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February 24, 2010

Pay Any Price . . . Bear Any Burden
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been fighting the urge to write a rather long blog post taking down John Nagl's recent article in the National Interest on why the the war in Afghanistan is the right war for America. To be honest, the prospect simply exhausts me (plus Paul Pillar does a nice job in the back and forth with Nagl and Bernard Finel does some heavy lifting as well).

Of the many problems with Nagl's argument is that like many pro-escalation voices he seems stuck in 2001. He chooses, for whatever reason, to ignore the many pieces of evidence that suggest the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda has become far more fractured. For example, before taking pen to paper he should have taken the time to read this article by Vahid Brown that sheds some light on this issue - as well as this blog post from Jihadica

He wrongly conflates that Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. As Josh Foust points out on Twitter Nagl engages in some serious tautology. He dramatically over inflates the importance of a safe haven in Afghanistan and Paskistan and al Qaeda capabilities in general. He glosses over the fact that al Qaeda is a hollow organization with a few hundred key operatives and is under constant pressure from US drone attacks. He has an outlandish proposal that the US army should be increased by 100,000 troops (I mean really) . . . and America can pay for it with a national-security tax on gasoline (aided by American flags on gas pumps). This is just a crazy idea - and even if you could pass such a tax one might think it might make more sense to put the money toward developing alternative energy sources rather than plunging even more money into our already bloated defense budget. 

And then he makes this bizarre claim, "it is well within American means to fight a troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan . . . while simultaneously pursuing a less costly form of counterinsurgency in Yemen and waging an information and education campaign against al-Qaeda in Europe and the United States." I just can't, for the life of me, possibly begin to understand why John Nagl believes this is true . . . or why it's even necessary. I'm not even convinced we can do one of these things effectively - no less all three at the same time. 

But here's the thing; that's not the part of this essay that left me the most frustrated. It's this:
There is no safe haven that al-Qaeda covets more than the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which present a unique opportunity for our enemies and a threat to us. Situated in rugged terrain hundreds of miles from any coastline, with weak of nonexistent governance and security services, this region provides both a home to al-Qaeda and possible access to nuclear weapons.
Which of these statements doesn't quite fit (don't worry I've bolded it for you)? You want to talk about a flight of fancy? We go from al-Qaeda having "a home" . . . to possibly having access to nuclear weapons. John Nagl must know that the chances of al Qaeda getting access to a nuclear weapon are about equal to me becoming the starting center for the Detroit Red Wings (I can't even ice skate).  

This is alarmism plain and simple; a throwaway line in an essay that is intended to infer the specter of nuclear armageddon even though the chances of al Qaeda getting a nuke, keeping it hidden and then using it against the United States are so infinitesimally small.  And folks wonder why we can't have a real debate in this country about US national interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan - or the war in terrorism in general - when folks are willy-nilly throwing around the specter of nuclear attack to distort the conversation.  What's also striking is that little consideration is given to the idea that there might be other, less intrusive ways to lessen the potential of nuclear instability in Pakistan rather than the overwhelming application of US military force.

But perhaps the most disturbing part is that it's entirely possible that for Nagl and others the minuscule possibility of al Qaeda getting a nuclear bomb is reason enough to send 100,000 troops on an open-ended mission to Afghanistan; or spend hundreds of billions of dollars in bringing 100,000 more troops into the military. All in the pursuit of security . . .

Perhaps Pillar puts it best:
NAGL IS to be commended for acknowledging that the cost of the war will be “high,” and his reference to five years for building a viable Afghan government and army is more realistic than the Obama administration’s timetable. The next appropriate step would be to acknowledge that the high cost in lives, limbs and money would do little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism.

Good luck with that Paul.


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Great review

Indeed, it is the Taliban—which rose to power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and provided the shelter from which bin Laden’s group planned and executed the September 11 attack—that is now America’s main adversary on the ground in Afghanistan

I wish people like Nagl wouldn't be so general about things like this. The 9/11 attack was formed and planned over many years, in places ranging from the Philippines (Where KSM first came up with the general idea that would give way to the 9/11 attacks) to Hamburg and Afghanistan (Not to mention of course, the flight training they took HERE in the US). Afghanistan was undoubtedly important for facilitating 9/11, but it wasn't necessarily essential.

But were the Taliban to regain control of the country, al-Qaeda would simply have more room in which to entrench itself.

This of course assumes that Al Qaeda would be ABLE to entrench itself. Obviously, in any country, it's hard to maintain complete control of every square inch, but I have a hard time believing that the Taliban would be willing to allow Al Qaeda to screw up its chances at having some semblance of power, cause they know full well that if they allowed AQ to resume the relationship they had pre-9/11, Western nations wold immediately march in again.

Pakistan would be forced to recalculate its recent decisions to fight against the Taliban inside its own borders because the balance of power in the region would shift in favor of the Taliban upon our departure.

Huh? Pakistan did NOTHING to fight the Taliban when they rode to power in Afghanistan, and as Nagl should well know, they AIDED the Taliban's rise to power. So how exactly would they have to "recalculate" anything? If history is any guide, they would likely provide incentive for militants within their own borders to venture over to Afghanistan as a sort of "release valve," much the same strategy they took in the early to mid 90's after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Over the next five years, it should be possible to build an Afghan government that can outperform the Taliban and an Afghan army that can outfight it, especially with the support of a Pakistani government that continues its own efforts on its side of the Durand Line.

This is laughable. "Should be possible" isn't the same thing as "likely." I have the utmost respect for our military, and firmly believe they are quite capable of doing some very heavy lifting, but this is a task I just don't think we're equipped for in any way. Nagl seems to be one of those think tankers who's fallen prey to the idea that so long as America "wills" something hard enough, we can make it happen. There are limits to any power, perhaps Nagl should keep that in mind.

the cost would be substantial, but could be paid for by a national-security tax on gasoline

Yea, there's a brilliant idea. The US economy is in shambles still and families across the country are being squeezed so lets pass a consumer based tax that will make it that much harder for us to see a recovery in the near future. Ugh.

Although the Taliban managed to re-unite most of Afghanistan, they were unable to end the civil war. Nor did they improve the conditions in cities, where access to food, clean water, and employment actually declined during their rule...

It occurs to me recently that the foreign policy community in the United States is lost in sheer escapism. Conditions at home are so bad that people whose minds and expertise give them the opportunity to escape - mentally or physically - take that opportunity at the drop of a hat. They long for romantic adventure in the world's dusty and more cinematic locales. All those colorful Afghans and Iraqis and Persians are so much more interesting and picturesque than dumpy and out-of-work Americans, languishing miserably in Detroit suburbs. The foreign affairs virtuosos dream up threats and causes on a whim, and are always ready with some new chivalrous errand or heroic romance to occupy our jarheaded knights.

Why am I not surprised when someone gaining his income from war advocates more war? Dog bites man, big deal.

"We go from al-Qaeda having "a home" . . . to possibly having access to nuclear weapons."

Sigger's Law: "As any discussion on terrorism grows longer, the probability of attributing terrorists with nuclear weapons (or similar destructive capabilities) approaches 1."

Corollary to Sigger's Law: "Once such an observation is made, the discussion is finished and whoever mentioned terrorist possession of nuclear weapons has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress."

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