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April 09, 2009

Comments

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Eric.

Eric, I couldn't agree more with your various points. Territory is only relevant to sustaining insurgencies or guerrilla warfare, not terrorism, and especially not the post-modern 'hollywood' terrorism that 'Al Qaeda' (I use the term skeptically) engages in. For a terrorist group, as you point out, a 'safe haven' can be a garden shed for god's sake. The 'training ground' for the 9/11 attacks were flight schools in the USA.

Now, the Taliban is actually seeking territorial control of Afghanistan, but do we really care? The Obama administration is headed for total disaster there, and I for one am entirely convinced that this nonsensical gung-ho policy derives entirely from Obama-the-candidate's desire for a hawkish foreign policy talking point.

If our objective is to stomp Al Qaeda: fine, let's pay local tribal leaders and warlords to give us a heads up if they come around and we'll drop a big bomb on them.

If our objective is to prevent Islamists taking over nuclear-armed Pakistan: well this is very far-fetched anyway, but let's give money and guns to the non-islamists and maybe stop giving them a cause célèbre by merrily firing missiles all over sovereign Pakistani territory (or at least pay Islamabad enough to stop calling attention to it).

Finally, I also agree with your skepticism that Afghanistan and Pakistan are a 'unified problem'. Whenever a great power is pursuing unrealistic objectives in some other country, they start believing that the root of their failure lies not with themselves, but with nefarious locals just over the horizon. That way madness lies.


As Eric's loyal opposition on this, let me restate my points (well, some of them)

-given America's recent history with this region, giving up on trying to 'eliminate safe havens' is problematic
-given foreign political considerations, the call to 'eliminate safe havens' is couched as a global condition, but actually can be limited to that area, but the call is required to prevent accusations of singling out that region

You could argue that this is a version of Vietnam lite and we just need to take the bit in our teeth and admit we aren't going to be able to do anything.

This opinion obviously intersects with my beliefs of the possibility of accomplishing something and where that possibility lies on the scale. I don't believe that it is a 100% sure thing, so I'm not going to accuse you of believing that there is a 0% chance of things going well, but I suspect where we put those possibilities drives reasoning for people on both sides.

agree with your skepticism that Afghanistan and Pakistan are a 'unified problem'

They're a unified problem in the sense that getting U.S. troops the hell out of Afghanistan would make it easier to have any sane policy wrt Pakistan (because it would be easier for any Pakistani actors to have a relationship with us).

Clarifying my previous comment: Getting out of Afghanistant is necessary but not sufficient to make it possible for Pakistani actors to work with us, for which ending drone attacks in Pakistan is also necessary.

LJ: Yes, we're on different sides of that spectrum. Your side costs a couple trillion more though.

given America's recent history with this region, giving up on trying to 'eliminate safe havens' is problematic

given America's recent history with this region, continuing with trying to 'eliminate safe havens' is problematic

lj, you're correct in your assessment of what determines people's take on this.

It's never been my view that more U.S. troops in Afghanistan at any point would have accomplished anything good.

A possible exception would be a fantasy everything-went-right alternate history of November 2001 in which sufficient troops were deployed to capture Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar before they could cross the border. In the fantasy, we then put the al Qaeda leaders on trial, take the troops out, and support aid and local-democracy projects to the hilt.

Hard to imagine that wouldn't have laid the basis for a better-choices-all-round Pakistan policy, too.

We've been bombing Afghan civilians nonstop since 2001, a vibrant recruiting device. We've supported/turned a blind eye to massive local corruption, ditto effective recruiting for resistance.

It was the Soviet Union's Viet Nam. Just because an equivalent superpower isn't buying the Taliban Stingers (at the moment), what reason is there to think it won't be our second VN?

"It’s safe to say the internet complimented and facilitated those operations"

And the internet was very flattered.

I tend to fall between lj and Eric on this one. I feel that if we just ramp up military activity in Afghanistan, we are making a big mistake. And that seems to be what most of the criticism is implying.

At the same time however, there is no question that the current approach is going to be radically different from what we have been doing the last several years. My understanding is that we will be working with the less radical segments of the Taliban (and yes they do exist), we will be providing more economic aid directed toward the provinces so that Kabul's corruption has less chance to get its hands on the aid, that much of the ramped up forces is to provide better security for the people who live in areas where the Taliban or others take advntage of the lessened security, and that we will be working to involve the whole area in this "project."

Let's recognize two things right off. The first is that terrorism can nefver be wiped out. The second is that for terroism to have any major impact it has to have a constant influx of new members and at least some support (even if fear driven) from the local populace.

The current plan, I believe, is engineered to stop or at least decrease both of those factors. I cannot predict the future (my last name isn't Cheney) so I can't say this will work, but it at least has a chance to have a better outcome than the alternative of just walking away.

If we walked away now, the last thing the Afghans will remember about us is how we just killed innocent people and didn't even protect them from our own enemies.

If we can do even a little bit to change that image it can have a positive impact. Please note that I did not use the arguement that our walkijng away would give the Taliban and Al Qaeda bragging rights. Personally I don't care what they say. But it definitely won't do anything to reduce the influx of new blood.

Finally, I get very tired of the comparison to the Russians. They were very blatant about their intent to rule the country and make it, in effect, an honorary member of the Soviet Union. We do not, particulalry under Obama, have that same goal.

The question is if we can have a presence which shows the people of the region, not just Afghanistan, that we do not have that goal. If the only thing we end up doing is ramping up the military presence and continue the current pattern of how we utilize it, then I will join Eric fully.

"I was the lead DoN counter-terrorism analyst for [the Madrid and London 7/7] plots."

I assume "DoN" is "Department of the Navy," given that Arkedis worked for NCIS.

"Contrary to Exum’s implications, the 7/7 bombers had a physical location to stage the plots - a safe-house in Leeds - where the home-made explosives were assembled. The Madrid bombers had an apartment in the Leganes neighborhood of that city..."

Both of which, I notice, aren't anywhere near Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, or any of the other places we're interested in missiling or putting troops.

"If all al-Qaeda central requires is a location from which to issue orders via handwritten notes to cells that have 'safe haven' apartments in European cities, then it's not clear why the focus on Afghanistan/Pakistan safe havens is so crucial"

Quite so.

"If our objective is to prevent Islamists taking over nuclear-armed Pakistan: well this is very far-fetched anyway,"

It's not that far-fetched.

Nell: "We've supported/turned a blind eye to massive local corruption, ditto effective recruiting for resistance."

Just a tiny quibble, but while it's true that we've accepted that a number of warlords have been posted as governors and to other important posts, I don't think we've so much "turned a blind eye" to corruption as that there's simply not all that much we can do about it.

Nobody responded when I posted a link to this article in the allegedly open thread yesterday, but as I said, it certainly is an example of the sort of thing that makes me highly pessimistic about Afghanistan.

I posted a bunch of links for LJ's response in earlier posts last week, which he never responded to, whether because of lack of time, or because he didn't see them, but one of them was to Traub's article from last week on Pakistan's instability.

"At the same time however, there is no question that the current approach is going to be radically different from what we have been doing the last several years."

It seems much more to me like a modestly different approach, than a "radically" different approach.

"...we will be providing more economic aid directed toward the provinces so that Kabul's corruption has less chance to get its hands on the aid"

Corruption is endemic absolutely everywhere in Afghanistan. I don't know why you think it's specific to Kabul, John. If anything, Kabul probably has less corruption than anywhere else in Afghanistan, as it's where the eyes of the world can best see, and the most outside pressure can be applied. See, again, this piece.

I don't think we should immediately pull all troops out of Afghanistan. And I hope my pessimism is overly-pessimistic. I just find it hard to be remotely optimistic.

That link was there in preview. Typepad is being weird.

Huh, and now links are appearing and disappearing from my comments, depending on when I refresh them.

Article on corruption.

John Miller: The question is if we can have a presence which shows the people of the region, not just Afghanistan, that we do not have that goal [ruling the country]

I'm just deeply pessimistic. After seven and a half years of bombing and detentions, how likely are non-dramatic changes (particularly if military actions continue) to convince the people of Afghanistan and the region of anything different than they've already concluded?

The political problem is not with the Afghans or Pakistanis, who aren't going to be left with charitable interpretations of our motives no matter what we do in the next couple of years, but with the American people. No one's dared to tell the truth about it for a long time, and Obama, having participated in one of the more popular pretty lies, is in no position to do so either.

John Miller:"Let's recognize two things right off. The first is that terrorism can nefver be wiped out. The second is that for terroism to have any major impact it has to have a constant influx of new members and at least some support (even if fear driven) from the local populace."

The problem with this is that terrorism is a tactic, not the enemy. A group will use whatever tactics it is capable of using, and
believes effective.

The Taliban are interested in imposing their form of Islam in Afghanistan/Pakistan. If the US would go away, they wouldn't be following. I don't think they are terrorists, just people who wish to impose what seems to us a very nasty philosophy on their homeland.

Al-Qaeda is enemy of US, and will try to commit terrorist acts against the infidels (as they define) wherever they can.

The policies of George Bush were a principal recruiting tool.

What I would most fear is one or more nuclear weapons of Pakistan falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda, either because the Pakistan government fails, either completely, or some sympathetic part of the military provides the gift.

The best thing would be if Pakistan had no nuclear weapons to "lose". that isn't going to happen if India has nuclear weapons. What would it take for Obama to convince both countries to shed their nuclear weapons?

So long as the weapons are out there, I assume the best way to deliver against US would be aboard a ship. My impression is that little has been done to strengthen the detection.

And while I'm dreaming if Israel would give up theirs, i wonder what Iran and other countries in the Middle East would be willing to promise?

Finally, I get very tired of the comparison to the Russians. They were very blatant about their intent to rule the country and make it, in effect, an honorary member of the Soviet Union. We do not, particulalry under Obama, have that same goal.

Don't believe the hype. There is much less strategic difference thank commonly recognised between what the Soviets attempted and what the Americans are attempting, although I do think it's fair to say that implementation on the ground is far superior in the American case.

The Soviets explicitly did *not* want to rule Afghanistan - they wanted to be rid of it as soon as possible. They explicitly did *not* want to build communism there and in fact believed communism was not viable in such an under-developed country. Quite the contrary - they berated their client in Kabul for not broadening his base of power, in particular by bringing in religious leaders and local tribal leaders. If this sounds familiar, it's because that's exactly what the US has been saying to Karzai for two years or so now, and I predict that they will soon imitate the Soviets yet again in replacing him.

And the internet was very flattered.

Odd. It looked to me as if the operations ought to have been flattered, them being the recipient of a compliment.

Sorry for not being able to get back to this, and the time may already have passed. I'd like to agree with John Miller if he weren't using me as an extreme to define his middle. When he says

If we walked away now, the last thing the Afghans will remember about us is how we just killed innocent people and didn't even protect them from our own enemies.

I think that encapsulates my feelings and when he says

If the only thing we end up doing is ramping up the military presence and continue the current pattern of how we utilize it, then I will join Eric fully.

I say, I wish I had said that.

Gary, I'm not sure what you wanted me to say about the links you posted. As I mentioned, I am insanely busy with the new school year here, plus some other things on my plate, but if there is a direct question you have, please let me know. I am reading them, but writing takes a bit more effort

The Traub article suggests to me that the onus is on the US to relieve pressure on Afghanistan rather than withdraw from afghanistan. I'm not saying that you want to pull every American out of their immediately, but it seems that any type of escalation is problematic to Eric and by extension to you. If that's not the case, my apologies.

The article on corruption in Afghanistan is troubling, but there are lots of places in the world where corruption is rampant, but it is the mixture of corruption and fundamentalism that is problematic. Or perhaps, the wide reaching corruption gives rise to a longing for a incorruptible regime that metes out judgment according to a rigid set of rules. Certainly, there have been any number of examples where widespread corruption led to the rise of a regime that wreaked havoc on its society because of a desire to punish people who accepted corruption and one of the tasks for the US may be in developing ways to tackle endemic corruption to prevent those types of regimes from getting a foothold. And short of busting someone's door in and holding a gun to their head and telling them to stop being corrupted, those methods will require that we look at reducing corruption in a way that may be unacceptable in isolation, but in context is the only way to go.

Nell's point about what kind of non-dramatic changes can take place is well taken, but I see Obama expanding the military presence to allow some non-dramatic changes to take place and to hope that those non-dramatic changes will make a difference.

Again, apologies for not being able to return to this, and I am off for a weekend with our incoming freshmen, so this may the last comment for a bit.

lj, I wasn't saying your position was extreme. Heck, you are not McCain. I just saw some agreement with both sides.

And yes, I think the most effective changes may well be non-dramatic ones, both from a military POV, as well as the economic/political/diplomatic POV.

I will maintain an optimistic skepticism at this point.

Regarding corruption, I agree with Gary that it is widespread. But the farther away from the end recipients that the corruption takes place, the less the end recipients even see an attempt being made. I don't know if that made any sense.

Extremism in the pursuit of scoring blog debate points is no vice! But seriously, I've tried to be careful not to accuse Eric of being a head in the sand isolationist, but the debate lends itself to a 'we should take everyone out' and 'we need to go in there full force', so trying to sort that out is always difficult.

LJ: What I focus on are the goals. My willingness to support staying depends on the objectives associated with the mission.

If the goal is to tilt the battlefield in order to create an advantageous position with which to bargain some type of settlement ahead of us getting out in a few years, then I'm on board.

If the goal is to create a certain kind of liberalish Afghan society ex nihilo AND revamp Pakistan's society so as to ensure a liberalish federal government's writ over all its territories AND eradicate all terrorist safe havens in each locale, then I say: not possible, too costly (enormously) and not effective anyway (with respect to safe havens).

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