Afghanistan, the Economy, and Obama's “Anti-MacArthur Moment”
The President at West Point Job losses January 2008–November 2009
Above the Fold
“The longer we delay the process [of withdrawal] and the harder we try to prevent it, the more certain it is that the Taliban will dominate. This has been uniformly true of insurgencies for the last two centuries all over the world: those who fought hardest against the foreigners took control.” -William R. Polk
“Give credit to the victors. Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant. Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot.” - Tom Englelhardt
Barack Obama’s week began with a deeply dubious policy decision and ended with a huge, early-Christmas present. The misstep was his decision to continue his steady escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the gift was a very surprising improvement in the economy, the shedding of just 11,000 American jobs, which could signal an earlier-than-expected end to the recession.
The question is whether the economic recovery will ever be strong enough to compensate for the black hole of war, which drains more and more billions from our economy every year.
The most useful analysis of Afghanistan FCP has encountered recently is also the most depressing one: William R. Polk’s “Let America Be America,” posted last month as a guest editorial on Juan Cole’s indispensable blog.
These are some of Polk’s most trenchant observations:
* “For the first time that I know of in recent American history, the uniformed military have created what amounts to a pressure group of their own. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are the leaders but, by influencing or controlling promotions panels, they have fostered the advancement of middle grade and junior officers who agree with them. Some have been brought into a group called ‘the Colonels’ council.’ And numbers of retired senior officers have joined not only in what President Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’ but have become the opinion-makers on foreign policy in the media.”
* Obama “must hope that the general public will reach the conclusion that ‘staying the course’ is costly, does not work and is pointless. But, if [he]waits until a course of action is completely evident to everyone, it will be probably be too late to implement easily, cleanly and in command of our principal objectives. Thus, a large part of a president’s responsibility is educating the public.”
* “As the current Russian ambassador and long-time KBG expert on Afghan affairs, Zamir N. Kabulov, has commented, there is no mistake the Russians made that has not been copied by the Americans.”
* America probably lost its last, best chance to convince most Afghans of the legitimacy of a new national government seven years ago, when it ignored the wishes of two thirds of the delegates to a loya jirga (a national meeting of tribal councils), who signed a petition to make the exiled Afghan King, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government. “But we had already decided that Hamid Kara was ‘our man in Kabul’ and did not want the Afghanis to interfere with our choice..As Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason reported…. ‘This was the Afghan equivalent to the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam; afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government.’ While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan; without one, as they put it, ‘an elected president is a on a one-legged stool.’”
* “At our current level of activity - before the introduction of more troops - we are “burning”…about $60 billion a year. Next year, our direct costs will probably rise to at least $100 billion. And even that figure will surely rise in the years to come. So the Congressionally allocated funds in the coming few years under even the most modest form of “staying the course” would amount to a minimum of $600 billion and more likely to much more…. This is money that we don’t have and will have to borrow form overseas.”
* “General McChrystal has told us that we must have large numbers of additional troops to hold the territory we ‘clear.’ He echoes what the Russian commanders told the Politburo: in a report on November 13, 1986, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev commented that the Russians attempted the same strategy but admitted that it failed. ‘There is no piece of land in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘that has not been occupied by one of or soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize … Without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time.’”
At the heart of the president’s argument for an escalation is the idea that we must–at all costs–deny al-Qaeda a renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan. But this idea ignores two essential facts: 1) it is far beyond our capacity to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary everywhere else–from Somalia to Germany, and 2) whatever benefit we may gain from denying them Afghanistan is far outweighed by the huge damage we are doing to our security by guaranteeing the recruitment of thousands of new terrorists through our continued involvement in what is now an eight-year-old war.
Polk thinks the best chance we have of creating a manageable situation lies with the Pakistanis. It may be a long shot, but its chances of success strike me as far greater than what we can expect from a continuing escalation of American involvement. Polk writes,
The Pakistanis have a long history with the Taliban, know them intimately, have subsidized them and have sought in the Taliban a barrier against Indian infiltration of their backyard, Afghanistan. That long-term interest remains despite the current conflict. And, at base, the Pakistanis share with the Afghanis, religion, a population of nearly 30 million Pashtuns and the desire to preserve their neighborhood from foreign control. Thus, I believe that in the coming months, they will do what neither the Russians nor we have been able to do – bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This move would offer a wise American president an opening to begin the process of turning over the war to our ally Pakistan.
Meanwhile, over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt identifies the single most depressing aspect of the president’s decision:
It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy. They have shocked-and-awed their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success, triumphant at last. And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not about devolving Afghanistan. I’m talking about what’s happening in Washington. You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered.
Engelhardt calls this Obama’s “anti-MacArthur moment,” and I’m afraid that’s exactly what it was. Engelhardt recalls, “In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces. He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to ‘limit’ the war after the Chinese intervened.”
This failure is as much the fault of the left as it is the president’s. Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that simply by electing a new president, we could achieve a fundamental change of direction in America. But, as usual, after being beaten at the ballot box, the right wing has redoubled its efforts to maintain control over the American political process, while the left remains just as impotent as it was during the Bush years.
In the long run, the good economic news at the end of the week may be more important to Obama’s long-term fortunes than his poor judgment about the war. A resurgent economy in 2010 could prevent Republicans gains in the House and Senate in the fall.
However, it now seems just as likely that Obama’s flawed foreign policy will cripple his other ambitions for change–just as Lyndon Johnson’s repeated failure to face down his own generals in Vietnam fatally crippled him.
Special thanks to FCP contributor JWS.