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November 25, 2009

What Democrats Should NOT Do on Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Back in 2007 when I first started blogging here at Democracy Arsenal I got myself in quite a bit of hot water for defending Will Marshall and the Progressive Policy Institute from the ad hominem attacks of a few liberal bloggers. Well today, we are truly coming full circle . . .

You see the PPI has a new blog called the Progressive Fix, but there is not much new or even progressive about some of the views being expressed there. Instead they continue to reflect a perspective that has driven some dangerous foreign policy thinking in the Democratic Party in recent years.

Take for example the post today by Jim Arkedis - a really nice guy who I recently met in Dubai on my ill-fated trip to Afghanistan. A couple of days ago Jim tweaked me because I suggested that perhaps this country needs to have a national debate about how we have found ourselves - 8 1/2 years after 9/11 - fighting two wars in places where al Qaeda doesn't even exist. Jim thinks such debates can wait until after we've decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, which in my view precisely serves to continue the cycle of American foreign policy myopia that I aimed to identify. But I'm not going to quibble with that post.

Instead,I'm going to quibble with Jim's post today. In it, he suggests that General McChrystal's strategic review is:

. . . hardly a guaranteed success, but it offers the highest possibility of permanently denying al Qaeda the safe haven only the Taliban can provide in a difficult and complex operating environment. It also shows that the U.S. is committed to being a partner with the Afghan people against the Taliban, one of the most vile groups imaginable. They are fanatical ideologues who deny women basic rights and have been bent on enforcing a draconian interpretation of sharia law.

Yes, yes, the Taliban are horrible. Saddam gassed the Kurds too. It still didn't justify going to war in 2003 - and as bad as the Taliban might be it doesn't justify a troop increase of 30-40,000 troops today, particularly when the current government in Kabul is pretty lousy as well. I mean does the vileness of the Taliban change the basic fact that the Karzai regime is a completely unsuitable partner for population centric counter-insurgency?

As for that safe haven that only the Taliban can provide: what about that safe haven that already exists in Pakistan - and has been there for the past 7 years? As a good friend pointed out to me yesterday - we want al Qaeda in Afghanistan! Better that than the inhospitable FATA where neither the US not the Pakistan government can get to them. If al Qaeda wants to leave their safe haven of the past 7 years to head to a country that has a sizable US military presence, bring it on!

But all of these points are moot, because PPI has identified the real reason why Democrats in Congress should support a dangerously wrong-headed policy on Iraq - politics:

Whatever course he chooses, the President will need his party’s understanding and support to succeed. If Democrats fall out over Afghanistan, he won’t be able to sustain a coherent policy, and the public will likely lose confidence in the party’s ability to manage the nation’s security.

Putting aside the Democrat's past public image on national security how is this recommendation any different from what the Republican party did for George Bush during the first 6 years of the Iraq War?  If I can break this argument down a bit, it seems to be suggesting that no matter what the President decides to do in Afghanistan - as far as military escalation goes - his party must support him because if not Republicans will call Democrats names and accuse them of being a bunch of wussies on national security.

Aren't the days of "Democrats need to be as militaristic as the Republicans" behind us? Didn't the 2006 and 2008 campaigns put to bed the notion that Democrats can't win on an anti-war message? I'll tell you what, if you want the public to "lose confidence" in the Democratic party's ability to manage the nation's security then yes, mindlessly supporting a strategically dubious war in Afghanistan that will tarnish and subvert the President's larger foreign policy agenda is a jolly good idea. (BTW, ask the Republican party how slavish support for a failed military effort in Iraq worked out for them.)

I'll admit I'm being a little snarky today because after spending about 6-7 months writing about the foolishness of military escalation in Afghanistan I'm getting ready to watch a Democratic President, to whom I've invested a great deal of emotional energy and support, tragically follow this course. But just because the President makes a decision to send more troops into an Afghan quagmire it most certainly does not mean that his party should blindly follow course.


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Democrats should not support more troops in Afghanistan. I think that Obama indicated that the war that mattered to him was Afghanistan--not that he would draw down in Afghanistan. If he were to follow an immediate draw-down strategy in Afghanistan, he would actually be pursuing a bait-and-switch strategy, since he always argued that Afghanistan was the most important front.

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-A plurality of Democrats (43 percent) believed President Obama was sending "too many" troops.
-62 percent of Democrats either agreed with the timetable or wanted the troops to begin coming home sooner.

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