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.

cross-posted at Dead Horse.

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