Tag Archives: afghanistan

President Obama, is Afghanistan more like Vietnam or Germany?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 30, 2009, at care2.com

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When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday evening, December 1, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I will be looking for the President to answer specific questions I have about the United States’ conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

I would like to hear Mr. Obama state clearly the current objective.  Is it to build a modern nation in Afghanistan, create a quasi-democratic state, or simply stand a government that can police its own population and take actions that support U.S. security objectives?  Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s population live in 32,000 rural villages. Economic and political life is different there than in modern societies, and I want to see that the President’s plan does not rest on unrealistic expectations and assumptions.

President Bush’s military mission in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power and stop Al Qaeda and its associates from conducting violent action against the United States.  The initial invasion succeeded in ending the Taliban national government, and the ongoing campaign has forced Al Qaeda to seek more hospitable territory elsewhere.  However, installing a democratic government with control of the entire country has proved impossible, and in the face of such difficulty, the mission has become less clear.

The most important issue in the war in Afghanistan may be its impact on Pakistan.  If any nation could be the catalyst for a WWIII scenario it is a nation with a nuclear arsenal and a violent extremist insurgency.  Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents are actively fighting against the democratic government of Pakistan and lethal bombings of civilian and military targets are becoming daily occurrences.  An all-out civil war in Pakistan would be catastrophic and could require international forces to secure nuclear weapons, at the very least.  If this is part of the calculation of continuing our military effort in neighboring Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should say so. The Bush administration played fast-and-lose with the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, and confidence in American credibility suffered as a result.

And then there’s the Vietnam question.  Are we even capable of defeating the Taliban?

In Vietnam, we were unwilling to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China, and yet could not defeat the North Vietnamese people without risking such an all-out superpower war.  Thus, we were in an unwinnable war with no good diplomatic solutions.

While there is no superpower behind insurgent forces in Afghanistan, there is significant support in the population and financial backing from abroad.  We have been fighting insurgents for eight years and are no closer to victory.

It is a combination of troop strength and strategy that will make or break the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  Not just critics of the war, but top military brass, have said that a political solution is ultimately necessary.  In Iraq, an important part of the “surge” strategy was hiring the unemployed former army members and others who were fighting against us.  The concurrent increase in U.S. troops also supported government and military efforts to control violence, but the change in strategy was key. A similar initiative to pay local Talibs to switch sides is now underway in Afghanistan.

If the new strategy for Afghanistan is not producing positive results in a year or two, will the President accept defeat and withdraw our resources?  There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war and did not think it was winnable.  Yet, he continued to increase American participation based on domestic political consequences and complex international uncertainties.  However, our resources are precious and should be used with serious intentions, not squandered, or commited by default.

Will there be an honest assessment as to whether the new strategy in Afghanistan is working?  Does the President have the courage to recognize and accept failure?  It was one thing to refuse to accept defeat in a WWII.  The war against Germany and Japan saw a far greater commitment of resources and manpower.  Our entire nation was transformed into an armament factory and the committment to destroy the enemy and remake its society was total.  On the military front, we used all the force we had and accepted both our own heavy losses and devastating destruction of German and Japanese civilian targets.  Total victory was necessary and total defeat was not an option.  However, the situation in Afghanistan is not a world war.  Failure of a operation does not mean the surrender of all objectives.  Only fourteen years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, the Berlin Wall came down and international communism was on its way out.  (If you still have an image of Communism guiding China and Vietnam today, travel there and test your ideas.  Both nations provide thriving business environments and gradual reforms).

The lesson here is that we should not follow a failing strategy for long.  The risk of failure is substantial, and the President and his military command must be able to evaluate and change course, as necessary, including abandoning losing causes.

I will listen with an open mind to the President’s reasoning on Afghanistan.  What I hope to hear is not so much an answer that fits my preconceived notions, but an explanation of the U.S. mission there and a realistic assessment of strategy designed to achieve our goals.

For an Afghan voice and perspective (although somewhat dated), see my Interview with Massoud Quiam and Commentary by Massoud Quiam.

December 2, 2009 Update: C-Span 3 is covering live Congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan.

Point of contention is whether it makes sense to ramp up the battle now, while at the same time saying that we intend to start transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan authorities by mid 2011.  Is this just the usual attack on the President, or is there a contradition here?  Can we say that we are only willing to spend so much time and money (and risk to our troops) and that that time is running out — a limmited commitment — without hurting our chances of success?  It is a legitimate question, but the benefits of such a policy may still outweigh the costs.

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Have the Military Responses to 9/11 Been Equal to their Costs?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on September 11, 2009, at care2.com

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Reflecting on 9/11 includes thinking about eight years of foreign policy. What concerns me is the massive commitment we have made in two foreign wars and the uncertain accomplishments we have to show for it.

In Afghanistan and then Iraq we invested tremendous human and economic resources.  We may in the long run succeed in giving Iraq the opportunity to create a functioning democracy, but the cost was high.

In Afghanistan, it is still not clear that a positive outcome can be achieved, although the committment of sufficient resources may also bring results that were not possible previously.

During President Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office, he responded to various threats without engaging in a substantial ground war.  When he chose to react with force to Libyan terrorism, he bombed Moamar Gadaffi’s compound.  Gadaffi survived, although immediate family members were killed in the attack.  One military act, with small risk to our forces and cost to our economy, backed up by economic sanctions.  We did not attempt to replace a regime or transform a society.

Since then, Gadaffi has renounced terrorism and sought to comply with international norms. Gradually, sanctions have been removed and Libya has begun its return to the community of nations.

President Reagan did commit tremendous national resources to oppose the Soviet Union, the major Cold War threat.  But despite “Star Wars’” failings, the U.S. investment in missile-shield technology fostered American economic and technological superiority, which ultimately forced the Soviet Union to change.  Not all former soviet states are success stories today, but many are, and the 30-year threat of nuclear war subsided.

Since 9/11, the loudest complaints about our use of force have been over justification for our invasion of Iraq.  Those who believe that military action wasappropriate focus on security to be gained from defeating the enemy and establishing stable government.  What about the security to be lost, if we demonstrate that we are unable to accomplish our mission or unwilling to face new threats (Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs), because we have already given too much?

Our military proves itself every day in discipline, bravery, organization and tactics.  But do our political leaders have the strategic wisdom to use force so that we achieve the most for the least expenditure of precious resources?

Richard Holbrooke Named Diplomatic Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan

 

 

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Photo of Holbrooke and Russian General by Estonian Foreign Ministry, licensed by creative commons

President Barack Obama has named senior statesman Richard Holbrooke to be the diplomatic shepherd of American foreign policy interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Holbrooke has a wealth of experience and international stature, which will serve the administration well in its effort to achieve maximum impact through renewed diplomacy.

The conflict in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is likely to rise in priority as the United States draws down the number of troops needed in Iraq and redeploys some of those forces to Afghanistan. The last two years have also seen a resurgence of Taliban and anti-government forces, threatening to undermine the coalition efforts to support national government authority and regional stability.  

President Obama has already begun planning for troop and supply increases to aid the coalition in Afghanistan.  Holbrooke will be deeply involved in supporting and assessing the “smart power” marriage of development, governance and cultural progress with security and offensive war-fighting operations.  

Holbrooke has extensive State Department experience in Asia and Europe, culminating in positions as Ambassador to Germany and subsequently to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.  He promoted the expansion of NATO and its participation in the 1990s’ conflict in Bosnia. 

Recognizing, the symbolic power of American leadership was at stake in the intervention, Holbrooke stated“[this] will be the key test of American policy in Europe.  We must therefore succeed in whatever we attempt.”  He brokered the lasting peace deal in the Bosnian conflict which resulted in the Dayton accords.

In 2001, as Holbrooke left the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he said, “Iraq will be one of the major issues facing the incoming Bush administration at the United Nations.” 

Further, “Saddam Husseins activities continue to be unacceptable and, in my view, dangerous to the region and, indeed, to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime. His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times.”  

More recently, in the face of ongoing violence in Iraq, Holbrooke called for a “new diplomatic offensive in the Gulf region to help stabilize Iraq.”

Holbrooke’s negotiating experience with parties in armed conflict may help navigate the complex issues Pakistan adds to Afghan regional security.  In the last two years, Taliban insurgents have relied on supply and manpower from neighboring Pakistan to renew and sustain offensive operations.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has had growing political instability and violence as a result of its own extremist factions. Recent terrorism in Mumbai, India, further illustrates that Pakistan is exporting terrorism beyond its borders and that the government has been unwilling or unable to effectively police insurgents.  

Holbrooke will begin intensive discussions with the recently elected leadership in Pakistan on a wide range of security issues.

Also regarded as forward-thinking, Holbrooke was among the first to focus official U.N. consideration on AIDS/HIV in African programs in 2001.  Subsequently, the Bush administration embraced a major commitment to AIDS/HIV treatment, widely regarded as one of the administration’s most successful humanitarian achievements.