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October 08, 2008

All the Wrong Lessons
Posted by Patrick Barry

As long as we're focused on useful historical analogies, I though I'd bring up something that's been on my mind since the debate.  For someone who pretty frequently uses history as a truncheon to bludgeon his opponents, you sometime have to wonder whether John McCain understands his own lessons.  A perfect example is what he did last night - pointing to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War in an attempt to make himself look like the seasoned professional and Obama, like the inexperienced green horn:

"We drove the Russians out with -- the Afghan freedom fighters drove the Russians out of Afghanistan, and then we made a most serious mistake. We washed our hands of Afghanistan. The Taliban came back in, Al Qaeda, we then had the situation that required us to conduct the Afghan war."

Now for me, the central lesson of American involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s is pretty clear - don't turn away from a country with poor governance, a non-existent infrastructure, and thousands of well-armed, well-trained militants. But that is precisely what John McCain and George W. Bush did after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001.  They turned away.  So for McCain to cite this case-study to show how knowledgeable he is on national security is pretty ironic, since it actually has the opposite affect.

It's easy to view McCain's choice - made way back in 2001 - in the abstract, especially in the context of the current crisis.  But if you look at the different dynamics that were in play in Afghanistan immediately following the 9-11 attacks, you can't help but get the sense that the decision to abandon that mission to invade Iraq cost us an incredible opportunity.  Almost everything was set up in our favor.

First, there was broad international support for the U.S. mission to stabilize the country.  Not only had NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, but in a remarkable step, it authorized military action outside of Europe.  International backing for the U.S. didn't end with NATO though.  The agreement signed at Bonn in December, which outlined the framework for the new Afghan state, contained a stipulation that the U.N. Security Council would issue a mandate to deploy an international assistance force - the NATO-ISAF - to stablize Afghanistan. This force was envisaged as playing a role similar to that played by U.S. peacekeepers deployed to Bosnia following the Dayton agreement - to help advance prospects for peace after years of turmoil.

Additionally, countries like Pakistan and Iran, which had once been a thorn in the side of the U.S., both in the surrounding region, and around the world, had been so cowled by decisive U.S. action to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that they were poised to act cooperatively.  According to Jim Dobbins, who was special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, no country contributed more to the negotiations that brought the Bonn process to a successful conclusion than Iran.  This behavior was historically unprecedented, and has not been seen since.

Countless tribes, and multiple ethnic groups populate Afghanistan, but they too shared the U.S. vision for a stable Afghan state. Jim Dobbins labored for months to craft an agreement that was amenable to Pashtuns and Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. For the document to contain the signatures of "representatives of Afghanistan's different ethnic groups, expatriate Afghans, and representatives of the exiled monarch,' was remarkable.

And finally - and this is probably the most important point - U.S. military action had left the Taliban and al-Qaeda in disarray.  With their camps destroyed, their numbers depleted, their capabilities dramatically curtailed, all that was left was to work cooperatively, but firmly, with the surrounding countries to ensure that extremists could not return to Afghanistan, or set up operations elsewhere.  A crippling blow could have been struck. 

What all these points demonstrate, and what Max just pointed out by discussing the lessons from peacekeeping and stability operations in the 1990s, is that even when the stars align, even when you get every actor on the same page, and even when you have reduced the destructive influece of spoilers to virtually nil, no comprehensive agreement can sustain itself without a complimentary infusion of resources and attenion.  It's incredibly fortunate that you get to 'yes' in instances like these, and when you do, that's just the beginning.  Taking advantage of such an opportunity requires a forceful committment from all the actors involved, something which did not occur when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, but which could have happened had John McCain and George W. Bush not turned so suddenly to Iraq ten years later.  Unfortunately, John McCain didn't heed his own advice, and the "most serious mistake" of the 1990s replayed itself in 2001.

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Countless tribes, and multiple ethnic groups populate Afghanistan, but they too shared the U.S. vision for a stable Afghan state.

Bunk. The US is just passing through in Afghanistan. These groups all have their own agendas, and those agendas don't involve any American "vision" hatched half a world away by think-tanker suburbanites in Virginia and Maryland.

And finally - and this is probably the most important point - U.S. military action had left the Taliban and al-Qaeda in disarray. With their camps destroyed, their numbers depleted, their capabilities dramatically curtailed, all that was left was to work cooperatively, but firmly, with the surrounding countries to ensure that extremists could not return to Afghanistan, or set up operations elsewhere. A crippling blow could have been struck.

Hogwash. Afghanistan is a semi-barbarous, very large and sparsely populated country, with rugged, remote and unpoliceable boarders. Nobody has the ability to "ensure that extremists don't return to Afghanistan." The most powerful military power in the world can't even keep undocumented immigrants out of its own country.

It's really irresponsible of you to purvey these extravagant fantasies of vast US potential to determine the social course, political integrity and rule of law of expansive non-man's lands such as comprise much of Afghanistan.

One minimally consoling side-benefit of the economic misery that is probably in store for us over the next few years is that it will force the US government to contract its national security portfolio substantially, reorient toward core fundamentals, and put a lot of you dangerous meddlers and makeover-plan mongers out of business.

McCain and Obama are both far off the mark in their campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan. I suspect Obama, at least, probably knows it, but just doesn't have the heart to break the sober news to his most starry-eyed beltway supporters.

Interesting blog post. As a blogger, we thought you’d be interested in VoterWatch’s Presidential Debates Project. We have brought together presidential candidates, political figures and others to comment on the presidential debates. Dick Morris, Sophia Nelson, Public Agenda, and others are using our video player to provide their commentary. Be sure to check it out at www.bloggingthedebates.com

"Their camps destroyed"? Give me a break. Since when is destroying the camps of a bunch of rag-tag rebels of any significance? What manual of warfare does that come out of? Do you mean to suggest that these guys can't meet at the local pool hall and train in the woods, or whatever they have over there? I mean "extremists" shouldn't be inhibited by the loss of a building, an obstacle course or a marching-field or two, should they, because after all they're "extremists" fighting a foreign aggressor. Same thing you or I would do, after all.

The mistake was not turning away from Afghanistan after it was invaded, it was invading Afghanistan in the first place. That should be obvious to everyone except those blinded by the same false hopes that made Vietnam and Iraq such fiascoes.

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