Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Five Quick Thoughts On Obama And Afghanistan (Updated Below)

Quick points before I go to bed. Sorry if they come out as incoherent, but I spent all day writing academese and my brain is fried.

1. Everyone knows that the top general in Afghanistan has asked for more troops to fight in Afghanistan. The question now is whether or not Barack Obama will oblige. Leaving those considerations aside for a second, I want to echo what Neil Sinhababu says here (via Ezra Klein):
It's generally hard to know what to make of military commanders' requests for more resources. On one hand, they're very close to the situation at hand and thus have a very good knowledge of it. This fact gives them a great deal of credibility in public debate. On the other hand, they're managers, and managers always request more resources whether they need them or not.

This second fact isn't that well appreciated in media coverage of their requests, but it's something that anybody who works in a big organization is very familiar with. If you went to Sor-Hoon Tan, my department chair, and asked her if she'd like to have funds to hire two more philosophy professors, she'd say yes. As would the chair of just about every department in the country. Nobody ever says, "Well, we're making great use of what we have, and while we could do more work with more resources, these positions would really be put to better use in Sociology, so why don't you give this money to them." When something is your job, you focus on doing it, whether it's building the NUS philosophy department or rooting out the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This is exactly right. No one in charge of anything going not well ever says: "thanks, but no thanks, we're good with what we have". This may not be the primary driver of the McChrystal request, but it's something to keep in mind. (For a similar bureaucratic/organizational point about how it's not surprising that the think tankers and so-called intellectuals who are behind this have requested for more troops, click here).

2. I'm not sure more American troops is going to make the U.S. safer and less likely to be the target of a terrorist attack. What exactly is their job going to be there? Prop up a corrupt Karzai government? Occupy the country and try to do state-building at the barrel of a gun? Train Afghan forces into a somewhat viable force? I consider each of those goals highly unlikely to be met, and furthermore, consider the connection between the goals and American security writ large extremely tenuous. And that's not even considering the cost of such an escalation: in Afghan (primarily) and American lives, in dollars, and in the possibility of greater politco-military instability in Pakistan (though I must confess that I would like more time to think about the likely repercussions for Pakistan).

3. This is difficult to ascertain given I am imputing motives which I obviously cannot be sure of, but I am doubtful Obama truly believes his own words on this. We may recall from the campaign Obama being very hawkish on Afghanistan, which would lead one to think that this request will be met immediately. It may be so, but my guess is Obama's stance on Afghanistan during the campaign was in part driven by his staunch opposition to the Iraq war. Thanks to the crazy belief in modern American politics that a viable Presidential candidate must demonstrate his/her ballsiness by waging or promising a war of some sort, it is conceivable that Obama wanted to balance his Iraq war posture with an aggressive Afghan war posture only to placate the war-hungry crowd. We're about to find out just how deeply Obama believes in this.

4. One thing that is heartening is that there seems to be an actual debate in the U.S. on whether or not this is a good idea. I came to college in the U.S. in the midst of the runup to the Iraq war, and what was most crazy to me from an outsider's perspective was how little disagreement there was on what was a massively risky venture. The level of conensus was truly startling.

It is different this time (though it bears noting that there is a distinction between arguing about launching a war in the first place, and arguing about an escalation of a war that is going badly). Prominent specialists, academics, op-edders, and editorial positions have expressed reservations on escalating the Afghan conflict. Put it this way: when Tom "Suck. On. This." Friedman starts questioning conflicts in far-off lands, you know there's great trepidation in this country.

5. Obama is an immensely intelligent man. I have said this time and again. But even highly capable and astute people make boneheaded judgments. David Halberstam wrote one of the most brilliant books ever written, called The Best and the Brightest, about the Vietnam war. The basic point was that the people making the decisions for America in Vietnam were all pedigreed -- they all went to Harvard or Princeton or Yale, they were all eloquent and well-spoken and well-traveled and knowledgeable and whatnot. But they made one stupid decision after another. That should serve as a lesson: smart people can do incredibly stupid things. And I get the feeling that Afghanistan is going to be Obama's incredibly stupid thing.

UPDATE: Please check out the Daily Show clip on this issue. John Oliver is brilliant.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Unwinnable War in Afghanistan
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests


takhalus said...

citing the mcnamara fallacy at the end?

I've always argued with people that whats gone wrong over the last decade has been caused by reasonably intelligent people. GWB being an exception to that rule, but everyone from UBL to GWB have been surrounded by well qualified people who seemed to reduce the human variable, human nature and life to statistics.

Whats the alternative though? Afghanistan's reputation as a graveyard for empires might be reaffirmed at this rate for the hundreth time?

Asad said...

mcchrystal hasn't just asked for more troops, he has said being denied more will result in 'mission failure'. that particular memo doesn't tie in with the analogy of managers/resources

considering the nascent police/military forces in afghanistan, i find it hard to decide whether greater american presence would cause more or less instability over the border here in pakistan.

on the one hand, continued u.s. presence is inciting further militant action. on the other hand, afghan forces on their own are incapable of combating any forces that would attempt to turn the clock back to pre-invasion state of affairs.

Kalsoom said...

What's the point of having books like The Best and the Brightest, if we can't learn from them? It's really disheartening to see Obama's recent policy in Afghanistan, esp. when so many of us can see it as one stupid thing after another. Can we break that cycle or are we doomed for a repeat of the Vietnam War (not to mention the Iraq War)?

Gigi said...

Afghanistan is a complex problem and there is no easy way out for US. I remember when i was writing on Afghanistan, i said to Kathryn,the editor of FP that i couldn't come up with any solution to this crisis. She said, 'some problems don't have a solution.'

While Afghanistan has always been thought of as a "good war," especially contrasted to Iraq, the fact remains that we have made several strategic mistakes reminiscent of Vietnam that may prevent us from achieving a clean victory, no matter how many troops we send.

The president, eager to show his toughness is doing what it takes to 'win.' Afghanistan is a semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government and is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders.Therefore, progress will be very slow and limited.

Some problems do not have any good solution.

Ahsan said...


On the analogy front, the basic point is that managers always want more resources. Well, except for Rummie in 03, but he's an outlier.

On the impact on Pakistan, as I said, it's a hard question. To be honest, I don't really know. I think it will be contingent on the preferences of the military establishment and their goals. I want to write a post on this, but I have to have relatively clear thoughts on it before I do. But you're right, it could go either way.


Well, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? I've always maintained a trust in Obama to think things through and not be ideological or stubborn about anything. Let's see if that trust has been misplaced.

Jayadev,India said...

I think the never-been-conquered argument is a bit taken too far. There are other opinions abound that nobody was-is really interested in a full country holding venture. The exit strategy ALSO requires a "perceptible temporary advantage" to cut deals with Taliban.Why would Taliban commanders sit across table when they are seen on winning side.So a surge like in Iraq might work. America is not like Soviet Union..there is a method to madness..policy is made both tactically and strategically by inputs from good pool of intelligent and debating people(Iraq was ofcourse 'war of choice' ;-) ). Though America has an issue with "group-think" problems, that is besides the point.If America is drawing a road-map to a swift Vietnam type withdrawal unlike a gracious Iraq type withdrawal..Pak military and ruling Afghan regime will be slaughtered by Al-Qaeda-Taliban combined after effects spilling over to Central Asia,India,Russia,China..Europe..America..
What I am saying is until, something resembling a army is made out of Afghan Army..somebody have to pick up a rifle and stop Taliban from storming govt buildings/infrastructure and terrorizing people .. right now there is no one except US to do that job..Its easy to say pull the plug..but then what..

About Obamamania..
I think Obama is highly overrated guy..good oratory and sound policy decisions have no correlation as far I can see.He screwed up big time on Israel-Palestine by pissing off both..pissing off Karzai..pissing off Sarkosy..He is every bit wily and careerists as Clintons and it shows through his teeth.. absolutely devoid of any moral compunctions like cutting deals with DPRK,Tatmadaw,strengthening conservatives in Iran(no help to reformists),zero help to moderates like Rebiya Kadeer,Dalai Lama,Sui Kyi etc
Only thing good about this administration is Defence Secretary Robert Gates who is doing a fine job..Obama-Hillary seems to be screwing up as far as foreign policy is concerned..

Jayadev,India said...

@Gig: no solution..? David Kilcullen put it masterfully..

"It’s like — you know, you are climbing a mountain. And you’re having difficulty getting up the mountain. So you say the mountain is not climbable. The mountain is climbable. Maybe you can’t climb it, but it’s climbable. Counterinsurgency is winnable. About 80 percent of counterinsurgency campaigns have been won. It’s a bit of a myth to think that we can’t win against insurgents. Insurgents usually lose. But the difference between a successful and a failed counterinsurgency often resides in the political activity."

Gigi said...

@Jaidev India, your point is well taken. I agree with you that every problem has a solution.It's just that in case of Afghanistan,the progress is very slow and limited and at this point of time, i don't think that US really has good options and that's why Obama administration is struggling with the most uncomfortable question that whether any strategy will work?

Anonymous said...

It is hard to conclude anything besides the fact that what has been Obama's first year in the WH has been anything other than completely and utterly disappointing.

Internationally and domestically he has shown himself to be politically impotent and strategically naive.

Completely hypocritical financial support for undemocratic and despotic regimes like Egypt ($2billion+ a year) and extensive financial and military support for perpetrators of war crimes and collective human punishment like Israel (and Pakistan) should cease.

What the world needs less of is US intervention and I hope Obama sees this.


On that note, I hope the US continues to get its butt royally kicked in Afghanistan - more troops simply means more dead Americans. I wonder how long it will take to figure that out?

With the Canadians pulling out soon, Italy looking to pull out now, the UK at full stretch and losing men at the fastest rate ever and the Germans and French not really wanting to take on combat roles - only the dumb Americans with 'incredibly intelligent' Obama as Commander-in-Chief will be left behind wondering what their purpose in life ever was.

Makes me laugh.

zeyd said...

They can send their entire fucking force and it won't make a difference. You don't 'win' in Afghanistan, you just die.

Mona said...

Do you think a second round of elections is the best way to demonstrate that Afghans can still have a free choice and, a more honest outcome and can help Obama administration in regaining popular support in the United States for the war?

Bugsy said...

You're invited to disseminate your observations at http://groups.google.com/group/cjar (Cookie Jar)