Obama’s Decent Interval on Bush’s Wars

The United States continues toward slow-motion defeats in George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Barack Obama seeking, in essence, a “decent interval” so the losses aren’t pinned on him and the Democrats. But Lawrence Davidson asks what it will take for Americans to finally begin a full reassessment of failed foreign strategies.

By Lawrence Davidson

June 25, 2011

In December 2009, President Barack Obama committed the U.S. to an “Afghan surge,” allocating an additional 30,000 soldiers for a projected 18 months in order to accomplish specific “narrowly defined” goals, chief among these the “disrupting, dismantling and defeating [of] al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.”

On June 22, the President reported that this mission has been accomplished and “the tide of war is receding.” Thus, he announced the withdrawal of some 33,000 troops between now and the end of 2012.

Not coincidently, a Pew Center poll has just come out saying that 56 percent of Americans are sick and tired of the Afghan War. Of course, even with the announced drawdown, about 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until, according to Obama’s timetable, the end of 2014. At that point the war in Afghanistan will be brought “to a responsible end.”
The Republican responses to Obama’s announcement varied. Some Republicans such as presidential candidate Mitt Romney, taking the hint from the same poll that no doubt encouraged the President’s decision, are saying they favor a rapid withdrawal.

However, others such as Rep. Mike Rogers, House Intelligence Committee chairman, oppose Obama’s timetable, claiming that Obama is playing politics by manipulating troop levels. These multiple responses mean that whatever happens the Republicans can always say “we told you so.”
The U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan are not happy about the pullout. They claim that withdrawal of the surge troops at this time undercuts “consolidation of the fragile gains” made in Helmand and other provinces where the Taliban had strongholds

This point is probably true but is based on the assumption that the “gains” could ever be something more than “fragile.”

On the other hand, Afghan commanders, such as General Mohammad Zahir Azimi of the Afghanistan Defense Ministry, declared that his country’s army will “fill the gap” created by the withdrawing Americans. “We are ready,” he said, though he is probably as naive as his American counterparts.
All of this has an unreal sound for those who actually know the modern history Afghanistan. That history, properly considered, makes the entire American adventure in that country problematic.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on her show Democracy Now!, Middle East scholar Juan Cole stated that “U.S. leaders often are just not good on history.” He noted that the British in the 19th century had “tens of thousands of troops” in sensitive parts of Afghanistan and could not pacify them.

Then, of course, the Russians failed in a similar endeavor, as well.

What are the odds, Cole said, that a “relatively temporary … and small American expeditionary force can go into some of these provinces and shape them up for the long term? I always thought that was just very unlikely.”

Indeed, it was and still is.

Here are some other points to consider:
–As far as the Afghanistan franchise of al-Qaeda is concerned, it has long ceased to be a factor in the Afghan War. Even back in December 2009, when President Obama announced his “surge,” U.S. intelligence estimates put the number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan at no more than 100.

Therefore, even before the death of Osama bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan was not so much about al-Qaeda as “its extremist allies.”
–And who are these “extremist allies”? Well, they are the Taliban. But as the “they” implies, the Taliban are not one unified group. They are many groups.

As Cole told Amy Goodman, “what the U.S. calls the Taliban is four or five different groups, and they’re not necessarily all Mullah Omar people.” Mullah Omar is the fellow who was in charge in Afghanistan when the Americans invaded in 2001.

Right from the beginning. U.S. leaders had a tendency to mix all these elements with al-Qaeda. Certainly the Bush Jr. people lumped them altogether.

When, after 9/11, the government of Afghanistan responded to the Bush demand for the surrender of Bin Laden with a request for evidence of his involvement with those horrific attacks, the Bushites did not even bother to respond. All these folks were one and the same to them and they just launched the invasion.
–Today it does not matter who is with Mullah Omar and who is not. All the Taliban factions are opposed to U.S. intervention in their country and all are opposed to the corrupt and often incompetent ally of America, President Hamid Karzai, sitting in Kabul. And they know that without the presence of American combat troops, they have the power to bring down his government.
–In this regard President Obama also knows that between now and 2014 the United States cannot make the Kabul government strong enough and popular enough to survive. He both tells us that al-Qaeda is all but defeated and “we will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government.”

These juxtaposed statements reflect an as yet feeble effort to separate out what Americans have always thought were the same thing. The President is suggesting that we can defeat al-Qaeda and still lose Afghanistan to Taliban factions. He is beginning to tell us this because that is the way it is going to be.
–However, Obama is going to make as good a show of drawing down as he can. He certainly does not want to see another Vietnam style retreat. He wants to minimize the chances of the Democrats being blamed for a debacle.

So, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan, his goal is to accomplish “a responsible end.” After that, it will be the natives’ fault if Iraq ends up with a government allied to Iran and/or falls back into sectarian Sunni vs Shi’ite vs. Kurd civil war.

And, after 2014 it will be Karzai who will take the blame when Kabul falls to some form of “Taliban” government and/or relapses back into a sectarian civil war of Pashtuns vs. the country’s various ethnic minorities. So the “responsible end” really means no more or less than an orderly withdrawal. 
What would a really “responsible end” entail? It would involve meaningful reflection on the part of both the President and Congress about U.S. foreign policy over the last 50 years.

If they thought deeply and objectively, they would come to the rather obvious conclusion that — if Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can teach us anything — it is that the standing policies that have led us into such disasters need serious examination and reworking.
Unfortunately there is absolutely no sign that any of our leaders are on this learning curve. President Obama’s precipitous jump into the morass that is now Libya shows that he is quite willing to continue the opportunistic war policies of his predecessors.

And, the shameful display of Congress slobbering over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several weeks ago tells us that branch of the government is stuck in a deep and dangerous rut.
A lot of this tunnel vision reflects the fact that foreign policy is just domestic policy in altered form. It flows from home-grown political and ideological attitudes which are systemic.

We repeatedly head full speed off a cliff because we are being pushed from behind and not pulled from the front. And this means that while Obama may exit relatively gracefully from Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be no “responsible end” to disastrous foreign adventures.

The domestic lobbies that define our foreign “interests” will demand these.
What would it take to fundamentally change the nation’s way of doing things?

Political parties, government bureaucracies, entrenched lobbies and ideological outlooks are big and weighty things. They move through time and space in a straight line (perhaps this is tradition) and do not change directions easily.

Indeed, it takes a powerful force coming in at an angle to deflect such institutions onto some truly new course. Most often, such a powerful force is a negative one, some sort of serious catastrophe which the U.S. has yet to confront.

As a country it is so stuck in its ways, and so full of hubris and self-righteousness, that over the past few generations it has absorbed repeated military defeats and nearly gone bankrupt while still not altering its response patterns to foreign happenings. It is a real wonder to behold!
John Davies, a 17th century English poet, once remarked that people learn little but forget much.

Most Americans have learned nothing about foreign affairs. It is all a mystery to them and they have gladly abdicated this part of their national lives to the politicians and lobbyists who forget mistakes as soon as they make them.

At this rate, the United States will not go out with a bang. It will just be a death-dealing whimper.  

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.