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:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

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

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Amount traders on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange can be fined for fighting, per punch:

$1,000

Philadelphian teenagers who want to lose weight also tend to drink too much soda, whereas Bostonian teenagers who drink too much soda are likelier to carry guns.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today