Monday, August 2

The Best And The Brightest II: Bester And Brighterer

David Sanger, "Rethinking the Afghanistan War's What-Ifs". August 1

I'M unscrambling that egg as fast as I can:
WASHINGTON — Long before Afghanistan became the longest shooting war in American history, the question loomed: Could it have turned out differently?

Yes. You're welcome.
If only we had been smart enough, the arguments went, the “good war” might not have gone bad. If only we had gone into Tora Bora with overwhelming force in the winter of 2001, and captured Osama bin Laden. If only we had put a substantial force into the country in 2002, rather than assuming that the Taliban had been “eviscerated,” the term used, and now regretted, by American military briefers. If only we had carried through on President George W. Bush’s promise of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan.

Okay, you might recognize the beginnings of a theme here, but: either your hypothetical questions are somehow related to reality, or you're writing science fiction (or Bush apologetics, which is like hallucinatory science fiction).

First, we did not have an "overwhelming force" to send after bin Laden in 2001. I'm not sure why that has proven damn near impossible for people to grasp. We've got a standing army of about 1.5 million; that's counting every file clerk, mechanic, fry cook, fife player, and caddy, not to mention the girls, who, despite all the feel-good stories you've heard, really don't get to go out and kill people all that often.

Then there's our overseas commitments: the troops protecting the Philippines from Spain, keeping Korea safe for Syngman Rhee, the troops guarding the Fulda Gap in case Stalin gets any ideas. It's something like forty countries altogether. You might recall that at one of its many points of desperation the Bush administration considered radically altering that equation, and did make the biggest changes in our postwar history, mostly by stripping our emergency response capabilities for Korea--which now consists of the motor pool attendant and a couple of bartenders on Okinawa--and the formerly sacrosanct, for obvious reasons, US Army Strategic reserve.

Now me, I'm willing to believe just about anything in regards to the Bush administration, but I stop short at cannibalizing our ground forces while hundreds of thousands of troops stood idle. Nothing remotely like that happened, as a cursory glance at the evidence shows. So why are we still asking the question? Because it's not what we want to believe, not how we want to think about US hard power, and because we don't want to examine in cool daylight what we refused to even consider when the blood was up, which is what created the problem in the first place.

We were sold a bill of goods, and by a gang we had every reason to believe, no, one which we knew combined the public honesty of the barnstorming evangelist, the abiding sense of fair dealing of the traveling medicine show, the vigilance of Arthur Andersen, LLP, and the combined military acumen of the British High Command in WWI. "Invading Afghanistan with sufficient force" is a fantasy, not an alternative plan. As long as we're just doing conjuring tricks, What If we'd had a President who was willing to acknowledge the reality, to speak honestly about it, and maybe even to act as though the reality really was the reality? I'm not sure we can even dream a President who behaves much differently when 98% of the fucking populace just wants to go out and kill brown people.

Of course what we had in the event, in George Watch This Drive Bush, was the opposite, a guy who didn't want to waste time with no fancy talkin'; just tell the Bad Guy he's got to the count of three to draw, or til sundown to git outta town, then sit back and watch those 2004 campaign contributions roll in. And 1/3 of the electorate finds this is precisely what they're looking for in a President, provided he's perceived to be on their team.

So we can't play Sufficient Force What If without playing Why'd We Do It That Way In The First Place? and the attendant Where's The Draft? and Where's The War Tax? Or maybe we could play "How Come At Least One Major Party Wants To Refight Vietnam Over and Over Until We Win"?

Removing the Taliban from power in 2001 was deceptively easy, leading Washington to believe that the Afghans could largely take it from there.

"Deceptive" being the operative word, here as so many other places. We were stalled at the beginning of winter, which convinced us to hire the Northern Alliance to do the fighting for us, because for all our righteous bloodlust we didn't have the stomach for taking casualties. (We don't really have the stomach for using mercenaries or privatizing war to well-connected contractors, either, or, rather, for being known for it.) Of course, once you start peeling off Benjamins for the locals you raise the question of why you involved a middleman. It's possible the Taliban's Islamic sense of hospitality towards bin Laden wasn't for sale at any price. But if so it's the first religious scruple in recorded history that wasn't.

As for "letting Afghans take it from here": Yeah. Right. People in the United States of America really believed that brown people who live without malls, McDonald's, and indoor plumbing could "take it from here." And that Hamid Karzai was Our Kinda Guy.

In the Vietnam War, the misleading metric was “body counts”: Each day, the military would announce how many of the enemy had been killed, as if that was a measure of progress. In Afghanistan, the misleading metric was attacks against American forces. From 2002 to 2005, the numbers were small. In intelligence briefings to American officials and visiting NATO diplomats, this was cited as evidence that the Taliban had been vanquished.

Wrong again.

“They were anything but dead; they were biding their time,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, who conducted President Obama’s review of Afghan policy in 2009. By 2006, attacks were spiking. “This was the moment to clip the Taliban before they got out of control,” Mr. Riedel said.

Except for that lack of necessary forces thing, right Bruce?

C'mon, how long exactly did we imagine we had to wait before we could leave Afghanistan without leaving it to Afghanis? Is this not the crux of our problem? Selective prognostication? "If we leave now Afghanistan will just become an al-Qaeda base again." Well, you sure can't argue with people who missed that Infinite Loop in the first place.

By the way, "attacks on Americans", like "body count", was not, precisely speaking, a combat metric. It was more, I believe the military term is, "PR bullshit".
As the Afghanistan problem grew more intractable during the Bush presidency, Washington’s stated goals grew grander. And grander….

“The mistaken mission creep in Afghanistan during the Bush years was moving from counterterrorism after 9/11 — to destroy Al Qaeda — to nation building and the objective of implanting Western-style democracy,” said Robert Blackwill, who coordinated the policy for Mr. Bush at the National Security Council. “Given the history and culture of Afghanistan, that was always many bridges too far.”

No one knows what would have happened if those efforts had succeeded.

The same way no one knows what would happen if when we woke up tomorrow "Red" was a flavor. Because it is not something which will happen without the fabric of reality changing its thread count.

And, look: we didn't have Mission Creep under the Bush administration; we had Mission Collapse. Sure they changed the rules. And did so because "Capture bin Laden" worked out just as well as "Locate WMDs". Did anyone really expect them to admit error? Maybe resign in disgrace?
President Obama added a new element to the ever-evolving Afghan strategy last December: deadlines. Or at least the hint of one….

But the Taliban exploit and twist Mr. Obama’s schedule, declaring menacingly that after the Americans leave, they will still be around.

Which is true whether or not there's a deadline. Like the man says, sooner or later, everybody quits smoking.

Is it my turn to play yet? What If we learned our lesson? What If we started asking ourselves what we get for our half-trillion-dollar military budgets, wars and batteries not included, besides this feeling of supreme self-confidence that leads to fuck up after fuck up? What If we stopped pretending that all these fuck ups were really victories, if we just change the rules enough later?


Murfyn said...

The phrase "Now watch this" should be appended to everything ex-Pres W says. It won't do any good, but it is entertaining and helps keep things in perspective.

TM said...

I love this blog, and I agree wholeheartedly with this post, but I have one small quibble that has bears little relevance to the main topic, and yet I can't help myself.

The US military wasn't in the Philippines in 2001; they left in 1992. Sure, they came back in 2002 and never left, in order to play their role in the Abu Sayyaf farce, but in 2001 the PI were free of US military presence. Well, supposedly, anyway.

M. Krebs said...

D. Riley, sir, you are a great American.

Kathy said...

I don't think they really want a Democratic society. First thing a Democracy would do is order the US OUT. What they want is a Capitalist society, with American capitalists in charge and everyday Afghanis happily consuming Happy Meals while listening to ipods and consuming (via easy credit) consuming, consuming.

heydave said...

Rethinking a what-if?
Can one get any more equivocal?