Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

In his recent speech Pres. Obama announced that he will increase US forces in Afghanistan by close to 50%. He justified that decision by reminding us that in 2001 “Al Quaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan.” To be sure, but has he not heard that the Al Quaeda leadership has long since decamped to Pakistan? There are about 100 Al Quaeda left and we are increasing our military to 100,000 men and women in order to keep them from launching more terrorist attacks. 1000 Allied soldiers for every Al Quaeda? They must be supermen, to be sure.

It makes no sense.

But here is the real puzzle: Pres. Obama is very intelligent; so is his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Their advisers are equally able. They went through a three-month, extremely careful discussion before they adopted the current plan. On more than one occasion the President and his advisers spent 11 hours in meetings to discuss this decision. Why then have they made this incomprehensible decision?

One explanation offered for the President's decision has, once again, to do with oil. Large reserves of oil have been discovered north of Afghanistan, at the edges of the Caspian Sea, in Turkmenistan and Khazakstan. The only existing pipeline for this oil goes through Russia giving Russia control over the flow of oil. That is totally unacceptable. Since 1995 there have been plans to build a pipe line through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some people think the rush to pacify Afghanistan has little to do with the war on terrorism but, in reality, serves this pipeline project.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan to make it safe for an oil pipeline makes about as much sense as pacifying Afghanistan in order to make the US less vulnerable to Al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan. For many years to come Afghanistan is going to be a dangerous terrain for oil pipelines.

A second explanation of the escalation bases it on considerations of domestic US politics. Some recent work on the history of the Vietnam war argues that Lyndon Johnson's reluctance to give up on that war was mostly motivated by domestic policy considerations. When, in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took power in China a great hue and cry was started by right wing politicians about the government “losing” China. The State Department, they claimed, was riddled with communists. That story only died at the end of the red scare that Sen.Joe McCarthy orchestrated in the early 1950s. From this perspective, President Lyndon Johnson perhasps continued the Vietnam war, against the advice of his staff, because he was afraid the right-wing would attack him and the Democratic Party for “losing” Vietnam.

Similar considerations could be moving Pres. Obama. Perhaps he does not want to appear weak in the face of terrorist threats or indigenous insurgency in Afghanistan. Christian Parenti stated this view very bluntly: “The real purpose of these 30,000 soldiers is to make Obama look tough as he heads toward the next US presidential election.” Once again domestic political considerations would be playing an important role. But that, of course, does not justify the escalation. We would not want one American or Afghani to be harmed for the sake of protecting Democratic politicians from attacks by right wing Republicans.

A third explanation points to the President's conception of America's role in the world.

In 2007, then candidate Obama spoke about American leadership, how in the past America “led and lifted” the world and promised to renew that leadership. When, very recently, now Pres. Obama left for China he repeated his views about American leadership of the world. This idea may well be behind this escalation of the Afghan war.

The war begun eight years ago to destroy the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan has, so far, failed. The Taliban are gaining in strength; the devastation of the country is worse than ever. Does a leader give up when projects seem to fail? Failure is not a word in the leader's vocabulary; he does not accept defeat. Instead he goes back into the fray, redoubles his efforts and, as Obama keeps saying about Afghanistan, “finishes the job.” As leaders of the world, we Americans must finish the job we started – whatever the cost. According to the account of the deliberations in the New York Times “The more he [President Obama] learned about the consequences of failure, and the more he narrowed the mission, the more he gravitated toward a robust if temporary buildup.” Gen. McCrystal warned of “mission failure” and the President responded with the decision to escalate. When Vice-President Biden asked whether the Taliban were a threat to the US, the President responded: “I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan.” Withdrawal was never an option. Leaders always emerge as winners.

That image of ourselves as World Leaders-- more than any of the other motives discussed – seem to encourage the President and his advisors to escalate the Afghan war. But this explanation also fails. It does not justify sending one more soldier to Afghanistan.

Fortunate in inhabiting a fertile country with a population enriched generation after generation by enterprising and talented members of other peoples, the United States has become a very rich country. It has become, for that reason, a very powerful country. But being powerful is not the same as being a leader. The powerful are often bullies and we have frequently used our power to try to impose our will on other nations. The Korean War was costly for us and the Koreans. But Korea is still divided. We fought the Vietnam war in order to prevent the world from going communist. We lost that war but all the dire predictions about Asia going Communist turned out to be false. President Reagan invaded Grenada – a country he probably could not find on the map. The elder Bush bombed Panama City killing 1000 civilians. The younger Bush did untold harm to Iraq and to Afghanistan. We have not acted a leaders but as thugs and bullies. If President Obama wants to restore genuine leadership, he has to restrain the military and its inclination to solve all problems with bombs and bullets. He has to withdraw from Afghanistan as he is withdrawing from Iraq.

Escalating the war in Afghanistan will cause untold harm to people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will cause untold harm to our nation by perpetuating our role as world bully.