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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In the Graveyard of Empires

Wounded soldier
Like most problems his administration faces, Obama inherited the the war in Afghanistan from his predecessor, George W. Bush. And, like most of these Bush legacies, it's the result of incompetence, neglect, and an obsession with neoconservative ideology. Afghanistan is a big pile of military blunders and foreign policy mistakes. Let's look at the military side and just focus on the obvious for a moment.

Afghanistan is well-known as the "graveyard of empires," an impossible terrain in a difficult to reach region of the world. It's nation of mountain ranges with mile after mile of natural fortresses. Fighting a war on two fronts is a classic military mistake and Bush made it by deciding to invade Iraq -- for no good reason. Iraq became the "central front on the war on terror," with Afghanistan becoming a nearly forgotten adventure that popped up in the news occasionally. We were fighting a war in what very well may be the most dangerous region of the world and doing it halfheartedly. Combine this with installing a corrupt puppet government and you could only screw things up worse if you tried.

But it wasn't only Bush who was making strategic mistakes here. At home, especially on the campaign trail, Democrats used the Afghanistan war to beef up their own military bona fides. They pointed out everything that I just have, while thumping their chest and proclaiming themselves better at war. Barack Obama may have inherited the Afghanistan war, but he also used it as political leverage against Iraq war supporters -- he wasn't some hippy-dippy peacenik, he wasn't against war, he just didn't like the Iraq war. Why, lookie here at the Afghanistan war -- now there's a war someone ought to win.

It's impossible to say whether this particular war would've been won or lost by now if the Bush administration hadn't distracted themselves with their fun little snipe hunt in Iraq. But I think it would've been over by now, win or lose. The Bush administration, dominated by starry-eyed dreamers who thought they were neocon supermen, were certain they could have everything and that nothing in history applied to them. They were special, they were the first realists to ever walk the face of the earth, geniuses to a one and pretty damned near infallible.

The result was disaster on all fronts. All they really managed to do was to keep the ball rolling long enough for someone else to come along and fix it all. And Barack Obama was the guy who came along.

New York Times:

President Obama issued orders to send about 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan as he prepared to address the nation Tuesday night to explain what may be one of the most defining decisions of his presidency.

Mr. Obama conveyed his decision to military leaders late Sunday afternoon during a meeting in the Oval Office and then spent Monday phoning foreign counterparts, including the leaders of Britain, France and Russia.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, declined to say how many additional troops would be deployed, but senior administration officials previously have said that about 30,000 will go in coming months, bringing the total American force to about 100,000.

30,000 is the number everyone seems to be using. If there's anything good to be taken away from this, it's that the kid who fixes the jams in the Obama White House copymachines is probably smarter than anyone in the Bush administration. But this is an unsatisfying takeaway.

If it were me, I'd blow off the classical military strategies in Afghanistan. History shows that this "blow stuff up and kill lots of people" way of doing things doesn't accomplish much. What I would do would be different.

I'd take all the troops that were there now and secure the largest contiguous area we could safely secure. Then I'd turn that area into Awesome City. We're talking freakin' Disneyland here. All the money we'd be spending on blowing things up, we'd spend on building. There are people in Afghanistan who not only don't have electricity, but don't know what electricity is. Simple infrastructure work would look like a miracle to many of them. Move your gaze a few countries over to the middle east; people don't like Hamas because they blow things up, they like them because they build and do charity work. The thing you don't hear about much in the west is that Hamas builds hospitals and schools. They do things their governments fail to do.

We don't have to play a classic offense/defense game -- which history shows is a loser anyway -- we can play a defense/defense game and win the war by fighting it in people's heads. If NATO-controlled Afghanistan is Awesome City and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is Sucktown, where do you think most people are going to want to live? And how much popular support do you think that would leave the Taliban? Who's going to join the Sucktown Defense League?

But, of course, I'm not Commander in Chief. Whatever we do in Afghanistan, Republicans and Democrats should remember that they blew it. Republicans can blame themselves for backing the invasion of Iraq and Democrats can blame themselves pushing Afghanistan to prove they aren't "soft on terrorism" or pacifist pansies.

There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing down the road, but few of those fingers will be attached to clean hands.


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J. R. said...

Very insightful comments.

If American foreign policy was geared toward helping people escape, even just a little bit, from Sucktown, the world would be a happier place.

vet said...

Wisco, what do you know about the history of Afghanistan?

I heard last week that Britain is raising its deployment to 10,000 troops there. I couldn't help thinking that, last time Britain had 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, only one of them walked out alive.

I'm guessing you know about that bit, hence the graveyard-of-empires tag.

But the bit you should read up on is more recent, from the 1950s and 60s, when Americans moved in and tried pretty much exactly what you're suggesting.

vet said...

Sorry - directed you to the wrong bit of that documentary (although it's worth reading the whole thing anyway)... the more relevant part is

sofa said...

Obama said AQ in Afghanistan was the war we should be fighting. He has owned it for a year and done nothing but fumble, enabling his muslim bed-fellows.

The enemy is our house.