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September 21, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The We Can't Leave EVER Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Plank, Michael Crowley nods approvingly at this quote from General Sir David Richards, head of the British Army:

Richards warned last night that Nato had yet to find the right formula for success in Afghanistan. General Richards also warned that defeat for the international coalition would have an “intoxicating impact” on extremists around the world. Failure for an alliance as powerful as the Nato presence in Afghanistan would convince terrorists that “anything might be possible."

What a shocker to see an advocate of the current mission in Afghanistan unable to come up with the "right formula" for success in Afghanistan, but utterly convinced that failure would be a complete disaster.  I think we should make a deal with the "Failure Crew" and demand that every time they say we can't afford to fail, they be required to point out how exactly success can be achieved.

Just to give you a sense of how odd Richards argument actually is, consider these words:

Let me remind you that most of you only 18 months ago had written Iraq off — a disaster about to implode. Yet today, most are cautiously optimistic. We knew the ingredients for success but it took us time to discover the correct formula. The ingredients for success in Afghanistan are similar . . .

One would hope that Richards understands that the reasons for the turnaround in Iraq were far different than anything that is possible in Afghanistan; that the decline in civilian casualties in Iraq was preceded and abetted by horrific ethnic cleansing and enclaving in Baghdad; that the key insurgent force in Iraq was AQI and it was turned on by rival Sunnis; that the Mahdi Army's cease fire (the strongest non-government militia in the country) played a huge role in the decline in violence, etc. The point is that just because something "worked" in Iraq does not mean it will succeed in Afghanistan or that even "success" in Afghanistan can be measured in the same terms as it was in Iraq.

But the real problem with this argument is that only views NATO actions in Afghanistan through the prism of how it will empower what Richards calls "extremists worldwide" and seems oblivious as to whether the continued presence of US troops in a Muslim country will have a similarly "intoxicating" effect.  If there is one lesson that should be derived from the US occupation in Iraq it is that the prolonged presence of US troops in Iraq actually contributed to al Qaeda's propaganda and recruiting efforts. It's not to say that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan wouldn't empower some extremists, but if you're going to make this argument there should at least be a recognition that a continued military presence could potentially have the opposite effect. (For the record, I recognize the propaganda impact of a US departure from Afghanistan - I just think that's a price this country can afford and I'm not at all convinced that "staying the course" in order to prevent that propaganda victory will make America any safer.)

Worst of all Richards pessimistic interpretation of withdrawal tends to overstate or misunderstand the grievances of Islamic extremists. The vast majority of these groups, including the Taliban, have local, perhaps regional grievances. Few, outside of al Qaeda, are focused on the US and have global aspirations. Listening to Richards, one might not know that al Qaeda has become a hollowed out, desiccated organization that is having a far more difficult time recruiting new members and from Somalia and Pakistan to Indonesia finds itself more and more under direct military attack.

Finally, perhaps the worst problem with Richards argument is that it plays directly into al Qaeda's own propaganda; it makes their "response" or "interpretation" of US and NATO actions more important than the actions themselves. By Richards logic, the US can't do anything that might play into al Qaeda's narrative and so we are basically hostage to their spin machine. If NATO decides it is no longer in the alliance's vital interests to remain in Afghanistan or that the current mission is not realistic or achievable, this is practically irrelevant because al Qaeda will interpret this as a victory and become even more empowered - even though they have very little power and influence at this given moment. 

You're basically giving al Qaeda a veto over any actions taken by the US and NATO. This is like flawed domino theory behavior updated for the 21st century. It's no way to run the foreign policy of a mature superpower.


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The mission in Afghanistan lies somewhere on the continuum between “looking good” and “saving face.” Beyond this, any statement of mission is bankrupt soon as stated. Beyond the sincerity of military brass, US Ir-af-pak interests may be unearthed within the betterment of war industry purveyors resulting in personal/corporate gain; the price of advancing and realizing those interests, paid by grunts, Ir-af-paks and beleaguered American taxpayers. Just ask: who is gaining from the “mission” there?

Luis de Agustin

That's odd. An Afghan is currently admitting to being a terrorist plotter in the United States. It would appear that there are, perhaps, some who target the United States and who have global aspirations.

Nice rhetorical try, though. I'm continually stunned by your absolute shining logic. Your writing skills have noticeably degraded, though. There have been several errors in the last few posts. They are small, but you are supposed to be a professional. I've come to expect better from you, Michael... if not logically, then technically. Please try to tighten it up a bit, huh?

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That's odd. An Afghan is currently admitting to being a terrorist plotter in the United States. It would appear that there are, perhaps, some who target the United States and who have global aspirations.

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