Obama’s War

Obama’s War October 7, 2009

A FRONTLINE investigative report set to air on PBS, October 13, gives a rough sketch of the Pentagon’s new thinking on counterinsurgency. In so doing, it manages to dramatize a window’s view of how this approach is being enforced in Afghanistan.

While U.S. strategy has been marketed as people-centric, it appears in practice to be somewhat different. What the report reveals is an abstract, top-down, military-centric approach aimed at controlling the behavior of a population. The tactics that are used fail to flow naturally out of the day-to-day decisions made by a community of indigenous people. They are imposed. Thus they are guaranteed to lack legitimacy.

If this report is true, America’s new approach to counterinsurgency is thoroughly wrong-headed. It makes success contingent upon the ability of the the U.S. military to implement a policy of control over the behavior of the Afghan people. It transforms U.S. counterinsurgency operations into a contest of wills with the very people we are trying to help.

Yet tactical control over the Afghan people and their tribal traditions cannot be realistically anticipated. It is an impossible task. It places far too much reliance on the practical ability of the American military to exercise control over the hearts and minds of a population. It gives only faint recognition to the imperatives of Afghan history and traditions. The lynchpin of success rests too heavily on an ability to control the people’s behavior. Such hubris is almost certain to be the Achille’s Heel of the new American strategy.

It is imperative that American tactics be freed from efforts to exercise control over the Afghan people. Otherwise, the struggle in Afghanistan will degenerate into Obama’s War. Should that happen, the U.S. will be caught amidst a myriad of opposing forces, unable to extricate itself. As in Iraq, Gulliver will have been made impotent relative to the task at hand.

Already the report has unmasked America’s military presence as a force that creates doubt, uncertainty, and confusion in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. U.S. troops interfere with the Afghan’s daily lives and their sense of personal security. The Afghan people have become wary of American help. They are unable to interpret U.S. demands and when they do they have to balance them with those of the Taliban. Day after day, they live in fear of U.S. military capability and the shadowy threats posed by the Taliban. Afghans are entangled in a predicament that can only breed resentment, anger, and hostility.

The Afghans are a frustrated people. It is as though they have become little more than grist for the ideological mill. They are unsure how to satisfy the Americans. They feel compelled to placate the Taliban. No matter how they turn, their future is contingent on changing circumstances, contradictory intentions, and the unknown fortunes of war. Eventually, they will have to fend for themselves.

The Americans will be in Afghanistan for a period. But they will be gone before long. The Afghans know this to be true. They also know the Taliban will remain in the area indefinitely. The question is this: Can U.S. military forces guard against the eventuality of a growing Taliban presence? Is it reasonable to expect they can? Or is there need for a new strategic arrangement?

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  • Mark Gordon

    Good piece, but what is needed is precisely what you didn’t offer: a sketch of that “new strategic arrangement.” We’re left with the Hobson’s Choice of staying and wading deeper into the bottomless tar pit that is Afghan history and culture, or leaving and effectively turning the country over to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda paymasters. And if we do that, does anyone think that Pakistan could survive more than a few months, perhaps a year at best?

    President Obama is going to need the wisdom of Solomon to navigate these treacherous waters. We should all be praying for him daily.

  • digbydolben

    America’s so-called “democracy” is as decadent as that of ancient Rome.

    The official Right and the “serious” Left (personified by Obama) are AGREED on America’s expansionist and imperial goals:


    America and her allies have a RIGHT to contain radical jihadism (which includes the RIGHT to “collateral damage,” if the people of Afghanistan do not unite to throw off the yoke of the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists who are undermining whatever prosperity they might enjoy).

    America also has the DUTY to help solve the impasse between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which is what is preventing the Pakistani establishment from taking seriously any campaign against Islamic radicals. But, of course, America and her allies will NOT act as an umpire in this most central of all South Asia’s conflicts, because it is not in their economic interest to force one of the world’s most powerful “developing” nations to stop committing state terrorism in Kashmir.

    What America and her allies do NOT have the right to do is to OCCUPY a sovereign country like Afghanistan or Iraq–both of which, being ancient nations, surely have as much experience of governance as the newly-corrupted, upstart American republic does.

    The notion, espoused by Colin Powell, that, if one overthrows a dictator like Saddam Hussein, one must occupy his country and put it back together again, is actually a racist, colonialist and profoundly patronizing one. There was absolutely no reason why America could not have invaded Iraq, deposed Hussein, sent him for trial in the Hague and then announced to the Iraqi people, “We are leaving. We respect your right to govern yourselves, and to choose your own leaders. Just don’t choose another one like the last, who endangers regional and international security, or we’ll be back, to depose him again.”

    THAT is anti-colonialist respect for a proud, sovereign people, like Iraqis or Afghanis, but that is exactly what the racist and colonialist rulers of America and her allies WILL NOT, under any circumstances, do.

    And Obama is just as bad as the others; he is just putting a black face on the continuance of the subversion of limited-government, anti-imperialist Constitutionalism by the military-industrial complex. He is just a black Caesar, like his predecessor–and he certainly gulled me and other “liberals” with his “inclusive” rhetoric!

  • Gerald A. Naus

    But Gerald, Gerald…Hubris is the cornerstone of US foreign policy, with Scylla and Charybdis as its mascots 😉

    There is a great German verb digby might know – zwangsbegluecken – to coerce somebody to happiness.

    One problem in Afghanistan is the ‘brain drain’ that’s been happening for decades. Not that I would blame people for fleeing from the murderous lunatics of the Taliban or Soviets. My chiropractor, former neighbors and organic farmer are all Afghanis. My chiropractor fled with her family when she was a teenager, with just the clothes on their backs. She *gasp* wears regular clothes, she might have ended up murdered in a soccer stadium. All the Afghanis I know are very industrious and successful, family-oriented (3 generations in the same house).

    Peace at the end of a gun isn’t likely to happen. For every “enemy combatant” killed, another will take his place. Occupation tends to produce unity and resentment. Americans always expect a “Sally Field moment” – “You like me, you really like me!” God’s gift to humanity.

    The US is bound to break the Soviet Union’s “record” for occupying Afghanistan. As far as bringing law and order to a country, what credibility does a nation have that locks up people indefinitely without trial ? Or worse, sends them on a little rendition trip (lovely clinical term, makes one think of songs)

    I’ve translated a song by German songwriter Reinhard Mey:

    We say black is black and white is white
    And if we say so that suffices as proof
    We know the bad guys are bad and the good guys are we
    So please, don’t ask questions,
    We ask the questions here.
    Go behind the barrier, move along
    There is nothing to see,
    Everything’s ok in Guantanamo Bay.

    We’ve created an exemplary camp here
    All comparisons to role models are baseless
    A camp where everything is rooted in justice
    Justice is always located where our flag flies
    We make the rules here and we are the law,
    So please spare us your whiny compassionate babbling
    Everything’s ok in Guantanamo Bay.

    We are the good guys and the others are the bad guys
    That’s how simple it is with human rights
    See if we care that you complain and pee on our leg
    Worry about your own business
    Everything’s ok in Guantanamo Bay.

    We have barbed wire fencing
    Don’t look over it, just trust us,
    Even when you can’t see what’s happening
    To the blindfolded guy kneeling in the back.
    We caught him, we are the world court
    Whether the world likes it or not.
    Cause everything’s ok in Guantanamo Bay.

    In the land of the free and the home of the brave
    We don’t wait for your advice, so stop your meddling
    No discussion, no Geneva Convention,
    This here is God’s own nation.
    Everything’s ok in Guantanamo Bay.

    (unofficial video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI_HX811RSo)

  • Mark Gordon

    Funny, Gerald, but your depiction of the United States is as dumbly simplistic and starkly monochromatic as the supposed “American” narrator in the song. The difference is that Reinhard Mey’s caricature of the “American” narrator is an artistic device designed to help make his point. You, on the other hand, are a living, breathing caricature.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Monochromatic is a photographic term. It is not synonymous with black & white, if that’s what you were aiming for. Nor is there such a thing as more (“starkly”) or less monochromatic.

    If the depiction of US foreign policy is “dumb” and “simplistic” it’s because that’s what Mr. Bush’s policy was. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    A caricature is something one does, not something one is. A blog post, like a song, is something one writes rather than is. As Mey and I did the same thing – write sarcastically about US policy – we do in fact not differ ontologically. He just writes better.

    Nor is his depiction off the mark (this song is from 2005), one could (and still can) come across this attitude quite frequently. It is a screed on the creed of Bush & Co. (not that Obama is completely different, he’s just not as bad)

  • Pinky

    Despite the fact that I’m a pro-intervention conservative, I don’t have a lot of confidence in our new strategy as it’s emerging. There are maybe 14 major factions in Afghanistan. We initially went in to help 13 of them overthrow the one in power. We’ve been gradually moving away from assistence and toward occupation (which is a really bad idea in Afghanistan). I’m afraid that a “surge” will leave us trying to run the country, and in opposition to a united resistance.

    We should be content to be a tiny presence in a country that’s in the beginning of a hundred years’ civil war, making sure that the worst elements don’t win. That’s a tough position to take politically.

  • Kurt V.

    You are mistaken by declaring that the COIN approach is to control the Afghan people. GEN McCrystal clearly stated that the intent of his strategy is to prevent the Taliban from controlling the population (from his COIN guidance to ISAF forces). The COIN imperative for ISAF forces is to gain the support of the population against Taliban control. By, with, and through the Afghans are the operative terms to describe the how of implementing his strategy. Whether we should be there at all is a policy decision of the President and Congress, and by extension, the American people. The fact is, it is Obama’s war now. He ran on the promise that our focus would shift to Afghanistan and away from Iraq. Unless he desires Taliban control of Afghanistan, McCrystal’s strategy is the only game in town. The goal is to protect the populace – in this case primarily in the population centers, and not outlying villages/regions. He needs more troops to accomplish this. At the same time, his strategy will not work without a concerted effort to immediately improve the Afghan security forces to the point of being able to provide for their own security of the population. Anything less will be seen as a strategic defeat for the US and NATO. That’s Obama’s call, which is why it is now Obama’s war. Now, having said all of that, my own personal opinion is that we are wasting effort for marginal strategic gains. But it’s not in my pay grade to make the final decision.

  • Kurt V.,

    Gen. McCrystal argues within the context of his own assumptions and perspective. I have criticized that framework, both on this site and elsewhere, ever since the U.S. Army Manual on Counterinsurgency was first published. In Afghanistan, he has set forth a strategy that is heavily weighted towards the application of military forces, despite his protestations to the contrary. It is not unlike the prescription offed by the British operative, Sir Robert Thompson, in Malaysia following WWII.

    Gen. McCrystal stated’s intentions are one thing. Implementation is another. It is when strategy moves from paper to actual circumstances that intentions are unmasked as flawed. The actual situation unfolding on the ground right now in Afghanistan contradicts McCrystal’s intentions. But such a predicament should not have been unexpected. It was written into the strategy itself.

    Did you watch the video? The simple truth is we are not befriending the Afghans. Nor can we, if we continue to insist on using a military strategy such as the one Gen. McCrystal has set forth. His own report reveals the outcome of a flawed and contradictory strategy. It is for such reasons that the Administration is reviewing policy from top to bottom. Hopefully, Obama will see fit to attend the forthcoming NATO strategy review meeting and engage our NATO partners more thoroughly.

    “Unless he desires Taliban control of Afghanistan, McCrystal’s strategy is the only game in town.”

    This is simply not true. Not even close. Reality is not bi-polar. A political strategy with 5% reliance on military forces has a greater chance of success than a military strategy which ends up frightening and intimidating the Afghan population.

  • Kurt V.

    OK I watched the video. It was interesting, but doesn’t provide any conclusions as to strategy – it was a tactical embed with a couple of quotes from COIN practitioners. Given that strategy consists of ends-ways-means considerations, I don’t see how a “political strategy” is any different from the fact that President Obama reviewed the previous strategy, fired McKiernan, and replaced him with McCrystal to implement HIS counterinsurgency strategy. Since war is a continuation of politics and policy by other means, I don’t know what you mean by a “political strategy.” If you mean negotiations with the Taliban, that has already been accepted policy by Karzai, and supported by the US for several years. How do you define success? What are the ends that you would seek for the Afghan people. As I stated before, Taliban control of the population is unacceptable at this time. The Afghans don’t want to see their return. If the President thinks this is acceptable, then fine, bring the troops home. But if it’s not acceptable, then securing the population from Taliban control and building the GoA capacity to protect their own people become the ends that will require implementation of McCrystal’s strategy.