant and Tough Decisions," September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with its links to 11 prior and related blog entries including, for example, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," and "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?")

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Has Work to Do," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009 (and reproduced in blog)

"Boundaries: Only Board Can Do Board's Job; Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy," November 2, 2009

And Updates: UI VP Medical Jean Robillard says patient-donation-dunning plan "canceled a week ago"; spokesperson "clarifies," says "canceled" means "under review," B.A. Morelli, "Leaders Address Employee Concerns; UI Officials: No Decision on Job Issues," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A3; Ashley Oerman, "UI Cancels Asking Patients for Money," The Daily Iowan, November 20, 2009, p. A1; UI's Funded Retirement Insurance Committee asks President Mason to "abolish rather than just delay" UIHC's "patient donation plan," B.A. Morelli, "Group Wants UIHC Patient Donation Plan Nixed," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009, p. A1;

Two Spence break-in grand jury witnesses jailed for refusal to testify, one now indicted, "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009; Anonymous, "Davenport Grand Jury Subpoena for Scott DeMuth," Nov. 11, 2009; "Two jailed for refusing to testify before grand jury," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 17, 2009; Carrie Feldman's Web site and the new "Support Carrie and Scott!"; "Activist indicted for alleged role in Spence Labs vandalism," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009 [in hard copy as "Man Indicted for Animal Terrorism," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A1]; Ann McGlynn, "Activist who refused grand jury testimony now charged with conspiracy," Quad City Times, November 19, 2009; Ann McGlynn and Diane Heldt, "Lab Break-in Charge Pleases UI Officials," The Gazette, November 20, 2009, p. A1; Regina Zilbermints, "Man Charged in Spence Action," The Daily Iowan, November 20, 2009, p. A1; Ann McGlynn, "Animal rights activist pleads not guilty in University of Iowa vandalism," Quad City Times, November 20, 2009; Zack Kucharski, "Judge Orders Animal Rights Activist Held," Quad City Times, November 26, 2009;

Press-Citizen editorial: Hold off on VP for Strategic Communications: Editorial, "Stakes Have Risen for UI's Strategic Communication," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2009, p. A7 ("it's wrong when UI seems to care more about finding the right way to spin its decisions than about making the right decisions in the first place. The best strategy for UI communication is for officials to be more forthright and to show more common sense.");

Press-Citizen editorializes for 21-only, Editorial, "21-Only Still an Option for Bars with PAULAs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 19, 2009, p. A7;

Hancher Relocation: Rachel Gallegos, "Property owner for Hancher site won't sell land," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 26, 2009, p. A1 (and see related five-part series, "Hancher - Part V," September 18, 2009, with links to prior four).
* 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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