Time for Indecision on Afghanistan


The growing pressure for a ‘big’ decision on Afghanistan is misguided. The neo-cons and other hawkish elements are raising the temperature on this unnecessarily by suggesting that Obama must go all in soon, or the Democrats will be responsible for losing another war. Slow down there, Tom Clancy. There is a case for muddling through also, not just leaving or going all in.

There is growing evidence that a big rush to judgment and commitment on Afghanistan is unnecessary. (Read Fred Kaplan’s last few columns.) I found this article by AJ Rossmiller most persuasive against the fallacy that Obama has to make One BIG Momentous Decision that will determine his whole first term. Rossmiller wisely suggests that there is actually no big need to ramp up huge forces there right now, with all the costs and commitments that come with a build-up. Muddling through is working pretty well.

It seems to me that the push to have one big decision is really a rhetorical strategy by Afghan surge supporters. By talking this way, they seek to create the view that if O doesn’t make a huge choice RIGHT NOW, all could be lost. This framing of the decision is designed to push him into the surge, by making it look like he is giving up if he doesn’t pile in. Better to lock in Obama on Afghanistan now, early, before he learns too much and starts to hedge.

The model for such a decision-making approach is Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, and LBJ on Vietnam after Pleiku. A new, unsure president gets pushed into a big war-making effort by a collection of advisors with deep stakes in the military-industrial approach to conflict. As a Salon blogger put it, LBJ probably should have listened to Norman Mailer (!) instead of Bundy or McNamara. I wouldn’t go that far, but the point is that these ‘strategic reviews’ recycle the usual suspects. Even better is Greenwald’s powerful column that the ‘foreign policy community’ as an industry has a vested interest in imperial overstretch and war as a tool of conflict resolution. I particularly like Greenwald’s identification that whenever you ring up Rand or the Kagans, the answer is more military action. Hah! Money quote:

As Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch notes:

“The ‘strategic review’ brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.”

The link he provides is to this list of think tank ’experts’ who worked on McChrystal’s review, including the standard group of America’s war-justifying theorists:  the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc.  What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war?  It’s what they do.  You wind them up and they spout theories to justify war.  That’s the function of America’s Foreign Policy Community.

The model for going ‘all in’ of course is the Bush surge in Iraq. But there was hardly a decision-making ‘process’ with W, understood as a careful weighing of options and competing views. You knew W would not leave, but double-down instead: Iraq was the signature issue of his presidency in by 2007; he was obsessed with machismo and mistook bulheadedness for toughness; and no arguments were going to dissuade Bush, because the ‘decider’ was a ‘gut player,’ not a listener. There was no real debate; W blew off the Iraq Study Group and rolled the dice. Nor do we know if it was the surge that helped stabilize Iraq. A lot suggests it was the change in strategy from warfighting to COIN, as well as the the shady and mundane pay-off of Sunni insurgents. In short, it may not have been Bush’s heroic insight into the war, but simply handing bags of $100 bills to Sunni gunmen that helped quiet Iraq.

Six weeks ago, I argued to give McChrystal a chance on COIN in Afghanistan. I am not arguing now for the offshore CT approach, but rather for a little more muddling through. I still think we should stay in Afghanistan with a heavier footprint than VP Biden would like. But my concern here is to avoid pushing Obama into one great, over-heated ‘ALL OR NOTHING!’ decision. Framing the decision that way basically blackmails him into making the choice those framing the debate this way want him to make, ie, the big build-up.

21 thoughts on “Time for Indecision on Afghanistan

  1. Did General Patreaus not say that the surge was but ONE part of the over-all strategy? Paying off insurgents was also a part of it. As well as switching to COIN. Read his manual on COIN. In fact many, many, years ago when I was in military school, the dean of my school a former decorated Navy Seal from the Veitnam War stated that the US should have paid off the VC instead of spending millions of dollars on bombs. I thought that he was crazy, now I know what he meant.
    This COIN strategy wasn’t developed by the US, but the Brits and French. Those two have been paying off insurgents for decades. In fact the UK media is now reporting that the Italians have been paying off Taliban insurgents.
    I will agree that the President should delay sending troops to Afghanistan. My reason is because we don’t know WHAT kind of Administration is running that country. Was the election real or a fraud? The US can’t be involved in some sort of Ngo Dinh Diem situation in Afghanistan. If that is the case the US should leave.
    Also, I am surprised that you are surprised that some insurgents were paid off. Being a political scientist and IR specialist yourself, I am sure that you know that governments sell out allies and other interests all the time for political gain.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    Also, since you brought up Iraq, what exactly is your stance on it? Since knowing, you, I have witness your view of the War change flavor according to what the general consensus of your political bent was.

    First you were against it, then for it, when the troops went in.

    Next your were never, ever for it.

    Then it was get out.

    Next, lets give COIN a chance.

    Then it was a disaster.

    Then surprisingly you wrote in your other blog that you weren’t really against the war but you had issues with the PROCESS (and you used that word). Namely the manner in which President Bush conducted the war.

    Next came along the recent elections in Lebanon and Iran and you wrote (in your other blog) that President Bush W. had made an opening (I am assuming by his invading Iraq) and the President Obama was complimenting that opening by his Cairo speech.

    Now it is this.

    I can assume that we are about to witness the same vis a vis you and Afghanistan?


  3. Dr. Bob:

    More and more I agree with GS vis a vis this situation. If anything, the US should concentrate on Pakistan.
    Also, why is the US still in South Korea or Japan for that matter? It made more sense to me when I was stationed in the Far East back in the mid-1990s but now? I still remember running machine gun drills in MOP4 chemical gear under the boiling sun.
    No, if the US must maintain a military presence in that region Australia is good enough. Slash the Army’s presence in South Korea and send the rest to Australia. Between that and the Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPAC), the US should be able to handle emergency contingencies.


  4. Dr. Bob:

    I was wondering as to which NEO-CONs you were referring. Are you calling General McChrystal a NEO-CON? Then I clicked on the link that you provided and found this on Salon vis a vis Afghanistan:

    “With Democrats like Feinstein controlling the U.S. Senate, is it any wonder that our status as a perpetual war nation appears to continue indefinitely?”


  5. From Reuters: “U.S. Decision Can’t Wait for Afghan Legitimacy: Gates”

    Now that the SecDef has weighed in, what say you Dr. Bob? You have in the past written favorable of Secretary Gates, do you agree with him now? Sec. Gates makes the argument that the President will have to decide in the “context” of an “evolutionary process”. This is a very interesting concept. In order for this to be effective, the US would practically have to be spot on vis a vis its analysis of how the political situation is going to “evolve”.

    Now this is a real discussion.


  6. Greenwald’s point about Diane Feinstein was that her husband was a defense contractor with a huge personal financial stake in ensuring permanent war, which is of course what the defense industry wants. Greenwald’s point – which he makes on virtually a daily basis – is that in many ways (not all, but many) Democrats are no different from Republicans, and expecting big differences when a D wins is foolish. The finance and defense industries have nearly as much control over Democrats as they do Republicans, although in the Times today there’s an article that the finance industry is actually still favoring Republicans over Democrats in terms of campaign and PAC contributions. This is good news as far as I’m concerned, because it means they do perceive a difference, and that their ownership of Democrats will be slightly less total than it might otherwise be.

    As for Bob’s inconsistencies on the war – consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. As new facts surface and new memes spread, opinions should change. I know mine have. I was surprised by the efficacy of the ‘surge’ despite the fact that the reduction in violence probably had more to do with other factors, as Bob mentioned. But I am more certain than ever that a longterm presence in Iraq (or Afghanistan) is a fool’s errand no matter the rationale. The war paradigm will create more terrorists than it eliminates, and terrorists will disperse to wherever we aren’t. If we pacify Afghanistan and “beat” the Taliban, they’ll be someplace else in a week. We’ll never ‘win’ if we allow them to dictate that we solve this problem through war rather than treat it as a chronic political disease. Plus, we can’t afford these wars. We. Cannot. Afford. Them. We’re too in hock to the Chinese. We’re drowning in entitlements obligations. We need to focus our energies on fixing healthcare, infrastructure, and middle class financial security. I work for the world’s second biggest defense contractor. The company is profitable and has excellent longterm prospects. And my health insurance out-of-pocket expenses next year will be 30-40% higher than this year. To say that that is unsustainable is a wild understatement. We don’t have the luxury of pursuing optional wars at this point in time.


  7. You think that I didn’t know what Greenwald’s point was?

    As far as my questioning Dr. Bob’s evolving views on the war, the key to understanding my question was “flavor according to what the general consensus of your political bent”. Had nothing to do with changing views due to new information. Once again you personalized the argument like you always do. But thanks for clarifying Dr. Bob’s position. But I am still amazed by this one, “Next came along the recent elections in Lebanon and Iran and you wrote (in your other blog) that President Bush W. had made an opening (I am assuming by his invading Iraq) and the President Obama was complimenting that opening by his Cairo speech.” Could you clarify that one for him please? What new information changed that statement, or has this sentiment not evolved?

    Also, how did you get from my above that I was insinuating fighting two, three or more wars? How? I even stated that the US should consider quiting Japan and S.K. and repositioning. And then I gave the evolution of my reasoning. My evolution is based on my military service in South East Asia. My personal observations and experiences. Or were you just referring to the last question vis a vis Gates?

    I work for a private company (a very good and well renowned company in this area) and my health out-of-pocket insurance is virtually nothing. What is your company doing? How in the world is your healthcare structured?

    Why do you work for the defense industrial complex? Just asking, it is not personal.


  8. As far as China, does anyone on this blog know the true indicators of its economy? I don’t disagree that they are still trucking along (and will for some time to come); in fact their economy is one of the only ones set for real growth this year, if though not by much. In fact according to The Kiplinger Letter, the world economy will shrink by 2% in 2009, but China’s will grow at its slowest rate in 19 years.

    Also, is China not overextending by investing billions and billions on Africa’s shaky foundations? China’s involvement in Africa could come a very, very high price to it, although it doesn’t seem so presently. In fact, the Chinese have shown some restraint at times. Like having second thoughts on potential African investments.

    How is the Chinese stock exchange organized? Is it synced between the mainland and Hong Kong? Anybody have the answer to these questions?


  9. I’m ignoring rude, vicious, and condescending comments (meaning about 95% of the things you write here). I’m amused you believe your health insurance situation in any way represents the norm, though.


  10. I asked you a question and you took it personally, again. I asked how WAS your company’s healthcare sturcture that you have to pay so much. It was a question of policy and management. One company’s policy compared to another.

    And might I remind you that you wrote, “As for Bob’s inconsistencies on the war – consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. Now did I think that you meant that I was a hobgoblin?

    Start practicing what you preach.


  11. In fact, ARMB, you ought to look at some of your earlier posts, they are very vicious and procative as well. And do ignore me, I have been ignoring you (if you hadn’t noticed), until you decided to answer my post directed at Dr. Bob.


  12. But I did ignore the post where you told Bob his blog sucks and called him a pile of manure. That took some restraint. Why don’t you settle down a little bit, take a deep breath, and try not to get so angry. Underneath the rage and bluster, you’re a very smart guy, as you like to remind us.


  13. Okay ARMB:

    In the interest of peace and a new start between us, (and I am not being sarcastic), I did have a question that I would like to post.
    And this question is for all. Do you think that China would go to war in the future to protect its billion dollar interests in Africa? Lets say somewhere a nationalist streak emerges threatening China’s investments. Would they send troops to protect their interests if they couldn’t prop up the government? Would they overthrow a nationalist government? China has already influenced the elections in Zambia by denying the nationalist candidate.

    Think about it, they are building this huge military machine. Talk about the effects of the military industrial complex. They will use it someday. Millions of soldiers are training for war day in, day out. I read that they were developing an amphibious assault capacity. Amphibious assault is for one thing, force projection, not defense.


  14. Well, China spends about 2% of its national income on defense, vs. 4.8% for the US, although their rate of increase has been much higher than ours over the past several years. Still, they spend less than half, proportionately, than we do.

    I think they’re mild nationalists, like we are, although from what I’ve read the average Chinese person is probably more nationalistic than the average American. Do I think they’d meddle in the affairs of small, weak countries? Yes. Overthrow a nationalist government? I’m not sure, I lean to No, but I’m not sure. Am I worried about them? Not really. Their civil society and national institutions are maturing as their defense budget grows. I’ve read a great deal of James Fallows’ reporting from China, and he paints it is a complex, contradictory place and not as a Nork-style commie military machine on the march. They are human beings, like we are, and their politics could become toxic, and they could have warped ideas of what their place in the world is and what their national interests are, like we have from time to time. All large countries should be worried about. But I am not exceptionally worried about China by any stretch, other than with regard to their buying up all our debt and producing ten times the number of engineers we produce and so on.


  15. Ok, CIA World Factbook has their budget at 4.3%, so what I read initially was way off. That seems pretty high to me, but not as high as ours. But it colors my perception a little bit I suppose. I still don’t get the menacing vibe Bob does. Make a list of US military adventures over the past 10 or 20 years and compare it to China’s. I imagine they’ll have a more, shall we say, transactional or utilitarian approach to relations with small countries than we do, but once you strip away all the humanistic verbiage, I don’t think we’ve been saints, either.


  16. Thanks, I understand what you are saying. I do share your concern about China’s hold on the US. Just think about their hold on Africa. It is very sad. Just when these dictators were about to start being held accountable for their loans, China arrived and give they guys a new lease. Makes you want to scream. What can you do? Africa is running out of time. Africa can’t afford another five years of the past.


  17. I am not sure how my position on Iraq has wildly deviated, or why if it changes that is a bad thing. My views have grown of course as events have changed. Opinions must do that as new information arises, otherwise you are W: nothing can dissuade you from a choosen course.

    In 2003, I was very unsure of Iraq. I didn’t wholly buy into it, but I did think the war would be quick. I did accept the neo-con analysis of the ME (a toxic swamp of overlapping pathologies), and I think Iraq might have been a success if we had planned it better. But now, if I had known the future in 2003, I would not have supported it. Today, it is clear the war was a mistake.

    I did support the surge – in print no less – although I think W would never have followed the ISG anyway. At the time, I did think the surge was a hail mary pass, and that W had no serious idea if it would work. He did not have the analytic capacity to synthesize enough information to make a reasonable judgment. As usual, he made a gut decision, just like they do in action movies.


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