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Chronicle of a Quagmire Foretold? Afghanistan doesn’t have to be one, Mr. President

August 23, 2009

By Michael S. Smith II

In a recent speech President Obama borrowed phraseology from the title of a book published earlier in 2009 by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass. According to the president, U.S. overseas contingency operations in Afghanistan represent a “War of Necessity.”

While he may be right about that, poll results gathered since that speech have suggested Americans are demonstrating declining confidence in Mr. Obama’s assertion — more than half of Americans do not believe the Obama administration’s infusion of tens of thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan reflects prudent policy-making on the part of their commander in chief.

To date, Mr. Obama’s advisers have demonstrated a hyper-attentiveness to poll results. Given the administration’s aversions to such Jeffersonian maxims as “the majority are not always right,” a maxim many argue is easily justified in the case of foreign policy-making, it is difficult to imagine such polling data will not possibly derail any of the administration’s plans to stay the course, or even heighten the stakes as needed in Afghanistan. Still, one hopes this facet of history will not serve as a strong referent for what to expect of the administration’s future steps (except in the case of health care policy prescriptions).

With an eye to that polling data many foreign policy pundits are suggesting an Iraq-styled surge is needed in Afghanistan to secure the gains required for U.S. forces to achieve victory in the Persian combat theater. Victory achieved in a timeline which will be acceptable to American voters, that is. A victory defined quite differently than what we sought to achieve in Iraq.

Concurrently, a rise in violence in Iraq during recent weeks suggests “successes” stemming from the “surge” there may have been rather short-lived.

No matter how many politically motivated pundits from either side of the aisle may be clinging to a stale message that tells an altogether different, and now dated story, events in Iraq reveal the surge merely represented a short-term win for U.S. force, but more so for politicians on the other side of the globe.

Now that the U.S. is withdrawing personnel and hardware from Iraq — and making way for the mullahs in neighboring Iran to further assert their influence over that country’s political and economic landscapes — militia forces, terrorist organizations, “insurgent groups,” or whatever an onlooker wants to call the Islamo-fascist thugs running amuck in Iraq are once again becoming bolder and bolder in their efforts to disrupt any political, economic or other forms of progress that could flourish in a more stable environment there.

Policy prescriptions which call for a “surge” in Afghanistan bring to mind a Memorial Day powwow I had with a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a gentleman who had just returned from a multi-week junket to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In our conversation I learned a great deal about the game of smoke and mirrors ostensibly afoot in the packaging of news stories about the surge.

When it comes to why successes associated with the surge were to be so short-lived the devil is in the details, and it seems too few journalists and editors in America have been made privy to those details.

For Americans, the story of the surge in Iraq has been celebrated by mainstream media outlets in the following terms: A kinetic forces-oriented success realized by a significant increase of strategic forces across Iraq, but particularly throughout areas of the country dominated by militant Islamists hell-bent on destroying any political or economic models implemented in Iraq by the “Great Satan.”

The reality of that exercise, however, includes a much more relevant element than the deliveries of tens of thousands of new troops to engage the enemy. In other words, the common story excludes any meaningful explanation of why those troops actually arrived (i.e. To implement perhaps the most significant example of economic warfare in Iraq, post-Saddam — barring, that is, the U.S. cotton growers lobby’s efforts to deter Iraqis from growing cotton in a land that could easily become one of the leading organic growers of the crop).

Unlike the version of history told by so many American newspapers and cable news stations, the surge in Iraq was not driven by U.S. armed forces engaging the enemy via traditional combat measures, or even successfully encouraging them to discontinue their pursuits, drop their allegiances to militia leaders being puppeted by Iran, and become productive members of the Iraqi society.

The surge, in fact, was driven by an initiative to financially co-opt the 100,000 plus militia members who collectively pose the greatest threats to U.S. interests in Iraq.

If you think the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists, some who are familiar with these militia members might suggest your impression of our nation’s official position on such matters is a tad naïve. Given the usual outlay of $3,000 per year to each of the militants targeted by the surge’s primary program, some might say we’ve moved beyond simply negotiating with them.

Regardless of how one is to interpret the implications of America’s use of cash to curry (temporary) compliance with our military’s demands from militants across Iraq, the bottom line is that the surge was an exercise in economic statecraft. It was more a show of financial power than military force, and now that our troops are exiting Iraq there are fewer reasons by the month for militants to comply with their contracts with the Americans.

The only set of circumstance through which an Iraq-styled surge will work in Afghanistan is if, underscore IF:

First, the Taliban is willing to negotiate with America, and its members and affiliated opium growers and warlords are amenable to the idea of complying with demands put forth by bin Laden’s arch enemy in lieu of monthly payments. Secondly, President Obama plans to commit enough troops to the country for long enough to enforce such deals, thereby ensuring opportunities for political and economic progress are realized in Afghanistan.

Voters stomaching the idea of America shelling out the amount of money required to match and exceed the profits reaped by those groups from the opium trade as a means to the ends of possibly transitioning Afghanistan into a second-world country is not an expectation any rational-minded policy advisers should embrace.

The notion that any significant numbers of Taliban members and affiliated militants will even be inclined to comply with any such deals in order to make it easier for the U.S. to (a) seek out and kill their ideological leaders and (b) implement political and economic models which are absolutely antithetical to their end goals for Afghanistan simply reflects a denial of reality.

Before anyone suggests what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan, they should identify which aspects of the surge were effective in achieving the “successes” won from it, and, more important, then ask: Was it truly a success at all, beyond the short period of time in which it was effective?

They should then ask: What are our goals in Afghanistan?

Finally, they should ask: Are the real measures at the fore of the Iraq surge strategy even a viable option for our dealings with the Taliban — in other words, would the Taliban honestly be receptive to such offers?

Historically, Afghanistan is where major militaries go to find defeat. Despite this, some from the defense sector contend the only way U.S. forces will achieve our goals in Persia is for America to do what it has wisely avoided doing in Afghanistan since 9/11 — fight a real war.

They may be right. However, when it comes to the question of whether this represents a prudent policy measure, if past experiences can be used to identify likely outcomes the odds are not in Mr. Obama’s favor, unless, of course, Mr. Obama is willing to disregard the lagging political will to commit the massive number of troops needed to pull off an all out win for the U.S.A. in Afghanistan.

History does not suggest he will. So perhaps someone should advise the president hope does not represent an operational strategy of any kind for our military — it is a thing of last resorts.
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As a conservative who would hate to be accused of simply engaging in the so-called Republican politics of “No,” I wish to submit the following suggestions for the administration’s consideration (just in the event its information monitors may be paying attention):

First, rather than attempting to co-opt the Taliban, try to financially co-opt the new regime in Pakistan.

The president should quietly reach out to Benazir Bhutto’s widower and offer twice the amount offered to his predecessor’s regime in the forms of military assistance and aid, $4 billion to be provided immediately, the remaining $12 billion to be provided contingent upon the receipt of a diplomatic pouch containing the heads of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Second, rather than significantly growing the operational capacities for overt initiatives in Afghanistan, instead multiply those of covert operators fourfold. Meanwhile, expand opportunities for NGOs and individuals to reap the rewards of the State Department’s captured or killed program — you know, the overt program that makes it look a lot like there already existed a program for assassinating terrorist leaders long before CIA considered formalizing one of their own. (Note: This idea is being put forth due to the author’s presumption that the administration will only be willing to at most commit half of what many generals will advise is a prudent level of troops needed to push the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban in PK, and other al Qaeda-affiliated militant organizations into the a corner in the Northwestern Province where they can be killed. If the administration cannot muster the will to commit the troops needed to achieve a swift victory, the author believes this represents a next-best element to a strategy that may yield a win.)

Immediately following 9/11, CIA’s Jaw Breaker teams demonstrated “The Company” should retain ownership, or at least operational oversight of the Persian combat theater. Since that time, drone attacks have yielded much fruit for much less cost than investments of America’s treasure (i.e. our troops) in such missions. Sure, much of our covert network requires operational support from our uniformed officers, but the only increase in uniformed personnel should be at the request of intelligence operatives whose “bang for the buck” is usually far greater in a place like Afghanistan.

Additionally, by broadening access to State’s captured or killed program, a program that is far too difficult to gain access to in its current form, information used to neutralize threats to U.S. interests in Persia will be more readily available to Americans responsible for doing our nation’s “dirty work” in Persia. (I know of one organization that handed State intel used to take out one major player on the enemy’s team. However, it was not paid the handsome reward for that kill because it had not enrolled in the program prior to providing State’s intelligence officers the information used to plan the attack.)

Finally, invest in the resurrection of U.S.AID or the creation of Thomas P.M. Barnett’s so-called DoEE (Department of Everything Else), an entity similar to AID before it was enveloped and relegated by State, but with much broader operational capabilities.

These types of organizations enable our armed forces to focus on what they should, not doing what the Peace Corps trains its members to do abroad. And when the branches of our military have more room to focus on their central purposes, our armed forces will be better positioned to make militants in places like Iraq think twice about noncompliance with their agreements with America — even if our service(wo)men are stationed on another continent.

Short of any of this: President Obama must muster the political will to put the number of boots on the ground required to expedite a possible conclusion to the war al Qaeda tried for years to instigate, but finally drew us into on 9/11.

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