Thursday, August 13, 2009

Af-Pak, pt 1

Peter Bergen, "Winning the Good War: Why Afghanistan is not Obama’s Vietnam"

Rahul Mahajan, Empire Notes, "Weekly Commentary-- the Good War" July 20th,

On several recent occasions Rob has already discussed the situation in Afghanistan;

"Escalating in Afghanistan",Aug 1st

"Under a Darkling Sky: Waging War in Order to Wage More War", Aug 9th

As I've said elsewhere, the mainstream left's failure to take Obama to task for escalating the Af-Pak war is to me the most disgusting aspect(of many) to the left's timidity and fear of rocking the corporate democratic boat the in which party leadership is blissfully sailing, under the supposition that the rest of us at least get a berth in steerage. I doubt ordinary people get even that, except in some isolated instances, but that's a discussion for another day.

As you probably know more and more people are calling it the Af-Pak war, partly because many of the fighters battling US forces in Afghanistan are believed to have bases along the Af-Pak(Pakistan) border, often on both sides, and to be receiving aid from persons in Pakistan-- but also because the US forces have increasingly started to make incursions past that border, and of course when they've killed people in airstrikes, noncombatants usually end up among the dead-- some believe they are the majority, and US airstrikes are no more than collective punishment.

It's also called the Af-Pak war because many experts feel that it is serving to destabilize Pakistan, the world's only predominantly Muslim country with nuclear weapons, and already a place with a tenuous political fabric. I'm really curious about any recent polling regarding America's involvement in Af-Pak mayhem, since the mainstream press seems mostly silent about this, as if people can only have opinions about one big issue at a time, or as if Af-Pak warring isn't in fact a big issue. (To give some credit where it's due, Lara Logan on CBS News had a report on the conflict last night when they noted that US casualties were up substantially, both compared to earlier this spring and summer '08. It would be nice if they also talked about the civilian toll, which would at the very least make people over here question why we're even over there and if they even want us over there, but something is better than nothing.)

I'll admit I haven't followed the Af-Pak conflict particularly closely, certainly not as closely as Rob and some other bloggers have, but I was surprised when I saw this article at Rahul Mahajan's Empire Notes recently:

In discussing Peter Bergen's essay "Winning the Good War" in the Washington Monthly, Mahajan writes,

Most of his facts are accurate and some of the arguments he tries to refute are really silly -- if only I had a dime for every idiot column claiming that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires for 2500 years and that it will wreck the United States too.It's also true that poll results show a significant majority of Afghans in support of the presence of U.S. and NATO forces. And that Afghanistan is nothing like Vietnam. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see that Bergen is caught up in the same blindness as say Thomas Friedman in 2005 regarding Iraq -- and untold liberal intellectuals in every counterinsurgency since the beginning of recorded history.

Here's a different reading of some of the same facts. The fact that in a recent ABC poll, 63% of Afghan respondents supported the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan while only 8% supported that of the neo-Taliban is a welcome indication that the 8-year occupation has not yet done irreparable damage -- and indicates an opportunity to move the policy in a very different direction than that of counterinsurgency. That lack of irreparable damage does not mean that the United States has done much good -- indeed, 63% thought the US had done a "fair" or "poor" job and a slight majority has an unfavorable opinion of the US.

Furthermore, 18% favored escalation with 44% opposing, and an overwhelming 77% said the use of air strikes was "unacceptable." Hamid Karzai has also repeatedly gone on record opposing U.S. escalation and favoring attempts at a negotiated settlement.

I don't understand Mahajan's assertion that if only he had a dime for "every idiot column" claiming that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires and will the wreck the US too. Maybe he looks at the recent uptick in the stock market and has concluded that our long-term economic prospects are good, case closed. The "graveyard of empires" truism may be just that, a truism, but that doesn't mean it isn't applicable to the US, as one straw of many on the camel's back, even if it isn't necessarily the definitive straw-- at least not yet.

As far as his assertion that we haven't yet done "irreparable damage", that seems like just one person's opinion, even if it's that of a highly educated fellow(Mahajan is an NYU prof.). Speaking of truisms, the enemy of my enemy might be my friend in an Erroll Flynn movie, but just because the Afghans don't necessarily care for the Taliban doesn't mean they also want the US there. Even if they do, clearly they just want the US to keep the peace, without the airstrikes. But seven years' worth of airstrikes is a lot of civilian killings, and it seems awfully unlikely that ordinary Afghans brush off periodic news of deaths of relatives and neighbors as just some bothersome annoyance. I also would want to know more about the methodology of the ABC poll, and whether the respondents may have felt that they needed to fear reprisals from US forces. I'm not saying they had reason to, but I imagine if you lived for seven years in a war zone you'd be skeptical of somebody purporting to be a pollster and prefer to err on the side of excess caution.

Finally, regarding the Vietnam analogy:

(1) Peter Bergen notes that from 2002 to 2009 US public disapproval of the Afghanistan war has gone from 6 percent to 42 percent(earlier this spring), which suggests that given enough time, Afghanistan could well become Obama's Vietnam.

(2) While Mahajan acknowledges that any US military strategy going forward in Afghanistan is likely to involve substantial reliance on continued airstrikes, he closes-- apparently without irony-- with a variation on the classic excuse people made for the Vietnam debacle- instead of "the US could win, but we lack the will to see it through", it's we could secure a lasting peace, but lack the will to seek a political solution.

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At August 13, 2009 11:44 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

My impression of both Bergen and Mahajan is that they are either part of, or partial to, the “humanitarian” interventions so beloved by the centrist democrats. I wonder if they were as defensive of W. Bush’s Iraq War as they are of Obama’s war.

Bergen claims that circumstances are different regarding Russia’s occupation and that of the U.S. and while it is true circumstances are not identical I’m not convinced things are different enough to matter much. And what both Bergen and Mahajan miss completely is that to argue for or against on the basis of if the war is “winnable” is to ignore the much larger point which is thousands of Afghans are dying because of our involvement in their affairs and that Americans really have no interest in whether Afghanistan has a democracy or not. I think the basic problem with both writers is their views are based on false assumptions.

From things I have read some Afghans prefer the Taliban to the U.S. forces because the Taliban had driven the Afghan police force out. The Afghan police were very unpopular having brutalized the local populations and that with the arrival of the U.S. military the Afghans are afraid that they will bring back the Afghan police after driving the Taliban from the area. I think you are quite correct in questioning what the Afghans really feel about the American presence.

To disregard so much Afghan history as Bergen seems to strikes me as foolish. That is the kind of thing that gets us into trouble in the first place. I also agree with you about the Vietnam analogy, it may not be perfect but does it have to be? My guess is that it is close enough.

At August 14, 2009 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob --

" beloved by the centrist democrats."

And which Democrats do not love it? I don't recall many who have stood up to any of the uses of the US Military in the past 50 years.

I'm not even sure you could call those objectors Democrats. That's not what the Democratic Party is about, objecting to the use of military. Using the military is a central tenet of the Democratic National Party and Democratic Leadership Council agenda.

This is one of those lingering assumptions about the Democrats that must die, Rob. The Democrats are not honest brokers, they never have been. They are imperialists through-and-through, always have been. Who got us into the World Wars? Into Vietnam? Into Korea? Into Kosovo? Into Grenada? What's Obama doing now?

At August 14, 2009 9:28 AM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

hi guys,
Rob, now that I read your comments, I realize that I may have been too forgiving of Mahajan's stance. I was more critical in an earlier version of this post but began to feel bad about it, partly because I get tired of blog sniping and general snarkiness. (Not that it's remotely likely that Mahajan will notice our wee blog discussing him, let alone even care.)

you already know the answer, regarding democrats who don't love war. They're the ones who never achieve leadership positions or committee assignments.

At August 14, 2009 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


List for me the Democrats you're talking about here.

Don't say Dennis Kucinich. He's never done anything to stop any use of military, other than occasionally grandstand with some token "progressive" talking points. He hasn't ever worked to stop military use. Not once.

If you can point out a Democrat who has worked to stop the use of the military, I'd like to see who that is.

At August 14, 2009 10:53 AM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Charles, I honestly don't think I have to. The moment anybody says anything that isn't scathing about any democrat you leap into your (self-appointed)guardian of purity mode, and behave as if they have to justify themselves to you. Enough already.

And don't call other commenters names, like telling Jenny she's a "tool." (I just saw that.)


At August 14, 2009 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tool of propaganda, that's unacceptable to me.

At August 14, 2009 1:52 PM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

I don't want to moderate comments and I can't monitor this blog constantly, nor do I want to.

You've made many valuable contributions to our conversations here, and I appreciate that.

Nevertheless, if you decide you want to engage in personal attacks towards Rob or Bob or any of the visitors or me, I will ban you. If you want to be venomous towards people visiting your blog, that's your business, but I won't have it here.

I thought just writing that it was unacceptable was sufficient(it should be), as I didn't want to call you out and embarrass you.

So, don't do it again, and you are welcome. Otherwise, you are not.

At August 14, 2009 4:03 PM, Anonymous Ovid said...

Peter Bergen will never have anythign reliable to say about Afghanistan because he can't really reach conclusions inconsistent with his position at the New America Foundation and as a mainstream journalist. He can go to Afghanistan a thousand times and he will only see what he can see consistent with his career. I have never been to Afghanistan, but I can see it much more clearly than he can. You can too.

The print media is getting replaced by these foundations, which are just as closely connected to business and the military. The founder of the New America Foundation, Michael Lind, wrote a book titled Vietnam: The Necessary War. It began as follows:

"THE VIETNAM WAR WAS A JUST, CONSTITUTIONAL and necessary proxy war that was waged by methods that were often counterproductive and sometimes arguably immoral. The war had to be fought in order to preserve the military and diplomatic credibility of the United States in the Cold War, but when its costs grew excessive the war had to be forfeited in order to preserve the political consensus within the United States in favor of the Cold War. The Vietnam War was neither a mistake nor a betrayal nor a crime. It was a military defeat."

That's a pretty saleable interpretation of the Vietnam War in the United States, challenging the war safely but not fundamentally and leaving us still the good guys, though of course fallible. I fully expect the New America Foundation, and its current head Steve Coll, to take much the same position about the War on Terror (which is the farcical reincarnation of the Cold War), as well as the war in Afghanistan and now parts of Pakistan. In that respect, there is an eerie predictability to what is happening and is going to happen in Afghanistan. And, of course, our military behavior will likely be similar. But of course the world is different and Afghanistan is not Vietnam, so not everythign will be the same.

Peter Bergen just won't figure out what will truly be different, because he's wearing blinders. And he'll never offer an honest and serious critique of our military strategy as a whole, or any critique that seriously challenges the War on Terror. So he'll be left with stupid conclusions like that in his article: We have to make sure the terrorists who caused 9/11 never go back to Afghanistan so that America remains safe, and if we do one day tourists will be able to return and admire the beautiful mountains again.

The superficiality and sophomorishness of that assessment leaps off the page. No war affecting millions of lives should ever be reduced to that.

At August 18, 2009 9:47 AM, Anonymous Ovid said...

I recommend Tariq Ali's The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008, in libraries) to anyone who wants a good understanding of the mess of a history of Pakistan, including recently.


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