Saturday, October 31, 2009

Andrew Bacevich, Part II (Plus Brooks and Friedman on the Course Ahead in Afghanistan)

This past Wednesday President Obama went to Dover Air Force Base and watched as the bodies of 18 American troops were returned from Afghanistan. The picture above is by Doug Mills and is from Thursday's Times (here).

The discussion/predictions/analysis continued, this week, about how Obama will respond to McChrystal's recommendation of sending more US troops to Afghanistan. Dick Cheney argued that Obama is "dithering" and needs to make up his mind one way or the other, while Hillary Clinton -- in Pakistan during the week -- was fairly aggressive in her description of US anti-terrorism efforts.
I read an article by Andrew Bacevich in the new Harper's in which he argued even more vehemently about the folly of the war in Afghanistan (I first learned of, and wrote about, Bacevich's critique in July (here)).

Bacevich says that policymakers are completely failing in explaining why we need to be there:
"What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention?

In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked.…with few exceptions, Afghanistan's importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. Today, as then, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny."
This is absolutely right. Obama talks in very broad terms about not letting al Qaeda reestablish a foothold in Afghanistan, but never articulates why an on-the-ground military effort is the most effective means of accomplishing that goal. He presents the "we need to be fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan" justification as a foregone conclusion. It's probably the most political thing he does -- on most issues he is so nuanced as to be (sometimes) frustrating, but on Afghanistan there's no nuance on this underlying assumption.

Bacevich then argues that preventing a recurrence of 9/11 requires more focus on internal security rather than overseas war-fighting:
Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries…Rather it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.
This is the David Plotz line of thinking, I think: put all of this war money towards better security measures in the United States.

341. If you aggregated all of the federal money used for domestic security versus the money used for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the past eight years, what's the ratio? Have we spent more overseas? Or are the overseas expenditures just more visible?
Thomas Friedman entered the Afghanistan-troop-level fray this week (here). Somewhat to my surprise, Friedman came down on the side of decreasing the American presence :
It is crunch time on Afghanistan, so here’s my vote: We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan
Stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan ... is a 20-year project at best, and we can’t afford it. So our political leadership needs to insist on a strategy that will get the most security for less money and less presence. We simply don’t have the surplus we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11 — and we desperately need nation-building at home. We have to be smarter. Let’s finish Iraq, because a decent outcome there really could positively impact the whole Arab-Muslim world, and limit our exposure elsewhere. Iraq matters.
Very interesting that Friedman focuses so much on money; I generally interpret his view of federal government expenditure as similar to Krugman's: as long as the "end goal" is valid, then the means ($$$) are justified.
David Brooks says (here) a major problem is Obama's lack of tenacity/determination on the question of the Afghanistan war.

Brooks contrasts Obama's hesitation with Lincoln and Churchill's full-on conviction about the rightness of their causes (and their resulting strong leadership that led to victories). Here's Brooks's money-line:
"I guess the president’s most important meeting is not the one with the Joint Chiefs and the cabinet secretaries. It’s the one with the mirror, in which he looks for some firm conviction about whether Afghanistan is worthy of his full and unshakable commitment. If the president cannot find that core conviction, we should get out now. It would be shameful to deploy more troops only to withdraw them later. If he does find that conviction, then he should let us know, and fill the vacuum that is eroding the chances of success."

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