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April 29, 2010

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"The only question that remains is just how much money will we blow through"

And Afghan lives, and American lives and new fancy objectives vs rational military objectives discussions. When you define war as anything other than using all measures available to break the will of the enemy (and decide if you can win or not) you get this result.

In almost every way it is the same as Vietnam, if you aren't going to use all of your capabilities and advantages to win, then you lose. Sometimes when you do use them all you lose. First you win the war and then make friends, or don't fight.

Yeah, I think we'd have to slaughter too many Afghans to "win" anything resembling a victory.

When you define war as anything other than using all measures available to break the will of the enemy (and decide if you can win or not) you get this result.

Um, are you seriously condemning the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions? Seriously? I'm misreading you, right? Please?

I'm really curious what methods of "breaking the will of the enemy" you think we should be employing....

I don't think we should be employing any methods because I agree with Erics assessment, anyway in this war we lose. Or, from War Games, the only way to win this game is to not play.

"Distraction" from what? I suppose it doesn't much matter, does it. The rhetoric of distraction is what got us into this, but who cares about that. There, it was clear what the distraction was from. bought that we shouldn't have been distracted from this effort. I'll admit I probably should never have accepted anything could be salvaged from this disaster, but I still think it was in our interest not for the mission to fail there. So it's a matter of estimating the costs of continuation compared with the costs of defeat, in my view.

Were you against the invasion? If not, where did you turn around? What policy do you advocate now? How do you propose a politician who ran on the policy we now have to sell it (some might consider this a trifling concern, but if you look at history it's a frequently determinative factor.)?

Marty: When you define war as anything other than using all measures available to break the will of the enemy (and decide if you can win or not) you get this result.

Actually, the Axis lost WWII, Marty, while using exactly the strategy you advocate.

But hey: I guess if you love fascism, you won't see anything wrong with "breaking the will of the enemy" by mass murder and torture.

The concept that the best way to win a war is to turn an enemy into an ally - which is how we in Europe have avoided any major war between France, Germany, UK, or any of the other usual set of enemies for sixty-five years is something that will never remotely cross a fascist mind.

Sometime around the 18th of September 2001, when it became clear that the American response to 9/11 was going to be the launching of missiles and bombs - including cluster bombs - to attack a country that had not attacked the US, that presented not the least threat in the world to the US, to kill people - including women and children - who had so little access to global information that they had probably no notion what a foreigh terrorist group had done that they would be dying for -

I posted a rant to this effect to an SF yahoogroup I belonged to.

And several Americans, who had not until then struck me as bloodthirsty idiots, posted back to tell me that the Taliban were evil (which I knew) that Afghan women were enslaved and brutalised (which I knew: and killing them and their children by missiles was going to help how?), and that for the US to drop missiles and bombs on civilians was not in the least the same thing as it was when four aeroplanes were turned into guided missiles and aimed at civilians.

American vanity and egotism had never seemed so little excusable to me before, but so much worse began to happen after that, that eventually I just figured:

Afghanistan was inevitable. The US went bloodthirsty. People had to die for American wounded vanity that a bunch of foreigners could actually strike down WTC and the Pentagon: this kind of thing is supposed to happen to people in Afghanistan, not to people in New York or Washington. And it did.

And things have just been getting worse ever since.

Marty's belief that the US could have won the war in Afghanistan if it had just been prepared to invest in total-war tactics - not just kill villages and destroy forests as you did in Vietnam, but big mass death, kill whole towns, wipe out entire communities, systematic total destruction of the kind the Axis carried out in countries they intended to eradicate, is the fascist death-worshipper in a nutshell.

W: Very well then. Three other paths are open to you. Three cunning plans to cure thy ailment.
E: Oh good.
W: The first is simple. Kill Bob!
E: Never.
W: Then try the second. Kill yourself!
E: No. And the third?
W: The third is to ensure that no one else ever knows.
E: Ha, that sounds more like it. How?
W: Kill everybody in the whole world. Ah, ha, ha ...

Does anyone study history?

"Distraction" from what?

Um, from the task of governing? Let me explain how this works. Right now, lots and lots of people in the US government, including staffers in the White House, State Dept, DOD, etc. are focused on the wars we're in. Because these staffers are not magical, they are not capable of doing work on other issues at the same time. Shocking, I know. Surprisingly, the need for other work to get done does not magically disappear just because we mire ourselves in a pointless war.

Here's another way of looking at it. Obama's time is valuable. A decent chunk of that time is spent getting briefed on and making decisions about Afghanistan. If he didn't have to expend time and energy there, he'd be able to expend time and energy on other more pressing problems, like, um, 10% unemployment.

The rhetoric of distraction is what got us into this, but who cares about that.

What got us into this was our bloodlust and our rage and our arrogance. Not rhetoric. Rhetoric was irrelevant. The US did not pause and thoughtfully consider various arguments before going into Afghanistan -- we were not swayed by the argumentative brilliance of that master rhetorician George W Bush. Really, we were not.

I'll admit I probably should never have accepted anything could be salvaged from this disaster, but I still think it was in our interest not for the mission to fail there.

Strangely, the fact that "failure" is not in our interest does not magically give us the capability to not "fail."

Were you against the invasion?

Yes. From day one.

How do you propose a politician who ran on the policy we now have to sell it?

That's easy. Create a special war tax that covers not just the current expenditures on the war, but the costs needed to replenish equipment and pay for veteran health care associated with this war. Make it a very public add-on income tax. Force people to write a check. After a year or two, Americans will demand that the wars end because we are cheap.

One thing that stands out to me about our involvement in Afghanistan is that, unlike pretty much every other war we've been in since WWII (and there have been a lot of them), quite a lot of the people we were fighting actually did want to kill Americans, even before we went to war with them.

I don't know if going to war in Afghanistan was our only option post 9/11, but it's hard for me to see it as unjustified.

I don't mean to speak for Marty, but when I read his comment upthread what I take away is more "fight decisively and with the clear intent to prevail", and less "brutalize and annihilate your opponent and its civilian population without regard for the laws of war". Those really are two different things.

To me, you don't fight unless you have to, and then you fight to win, and because you have to fight and win, and not to satisfy 1,000 other weird agendas. Or even not-so-weird agendas, even well-meaning ones.

The thing about war is that it's chaotic and unbelievably destructive and unpredictable. You can't engineer the outcome. It really isn't politics by other means, it's something altogether other.

Going to war for any reason other than dire existential necessity is like doing brain surgery with a crowbar and a ball peen hammer. Sure, you'll get the tumor out, but it may well be kind of pointless by the time all is said and done.

What really doesn't work is the idea of military action with the intent of refashioning the political or social culture of another country into something more to your own liking. We wouldn't like it if someone did it to us, and nobody else likes it when we do it to them.

If you want to help, help. Killing is not helping.

Bottom line: why are the Taliban able to get lots of traction with the Afghans, when we, with our good intentions and billions upon billions of dollars cannot?

The Taliban live there. They've lived there since before this country, with all of its wealth and high ideals, even existed. They eat the same food, they share the same history, they speak the language.

The Afghans know them. My guess is that pretty much Afghan in the country knows, for better or worse, what a Talib is and what makes them tick. More than a few of them find the Taliban sympathetic. Whether that makes sense to us or not, or whether we like it or not.

You need a much bigger trump card than anything we appear to know how to play to top that.

Did you write this post, Turbulence?

quite a lot of the people we were fighting actually did want to kill Americans, even before we went to war with them.

Eh? You're saying Taliban soldiers wanted to kill Americans en masse? Or are you saying that a large fraction of the people we killed in Afghanistan were AQ?

Did you write this post, Turbulence?

No, the post was written by Eric Martin. As indicated by the "by Eric Martin" byline just under the post title. You can tell that Eric and I are different people because (1) we have different names and (2) I'm much better looking.

russell: quite a lot of the people we were fighting actually did want to kill Americans, even before we went to war with them.

The US has treated Afghanistan stabbily and dirtily in the past, yes: whether or not it's true that the CIA overthrew the last elected government because it was communist and therefore the US had to side with the Islamic fanatics who opposed women's rights and women's education and land redistribution and other horrors, still: the US and USSR fighting the last battle of the Cold War in Afghanistan, and the US walking away when the USSR went down, is a big part of the reason why Afghanistan was such a shattered mess in the 1990s that even a bunch like the Taliban could take over - they were better than the warlords.

I expect that some at least of Afghans sufficiently well-informed to know about this, and who were not among the Islamist fanatics who had been supported by the US in the past, and who simply associated the actions of a government with the people of the nation, did want to "kill Americans" - but a remarkable number of people who have direct personal experience of living under oppressive governments, understand perfectly well that there's a big difference between what the government of a country does, and what the people of that country feel.

Even so: unless the Americans actually walked right into Afghanistan and let them do it, the Afghans wouldn't have been able to.

"Distraction" from what? I suppose it doesn't much matter, does it.

Mike, as a general matter, when you're pouring hundreds of billions of dollars (limited resource), and dedicating so much brainpower and manpower of our diplomatic, military, economic, development sector, etc., you are diverting resources that could be used elsewhere. My point is that there are opportunity costs by making this Afghan endeavor such a top priority. I would also argue that those same resources could be used much more effectively, and efficiently, in other settings - both domestic and foreign.

Were you against the invasion? If not, where did you turn around?

I was for the invasion. I'd say I began turning around the Prez campaign (too late in retrospect I believe). What turned me was a sense of mission creep, and also a sense of the unlikelihood of success as defined.

I supported going in and breaking up al-Qaeda, which we did. I supported the overturning of the Taliban regime, and the initial attempt at establishing a working order. However, mission creep began to set in with respect to the latter goal, and it became increasingly clear that: (1) the factions we were backing were and are corrupt, violent and often as retrograde as the Taliban with respect to woman's rights and other liberal sensibilities (in fact, there are former Taliban factions in Karzai's government); (2) the people were not enthused with that government and there was too much indigenous support for the Taliban and other non-Talib resistance groups; (3) trying to impose this government on the Afghan people would require too much carnage in the name of "helping" those Afghans lucky enough to escape with life and limb; (4) when I realized that Pakistan wasn't going to play ball as much as pay lip service; and (5) when it became clear that the strategists were talking about another 10-15 years of intense, extremely expensive military occupation, which even they gave mixed prospects for success.

What policy do you advocate now? How do you propose a politician who ran on the policy we now have to sell it (some might consider this a trifling concern, but if you look at history it's a frequently determinative factor.)?

I advocate engaging Taliban factions in negotiations, pushing Omar and others to break ties with al-Qaeda (which has already been happening/Omar has been making rhetorical gestures in a way of sending out feelers), coordinating a withdrawal in an orderly fashion, bringing in regional players like Iran and Pakistan, and trying to establish some type of modus vivendi within the state between the various factions.

In terms of selling it, there would be potential costs in terms of being accused of "losing" but the population doesn't seem that upset with the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. I think there's a lot of war weariness, and with a strained budget and high unemployment, there are ways of making the case.

Turbo: It seems that Mike is an honest and good faith interlocutor, and perhaps a pull back on the tone throttle would be in order.

Just my two cents.

Eh? You're saying Taliban soldiers wanted to kill Americans en masse?

No. Prior to our invading Afghanistan my guess is that Taliban soldiers would have preferred to leave us alone, and be left alone by us.

Or are you saying that a large fraction of the people we killed in Afghanistan were AQ?

I'm saying that a non-trivial number of the people we fought in Afghanistan were AQ or were actively involved with AQ in their training camps.

My point overall is that, given a situation such as what existed in Afghanistan -- a terrorist organization engaged in a years-long campaign of killing Americans, operating a fixed base where thousands of recruits were being trained in military and terrorist operations, in a country that was neither inclined nor able to stop them doing so or giving us access to stop them doing so -- IMO military action is justifiable.

Not required, not necessarily the best idea. But justifiable.

That's my opinion.

And Jes, I am aware of at least some of our history with Afghanistan, and with the region in general. The people who were "willing to kill Americans" that I referred to were AQ, not the Taliban or other Afghans.

And all in all, my intent here was to contrast Afghanistan with pretty much every military action since WWII, none of which as far as I can remember involved anyone who had any particularly hostile intent toward the US or Americans. My memory could be faulty, but off the top of my head I can't think of a single example.

By all means, it's a diversion of resources -- including of time and attention, as Turbulence points out, making it a distraction. But the policy issue and geographical area would be a drain on attention and mental resources no matter what the policy was, so I don't think the brain power is the main issue. In the most optimistic scenarios, the defense budget will continue to dwarf the rest of discretionary spending, so i don't much see that having some good part of that brain trust focusing on actually fighting a war seems like such a misassignment of minds. In other words, i don't think the mental and time resources are the primary resource we're losing -- it's more the lives, limbs, and money. so in my view, that makes 'distraction' an interesting word choice, given that it truly is the rhetorical path down which the party no in power trod to get to where it now is on this question (rhetoric doesn't matter in setting war policy? wow). But the approach we are taking is certainly a greater drain on much more scarce resources than time and attention of public officials (again, most of whose time and attention is in any case assigned precisely to fight wars) than other approaches might be (while in fact the other approaches may well be even more demanding of high-level attention), and at all times of course the correct decision is the one in which benefits most exceed or are least exceeded by costs. I was certainly always dubious that increasing troop levels was that decision, but I also saw a lack of serious accounting of the costs of other options during the debate last year. The progress so far doesn't make me any more confident that the correct decision was made, to put it mildly. Separately, i probably tend to take political constraints on decision makers more seriously than most.

Also separately, while I completely support the continued effort to show that the surge didn't "work," to suggest that because they are okay with the withdrawal plan for iraq, that that means a public narrative of defeat has been accepted. I don't think the oublic thinks we are leaving Iraq in defeat, do you really? This is not to say it would be devastating for Obama to have to operate through sucha narrative regarding Afghanistan; only that, whatever good arguments you have that we didn't win in Iraq, I think the oublic thinks otherwise. Ultimately, though, I would probably agree that before long public fatigue could well take much of the political sting out of potentially having to accept obvious defeat in Afghanistan. On the other hand, perhaps what the Army has bought with its beloved all-volunteer force is indefinite middling ho-hum support for whatever war is still going on in "Eurasia" this year -- most voters don't know anyone in the war, and many may well dislike the idea of having to win one. My expectation has always been that almost regardless of conditions on the ground (though obviously the new approach was intended to soften the Talibans' negotiating position), "successful" talks and an announcement of a scaled withdrawal to commence at increasing rates in 2013 leading up to the election were always the endgame. You probably have a powerful case that additional deployments were unnecessary and therefore horribly cynical within that outline.

In other words, i don't think the mental and time resources are the primary resource we're losing -- it's more the lives, limbs, and money. so in my view, that makes 'distraction' an interesting word choice, given that it truly is the rhetorical path down which the party now in power trod to get to where it now is on this question (rhetoric doesn't matter in setting war policy? wow).

Mike, I mentioned the distraction as part of a list of other costs: with human lives and money given greater fanfare in that they were mentioned more than once.

I did not make the opportunity costs of distraction the primary focus of the piece - although it is your focus.

Again, the financial costs are mentioned more, and the human toll gets much more play.

I understand your concern about rhetoric, and will consider it next time I choose my words.

Eric - I'm exclusively examining the use of the word distraction in the piece. I'm not claiming you downplay the more concrete costs in your argument overall - I know you never would. That's my point: when we all agree (at least you and I) that thosr costs are dominant and massive, I find the use of 'distraction' odd. Resources, with the exception of attention, aren't distracted. Otherwise, resources are expended in various ways -- exploited, diverted, wasted, whatever. But not distracted (again, unless the resource is attention). So unless you mean to really highlight the attention issue, I find it very odd usage.

I do mean to highlight the attention issue.

It does actually eat up brainpower in State, the CIA, other intelligence assets, the Oval Office, our development agencies, etc.

These are not nothing, even if not as important as lives lost and money spent - although part of the money spent is on the aforementioned.

Granted, even if and when we do pull out, there will be some level of focus remaining on that region, it will not be the same degree and scope as when fighting a war/attempting such a prodigious nation building exercise.

Well you don't make any further mention of the attention issue outside of that word, but as far as I am concerned what you say the post is about, it is about. I'm just saying I only meant to examine the use of the word, not to claim that you gave short shrift to the concrete costs further on in the piece. You obviously didn't.

(And not to be cheeky, but the sentence containing the word distraction asks "how much money will we blow through" and "how much blood will we spill" but makes no mention of time or attention. ...Wow. And just now I'm coming to the realization that you meant nothing other than just that by "distraction" -- the distraction of officials' time and attention. See, i heard it in the Obama construction, in which an entire war itself -- in that case Iraq is "a distraction" -- that's what I was referring to when I said the rhetoric of "distraction" led us here. But you didn't mean it in that sense -- you meant it most literally, as in, 1) how much money; 2) how prolonged the distraction of officials' attention; 3) how much blood. Much time wasted here today, but it's been illuminating nonetheless.)

Not wasted really. An interesting discussion regardless.

I always found Obama's use of that term to characterize Iraq as slightly weak compared to what Iraq actually represented. But it fits in with his overall tendency to portray as unserious, worthy of ridicule, scorn, etc. those things he finds objectionable -- no matter how serious they really bad. So, initially, rather than calling the idea to invade Iraq a contemplation of a horrendous crime against humanity, etc. (which I suspect he believed), he called it "a dumb war." During the campaign he called it a "distraction," when he obviously could have called it much more serious things. But he wanted to convey that he wasn't weak on terror/defense, so he didn't want to suggest he found everything associated with the Iraq war abhorrent -- because he intended to do many of the same things in Afghanistan. He just wanted to say that he thought they were being done in the wrong place.

Nevertheless, while awkward, I accepted it as a rhetorical construction (I mean in terms of syntax, not content), while the way I took your "distraction" (again - not how you meant it; how you meant it was perfectly fine) I found to be completely off. Why is this? Here was my confusion: I saw mainly concern for the concrete resources being diverted in the piece, and took "distraction" to be a descriptor of that problem. I didn't see those as being well-characterized as being "distracted," but rather diverted. In Obama's case, i took him to be saying, "Within the set of decisions about how to fight the military component of the War on Terror (sic) [all of which I understood him to be presenting as a complex intellectual problems for the purpose of the argument] I assert that the decision to invade Iraq rather than to stay focused on Afghanistan constituted, and resulted from, a comprehensive *distraction* among top officials." From that, obviously, the concrete opportunity and real costs could be inferred to be being misspent, of course, but I took him to be presenting the case for 'distraction" within an overall intellectual framework of governance, so I could at least hear a grammatical case for the use of the term.

In this piece, all the resources whose diversion are laid out (including official attention) are presented as concrete and scarce, so when I mistakenly took the term distraction to apply to the whole endeavor, I thought, 'that's odd usage.' But 'distraction' here was meant to describe one more concrete resource - official time - one of the few that 'distraction' can be used to describe.

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