Along we go with BH0?

Regarding the Australian government’s attitude to the war in Afghanistan, Hugh White had this to say on Lateline last night:

I think they understand perfectly well that continuing to support the United States there is fairly important for our alliance management, but I don’t detect much enthusiasm in the Government to really trying to turn Afghanistan around and convert it into a stable, prosperous democracy. I think most people in the Government privately regard that as a pretty quixotic aim.

As Obama’s troop surge takes effect, the war in Afghanistan is intensifying, producing more civilian casualties and promising more deaths for the occupying forces. With little to show from eight years of fighting, and every reason to believe that the war strategy is being dictated by American domestic politics , NATO members and other US allies are at a cross-roads. The Dutch are pulling out. Australia is only staying to make yet another down payment for American protection from a future invasion from the north.

The problem is that the Administration hasn’t articulated a credible plan to stabilise Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the high hopes of those who cheered the passing of the Bush era, the new president hasn’t pulled any magic solution out of a hat. Nor has any compelling course of action revealed itself in the meantime. Voices calling for acceleration, withdrawal and a continuation the status quo seem to be equally loud and equally convincing, depending on who is making the case.

And there are eloquent arguments wherever you look. Generals McChrystal and Patraeus have done a good job of selling their counterinsurgency, backed up by the impression, however illusory it might be, of success in Iraq. They are supported by intellectuals like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who never cease to point out how little support the Taliban have amongst Pakistanis and how much the Americans have. Opinion surveys in turn lend credence to this claim. O’Hanlon emphasises that it’s civilian Afghans who will be much worse off, and the key is to win the civilian population by successfully protecting them, and training the local police and military, which he says will take three to four years at the minimum.

At the other extreme, the proponents of rapid withdrawal are no less persuasive.

Daniel Ellsberg: reliving July 1965

Daniel Ellsberg, the Most Dangerous Man Alive. poo-poohs the counterinsurgency strategy. He ‘wrote that horseshit’ himself thirty years ago, and it isn’t going to work any better now than it did then. It isn’t that the Taliban are deeply popular (the Viet Cong were supported by 20 percent of the population at best), it’s that they are preferred to an occupying power, and respected if only because they are capable of defeating that power.

If the war is so self-evidently futile, this raises the question why the Pentagon and State Department support it. Ellsberg notes that Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s Chief of staff) thinks it’s about an oil pipeline; but believes that for most of the military it’s a matter of proving a point (as the French wanted to do in Algeria). As for Obama, his motives are the same as Johnson’s: ‘to keep the generals from going public and complaining that his has abandoned a winnable war.’ In addition, the President is probably getting ‘inflated numbers on Afghan fighters (same story as with Vietnam). The hawks are greatly assisted in the contest for public opinion by the compliant role of the media, which Ellsberg dismisses as lapdogs. That is a major difference between this and the Vietnam War. ‘Field reporting much more controlled now. You can’t show bloody side of war on the news now.’ (Here’s a longer Ellsberg interview.)

Ellsberg doesn’t even pretend to be an expert on Afghanistan, but his analysis is endorsed by Mat Hoh, who made the headlines in September by resigning from the Foreign Service in Afghanistan for reasons of conscience. Moh thinks the war in Afghanistan War should be won, like the Cold War, by the power of ideas, not by propping up corrupt client states, whether ruled by Ferdinand Marcos or Mohammed Karzai. In particular, we should ‘stop combat operations where we’re fighting people who are only fighting us because we’re occupying their valleys or villages, or because we’re supporting a central government that they don’t want.’

Then there is Andrew Bacevich who, like Moh, speaks from the pedestal of a military record and a conservative general outlook. In October he put it this way:

Implementing the McChrystal plan will perpetuate the longstanding fundamentals of US national security policy: maintaining a global military presence, configuring US forces for global power projection, and employing those forces to intervene on a global basis. The McChrystal plan modestly updates these fundamentals to account for the lessons of 9/11 and Iraq, cultural awareness and sensitivity nudging aside advanced technology as the signature of American military power, for example. Yet at its core, the McChrystal plan aims to avert change. Its purpose – despite 9/11 and despite the failures of Iraq – is to preserve the status quo

So much for the extreme positions. What about the middle ground? Again, the voices are authoritative.

Peter Galbraith, who was sacked from the UN mission after blowing the whistle on the election rigging, sees the status quo as the least of three evils. ‘In the absence of a credible partner’, it doesn’t make any sense to ramp up the war.

We have some obligations to the Afghan people. As I said earlier, we don’t want it to become another Somalia. There are things that the troops are doing that are important, that go beyond a strictly anti terrorism mission. So reluctantly I come to the conclusion that the right course of action is to maintain the force levels that are there now.

Galbraith is well worth listening to: there’s more here and here.

Drawing on a poker analogy, Rory Stewart makes a strong case for a ‘call’. He dismisses the conventional notion that Afghanistan poses an existential threat, and that the US must aim for victory at all costs, as completely unrealistic. A precipitate withdrawal, on the other hand, would leave a lot of people in peril who have become dependent on Western protection. The trick is to force the parties into a political solution by signalling that a medium presence will be maintained indefinitely. Stewart was pleased by Obama’s shift to a more realistic and less ambitious plan in his 1 December speech, but unhappy that the President gave an undertaking to begin withdrawing on July, which he believes greatly strengthens the Taliban’s hand.

Nir Rosen, another authoritative voice, is even more derisive about this aspect of the current plan.

Obamas unpromising solution is to pressure the Afghans to create a state by announcing his exit strategy before the troops arrive.

Rosen’s account from the front line paints a dismal picture of the COIN strategy, which depends on training hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police, made impossible by a combination of corruption, indiscipline, and Afghans’ lack of motivation to kill fellow Afghans.

But Stewart is probably attaching too much significance to Obama’s announcement of a withdrawal date. According to Glen Greenwald, the Administration is itself entirely confused on whether the July 2011 is set in stone. The bottom line is that they don’t know what to do, and are playing for time. Given the lack of consensus, the course of events in Afghanistan will unfortunately depend heavily on Obama’s personal motivations. Gwynne Dyer has a cynical view of these. He thinks that Obama lost a golden opportunity to withdraw when the rigging of the election was revealed: he should have publicly supported Galbraith and admonished the UN (wrong footing the Republicans in the process).

Dyer doubts that the Taliban would be able to take over the whole country, or that they would host Al Qaeda bases again. Karzai remains in power with no legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghanis, there is no purpose in continuing a battle to prop him up. The Administration and NATO should just sit the Taliban and the Northern warlords down to strike a power-sharing deal, and get out.

The key to Obama’s decisions, according to Dyer, is that American support for the war is low. That being so, why would Obama be worried about being perceived as a quitter? Dyer’s answeris that the war:

will inevitably, inexorably become his war, and the Americans who are killed there from now on will have died on his orders. Once that kind of burden descends on a politician, it becomes almost impossible for him to change course and admit that those deaths were futile.

Dyer doubts Obama really believes the surge would work. His real motive is to push the Taliban back temporarily, so that when they do leave it won’t look like a defeat. The Taliban will come back, as the Viet Cong did in 1975, only after a ‘decent interval’, that will save face for the President.

Notwithstanding the lack of consensus among the authoritative voices, what seems abundantly clear from all this is that the only hope for Afghanistan is a political settlement with the Taliban. How that would work is a topic for another post. The point of this post is that we must demand of Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith that they take the message to the President that ‘victory’ is no longer an objective we can be part of.

The Australian Government should either follow the Dutch example and withdraw our forces, or prove that Australia is a responsible participant in the international intervention, — that our ambition is to fix the problem rather than simply accumulate credit with the Americans. Failure to do this is both an international shame and a betrayal of our troops.

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[…] James Farrell at Club Troppo review the occupation and the military violence promulgated primarily the American Government in terms of strategy, noting that Obama missed an opportunity to get out. Now he is saddled with a war and the deaths of 1000 American soldiers – never mind the Pastuns and others, who actually live there. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)WAR AGAINST TERRORISTS?COSTS OF WARPAKISTAN REFUGEESThis is the Place, Now is the Time […]

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

Australia is only staying to make yet another down payment for protection from a future invasion from the north.

And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since Federation. It’s what Gallipoli was about, and it’s what Afghanistan is about. It never occurs to our DFAT geniuses that:

1) The insurance premiums are consistently painful precisely because our insurer only ever collects them when needed. The very fact that our political services are asked for is fairly good evidence that they can’t easily do the job on their own, and so the job has a good chance of turning out badly. The Yanks didn’t want help with Granada, they did with Vietnam.

2) Gratitude for past sycophancy not being a feature of international affairs, our insurers will pay up if it suits them at the time and only if it suits them. Whether our premiums are up to date or not will be irrelevant.

11 years ago

On the bright side, Australia sent such a small number of troops, at least we won’t go broke fighting. In addition, because they’re there for political reasons, no doubt they’ll be kept in less dangerous positions.