Category: World

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Launching today, The NW Daily Marker becomes a new voice in the local media, reporting and commenting on the important state, local, and national issues for residents of Washington and Oregon.

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The Human Element Behind the Site

The NW Daily Marker is published by Bryan Myrick, who recently functioned as the West U.S. Editor for Red County. Myrick has been writing about state and national politics for Red County and other websites since 2008 and has been a lifelong Northwest resident.

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Afghanistan War May Not Become a Contemporary Vietnam. It Could Be Much, Much Worse.

800pxAirassault_mission_in_Paktika_provinceWhen Vice President Biden spoke about the certainty that his new boss would be tested on the world stage only two weeks before Barack Obama’s 2008 election, it may have been the one subject on which Biden has ever shown both prescience and coherence. Speaking to a small group of Democrat donors in Seattle on October 19, 2008, the master of gaffes donned his serious hat to offer those in attendance an audience to his oracle vision of the near future. Only audio from the speech became public so there is no way of knowing if Biden darkened the room and cast a flashlight beam eerily across his face, but it was clear by his words that Biden was not spinning a yarn about snipe hunts or hook-handed escaped mental patients.

“Mark my words,” Biden said. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking.”

Common interpretation of the prediction was that Biden had divined that a single foe would challenge President Obama, as Biden put it, “to test the mettle of this guy.” Nine months of history clarify that Biden must have actually been using the word “world” in a pluralistic sense, meaning that Obama’s challenges would come from all points on the globe. Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Europe (East and West), even the combined organization of the International Olympic Committee have seemed eager to gauge the ability of the American president to assert American power. But the one test that Obama claimed to have mastered prior to pursuing the presidency — one that he committed to putting quickly behind him upon taking office — was that of securing victory in Afghanistan. Tragically, of all the trials he has failed thus far, it has been the one he professed to have studied up for that has the greatest implications for national security.

The months since President Obama’s inauguration have not been a honeymoon as much as they have been a hangover, with Obama weaved to and fro in his avoidance of choosing a stable and productive strategy for our war in Central Asia. The world has watched the president fumble for his car keys with a sense of dread, knowing he has no idea where he will be headed once he finally starts up the engine and drives off. Is this the challenge of which Biden spoke, the world daring Obama to resolutely set the course?

Obama can be credited with making some decisions, chief among them escalating the use of drone attacks that have inflicted a high ratio of civilian casualties and may be seen by our enemies and the local population as a cowardly and disrespectful form of warfare, and replacing Bush’s Afghanistan commander Gen. David McKiernan with his own man in the field, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But, in the broad analysis, what might have only been the President’s “lost weekend” has become a nine-month bender that burns at America’s gut like an ulcer. As an absence of American strategy continues to cost America the lives of its sons and daughters, the ghosts of Vietnam still lurk in the Oval Office. They are specters that the President cannot ignore.

On the road to the presidency, Obama made his proposals for the realignment of American military resources to focus on what he correctly identified as the “central front” in the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. David Axelrod costumed this approach by skillfully loading Obama’s foreign policy speeches with a fusion of anti-war code and ‘big stick’ diplomatic lingo, recreating the candidate as a barely plausible lovechild of John Kerry and John Wayne. Incredulously, the rhetorical cocktail appealed to an electorate weary of war but intolerant of defeat. The keystone for the positioning of Obama as reluctant hawk, Afghanistan was cast as a Vietnam in the making, a meme that eased into the American subconscious due to it being arguably true.

Although there are many parallels that can be drawn between the American war in Vietnam and our engagement in Afghanistan, it is a single distinction between the two conflicts that should encourage President Obama to heed the advice of his current Afghanistan commander for increase in troop levels. Even in the low point of our withdrawal US military planners had no fear that communist Vietnam might sense American weakness and pursue a larger war against the leader of the free world. Thoughts on this precise question do not exist in the memoirs of President Ford, but I feel safe in making an in absentia inference that Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground Organization and the Black Panthers were considered greater threats to Americans at home than the communist Vietnamese.

When the US withdrawal was complete, and the last helicopter had evacuated Ambassador Martin from the US Embassy in Saigon, although returning soldiers faced an emotional assault from an ungrateful nation there would not be cells of Viet Cong sleeper agents who, emboldened by U.S. withdrawal, would begin attacking Americans on our own soil. North Vietnamese Army units were not training young men, embittered by the death and destruction experienced in their homeland, to seek out Americans wherever they might be across the globe and spill their blood in the name of Ho Chi Minh’s ideology. No similar feeling of security will exist in the case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan should we fail to achieve victory, victory that must be measured against overall objectives as yet undefined, a larger issue that must be resolved in advance of the increase in troops requested by Gen. McChrystal.

Will Obama’s legacy reflection his indecision on this day, Veteran’s Day, his choice to kick the can down the road and avoid a critical decision to commit additional troops to achieve a superiority of force in-theater? In another visitation of cosmic irony on our Karmic Target-in-Chief, Sen. McCain’s proclamation that the US would need to be in Iraq for 100 years may become the reality for our commitment in Afghanistan if the President’s delay allows a crucial window of victory to close. The other possible outcome of his executive ambivalence would be withdrawal after failing achieve any benchmarks of victory, a result that would invite the drawing of far more unstructured battle lines on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or even cities like Seattle.

Deliberation and overthinking of politics permitted victory in Vietnam to slip away from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, forcing President Nixon to pursue a schizophrenic strategy that ended up costing thousands of additional American lives and countless thousands more Vietnamese casualties. Obama must shake off his executive paralysis to ensure that Afghanistan does not become the first front lost in the critical war on Islamic terror.

 

[This post originally appeared on UnequalTime.com at http://unequaltime.com/2009/11/afghanistan-may-not-be-a-modern-vietnam-it-could-be-much-much-worse/]

Afghanistan: It’s Your ‘Dumb War’ Now, President Obama

800pxTalking_to_village_elders_Zabul_AfghanistanThere was only a twinkle of presidential ambition in the eye of then-Senator Barack Obama when in the fall of 2002 the young Illinois politico stood before a large crowd in Chicago to speak his mind about war. The push to go to war in Iraq was his immediate concern (one shared later by his fellow Democrats when it became politically smart to adopt an anti-war stand), but by calling the planned action “a dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics,” Obama plainly spoke about where he saw the dividing line between righteous and unrighteous armed conflict.

The simple redundancy of his Chicago speech made it resistant to quick retort – a feature of his rhetorical style that critics still grapple with today – but really it was nothing more than a repacking of the more moderate anti-war voices who had dissented with regard to another foreign war thirty years deep in the nation’s memory hole. Obama’s Chicago speech was the highlight of his curriculum vitae as the sport of exploiting imperfections in the Bush administration’s war strategy became one of the great political spectacles of our time. It was therefore predictable that when his lust for the White House placed him on the campaign trail in 2007, his anti-war stance became both his foreign policy credential and his wartime agenda.

It was only natural that the conflict in Afghanistan would become Obama’s cause célèbre on the campaign trail; were he to have focused energy on parroting the party line about Iraq his voice would have been just one more baritone in harmony with the Mormon Tabernacle choir-sized field of Democrat presidential hopefuls. Plus, the American cause in Iraq had brightened and an end was in sight, but not so with Afghanistan.  The political realities quite simply yelled out for him to focus his neo-liberal energies on the armchair quarterbacking of a war that by even the most hawkish accounts was going poorly. By staking out that war for himself, Obama was able to come across as fresh and insightful.

August 12, in New Hampshire, the junior senator sat the kids in Nashua down for another episode of Father Obama’s treatise-in-installments on the art of war. Once again, his statement was a masterpiece of rhetorical alchemy; two parts blue dog concern for America’s power and might, and one part bleeding heart passion for ending the grimmest and most certain outcome of all war – death.

“We’ve got to get the job done [in Afghanistan]. And that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.”

At that moment in the dusk of a Nashua summer evening, voters heard everything they would ever need to know about how a future President Obama would use the US military. Wars of the Obama era would always be rational, dispassionate, principled, apolitical, and would never utilize tactics that would include air-raiding villages or killing civilians.

It is shocking and disappointing then that, by Obama’s own definition, Afghanistan is now Obama’s ‘dumb war’.

Like so much about this president’s first term, when fanciful speeches must give way to action the reality of his choices must cause many an Obama supporter to reach for the Xanax. The war in Afghanistan that Obama confidently bragged to voters that he make winnable, has devolved into a series of drone attacks and air raids on villages, in which the numbers of civilian dead are reported by many observers to far exceed the body count of high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.

On January 23, 2009, when the mess on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was still being mopped up from the Inaugurasm, US drone aircraft (including the well-known Predator drone, redesigned to carry a load-out of high-powered ordnance) conducted strikes on targets in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan. Although reports indicated that fifteen were killed in the attacks, the Times of London reported that sources indicated three children were among the dead.

Since Inauguration Day, Afghanistan under Obama’s command has become every bit the dumb war he defined before his election, dumber because of his continued use of drone aircraft (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), a campaign begun under Bush and which has typically caused high death tolls among civilians coinciding with the achievements of killing Al Qaeda and Taliban command elements.

The January 23 raids were notable only because they were the first to have been ordered by President Obama; subsequent have been even more deadly for civilians caught in the combat zone.  Unfortunately, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a concern for the Obama administration only in so much as they conflict with the desired image of Obama as a new breed of benevolent warrior. It is politics – specifically the enhancement of Obama’s military resume – that appears to guide his war strategy, not reason or principle.

These tactics are precisely those that were condemned by Obama the candidate when used by his predecessor.  They have inflamed Pakistani and Afghani government officials who have warned that the probable effect of raining down munitions on villagers will be to give Taliban and Al Qaeda forces a useful tool to convince those same civilians that they fight against a common enemy – the US-led coalition. But the real ignorance of Obama’s war policies is not in the use of counterproductive tactics, it is the failure to employ tactics that support a clear strategy for long-term victory, a feat that has eluded the great empires of the British and the Soviets in our own time.

In a war that has now become a counterinsurgency, maintaining support from the local population is a crucial element of success, an observation that has been put before the Obama administration and the US Congress by many foreign policy advisors including David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert and former advisor to General David Petraeus during the critical surge campaign in Iraq.

According to Kilcullen, the small proportion of civilian casualties in the January 23 attacks underrepresents the typical amount of collateral damage in drone attacks. Kilcullen claims figures that show an alarmingly high ratio of civilian casualties to combatants. His opinion had been a widely-discussed thorn in the side of Obama’s Afghanistan team since Kilcullen’s interview in early February of this year with The Financial Times. In the interview, Kilcullen asserted that since 2006 the attacks made by drone aircraft have taken 700 civilian lives while only eliminating 14 of Al Qaeda’s middle and lower-rung leaders in Pakistan territory.

“That’s a hit rate of two percent on 98 percent collateral. It’s not moral,” Kilcullen said.

Kilcullen also stated that the drone strikes “have a negative strategic effect in that they incite Punjabi militancy, which is the biggest problem in Pakistan right now.”

That is the policyspeak equivalent of the idea that excessive loss of civilian life as a result of American military operations gives insurgents significant tools to rally support from the population being bombed. It is a sentiment that is remarkably in tune with the one President Obama made in New Hampshire in the summer of 2007. In fact, Kilcullen’s critique is really just a diplomatic way of saying that Obama is engaging in dumb war. Those are my words, of course, but Kilcullen has repeated his own assessment before congressional committees, as well as penning an op-ed in The New York Times with Andrew McDonald Exum.

But the drone attacks are only a cluster of data points to suggest that Obama’s Afghanistan policy is failing his own standard of rationality; they do not support a strategy to affect a positive outcome in line with the long-term goals of regional stability and US security. The tactical accomplishments from one day of bombing in which a handful of Taliban are dispatched to sit with Allah are small in comparison with the often quieter strategic victories that will be needed to win the war, stabilize the region, and inoculate Afghanistan and Pakistan from the diseases of the drug trade and radical Islamism in the form of the Taliban.

Even if the US should manage to avoid harming a single civilian from this day forward (an impossible goal) would President Obama be waging smart war?  I would share in Kilcullen’s joy that drone fighters might go back in their shipping crates, but that small tactical shift would only offer opportunities to rebuild positive relations in Afghanistan’s rougher provinces.  And yet, believing that there are easy roads to building friendships with the Afghani people is another example of President Obama’s naiveté. Too many cheering crowds and fainting audience members may have gone to his head; the cult of Obama’s personality does not extend to Central Asia and there always seems to be enough in common among the ethnically and tribally divided Afghanis to bind them in fierce and unflinching opposition to outsiders.

Winston Churchill, long before World War II would prove his mettle as a historic national leader, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill spent several weeks in 1897 as a journalist chronicling his observations of the “frontier war” between British forces and Pashtun rebels in the Swat Valley, the region of Pakistan that has been a mote in the eye of American-led coalition forces fighting to win a war in neighboring Afghanistan. This excerpt from “The Story of Malakaland Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War” offers Churchill’s description of a territory as impossible to pacify as any that the British Empire had ever confronted.

The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. … Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land.  Tribe wars with tribe.  The people of one valley fight with those of the next.  To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals.  Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers.  Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor.  Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger. [Emphasis mine.]

Although those words were committed to posterity in 1898, even present-day writers capture a similar sense of Afghanistan as a place that seems to exist a state of nature such as the one envisioned by Rousseau, a place where self-interest and bonds of fellowship guide events. In the words of Stephen Tanner, author of “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban”, an excerpt of which was published at the National Review Online:

Left to their own devices, Afghans engage in internecine battles, or simply enjoy freedom — not the kind enforceable by a Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, or Communist Manifesto, but of more ancient derivation — unbothered by government at all.

It would seem then that the question is not what tactics should be used, but what our ultimate goal should be? If voices of those who have studied the complexities of Afghanistan like Tanner are correct, a strategy similar to the one in Iraq will be disastrous for our efforts in Afghanistan if it attempts to impose a government on people who have not developed a want for one. The disaster could only be made worse by pursuing military objectives in ways that alienate the Afghanis or their Pakistani neighbors. The authors of a Center of Strategic and International Studies’ report published in May of this year, suggests “the war in Afghanistan is as much a war of perceptions as it is a war for control of territory. No one who was in government at the time of Vietnam can avoid a grim feeling of déjà vu.”

And yet, with the so many heralds sounding the alarm, President Obama, advised chiefly by his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, very little evidence has emerged to suggest that US strategy has grasped the nature of true victory in Afghanistan. Complete victory can only be achieved when the people of Afghanistan perceive the United States as an ally, in word and deed. Some version of that goodwill may have existed after US-financed covert operations helped Afghani insurgents expel the Soviets, but the US withdrew once its immediate interests were resolved and left a power vacuum in which groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda grew strong and the perception of the US as fickle and untrustworthy were allowed to fester.

The report yesterday that the US bombed 300 tons of poppy seeds in southern Afghanistan is therefore one more sign of the shortsightedness of American war planners. Although the drug trade fills the coffers of America’s enemies, it also puts food on the table of many Afghani families who may have no better option.

Do President Obama and Mr. Holbrooke believe that the opium farmers in the Helmand province – now one of the wealthiest and most dangerous in the country – are going to perceive actions to damage the drug trade as directed at the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but not at themselves, when their livelihood is threatened? We should not be so silly to think that way if we still believe ourselves to be a superpower. If, as some experts suggest, the economic incentives driving the drug trade has been manufactured – the need of Afghani farmers for guaranteed income is met by insurgents who offer cash in advance for planting opium instead of other crops – the entire scenario of our engagement seems to require tactics of rescue – not attack – in which the Afghani people are valuable assets in the struggle to rid their own nation of an evil influence.

As troop levels increase (scheduled to reach 68,000 by the end of the year) the opportunities for victory increase but what they do while there is more important than the number of boots striking the tarmac in Kandahar. President Obama must puts aside ego and politics and reclaim the purpose with which we initially went into Afghanistan, when it was perceived by most to be a smart war intelligently fought. The greatest achievement of Obama’s term in office might be recognizing his own hypocrisy before Afghanistan becomes a full-blown modern-day Vietnam. That’s right, President Obama; LBJ was also too proud to admit he was fighting a dumb war too.

 

[This post originally appeared on UnequalTime.com at http://unequaltime.com/2009/07/afghanistan-its-your-dumb-war-now-president-obama/]

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