Potential War of the Week: Iran

Iran, or more specifically President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, is posturing: a new nuclear reactor and missile drones shown off expo-style. They think America is weak.

Some say we should do some preemptive blustering and tell them what we’ll do should they initiate a hostile act such as sponsor a terror attack or mess with the oil in the Persian Gulf. As a deterrent, we must posture ourselves. Though if we picked up on nothing else from the Cold War, hopefully we learned that posturing is a tactic often employed by those with little to back it up. The posturing argument is based on the correct assessment that neither the U.S. nor Israel should ever preemptively strike Iran—and only ever strike after direct provocation.

While threatening Iran isn’t the worst idea, any preemptive strike by the U.S. or Israel is. Obama knows this, so a serious debate on this question has no merit. The Bush Administration wasn’t even willing to pull the trigger; we have two wars going on. For all the other reasons we’ll never draw first blood, see Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy. This is not to say that a USS Maine–like incident set off by Israel to provoke Iran or Hezbollah into doing something stupid could not occur (a rather long shot better suited to conspiracy theorists).

Nothing is more fun when writing about potential war than looking at a list of an intellectual/journalist’s past headlines announcing the dire immediacy of the inevitable catastrophe that never comes. The reality of the status quo works fairly well, yet by nature of being the status quo, it is not really that interesting. This is why punditry about our dramatic Iranian enemy is often divided between war and maybe war. The act of continually besieging Obama with arguments against attacking Iran assumes that the administration is even considering it. The Atlantic Monthly’s cover story tries to imagine a case for a preemptive strike. And it tries to imagine that Israel will attack without our consent. Ironically, Jeffrey Goldberg’s detailed reporting and interviews only serve to undermine his primary conceit by the end of the comprehensive story.

Our relationship with Israel, for anyone who reads the papers, has been waning. Now is the exact time Israel cannot securely count on the U.S. to back it up. Yet certain people who make news assume that Israel will act. Why? Because it’s exciting to imagine, especially now that the cutoff date for an Iranian bomb is estimated at a year. And the article states that we should expect an Israeli strike on nuclear facilities in Iran by next July. Timing is the major hook for Goldberg’s piece. But the intelligentsia are known for encouraging the emphasis of short-term time limits to enhance their arguments, see the Friedman unit.

Never mind that we already support disruptive Sunni terrorist cells in Iran and that the U.S. has been actively engaged in black market ops to slow down the old Safavids’ nuclear “threat.” (Goldberg touches on U.S./Israel covert operations in Iran, but apparently that poses absolutely no danger as an instigator of real war.)

Pundit journalists get paid to make something appear scarier than it is. The downside is that it gives Hawks a way to frame military debates to their advantage and allows self-fulfilling war prophecies a chance to gain traction.

Addendum: I fully support a unified U.S. and Israeli ultimatum given to Iran if and when all else fails and Iran tests a nuclear weapon. We must weigh all other options until then.

‘The War Lovers’ and Related Thoughts on American War

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas is more evidence that it wasn’t just the influential yellow journalism of the New York Journal (William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (Joseph Pulitzer) and an accidental explosion on the USS Maine that drove us into the Spanish American War in 1898. It was a cabal of powerful agitators such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge who stoked the fire, as vehemently as the papers, in the name of manifest destiny, Anglo-Saxon superiority and the moral strength of war as an end in itself.

One of the book’s most fascinating epistolary revelations is the all-consuming fear of its antihero, Teddy Roosevelt, that he might not see battle. (He eventually leaves sick child and bed-ridden wife to lead the Rough Riders.)

Both he and Lodge had watched the mounted, regal officers of the Civil War cheered through their New England towns on their way to fight and die. The romantic visions of these heroes, and their glorified deaths, never left them. Then there was the fact that Roosevelt’s father had bought out of Civil War conscription. TR had to redeem his family name and pay his debt of honor to society—even if he had to start a war to do it.

While Roosevelt was hunting big game and writing countless books on frontier cowboys, Lodge was getting his PhD in Anglo-Saxon studies and buying into the faux-science du jour (especially for Anglo-Saxons) that, according to the Social Darwinists, they were the master race responsible for civilizing the rest of the world. Along with poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” this notion helped comfort the WASPs distressed by watching Eastern European immigrants flood our shores.

Lodge and TR, close friends, believed that without war, manliness would decay and our country would become soft and weak. Without a frontier to march toward, our spirit of exploration and conquest had been snuffed out. Expansionism, was in fact, a major facet of “Americanism,” and had to be resuscitated. Oh, the myriad reasons these men who had never seen war could call upon to defend its moral replenishment! Roosevelt put his money where his mouth. After almost single-handedly modernizing the U.S. Navy as its assistant secretary (with Massachusetts senator Lodge shouting for funding), he created his own regiment of Western cowboys and Eastern elites, and made a dramatic display of fighting in Cuba that would propel him to the presidency.

The other two 1870s-ish Harvard men chronicled in The War Lovers are William Randolph Hearst and William James.

Hearst was an awkward prankster who never graduated and whose überrich family eventually let him run one of its newspapers. Finding a talent for sensationalism, stoking people’s basic fears and desires, and always shouting in huge, bold letters about his “journalism that acts,” Hearst was actually shy and introverted in public. His competition with Pulitzer’s New York World, selling newspapers, and his desire to be a historymaker put his motivations for jingoism in plain sight. No one would expect any less than the Journal’s bellowing of conspiracy theories about the Spanish spies who blew up the USS Maine, despite a lack of evidence and a lack of motive for Spain to provoke the U.S.

If Hearst’s New York Journal exaggerated and spun everything, its account and photos of the Cubans’ suffering and starvation in Spanish camps were reasonably accurate. According to the book, though never plainly stated, the humanitarian cause for intervention was needed to get the ball rolling on a publicly approved war.

William James, teaching at Harvard while Hearst attended, was one of the leading American psychologists and philosophers in the early 1900s. He takes a character-actor role in The War Lovers as the conflicted conscience of a nation. James was a Roosevelt foil: A man of nuance who could not abide sweeping ideologies or simple overarching explanations—especially those concerning WASP Social Darwinists. Literally writing the book on pragmatism, the subjective-minded realist was often attacked for agnosticism and moral relativism, but he was fervent individualist who championed the wisdom of personal experience (“radical empiricism”).

James admired aggressive men of action, such as his two brothers wounded in Civil War battle, mostly because he was not one. And he supported the Spanish-American War, after long and serious consideration, as a remedy to Spanish atrocities and a just liberation of Cubans. James loved his country, even while his anxieties about the concept of American Exceptionalism grew. He “understood that war, while sometimes necessary and unavoidable, could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace,” Thomas writes.

Reluctant to become an activist and speak out against American “imperialism,” James finally cracked at the McKinley administration’s disastrous handling of the Philippines situation (which preceded the Filipino-American War, officially concluded in 1902 with insurrections raging on until 1912). He took his pluralistic views a step further to condemn intolerance and became a voice railing “against the unintended consequences of liberating a people by conquering them” in 1899’s “On Certain Kinds of Blindness in Human Beings.” We are “insensible to the inner significance of lives different than our own,” he said, referring to our tendency to view strange cultures of dark-skinned people as less than human. “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another.”

The Filipino-American War
Only in the last five years has the U.S. been involved in a tragically mishandled population massacre, the “unintended consequences” of the Iraq War’s sectarian violence explosion, comparable to the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 (Vietnam and Korea differ vastly in scale and complexity). Miscommunication with regard to the post-Spanish authority and the long-term plan for Filipino autonomy (the administration’s exploratory commission decided the natives were not fit yet to govern themselves), allowed maverick U.S. generals and local insurgencies to quickly ratchet up the death toll.

McKinley’s calls to maintain a semblance of order and his overtures to the local leader Emilio Aguinaldo that the march to independence would be slow but certain, came too late to be regarded realistically. After Aguinaldo’s necessary switch from conventional to guerilla warfare against the U.S. military, the policy of “total war” had been adopted by generals such as E. Stephen Otis and Jacob H. Smith, and overcrowded, disease-ridden camps were set up to distinguish civilians from insurgents (ironically, we had initially gone to war with Spain over the squalid death camps they forced upon the Cubans!). Many thousands, whose villages fell to the “scorched earth” tactics, died in the camps and anyone who ventured out was free to be gunned down.

Soldiers who sent letters describing the atrocities back to the States were either forced to retract their statements or court-martialed (though one made it through to Hearst’s Journal, which ran the front page story that General Smith had ordered his men to shoot anyone over 10 years old). Torture, including water-boarding, and horrific mutilation were common on both sides. In the end, anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 Filipinos, and approximately 4,000 U.S. soldiers, died. If only the Filippinos had been patient enough to wait 45 years for independence, as was promised by McKinley’s administration from the get-go.

Comparing the Spanish-American-Filipino War to recent conflicts

Evan Thomas makes an analogy between the Iraq War and the Spanish-American War in the intro to The War Lovers, offering a modern context and perhaps modern relevance. In February 2003, just before the Iraq War officially started, Salon.com offered a comparison as well. And in the broad view, the similarities are there, primarily their status as “wars of choice.”

The United States entered both the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War without direct provocation, there were no threats or treaty obligations. It took war mongers and jingos (as they were called in 1900) fanning the flames of war from the top down with scurrilous evidence. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge had the Maine explosion ; Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had yellow cake uranium and WMD. It took the hubris of dominance, the idea that victory would be not only assured, but at little cost. It took international-cop ideas of moral superiority: clamoring about Spanish atrocities against Cubans and Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime gassing its own people. The administrations seemingly attempted all diplomatic solutions, though William McKinley was looking to avoid a conflict while George W. Bush wanted an excuse to invade. Both administrations went to war without a clear or realistic view of an end game for the battlefield countries.

In the end, counting the Filipino-American War, the casualties ended up roughly the same. So far, the spoils appear to be similar: nada. The Philippines never became a major economic market (eventually gaining independence in 1946) and Cuba, of course, played host to our sworn superpower enemy from the ’40s to the ’80s. In the Middle East, we’ve helped our most hostile adversary, Iran, by destabilizing their archenemy and making a suppressive Islamofascist party the de facto power in the region (outside of Israel). And the oil reserves in Iraq have yet to materialize to benefit Americans, if not the oil companies who will be stepping in soon. As our combat troops leave Iraq, August 20, 2010, nobody is writing about any potential U.S. oil windfall.

It is indeed beneficial to compare and contrast all U.S. wars to gain insights. The similarities were, again, only comparable in broad swaths. In fact, the Spanish-American War (minus the Filipino conflict) is more akin to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 as a whole. More than 20 years had passed since a major mobilization of forces had occurred, an economic recession was waxing and as the Salon piece claims (in much more of a stretch for the 2003 contest) a national sense of purposelessness pervaded (the frontier was settled; the Cold War had ended). The goal was not the toppling of a regime but the liberation of a state. The short-term, decisive nature of both fights could be billed under the headline: “Splendid Little War.”

Speaking of a hawkish public opinion and Congress, fueled partly by the yellow press of 1898 and cable news now, the Salon piece posits “that Spanish transgressions were as much an excuse for war as a cause, which may be the strongest similarity between that war and our putative one.” As has become clear, the Bush administration was looking for an excuse for “preemptive invasion” before 9/11, but to leave 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan out when considering the run up to the Iraq War, as the Salon does, is to leave out a third dimension from reality. Would the Bush administration have been able to bring about the nationalist, flag-waving momentum of post 9/11 or the “fight ‘em over there” revenge-cry foundation of the newly instituted global war on terror? Would Cheney and Rumsfeld have so carelessly sought reasons to strike Saddam, unprovoked, if we hadn’t scored victory in Afghanistan in under 90 days with barely more than a CIA presence? We’ll never know. But considering that the Iraq War was still somewhat tough sell after 9/11 and considering the less than credible ascension to power of W., I’d wager that without provocation from Saddam, beyond harassing weapons inspector, the case for an Iraqi invasion would have fell on deaf ears. (Still, with the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as the model of a quick casualty-less success, having been proceeded by prompt, guiltless incursions into Grenada and Panama in the 80s, who can say?)

In further comparison, our far superior military condition in both Iraq adventures underlies the uniqueness of the Spanish-American War: In 1898, the U.S.’s vigorous war drum–beating was inversely proportional to the the Army’s preparedness for war. As War Lovers illustrates vividly, the Spanish-American War was being pursued and contemplated with an army only 28,000 strong and a newly built navy, both untested. Though 200,000 volunteers clamored for the excitement of war, they had yet to be organized or trained.

Moral Equivalent of War

Written in 1906 by William James, it is clear from his first sentence in this essay that his ambiguity on the subject of war circa 1898 is gone: “The War against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

Indeed, James cites the Illiad as representative that “history is a bath of blood.” With epic tales of great warrior/conquerors “our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bones and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of war. Let public opinion once reach a fighting pitch and no ruler can withstand.” Here James brings in the brief example of the Spanish-American War, in which the frothing, restless masses forced McKinley’s declaration.

James writes persuasively that the military-minded cannot fathom that war could be a passing phase in “social evolution,” and are disgusted by even the notion. Nations, they argue, are constantly either shrinking or growing, and without permanent war preparations, a nation is doomed. But not only from outside threats; interior degeneration will creep in and laziness will bring about inferiority. War brings discipline, physical health and hardiness, honor and selflessness, and common purpose and unity. And on top of that, a world without it would be boring: Political and military leaders possess a deep “unwillingness to see the supreme theater of human strenuousness closed.” Even confronted with the death and destruction, they will only say that without the horrors, there would be no triumphal exaltation: “Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?” asks the general.

Admitting himself a pacifist who would like to see the abolition of all war, James sees only one viable option to negating war’s existence: developing a moral equivalent of war. A sort of civil service tour of duty dedicated to constructive, goal-oriented labor, that would serve to turn boys into men, unite them, humble them and discipline them as the military does—and to be “redeemed by that from the suspicion of inferiority.”

I’ll let William James break it down:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built….

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues…are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one’s country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame?…Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up….

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature…to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

With terrorism and Third World destruction for all to see in the news daily, James’ idea in today’s context seems rather ridiculous. But as a universal concept about a future without war, it is the equivalent, I believe, of an absolute truth. And applied to the once insanely militaristic Japanese becoming a socialist-economic juggernaut by the ’80s, it seems to have enjoyed practice in the modern era. The doctrine otherwise seems to apply only to Western Democracies that have no clear need for national defense, after having had one for a while. Or, more specifically, it seems to apply to a notion of isolationist idealism of what America had the luxury of becoming because of its status as prosperous ruler of its own continent. We should all hope that this theory will apply again someday.

The New Republic’s Afghanistan Issue

Karzai in hat

The New Republic dedicated an issue to “what’s next” for the Afghanistan War. This is a summary of the each of the nine essays included, followed by some light ranting.

“Losing Faith” by Leon Wieseltier

America has every right to be in Afghanistan for its national interest: “I remember September 11.” We also have a strong argument to be there for humanitarian reasons because of the “medieval” Taliban. But Wieseltier dismisses counterinsurgency strategy (COIN, according to general David Petraeus’ manual) as irredeemably misplaced in Afghanistan. COIN’s major tenet requires a legitimate host government, which the interventionist forces seek to prop up. Afghanistan is not only provincial, but in many areas tribal, and the potential central power is seen as corrupt. What’s worse, there seems to be no native will to battle the insurgents: “…The Taliban must be fought. But it must be fought by the people whom it aspires to oppress—and those people seem to want us to fight it for them. They complain, rightly, about Bush’s indifference and Obama’s impatience, but they have not yet risen up….” Even when noting a Henry Kissinger theory about COIN operating within, not above, the separate regional interests, the author doesn’t see it faring much better. His assumed prescription? Something that doesn’t include the devoted cooperation of the splintered, self-interested population.


“Keeping Promises” by Peter Bergen

Taking his thesis from an ABC/BBC poll indicating that the Afghans’ biggest concerns are unemployment and poverty and their biggest fear is the Taliban, Bergen says the population wants us there (62 percent!) and we have a responsibility to the Afghan people. Infrastructure reconstruction, woefully lacking since the early resistance of the Bush Administration to nation-building, is a necessity strategically. Some major projects to undertake to increase economic activity: secure the Kabul to Kandahar highway, finish the Kajaki Dam and implement an FDR-style Works Progress Administration. Bergen then refutes the draw-down argument that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are mainly in Pakistan by citing the Pakistan Army’s intensive fighting in South Waziristan: “Let the Pakistani’s continue at their own speed and desist from publicly scolding them” as they have lost more soldiers than all the NATO nations combined. To throw Pakistan a security bone vis a vis India, have the U.N. declare Afghanistan neutral. In any case, we must “fulfill the promise we made to Afghan citizens to put their country on the path to a better future.”

“Get Out Yesterday” by David Rieff

The goals for the war set in June by the Obama administration—to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and create a stable government in Afghanistan, while persuading Pakistan to assist in the destroying, all by 2011 — are not remotely realistic, even without a draw-down date. Rieff uses variations of the terms unachievable and goals at least three times and gives his priorities: “I’d feel far safer if we were doing less fighting in Helmand and unleashing even more drone strikes in Pakistan, and more spying on mosques in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.” Acknowledging that we could “hold the cities” as the only definition of long-term success conceivable (and that we are not leaving any time soon), Rieff maintains that it’s simply not worth the blood and treasure. Espousing a general philosophy against “expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based interventions,” the only hope now is that we will move closer to isolationism, learning lessons from this quagmire.

“Stay Forever” by Josef Joffe

Canada, Poland, Australia, Germany and Britain are anxious to depart. NATO nations have grown frustrated with Afghan civilian casualties, not to mention their own loss of money and soldiers—a collective moral conscience weighs them down. This is, after all, a war of choice. Joffe notes that COIN constitutes the “willingness to stay as long as it takes” but seems to endorse the counterterrorism model without ever mentioning it: While nation-building is costly and futile (“there is no nation in Afghanistan”) and an all-out exit is not the path to victory, “a combination of watchful presence and nimble offensive can be sustained indefinitely.” He emphasizes a police-on-the-beat analogy and using our technological advantages (as well as local intel) to keep our enemy’s costs high and sap their energy and resources. Joffe points to the draw-down date and Karzai/Taliban negotiations as a neon sign that the muslim extremists cannot be defeated, but must be contained. If we can outwit and be perceived to outlast, we gain long-run bargaining power. In his reasons for staying, Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorist attacks are conspicuously absent. Instead, foresight into the 21st century Middle East as a continual battleground for ideologies as well as resources (“Europe in the 20th century”) obligates us to the region—where the Taliban is small potatoes compared to Pakistan and Iran.

“Unshackle the Troops” by Amitai Etzioni

The rules of engagement under COIN—which seek to minimize Afghan casualties by, say, having U.S. soldiers announce they’re going to attack so bystanders can vacate the area—increase the likelihood of coalition casualties. Etzioni offers a couple hypothetical scenarios that illustrate the problem in action. Even before these newer constrictions, the Taliban et al exploited our willingness to heed Geneva war guidelines, using their countrymen as human shields in every way possible. And ironically, it is our play-by-the-rules generals who constantly apologize for the civilian deaths caused by the insurgents as an integral part of their strategy. Much more innocent blood is on the insurgents’ hands. Etzioni makes sure that we know he thinks killing Afghan noncombatants is “deeply regrettable.” In fact, better to go with the Biden counterterrorism model of drones and Special Forces in order to negotiate with the enemy: “Instead of asking our troops to fight this war under rules that increase our losses in the vain hope of gaining popularity, we should offer to withdraw our forces as long as the Taliban agree to stop harboring terrorists who threaten us or our allies.”

“Rescue the North” by Anna Badkhen

Badkhen took a trip through North Afghanistan—largely neglected as virtually anti-Taliban—where a lack of promised aid has allowed the fundamentalists to regain strength, and the poppy industry to flourish. Everywhere she went, she heard the same thing: The best way to win back the region is not with added security forces, set to be arriving this summer, but with schools, clinics, electrical grids, communal wells and paved roads. Millions in the North are improverished and jobs and infrastructure would go a long way toward gaining popularity for the counterinsurgency effort, according to area governors. Right now, the Taliban are filling the void with basic necessities and even foreign Al Qaeda operatives are finding refuge. While Badkhen notes that delivering the aid is a dangerous undertaking, it should be seen as preferable to simply “handing over half the country to the Taliban.”

“Awaken the Pashtuns” by Fouad Ajami

Though Ajami never explains the significance of Pashtun or their relationship to our enemies, one can gather from this mistitled piece that he believes General Petraeus and the prosecutors of the war would do well to foment a Pashtun Awakening (in the manner of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq). The Afghans who share the religious and cultural beliefs of the Taliban should be heavily persuaded to break with them. Ajami hints that Petraeus can use the Iraq War template to salvage some sense of progress by attempting to line up strategic partnerships before we begin our exit. But, for almost two-thirds of the article, the focus lingers on the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the inherited war and the Democrats’ ambivalence, if not hostility, toward it. Quoting the president’s speeches, Ajami invokes the two wars in the eyes of Obama’s 2008 campaign—Iraq, the bad “choice,” Afghanistan, a “necessary” operation—before pointing to what could potentially be seen as Obama’s LBJ Vietnam nightmare.

“Save Whatever We Can” by Ahmed Rashid

The situation in Afghanistan is bleak. We need to cut our losses. Strangely, as if there weren’t a draw-down date set for roughly eight months from now, Rashid calls for Obama to make a “change in strategy—one that takes into account that fact that NATO forces will not be able to stay…much longer.” The first step is mediation with the Taliban, in which the U.S. takes the lead backed up by Karzai—not the other way around. Rashid’s piece is based on accomplishing “comparatively easy objectives” by which he means fight where defeating the insurgents is plausible in a short time. We must clear and hold the roads connecting Afghanistan’s major cities. Next, secure Kabul and the areas where the insurgents have little footing. Finally, “clearing the eastern and northern provinces…which are more pro-government than the Taliban-dominated south.” To emphasize the word comparatively in these goals is key. Once we’ve made headway on the more realistic actions, we bring our enemies to the bargaining table and allow them the Helmand and Kandahar chips.

“Stop Blaming the Afghans” by Steve Coll

Instead of promoting a unity of political forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO have “mostly exacerbated the country’s fragmentation.” A united effort is most important in holding together a diverse Afghan National Army that has any chance of effectively containing the Taliban. Obama’s premature withdrawal date announcement, of course, has undercut all unity goals, and our dedication to an insecure Hamad Karzai has not particularly endeared us to other significant regional groups. That aside, the formation of a broad national commission from all religions, regions, tribes and the military, not solely run from the presidential palace, would be symbolically impressive—without necessarily having to be particularly functional (at first). Afghans “repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology” and “produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the 20th century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion.” To dismiss them as corrupt, drug-addled, and lacking will is to shirk the responsibility to finish what we started in the fall of 2001.

Commentary by Michael Quiñones
The basic question: Is this a humanitarian mission in which we are beholden to improve the lives of the Afghans by seeing through a capable, secular government and army? If not, we can withdraw a large chunk of troops and cover most of our national security concerns with the counterterrorism model: drones, Special Forces and a broader war on all Al Qaeda harborers. (In all likelihood, this will be the strategy to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table when we draw down in 2011.) However, if it is our mission to improve lives or spread democracy, then both Presidents Bush and Obama have irredeemably failed, and Obama far worse. Obama could have learned from the futile “light footprint” method in Iraq. He had two choices in Afghanistan: contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda with counterterrorism (the Biden method) or wipe them out and keep them out with COIN, sending at least 100,000 troops to both “clear, hold and build” and provide security for massive aid and reconstruction to win hearts and minds — and institute a ten-year plan. To split the difference was both a bad political move and unfeasible militarily. Iraq taught us that you can’t half-ass COIN, especially without a credible government to take the reins. And the most obvious and egregious disregard for true COIN, the arbitrary draw-down date, sealed the deal. That we didn’t just try and fail but clearly set ourselves up to fail will be the hardest thing (politically and historically) Obama will face from this ordeal. As described above, there are ways to salvage the situation, if not to help the Afghan people then at least to keep our country safer from attack by monitoring the greater region with the structures we have put in place. We will be in Afghanistan in some capacity for at least another decade, hopefully trying to improve relations with all those who feel we betrayed them. But there is no way to salvage the perception of Obama’s war—a political balancing act (likely the result of having many advisors clamoring from all sides) that will prove an epic backfire. His decision is destined to tarnish him and liberal presidents for generations to come in the annals of war.