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March 28, 2009

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Consider the history of the last five hundred years.

No one has ever won a land war in Afghanistan.

The US is not going to do it either.

Why commit forces to an unwinnable war? Because you want to emulate all the other empires who in the past lost land wars in Afghanistan? Because American exceptionalism means you know this time will be different? Because you want to be able to say you're fighting some war, even while you give up on fighting the Iraq war as a lost cause? Because you want to be able to retain the secret prison at Bagram Airbase to hold extra-judicial prisoners beyond reach of US or other law?

Throwing resources at the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea even if it were for noble motives: but I doubt if Obama has any with regard to Afghanistan. It appears to be an American tradition since Jimmy Carter for a President to show his manliness by taking a dump there. Obama's no different.

For anybody who payed attention to the presidential campaign to act like they're surprised that a military escalation in Afghanistan is set to happen is certainly an exercise in short-term memory loss. The running theme was that Iraq was going to be a de-escalation, while Afghanistan was going to pick up.

The reverse-canary idea is an absolute lark; has there been a substantitive criticism for the plan? And as far as an inability to shift to minimalism, I feel like people are stuck in the mindset of the last 8 years; skepticism is a natural (and fair) tendency, but the leadership this time around is much different.

Obama admits that any kind of success in Afghanistan (which I believe he defines as eliminating al Qaida as a threat) will be difficult. I'm not sure it's possible for a president who, during his election campaign, stated that he would go after bin Ladin and those who attacked the U.S., to now ignore al Qaida. I think anyone knowing the history of foreign meddling in Afghanistan should be skeptical of any "success" there. That said, the power of al Qaida was reduced somewhat (before the ball was dropped) as a result of the Bush invasion, and if the limited goal of U.S. presence there is to break up terrorist networks, maybe they can do that. As for trying to reform the government, eliminating the Taliban, bringing justice for women, ridding the country of opium - those goals are likely to be out of reach. I'm hoping that Obama's presidency, with the almost impossible problems that he already faces, isn't also beset by a terrorist attack.

Publius, the problem is that a military solution isn't the only solution, but it is often times a necessary component. The sahwa folks weren't just talked down, but also joined the U.S. side because there seemed to be a real threat that if the U.S. left with things as they were circa 2006, western Baghdad and its exurbs would suffer a really horrible ethnic cleansing by JAM. That was enough of a stick that the carrot of a paycheck by the U.S. (and a U.S. crackdown on JAM as well) was palatable enough to get them to switch sides.

The Pashtun bad guys need to feel similarly that they're not negotiating from a position of strength if they're to be moved even to the neutral camp.

Chris: skepticism is a natural (and fair) tendency, but the leadership this time around is much different.

Sure. But Obama could be the military genius of all time and he still couldn't win a land war in Afghanistan, even if he were starting fresh rather than - as his expansion of Bagram Airbase makes clear - intending to continue the policy of the Bush regime of kidnap, imprison, torture, and murder. (Not to mention at least two well-attested massacres.)

That Obama has no intention of making a clean break between Bush's military regime and his own, matters less with regard to the war in Afghanistan than elsewhere, simply because even if Obama had decided to begin with an investigation and firings/prosecution of the US military personnel responsible, and closing down Bagram airbase, the US still couldn't win a land war in Afghanistan.

"But Obama could be the military genius of all time and he still couldn't win a land war in Afghanistan"

This might be true. It might not be true. Either way, history does not, in fact, predict the future.

Fred Kaplan, incidentally, points out this:

[...] At a press conference after Obama's speech, Bruce Riedel, who led the White House strategic review on the new policy, admitted that specific benchmarks haven't yet been defined. Holbrooke added that the strategy itself is "a framework within which there's plenty of flexibility to bring in ideas which are not in this report."

a framework within which there's plenty of flexibility to bring in ideas which are not in this report

Except, of course, for the idea of getting the hell out.

"Except, of course, for the idea of getting the hell out."

Just to be clear, based on Kaplan's report, not at present, no, but the theory is that in a year any number of options will be open.

He also points out this quote:

"We will not blindly stay the course," he said, in a clear jab at his predecessor. We "will not, and cannot, provide a blank check."
Mind, I'm inclined to doubt that Obama will decide a year from now to pull out entirely. But, for the record, the possibility isn't reported to be necessarily excluded.

On an Abu Muqawama thread on this topic, another publius commented:

Or, and here's a novel idea. How about telling the truth? You military guys could ask your uniformed leadership to actually tell the president and the congress the truth. Tell them that if a military approach is the name of the game, then let's bag this incrementalist bullshit and front-load for success. Tell them to get 300K troops over there as soon as possible and be prepared to send more. Tell them that this would of course require increasing the size of the Army significantly. Then give them an honest pricetag. Hit them with that trillion-dollar figure and the x-number of casualties. Shit, they're getting used to dealing in trillions. Probably wouldn't blink an eye.

If you don't get some honesty into the game, be prepared to spend a lot of time in the grinder. We who served all through Vietnam went through it for 7-8 years. I never thought I'd see such a thing again, but you guys might actually beat our record. If, that is, those now beating the drums for all of this wonderful COIN stuff will actually have to go into the grinder at all. I know some have been there, but ISTM the loudest voices now are from those no longer on active duty.

Gary Farber: "But Obama could be the military genius of all time and he still couldn't win a land war in Afghanistan"

This might be true. It might not be true. Either way, history does not, in fact, predict the future.

But would you concede that history provides a rough guide to what one might expect to be accomplished in Afghanistan?

"But would you concede that history provides a rough guide to what one might expect to be accomplished in Afghanistan?"

I'd be happy to use the word "suggestive." My point is simply that making direct and absolute assertions, no matter how repetitively, isn't an argument, and isn't dispositive.

As it happens, people have won a bunch of wars in Afghanistan in the last 500 years. The Timurids, the Durrani Empire, Tamerlane, Babur, and the Hotaki dynasty, among others. (And earlier the Mongols, and a bunch of others.)

Not to mention that lots of people we now know as "Afghans" (if not Pashtuns, Ghilzais, Hazara, and the various other tribes), have won wars in Afghanistan. Simply put, if you get enough Afghans on your side, you can win a war there. This is more or less axiomatic. Declarations that this is impossible need to be supported.

The history of Abdur Rahman Khan is also worth acquainting one's self with, if discussing military history, and foreign influence, in Afghanistan.

Let me emphasize that I'm not particularly optimistic about the U.S. reaching many of its goals in Afghanistan, and am not at all convinced that, at this point in time, even trying to reach many of them is worth the cost in blood, treasure, and moral value. I am not arguing for a military effort in Afghanistan.

I'm simply saying that "no one can win a land war in Afghanistan" is a nice paraphrase of a line from The Princess Bride, and earlier from Douglas MacArthur, but assertion doesn't make it a fact.

Gary Farber: I'm simply saying that "no one can win a land war in Afghanistan" is a nice paraphrase of a line from The Princess Bride, and earlier from Douglas MacArthur, but assertion doesn't make it a fact.

No argument, categorical statements about the future based on previous history don't make them facts... unless you're Hari Seldon.

Some of examples of foreign control that you cite, however, Tamerlane and Babur for instance, employed measures to control populations, though long ago, that most Americans would now find abhorent. As for Abdur Rahman Khan, we would have to find a modern equivalent of an able, ruthless local ruler who would do at least some of our bidding, no? Is there someone like that now?

Let me emphasize that I'm not particularly optimistic about the U.S. reaching many of its goals in Afghanistan, and am not at all convinced that, at this point in time, even trying to reach many of them is worth the cost in blood, treasure, and moral value. I am not arguing for a military effort in Afghanistan.

We agree on this, but it seems that the administration set on pursuing such an effort.

"As for Abdur Rahman Khan, we would have to find a modern equivalent of an able, ruthless local ruler who would do at least some of our bidding, no? Is there someone like that now?"

Beats me. I wasn't arguing for a probability; I was arguing against a claim of impossibility.

"We agree on this, but it seems that the administration set on pursuing such an effort."

For at least some time, yes. I'm skeptical at how much success will be gained, and fear much more waste in the process, but one can't say that Obama isn't doing what he more or less campaigned on, for better or worse.

"No argument, categorical statements about the future based on previous history don't make them facts... unless you're Hari Seldon."

Oh, and even he had to beware of stubborn mules.

Ah, but then we'll need a Second Foundation!

"As for Abdur Rahman Khan, we would have to find a modern equivalent of an able, ruthless local ruler who would do at least some of our bidding, no? Is there someone like that now?"

Beats me. I wasn't arguing for a probability; I was arguing against a claim of impossibility.

Although I hope that my comment argued against such claims, it seems that our strategy may be precicated on finding a modern Khan.

"We agree on this, but it seems that the administration set on pursuing such an effort."

For at least some time, yes. I'm skeptical at how much success will be gained, and fear much more waste in the process, but one can't say that Obama isn't doing what he more or less campaigned on, for better or worse.

As one who voted for and supports Obama, I can't disagree, but do you find the discussion of 'metrics' unsettlling?

"Either way, history does not, in fact, predict the future."

Wait...you mean, if we manage to bring back the '50s, we may not see a repeat of the '60s?

Man. So much for that idea.

Blackburn: But would you concede that history provides a rough guide to what one might expect to be accomplished in Afghanistan?

Or, put another way: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Blackburn: But would you concede that history provides a rough guide to what one might expect to be accomplished in Afghanistan?

Or, put another way: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

You would, at least, not include Gary Farber among those who cannot remember history, no? Gary can correct otherwise, but he seemed to be warning that those of us who do have a minimal memory of history should be wary though of pressing its lesson on the future.

Just to be clear, based on Kaplan's report, not at present, no, but the theory is that in a year any number of options will be open.

Thomas Friedman to the white courtesy phone...

Blackburn: You would, at least, not include Gary Farber among those who cannot remember history, no?

I've no idea if Gary can remember the history of the various invasions of Afghanistan and why they failed - or even if he ever knew that history in the first place: he appears to remember The Princess Bride quite well, however.

but he seemed to be warning that those of us who do have a minimal memory of history should be wary though of pressing its lesson on the future.

To me he seemed to be being randomly contradictory for the sake of it. But perhaps we'll see a lengthy comment or a post on his blog on the history of the land invasions of Afghanistan over the past five hundred years and why this time will be different, Real Soon Now.

Possibly Gary is warning of the long history of people who were so mired in the lessons of history that they were unable to act. Or perhaps he's just saying that you can't linearly extrapolate history as you please.

I'm going with the second of these, because I detected no wryness in his comment that might point toward the first.

Jes: To me he seemed to be being randomly contradictory for the sake of it. But perhaps we'll see a lengthy comment or a post on his blog on the history of the land invasions of Afghanistan over the past five hundred years and why this time will be different, Real Soon Now.

You can take up all this with him directly, but nowhere was he, in my view, arguing that it would be different this time. How else would you read the following?:

For at least some time, yes. I'm skeptical at how much success will be gained, and fear much more waste in the process, but one can't say that Obama isn't doing what he more or less campaigned on, for better or worse.

Has an objective, exit strategy been laid out? As far as the Neoclowns, they are cheering because the news makes them relevant once again. Now thy can sit on the sidelines and carp about how Obama is doing it wrong or how he isn't doing enough. The best the West can hope for is that they can appease enough tribes to limit the Taliban. Al Qaeda has no more need for Afghanistan as they are comfortably ensconced in the Kashmir. A successful COIN operation is all. that is necessary, not some far flung military operation to browbeat the people into submission. That will never happen.

Blackburn, for a whole bunch of reasons, I don't respond to Gary Farber's comments, and haven't (with a few very personal exceptions) for years. Sometimes he makes a substantive contribution to discussions. Sometimes he just makes picky interjections without anything substantial behind them. Which is which is sometimes a judgment call, but in this instance, I'm thinking it's fairly clear.

Even responding to people who are responding to Gary's picky interjections can help derail a thread.

If anyone wants to come up with some factual reason why they think Obama can win a land war in Afghanistan, unlike any of the other foreign invaders over the past five centuries or so, we can have a substantive discussion. Anyone?

No black man will ever win a presidential election in America

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