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March 02, 2011

Afghanistan Round-Up
Posted by Michael Cohen

Work has a way of interfering in regular Afghanistan blogging (plus how many times can you say the current strategy isn't working and young American lives are being squandered). To this latter point, I read with some horror and amusement this Talk of the Nation interview with Bing West, Chris Chivers and John Nagl about the current situation in Afghanistan. I was struck by the fact that outside of Nagl, Max Boot and those either in the USM or those with rather close relationships to the military - there is practically no one in Washington (or seemingly Afghanistan) who really thinks the current strategy in Afghanistan is working. Why is that? More important why is the minority view of the war's current progress the one that defines the current strategy? I suppose those of us who are critical of the war are simply wrong, but perhaps there is an alternative explanation. 

Here are a few other tidbits worth highlighting.

So the US military is pulling out of the once vital Pech Valley in Kunar Province. This seems like an action worth applauding. One of the key problems of US strategy in Afghanistan is a failure to effectively prioritize how US troops are deployed. If ISAF and USM officials determine that the Pech is no longer vital or that their resources can be better utilized elsewhere then there is no reason to maintain a presence for the sake of maintaining a presence (or honoring the sacrifice of the 103 Americans who lost their lives there). Les Gelb has a slightly less charitable take on this decision.

Still this quote from the New York Times is jaw-dropping:

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

I'd be really curious to know why this isn't true for all the places in southern Afghanistan where US troops are currently fighting a dying.

Speaking of the latter, there is this absolutely heartbreaking story in today's Washington Post about Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly and his son 2nd Lt Robert M. Kelly who died in Sangin District after stepping on a land mine. I won't even try to summarize Greg Jaffe's wonderful reporting, but it's a vital reminder of the American soldiers whose lives are being sacrificed - outside media scrutiny - in pursuit of an unnecessary war that isn't making Americans any safer. It begs the question, how many more brave young lives must be squandered in this terrible war before the US realizes that the current strategy, and pointless bloodletting, must end?

To be sure I'd like to have some confidence that our elected (and un-elected) leaders felt the same sense of urgency, but I'm not instilled with confidence. In a speech at the West Point Academy last week Secretary Gates made the wise assertion that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.'" It's a view I share mainly because it speaks to the issue of what is the most appropriate force package for protecting US interests around the world (hint: it won't come through the deployment of big land armies). But it begs the question if Gates believes that the "most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements - whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere" then why are we maintaining a big land army in Afghanistan for at least the next three years? Shouldn't we be shifting to a strategy that speaks more to America's comparative war-fighting advantage.

Then there is this speech Hillary Clinton delivered last month at the Asia Society on current US policy in Afghanistan. This is one of the most dishonest speeches I've read about Afghanistan in quite some time. It rests on a bogus set of arguments, like the Taliban and al Qaeda while distinct groups with distinct aims are "both our adversaries and part of a syndicate of terror that must be broken." Instead of thinking more clearly about how these groups can be separated from each other or how Taliban grievances differ in key ways from al Qaeda . . . this is yet another example of an Obama Administration figure misleadingly conflating the two organizations. A move intended in no small measure to maintain public support for maintaining a US troop presence in Afghanistan. How this argument differs from the false one made during the Vietnam War that the war there was part of the international march of communism is a bit hard for me to decipher.

Clinton also argued that we have to stay in Afghanistan because we abandoned the country in 1989 - an argument that is not only historically inaccurate but in the context of the current war in Afghanistan makes no sense whatsoever - or does Hillary Clinton believe that what happened 22 years ago in Afghanistan automatically repeats itself? 

It can, I suppose, be considered a positive sign that Clinton lays out a series of conditions (renouncing violence, abandoning al Qaeda and abiding by the Afghan Constitution) that will be the "outcomes of any negotiation" as opposed to pre-conditions.

That's progress; but only real progress will come when Administration speak publicly about the need for direct talks with the Taiban, rather than leaking the idea to Steve Coll.


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I'd be really curious to know why this isn't true for all the places in southern Afghanistan where US troops are currently fighting a dying.

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