Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Tell me about Afghanistan.  What are your hopes for Afghanistan for 2011?  What would it take for you to find what Barack Obama has done to be acceptable?  What would it take for you to be happy with his results there?  So far, given that Obama campaigned on increasing US efforts there, have you been disappointed with what he's done -- in other words, is it even worse than you expected?  Better?  I'm also interested in whether there's a set of liberals who agreed with Obama during the campaign, but have changed their minds now. 


  1. As a leftist, I'm obviously opposed to the Afghanistan War (I actually have been from the beginning, though in theory there could have been a scenario under which I supported a military operation there). As such my "hopes" for 2011 are what they always have been--that the U.S. at least begins to end the war, preferably as quickly as possible. I'd like to see a real reduction in the number of troops and an acknowledgment that we are getting out with all deliberate speed (or whatever). I'm not holding my breath on any of this though.

    Short of a demonstrated commitment to withdrawal, I won't be happy--the continued Afghanistan adventure is horribly ill-advised and that's all there is to it (I really think that is just objectively true, or at least that's how history will largely look at it).

    I have been disappointed in Obama when it comes to Afghanistan, though not very surprised. Any smart political observer knew that Obama was hawkish on Afghanistan in 2008 at least in part because he could not appear dovish on both of the major wars. It was smart politics and I didn't really have a huge problem with it even though I'm rabidly anti-war. I thought it likely that he would escalate U.S. involvement, but I also held out hope that he would "re-evaluate" upon taking office and do something incredibly brave, namely begin to draw down the American presence. The odds of that were definitely low, but it's still disappointing since Obama's anti-war cred is the only reason he received the nomination (I think it's very difficult to exaggerate this point--if Hillary voted against the October 2002 Iraq resolution Barack would never have run).

    Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that I think Obama knows deep down that Afghanistan is a lost cause--our continued presence is not going to fix or solve much of anything and I think most smart, objective observers are well aware of this. Obama is a smart observer and I'm sure a part of him is able to stay objective, but he also has to deal with a politically powerful military who doesn't want to leave yet and the difficulty of ending a war when one is a "liberal" Democrat who needs to get re-elected. The Afghan War is, to use an Obama term, "dumb" and I fear we will continue it for very dumb reasons because it will just be too hard for the commander-in-chief to put a stop to it. Obviously if true that's very troubling, particularly since most Americans have supported withdrawal for quite some time now.

  2. I don't know what the hell to think about Afghanistan.

    I supported it all along because unlike Iraq it had jungle logic to it - the Taliban really was (and apparently still is) in the sack with AQ.

    On the other hand, I don't know jack diddly about Afghanistan, and what is a bit spooky is that the whole US public discourse also seems to know jack diddly about it. At least with Iraq there is the illusion of a coherent discourse - Sunnis, Shias, 'ethno-sectarian strife,' yada yada, and you can read someone like Juan Cole who seems to actually know something.

    With Afghanistan we don't even have that much, just a vague feeling that Pashtun tribal elders (whoever the hell 'tribal elders' are) are very socially conservative, and take hospitality really really seriously.

    The military has been happy to moonwalk out of Iraq, so maybe the deep game here is to moonwalk out of Afghanistan as well. It may be a devil's bargain, but if it short circuits the stab-in-the-back narrative that grew out of Vietnam, that's a bargain I'll make.

  3. I mostly agree with Geoff Johnston; Afghanistan's a mess.

    But when I think of the women in Afghanistan, it breaks my heart. For our sakes, we should come home as soon as we can.

    For theirs? I don't know what to do for their sakes.


  4. I agree with zic that the situation for women in Afghanistan is quite heartbreaking. While it was particularly terrible under the Taliban, obviously, it's still quite bad even now with a U.S. presence. Were the Americans to leave it would almost certainly get worse, though by how much I'm really not sure since it's already awful (for one thing, probably a lot less women would go to school which is obviously a huge deal.)

    The fact is the American armed forces, their allies, and assorted diplomats and NGOs are not going to change the very old social norms in Afghanistan with respect to women or really anything else.

  5. I more or less agree with Obama during the campaign. I'm a liberal who opposes "dumb wars" like Obama, but certainly not a pacifist. However, I'm increasingly skeptical that our continued presence in Afghanistan is doing much good, and that the Taliban will dominate most Pashtun areas whatever we do.

    I'd recommend Ambassador Robert Blackwill's piece on Afghanistan in the current issue of Foreign Affairs to all as a thoughtful piece on the topic.

  6. My main hope for Afghanistan is that Obama starts withdrawing troops in July---as he got the top military brass to agree to publicly last December (if I recall correctly).

    My secondary hope is that Petraeus, McMullen, et al, back him up on this and don't act like Colin Powell re: gays servicing openly in the military, or even worse, MacArthur v. Truman in Korea.

  7. I more or less agreed with Obama during the campaign. Now though I believe it's time to cut our losses and get the heck out of the Middle East. I don't see any benefit in our continued presence in Afghanistan (or Iraq). In fact our being in those continues has a negative effect in that it helps recruiting for Al Qaeda. My hope is Obama will stick by his commitment to begin withdrawal this year and not let Petraeus and the right wing noise machine goad him into another surge in troop levels or continuing the US occupation indefinitely. What Obama did was probably worth a shot, but it isn't going to produce any lasting benefit anymore than the previous 9 years did. Quit while you're ahead (sort of).

  8. I agreed with what I took to be the spirit of Obama's stated intentions in Afghanistan at the time, and I still do. However, it seems like I either misread that spirit, my strategy is flawed and I haven't seen it, it hasn't had enough time to work, or something else is wrong that I don't know about, because I can't claim to have seen progress.

    I've generally subscribed to the idea that, in the case of the Taliban and AQ, the best solutions are twofold: 1) deprive them of a fertile recruiting environment and 2) simply kill the committed ones. #1 is horribly screwed up by Iraq in particular and Afghanistan slightly less. AQ's original stated motivation was objection to Western involvement in what they considered to be their holy land, and invading Iraq just plays right into that. Afghanistan slightly less so, becuase it's not next door to anything historically religiously important to AQ, but it does have the whole "sharia-as-we-see-it" aspect to it.

    #2 is not helping by invading, except by accident. Occassionally, having US troops nearby might allow them to stumble upon real terrorists, but it won't be common. #2 isn't solved by the 10th Infantry Division; it's done by CIA and special forces. I still think that killing the leadership of AQ and the Taliban is a valid strategy, if combined with starving them of recruits.

    I thought Obama was hinting towards this with his support for more Predator strikes in Pakistan. However, it seems to me like he was actually just saying "use the army against 'those who attacked us' and not against uninvolved countries (Iraq)". Yes, Obama's policy is better than Bush's, but it's addition by subtraction.

  9. I mainly agree with what others have written here, especially Rick.

    I supported the war originally and agreed with Obama's stance during the campaign. Unlike Irag, Afghanistan was a real problem for us. The Taliban was allowing AQ to openly run training camps and operate sort as a junior partner in government. We couldn't let that continue.

    I have now become convinced that Afghanistan is largely a lost cause. This seems due to a combination of years of bungling by the Bush administration combined with factors that may have prevented real success even had the war been handled well from the outset.

    I was always appalled that the decision to go into Iraq drained resources and attention from Afghanistan. By being there is a dilatory fashion we allowed casualties to pile up on both sides without achieving much. Afghan casualties harden the opposition and American casualties are a price I really don't like paying. If Americans are going to die, I want serious results.

    I think we also got ourselves in a very bad situation as a result of the incompetence of the Bush administration in picking allies. Karzai is nothing but Bernie Madoff with a beard, but we have chained ourselves to him. I don't think we can accomplish anything with him as our ally, but it also seems too late to throw him overboard.

    I have also become convinced that tribalism and corruption are inseparable. Tribalism is the very essence of Afghan society. I think this means that the reforms we want to undertake are fundamentally impossible.

    I would be content now with withdrawal from Afghanistan with only three conditions imposed on/extracted from the Afghan government. They agree to keep AQ out of the country; we reserve the right to operate Predators in the country to pursue AQ (but we agree not to go after talibs who are not AQ) and we reserve the right to bomb the heck out any AQ property in the country.

    In return we will continue giving Karzai and his buddies, or the Taliban, or whoever, their corruption dues. Now, all of this is sort of nonsense in that Karzai may very well not survive our withdrawal,and the Taliban might not want to stick with such a deal. All I would be really looking for is a fig leaf to cover ourselves with as we go about doing what we would anyway.

    It's sad we that have gotten to such a point, but how are you supposed to redeem a hearts and minds campaign that was mishandled for years?


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