Military, Public pressure mounts as Obama contemplates war strategy for Afghanistan
Just over nine months into his first term, President Obama faces an unfortunate set of choices regarding another of his predecessors messes. And as he contemplates his Afghanistan strategy, the president is taking pressure from all sides.
His military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, publicly claimed that without the addition of 40,000 troops, the war effort would fail. Even if that’s true, the additional forces would certainly not represent a guarantee of success either.
Dexter Filkins offered an intimate, and perhaps too uncritical, examination of McCrystal’s “long war” strategy in his New York Times Magazine piece from Oct. 14:
At the heart of McChrystal’s strategy are three principles: protect the Afghan people, build an Afghan state and make friends with whomever you can, including insurgents. Killing the Taliban is now among the least important things that are expected of NATO soldiers.
“You can kill Taliban forever,” McChrystal said, “because they are not a finite number.”
That strategy is underscored by an extraordinary sense of urgency — that eight years into this war the margin for error for the Americans has shrunk to zero. “If every soldier is authorized to make one mistake,” McChrystal said, “then we lose the war.”
Filkins, in his glowing assessment of McChrystal, concedes that the commander’s plan is comparable to the “surge” employed in Iraq which contributed to the Sunni Awakening: The rejection of al Qaeda by the Iraqi Sunni minority, allowing room for political reconciliation.
Despite declarations of success associated with the Iraqi “surge,” political realities in Iraq remain far from reconciled, and violence, while reduced, continues to be a daily occurrence there. Further, as Filkins, himself, stated, “Afghanistan is not Iraq…”
McChrystal’s nation building intentions for Afghanistan, while admirable, are unrealistic. Nick Turse, Associate Editor for TomDispatch, offers a reminder that superior military power has its limits :
The U.S. military is unquestionably powerful and has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to mete out tremendous amounts of destruction and death. From Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia to Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy fighters and unfortunate civilians, military base camps and people’s homes have been laid waste by U.S. forces in decade after decade of conflict. Yet sealing the deal has been another matter entirely. Victory has repeatedly slipped through the fingers of American presidents, no matter how much technology and ordnance has been unleashed on the poor, sometimes pre-industrial populations of America’s war zones.
Within his post, Turse rightly points out that over a century of American nation building activity, there is no clear cut example of military “victory.” Even in the Philippines where U.S. military intervention began in 1905, and despite renewed efforts begun under the Bush administration, it remains a dangerous place.
Despite the grim history, there remains a steady undercurrent of pressure on Obama to double down in Afghanistan. General McChrsytal’s announcing his requirement for more troops publicly, rather than to his Commander in Chief, is just one example.
McChrsyal’s request was preceded by news reports informed by anonymous officials — a standard tactic for applying public pressure — proclaiming that the Pentagon is “worried about Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan.”
From the Aug. 31 McClatchy News article:
Obama now feels that McChrystal and his superior, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, are pressuring him to commit still more troops to Afghanistan, a senior military official said. The official said that retired Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, told McChrystal last month not to ask for more troops, but that McChrystal went ahead anyway and indicated in interviews that he may need more.
Adding to the behind the scenes coercion from the Pentagon is the overt criticism from political rivals of Obama, accusing the president of “dithering” on Afghanistan, as former Vice President Dick Cheney recently stated. Both sources of pressure, however, pay no attention to the historical realities raised in Turse’s post.
For what it’s worth, Cheney’s ironic assessment is easy for the White House to brush aside, but the pressure will remain until Obama announces his strategy which isn’t expected until after the Nov. 7 do-over of the fraudulent Afghan election. That another election needs to happen should beg the question of Obama and Americans in general, why are we there?
My friend and editor at News Junkie Post, Gilbert Mercier, posed that very question in his Oct. 30 blog post. Mercier suggests that Obama should consider the assessment of recently resigned State Department official, Matthew Hoh:
…a former Marine Captain who became the first foreign service official to resign in protest of the war in Afghanistan. His name is Matthew Hoh, and he doesn’t think anyone has an answer to justify the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Further, Hoh says that staying in the country is not in America’s interest.
From Hoh’s Sept. 10 resignation letter:
I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.
The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people. The Afghan government’s failings , particularly when weighed against the sacrifice of American lives and dollars, appear legion and metastatic…
Hoh’s stinging critique shouldn’t just be considered by the president, but should be read and digested by all Americans. It is a window into the disposition of the Afghan war which is profoundly misunderstood by most Americans, whose notions of the conflict are generally informed by the conveniently concise and simplistic representations on television news.
With that, I welcome your comments. Tell me what you think Obama should do? Consider what is conventionally considered to be his options and their potential consequences:
1. Should the president decide to honor Gen. McChrystal’s request for a substantial increase in troops, he’ll find himself in a political firestorm from his progressive base without any guarantee of military success.
2. A withdrawal of U.S. military forces, while prudent in my opinion, bolsters his political opposition at home, and would require reversal his campaign commitment to “win” in Afghanistan.
3. More likely, however, is that the administration will pursue a middle path, as was reported Oct. 27 by the New York Times:
President Obama’s advisers are focusing on a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers, administration officials said Tuesday, describing an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability…
Whatever the president decides, it is clear that not everyone will be pleased. There is no pragmatic solution to Obama’s Afghanistan problem. Regardless of what he decides, It will be absolutely imperative that he answers the questions; why are we there, and what, specifically, constitutes victory in Afghanistan?
Elsewhere on Care2:
Sign the Petition – “Bring Our Troops Home from Afghanistan“
Image from Flickr.com user: U.S. Army, by way of CreativeCommons.org