Escalation: Rationale and Strategy

bushbama

In Tuesday’s speech at West Point, President Barack Obama rededicated the U.S. to the occupation of Afghanistan, officially announcing the deployment of 30,000 more troops to the unstable nation.

Since escalation had been the prevailing option for some time, the speech was less notable for the strategy it outlined than for the foreign policy doctrine it espoused.

Obama insisted that the security of the U.S. and its allies is threatened in Afghanistan (and parts of Pakistan) by al Qaeda, the Taliban and the inefficacy of the Afghan government.

Crucially, the president affirmed his right to confront this threat through the occupation of a foreign power. In doing so, Obama has aligned himself with the first major principle of the Bush Doctrine, declared in September 2001:

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

Whereas Obama opposed the strategic rationale for the Iraq invasion, last night he openly backed the rationale for the Afghanistan invasion. He cited September 11th, portraying the military effort as defensive.

But this doctrine has no legitimacy. The presumed guilty party (al Qaeda) is a non-state actor. Why then should the entire state of Afghanistan be subject to military reprisal? And how can we claim to be fighting against terror when we’re killing thousands of Afghan civilians in the process?

Strategically, it doesn’t make sense to fight state-level wars against terrorists. Invasions and occupations increase terrorist strength by fueling recruitment and consolidating opposition. Further, terrorist networks are characterized by decentralization and mobility. Even if insurgents were pushed out of Afghanistan, they would simply reform elsewhere.

Obama described a military goal of beating back al Qaeda and the Taliban, while strengthening the central government and its armed forces. It’s inconceivable that Afghanistan could be turned around in only 18 months. Corruption is rampant, as are drugs and illiteracy. After decades of civil war and occupation, its infrastructure and institutions might as well not exist.

It is possible that short-term gains could be realized by the Afghan government in time for July 2011. I assume Obama wants to achieve some relative success (say, pushing the Taliban out of a few provinces) and then leave quickly after. But it will come at great human cost, and at a time when the infrastructure and economy of the U.S. are in desperate need of repair.

If we want to reduce the threat of terrorism, we should withdraw our forces and deliver massive humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Let’s feed its people. Let’s build up its infrastructure. If the Afghans can live better lives, without the threat of war, then al Qaeda and the Taliban will lose their legitimacy.

5 Comments

  1. Ian

    “Obama has aligned himself with the first major principle of the Bush Doctrine”

    Except Obama didn’t start the invasion. He inherited the war and the mess that it is. His military advisers tell him he needs to send troops, so he does.

    “The presumed guilty party (al Qaeda) is a non-state actor. Why then should the entire state of Afghanistan be subject to military reprisal? And how can we claim to be fighting against terror when we’re killing thousands of Afghan civilians in the process?”

    Then how does one fight al Qaeda while still respecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan? The Taliban would not turn over bin Laden or do anything to kill or capture him.

    “Let’s feed its people. Let’s build up its infrastructure. If the Afghans can live better lives, without the threat of war, then al Qaeda and the Taliban will lose their legitimacy.”

    Oh, its so clear and simple now! Osama is just hungry and its making him grouchy.

  2. Clint

    Ian,

    (As a side note, I think we make excellent contrarian counter-parts.)

    “Except Obama didn’t start the invasion. He inherited the war and the mess that it is. His military advisers tell him he needs to send troops, so he does.”

    Obama has the final say, not the military advisers.

    I don’t think he has any excuse for not choosing withdrawal. This is not the election campaign where we can say he needs to “look strong.” He’s in year 1 of 4, with an anti-Bush mandate and a public that doesn’t think Afghanistan is worth more money and lives. Even Biden didn’t want escalation.

    So I think the decision was important not only for its impact but also because Obama had a lot of freedom in making it.

    “Then how does one fight al Qaeda while still respecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan? The Taliban would not turn over bin Laden or do anything to kill or capture him.”

    That’s not true. Perhaps anticipating U.S. treatment of prisoners, they offered to turn him over to a neutral country if the U.S. provided evidence of his guilt for 9/11.

    Maybe they wouldn’t have turned him over even with proof, but we’ll never know because we didn’t have any to give.

    “Oh, its so clear and simple now! Osama is just hungry and its making him grouchy.”

    Look at Osama’s grievances. Other than Israel, the main thing he talks about is U.S. involvement in the Middle East and in Muslim nations. So there’s the reason for terrorism.

    The reason terrorism can thrive in Afghanistan is because it’s a ruined country where they can only stay alive if they sell opium and heroin. It’s very rational to think that if Afghans had strong infrastructure and social programs they wouldn’t have to look to the Taliban for some semblance of order.

  3. Ian

    Clint,

    (As my side note: On most things, I think we agree more than you suspect. I guess I am just trying to inject some gray into the black and white.)

    “Obama has the final say, not the military advisers.”

    You are trying to draw a connection between Obama and Bush, but I think they differ here. Bush was notorious for disregarding the wishes of advisers and other members of government. If an adviser disagreed with him, Bush would simply replace them. Obama, I feel, is considering all the options at least and not just being bullheaded about it all.

    “He’s in year 1 of 4, with an anti-Bush mandate”

    The anti-Bush mandate was really only effective in month 1. The economy is what is really dragging him down. Also, Obama isn’t in year 5 of 8, so he has to try and appeal to more people. The typical Republican tactic against Democrats in an election is to portray them as soft on defense. Obama has also, wrongly so, been criticized by the right for coddling or fostering Islamic terrorists. One of the primary grievances with Bush was he turned our military’s focus towards Iraq, when Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were still functioning in Afghanistan. If we are to believe recent reports, Bush made the decisions that directly led to bin Laden being able to escape to Pakistan. Part of an anti-Bush mandate would be to correct that wrong and finish the job in Afghanistan. Obama’s challenge, of which I am not currently satisfied, is to define what that job is.

    “That’s not true. Perhaps anticipating U.S. treatment of prisoners, they offered to turn him over to a neutral country if the U.S. provided evidence of his guilt for 9/11.”

    The Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden to an Islamic court, an offer, which I and others would argue is unacceptable given the circumstances. Bush rejected this offer, and bombing commenced. After a week of bombing, the Taliban offered to turn bin Laden over to an international court if we stopped bombing and proved bin Laden’s guilt. Think about that for a second. We have to prove his guilt before he can have a trial. That doesn’t make any sense. Secondly, that offer said nothing about ceasing to harbor al Qaeda and terrorist training grounds. Third, there is no guarantee that the Taliban could have even captured bin Laden, especially considering the state the country was in after a week of bombing. If they had him in custody first, then they could perhaps bargain. Fourth, we had no reason to need to bargain with them. At the basest level, we chose whether the Taliban got to continue to rule or not. They didn’t get to tell us what to do.

    Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, admittedly well after the fact. Is that not proof enough that he deserves a trial? How can you defend the Taliban protecting him? The FBI and British intelligence claim to have irrefutable evidence against him.

    “So there’s the reason for terrorism.”

    No. There is never reason for terrorism.

    “where they can only stay alive if they sell opium and heroin”

    It will always be more profitable to grow poppy plants than it is to grow wheat. You can’t stop the drug trade there by simply throwing the vague idea of “aid” at Afghanistan.

  4. Clint

    “Obama, I feel, is considering all the options at least and not just being bullheaded about it all.”

    That’s great that he listens to all the options of his advisers, but who are his advisers? Biden, who was credited with having the most dove-ish proposal, wanted only a partial withdrawal that would include reaching into Pakistan and continuing the use of illegal drone attacks.

    It was announced early on that major withdrawal wasn’t even an option. That’s the option preferred by the populations in the involved countries (the top 3, at least).

    I think Obama was definitely bullheaded here. What did the population get in this decision? A flexible timetable for withdrawal? OK, great.

    They also get to provide its soldiers and pay for it, all during a recession in which they’ve received too little help from their government. Not to mention, we’ll be at greater risk of attack if we continue our military bullying overseas.

    Pretty shitty deal.

    – On handing Bin Laden over.

    I was wrong about the offer coming before the bombing, though it does look like the offer included extradition to a “third country.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/nov/05/afghanistan.terrorism3

    Still, you can’t tell me the U.S. really tried to pursue legal means of extradition (which don’t require evidence of guilt, but evidence for something more like an indictment).

    “Secondly, that offer said nothing about ceasing to harbor al Qaeda and terrorist training grounds.”

    It wouldn’t make any sense for them to make that offer. The demand to stop aiding al Qaeda is only legitimate if there’s evidence linking al Qaeda to the crime of 9/11. Instead of providing evidence that didn’t exist, Bush was arrogant and said: “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty.” OK, that sounds nice and legal.

    “They didn’t get to tell us what to do.”

    I agree.

    “How can you defend the Taliban protecting him? The FBI and British intelligence claim to have irrefutable evidence against him.”

    I’m not defending them protecting him. I’m criticizing us for not following the legal means available. My way, we get Bin Laden. We would have 100% support from the world in pressuring Afghanistan (except maybe a handful of countries). Instead, we chose to be idiots and go in guns blazin.

    “There is never reason for terrorism.”

    Well, I mean to say there are causes of it.

    “You can’t stop the drug trade there by simply throwing the vague idea of “aid” at Afghanistan.”

    I agree it’s vague. In this case, I think the main solution is to stop being destructive.

  5. Ian

    “Still, you can’t tell me the U.S. really tried to pursue legal means of extradition”

    I may be nitpicking but wouldn’t this require dealing with a government we acknowledge as ruling the country? Only Pakistan at the time recognized the Taliban as a legitimate ruling government. What is the legal process here when you are dealing with glorified militias?

    Extradition requires that the government you are dealing has extradition policies. Look at France refusing to extradite Polanski because he is one of their citizens. They are our ally, but still won’t extradite. It isn’t that simple. Osama bin Laden was considered a “guest” of the Taliban, and thus they were supposed to protect him and take care of him. That was their policy.

    As for indictments, we had formal indictments of OBL in US courts for his role in the bombings of US embassies and a bombing of a US training center in Saudi Arabia. Clinton actually tried to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Afghanistan to force extradition via sanctions through the UN, but the Taliban still refused.

    “My way, we get Bin Laden.”

    Only if the Taliban could successfully capture bin Laden, or if bin Laden sat around long enough to wait for them to come to him. I don’t think a hypothetical like this is helping your case much.

    Bin Laden never should’ve escaped Afghanistan when we had him cornered. I think Bush made the right move in attacking, however he completely blew the execution and let OBL get away.

    “They also get to provide its soldiers and pay for it, all during a recession in which they’ve received too little help from their government.”

    As with my post yesterday about implying false choices, I think you are posing the issue as economic recovery versus war in Afghanistan. I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way. Certainly the war is having an impact on our government’s ability to do things and spend money, but our government is screwing up left and right with a lot of things (bailouts!). I think our economic policy is greatly flawed without taking into consideration the wars, but that’s for another post.