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 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated portion of French citizens with radical-Islamist beliefs who grew up in Muslim families:

1/5

Human hands are more primitive than chimp hands.

Trump declared flashlights obsolete as he handed them out to Puerto Ricans, 90 percent of whom had no electricity in their homes; and tweeted that he wouldn’t keep providing federal hurricane relief “forever” to Puerto Rico, a US territory that the secretary of energy referred to as a “country.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today