Still Fighting

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Dan Froomkin
Copyright 2010
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 6:12 PM

It says a lot about this presidency that there is so much else going on that the public has almost forgotten that our troops are still fighting two wars. And yet, there is big trouble on both fronts. In Iraq, where our troops are at least in the process of withdrawing, a recent spate of bloody attacks indicates things may be about to take an ugly turn. Even more disturbingly, in Afghanistan, where Obama has decided to escalate rather than extricate, there is still not even the glimmer of an exit strategy. Tomorrow will be White House Watch's last day at The Washington Post. One of my many regrets is that I didn't get around to writing more about Obama's Afghanistan policy, its extraordinarily bloody ramifications, how it threatens to sink the nation in a Vietnam-like quagmire -- and, most significantly, how the president has never really made the case for his decision to increase rather than decrease our troop presence there. There are plenty of authoritative arguments being publicly made by knowledgeable people that Obama is going about things the wrong way. This is way more the case, say, than before former president George W. Bush took the nation to war in Iraq. And yet Obama has never acknowledged or addressed those arguments -- and the press has not forced him to. Before a president sends troops (or more troops) into harm's way, it seems to me he should be forced not only to explain why he thinks he's right, but why he thinks his critics are wrong. As I thought we'd learned in Iraq, giving the president a pass on this sort of thing is a very bad idea. Consider just a few of the arguments being made by Obama's critics. Back in March, consummate Washington insider Leslie H. Gelb wrote in a New York Times op-ed: We can't defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the last seven years have shown. Numbers are part of the problem: most Taliban are members of Afghanistan's majority tribe, the Pashtuns. More confounding, the Taliban and their Qaeda allies have found in northwestern Pakistan a refuge that has proved almost impregnable. These factors make overcoming the enemy in Afghanistan infinitely harder than it was in Iraq. What we can do is effectively reduce the risk of terrorist attacks from Afghanistan against its neighbors, the United States and its allies. We can do this in a way that would allow for the withdrawal of American forces, though economic and military aid would continue. Gelb concludes: President Obama and Congress owe it to both Afghans and Americans to explore a strategy of power extrication before they make another major decision to expand the war. Here's Middle East expert Juan Cole in Salon in March: The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president said, mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming everything on al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories.... Obama described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States.... This latter-day domino theory of al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as implausible as its earlier iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the Philippines). Most of the allegations are not true or are vastly exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded "Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard to Pakistan, there is no danger of militants based in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it. Cole concludes: When a policymaker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at particular risk of falling into mission creep and stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise. Political scientist John Mueller wrote in Foreign Affairs in April: George W. Bush led the United States into war in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein might give his country's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Now, Bush's successor is perpetuating the war in Afghanistan with comparably dubious arguments about the danger posed by the Taliban and al Qaeda. President Barack Obama insists that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is about "making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies" or "project violence against" American citizens. The reasoning is that if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, al Qaeda will once again be able to set up shop there to carry out its dirty work. As the president puts it, Afghanistan would "again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can." This argument is constantly repeated but rarely examined; given the costs and risks associated with the Obama administration's plans for the region, it is time such statements be given the scrutiny they deserve. Oh, and did you know that Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, recently said that al Qaeda was no longer operating in Afghanistan -- at all? Author Tom Engelhardt recently noted that despite all the positive media attention lavished on Obama's new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that appointment was actually evidence that Obama is going for broke in a region where the application of force has failed for years -- potentially locking himself into an escalation without end. And here's a warning sign if I ever saw one. As Dick Polman blogged for the Philadelphia Inquirer a while back: [T]he highest praise for Obama's Afghanistan announcement is being voiced by the likes of William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Max Boot - all prominent neoconservatives. Kagan, for instance, lauded what he called Obama's "gutsy and correct decision." Boot believes that Obama's ... address "was pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on." On the substance of policy, Boot says, "Obama is solid." I could go on, and on, and on. Meanwhile, in the run-up to a June 30 deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, there have been a slew of major attacks there, killing 150 people in the last week. Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor write for the Associated Press that "some private analysts worry that the administration may be underestimating the possibility that continuing violence and political turmoil could lead to an unraveling of the security situation." Muhanad Mohammed writes for Reuters: "A string of attacks has cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi forces to keep the lid on a stubborn insurgency after U.S. combat troops pull back from towns and cities by June 30." And Rod Nordland writes in the New York Times that "there are signs that Falluja could again plunge into violence." I'm not arguing that any of this means we should stay longer, mind you, just that withdrawal was never going to be easy, and deserves some attention. If nothing else, it's crucial that we not forget the toll war takes on the warriors -- and their families. And as it happens, Gregg Zoroya has just such a reminder in USA Today this morning: After seven years of war, most children of combat troops are showing more fear, anxiety and behavioral problems, according to the Pentagon's most sweeping survey of the effects of war on military children. Six out of 10 U.S. military parents told researchers their children have increased levels of fear and anxiety when a parent is sent to war, according to a survey of more than 13,000 military spouses of active-duty servicemembers.... Troubled children add to a growing list of war strain issues that the military, and particularly the Army, struggle with, including increases in suicide, mental health problems, alcohol abuse and divorce. A more recent study this year by UCLA of nearly 200 families of active-duty Army and Marine Corps personnel shows problems for children may not go away. A year after parents returned from combat, 30% of the children exhibited clinical levels of anxiety ??? levels requiring possible treatment. The children's average age was 8.


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