Washington Babylon — December 2, 2009, 10:59 am

Afghanistan: The quagmire deepens

Last night’s speech on Afghanistan was typical Obama: instead of acting decisively, he splits the difference. The United States will send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan but with a timetable, sort of, for withdrawal.

It sounded an awful lot like what George W. Bush would have opted to do in Afghanistan if given a third term, which probably explains the enthusiastic response to the speech in some corners of the right. Obama made “a really good decision,” Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, told reporters. “It’s going to take a couple of years to see real, coherent progress. We need to give the president time.” (He added: “If you had told me Obama would have doubled the number of troops in Afghan and not significantly reduced our presence in Iraq, I would have had a hard time believing it.”)

The fundamental policy problem in Afghanistan is that there is no achievable mission at this point. Whatever one thinks about the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration did pretty much smash up Al Qaeda. That doesn’t mean the organization is finished, or that it’s incapable of periodically launching a major attack, or that there aren’t a lot of people out there inspired by Al Qaeda who would like to do us harm. But as a terrorist group capable of central planning and with global reach, Al Qaeda has been badly weakened since 9/11.

It’s hard to argue with this recent op-ed by Michael Sheehan, a fellow at the New York University Center for Law and Security and former ambassador at large for counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department:

We invaded Afghanistan eight years ago to prevent another terrorist attack on our nation, and we have been successful. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacked us three times in three years: at our African embassies in August 1998; the USS Cole incident in October 2000, and finally on our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001. In the eight years following Sept. 11, they have failed to attack us on our soil. In fact, al Qaeda can count only one terrorism attack in the entire West (London, 2005), with perhaps “partial credit” for another (Madrid, 2004). This, by any standard, is a failure on the part of al Qaeda.

The problem, Sheehan continues, is that “we have continually moved the ‘goal posts’ of our counter-terrorism success in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign. The initial objective of kicking out al Qaeda has now morphed into an ambitious program of reinventing Afghanistan as a “modern state”:

We have gotten ourselves bogged down into a complex insurgent war that the Taliban can sustain at some level almost indefinitely, even though they have no real prospects of actually winning…

[O]ur success in throttling the strategic al Qaeda was achieved without pacifying Afghanistan and without occupying western Pakistan. Instead, we have used a massive intelligence operation to find and destroy al Qaeda’s strategic capability there and denied them the ability to mount terrorist attacks outside of their immediate operational area.

Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is still the main fighting force in the country. In essence, it remains an occupational force with counterinsurgency doctrine sprinkled on top. While U.S. conventional soldiers are kicking in doors of mud homes in poor Afghan villages, it is hard to envision long-term success, no matter how many health clinics they build the next day.

We have no achievable military goals in Afghanistan other than temporarily slowing the Taliban’s “momentum,” and “nation-building” is a fool’s errand. Foreign powers have been trying to achieve that in Afghanistan for a long time and no one has succeeded yet. The idea that an Afghan national security force will be trained and ready to assume control of the country in 18 months is equally ludicrous, as is the idea that the U.S. is going to win “hearts and minds.”

The president’s plan will put tens of thousands of additional troops in harm’s way with almost no chance of fundamentally changing the long-term prospects for Afghanistan.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
[Letter from Bentonville]
Citizen Walmart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From the July 2012 issue

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Article
Dark Heights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.

Article
Consume, Screw, Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us.”
Collage (detail) by David McLimans

Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:

2:1

Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.

Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST