Muddling Through

Since not everyone has the time to listen to PJM Political, here are my notes to Saturday’s rant. If Afghanistan is important enough for the President to dawdle over for most of a year, it’s important enough to discuss on a blog. If it’s a little too conversational, well, it was written for radio.


It’s the start of October, so it must be time for a new Afghanistan strategy. The big news last weekend was the leak of General McChrystal’s memo to the President. He says he needs 10,000 to 40,000 additional troops, or Afghanistan is lost. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden says we should be reducing our numbers and concentrating on a simpler counter-terrorism strategy.

And let’s be fair to the President, this isn’t an easy decision to make — big footprint, a surge if you will. Or go small, with just enough soldiers to gather intel and aim rockets at the bad guys.

I’m inclined to agree with Biden on this one. Afghanistan is a lot like Somalia or Haiti. It’s not so much a country as it is a spot on the map where other countries aren’t. There’s no there-there, if you will. If you’re going to nation-build, it helps to have a nation to start with.

Bear with me here, because this gets complicated. But we’ve got to talk a little Grand Strategy.

I can’t stress this enough, but the Taliban is only our enemy to the extent that they provide safe havens for al Qaeda. And even Osama bin Laden is a symptom of what’s wrong in the world today — he’s not a cause. Had he died on 9/11, nothing fundamental would have changed.

The central geopolitical question of the 20th Century was where Germany fit into Europe and the world. And the world suffered two world wars and endured a 40-year Cold War to settle that question. And, really, the fighting started in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War and didn’t end until the 4+2 conferences finally settled the German Question in 1990. That’s 120 years and tens of millions dead. It was a big, big question. But now Germany, and most of Europe, has settled down in ways we could barely imagine, much less hope for, just 25 years ago.


Now the central geopolitical question of our age is the Middle East’s failure to adapt to modernity. By and large, the Arab World, and the Persians along with it, are stuck in some very bad habits — and thanks to oil money, they don’t have to adapt. In fact, they export their internal, cultural problems in the form of terrorism.

This was the real reason for the Iraq War — our attempt to upset the Middle Eastern apple cart, and try to forge a modern, stable state right smack dab in the middle of the Persian Gulf. The jury on that is still out, but it was at least an attempt to deal with the disease instead of just the symptoms. Why Iraq? Because we had good cause to go to war in Iraq and Saddam had no friends. His number came up, simple as that.

So to me a surge in Iraq made sense. If our strategy was to treat the disease, then the surge had to be attempted. And so long as we don’t piss it away, it still has a good chance of long term success.

But Afghanistan? Afghanistan is just a hideout for Islamic terrorists, and only concerns us to the extent that it becomes or remains one. We could spend trillions of dollars, kill hundreds of thousand of bad guys, totally pacify the place, build strip malls everywhere, and turn Afghanistan into someplace as nice as Wisconsin. But what would change, really? Al Qaeda would still have money, they’d still find weapons, they’d find a new place to hide, and they’d still have this virulent ideology — and thus plenty of recruits. The real change has to come out of the heart of the middle east, starting in Egypt and going east through Iran.


So. I don’t see the point in a surge for Afghanistan, and I think Joe Biden has it exactly right.

Here’s the problem. President Obama has painted himself into a bit of a corner. He couldn’t look like a dove during the general election last year, but he couldn’t win the nomination without painting Iraq as “the war of choice,” George Bush’s war, blah blah blah. So he went hawkish on Afghanistan and called it “the necessary war.” Well, it is necessary — it just isn’t necessary to pacify the entire country.

But Obama promised us a big, big win. He’s already committed 21,000 additional troops — but McChrystal says they aren’t enough for the scope of the mission as defined by Obama himself. So the President can either double down on his campaign promise, on his entire anti-terror strategy, really. Or he can admit to Americans and the world that everything he said before was wrong, and that his former rivals — John McCain AND Joe Biden — were right.

And I’m not picking on Obama in particular here. No President likes to lose face like that. I mean, Bush stuck with a losing strategy in Iraq for three years before he finally authorized the surge — and by then it was a very close thing. It didn’t have to be that way. And for a guy who ran as the Anti Bush, Obama sure seems determined to repeat Bush’s biggest mistake.


There’s another danger here — and that’s if we stick it halfway in. Two many troops, too many casualties, for an anti-terror mission, but too few troops to wage a counter-insurgency. I’m afraid if we overcommit the mission but under-commit the deployments, then the Democratic base, and even middle America, is going to lose patience in Afghanistan, and we’ll have to bring everybody home. And that would cost us intel and our best little kill zone for disposing of bad guys.

Then again, the President is the Commander in Chief, and it’s his job to make the call. If he determines that it’s in our national interest to pursue a surge-like strategy in Afghanistan, then we’ve got to support that. That’s the most important thing we pay him for — figuring out how best to kill folks who would try to kill us. If he need a few weeks to decide, he should take the time.

But he’s got to start talking to his generals. And he’s got to stop dithering in public. Right or wrong, you knew where Bush stood on the war. What we have from Obama so far is an apparent lack of focus, and it’s gotten so bad that somebody felt compelled to leak McChrystal’s memo last week. So, Mr. Commander in Chief — issue some commands and I think you’ll be amazed at how well they’re followed.


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