There Is No Good War

“In Afghanistan, I don’t think we have a clue of what we’re after.” — Michael Scheuer, author of Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq, quoted by Michael Hastings in GQ.

We are four months into the Obama administration and it should be clear by now that, while American foreign policy might be changing course, we shouldn’t expect the sea change that many of us on the left had hoped for.

Yes, American troops will be leaving Iraq over the next two years–at least some troops, anyway–but more American troops will be heading to central Asia as we increase our involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The president has sent additional troops to the region, which is “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” he said in February. It is part of a larger reconsideration of the nation’s policy, which he has placed under review. He says his goal is to offer a more “comprehensive strategy and the necessary resources to meet clear and achievable objectives in Afghanistan and the region.”

“This troop increase,” he added, “does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review.  Instead, it will further enable our team to put together a comprehensive strategy that will employ all elements of our national power to fulfill achievable goals in Afghanistan.”

Translation: Expect a long war that, ultimately, will have the opposite effect than Obama seeks.

But that’s not what we’re seeing in the media, which has tended to treat Obama’s policy review as the first step in a necessary expansion of American and NATO presence in the region. Essentially, as Michael Hastings pointed out on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show in April, the debate over Afghanistan has been one-sided.

“I think, what I would say about this entire thing, the entire Afghan strategy debate, what‘s actually been missing is the debate,” he said.

Hastings, a contributing writer for GQ who recently spent time in Afghanistan, said the debate has been about numbers and not about the larger policy goals.

“No one is really questioning the assumption of should we be in Afghanistan now in the first place,” he said. “Should we be willing to spend $2 billion a year at least?  Should we be willing to spend thousands of more American lives to try to fix Afghanistan?  To create a democracy there?  Because that‘s what—that‘s what we‘re really talking about here.”

That’s why he disputes the notion that the Obama administration’s goals differ significantly from those of his predecessor. Obama, he says, still appears to be planning for a “10-, 25-year commitment—not only to reshaping Afghanistan‘s government, but now we plan on reshaping Pakistan‘s government as well.”

“So, the Obama administration has said we have much more modest goals than the Bush administration, that‘s actually not true,” he told Maddow. “The goals of the Obama administration for Afghanistan are in fact as high as the goals that the Bush administration had set.”

Achieving those goals–stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan and fighting terrorism–by force, however, seems fairly suspect. A large military presence in the region, even one draped in the cloth of humanitarian aims, is not likely to be seen as anything more than a military occupation, inflaming passions on both sides of the border and making it look an awful lot like our misadventure in Iraq–which is not in danger of ending anytime soon.

True, about 90,000 troops will be coming home over the next year or so, but a “residual force” of between 35,000 and 50,000 will remain to “train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Security Forces; conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations; and provide force protection for military and civilian personnel,” according to the White House Web site.

Plus, as Eric Margolis, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, wrote after Obama’s late-February announcement on Iraq, the Pentagon “continues to expand bases in Iraq,” with a total of 58 permanent bases, and wants “total control of its air space and immunity from Iraqi law for all US troops.” And that doesn’t include Obama’s plan for “major bases in neighbouring Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Diego Garcia.”

Obama’s actions on Iraq and Afghanistan unfortunately confirm something that many of us were concerned with during the campaign–that he had no plans to make a real break with the foreign policy establishment and that his professed commitment to diplomacy was just a course correction bringing us back to the kind of muscular liberalism that was the hallmark of earlier Democratic presidencies.

There is still time to alter this course–but only if we keep the pressure on the new president.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for the Princeton Packet newspaper group. Email; blog; Twitter

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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