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Axis of Agreement Watch: Joe Klein’s “Lucky” Strategy

2:15 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

Joe Klein's secondary strategy. (graphic: openDemocracy via Flickr)

Last month we had the phony Afghanistan strategy review in Washington, and thanks to Politico, we got a shiny new buzzword: The “Progressive-Realist-Centrist Axis of Agreement”. It’s a fancypants way of saying “conventional wisdom”, roughly synonymous with the “Establishment” or Digby’s “Village”. Whatever the out-of-touch think tankers, journalists, and politicians in DC happen to think this week, that’s the “Axis of Agreement”.

The strategy review was Washington’s way of unveiling it’s brand new Axis of Agreement on the war in Afghanistan, transitioning from last year’s platinum mega-hit “COIN” (or counter-insurgency) to the new 2011 narrative. I wrote:

[The] review is not really a review of the military strategy, it’s an act of political theater. This is not the Commander in Chief and his generals tallying up their data and fine-tuning their tactical approach, this is the whole class turning in a book report so they get an A. [...]

[This] year’s line is “effective, affordable, and sustainable”. That means 30,000-ish troops, training police, drones ‘n Pakistan ‘n stuff, and also negotiating with the Taliban (ooh, controversy!).

Well, it’s a new year, and it’s time for the media wing of the Axis of Agreement to start turning it’s Afghanistan homework. A perfect example of this is Joe Klein’s new piece for Time titled “What It Will Take To Finish The Job In Afghanistan”. Here’s the plan:  . . .  Read the rest of this entry →

Review This: Afghan War Collapses

5:00 am in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

Ancient History

As we discussed previously, the Obama administration’s Afghanistan Strategy Review is basically an act of political theater, a demonstration of Obama walking back his massive overcommitment to occupying Afghanistan. Today’s speech confirmed that. Obama put a happy face (progress!) on the war, which is now an unmitigated disaster though you’d never guess that from the speech, and the warmakers (very quietly) took steps toward keeping their commitment of beginning withdrawals in July 2011.

So we got something good out of it, the July 2011 isn’t completely off the table (as the generals would have you believe), but they’re still not entirely comfortable stating that. However, the mainstream media got the spin loud and clear. Immediately following this morning’s press conference, CNN went live with two correspondents, one in Kabul and the other in Islamabad, above the bold headline “U.S. troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan in July 2011″. Sounds good!

But sadly, it’s not that simple. President Obama and Secretary Clinton talked a lot of game about 9/11 and honoring the memory of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. They wove some interesting tales about progress in Helmand and increased cooperation from the Pakistanis. They insisted that they would not be making policy based on opinion polls, and that the American people should trust that they’re working for the long term public interest. All lies.

There is no progress to speak of, Afghanistan is a nightmare, Afghan and American deaths are through the roof. Pakistan’s national security establishment is sponsoring just as much terrorism and militancy as always, and their civilian government is a joke. And the “opinion polls” don’t reflect a moment of “doubt” as Secretary Gates said, but the total collapse of public support for the war. There is no confidence in this administration; the policy has to end, not re-adjust.

Think that’s over the top? Let’s see what’s happening.  . . .  Read the rest of this entry →

The Politics of (Ending) the Afghanistan War

3:58 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vince Gill (left) gives a casualty report to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. David Gillingham after an improvised explosive device detonates on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, Dec. 05, 2010. The explosion wounded 7 U.S. service members and killed 2 others. (source: USAF Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert at DVIDSHUB via Flickr

We understand that when it comes to making policy around, say, health care, it’s a show. But War? War we have trouble with. According to what we the mainstream media tells us, the image that most Americans get of war, the whole thing just appears confusing and frustrating.

Now there’s even more heavy stuff going down in Washington dealing with the war in Afghanistan, and if we don’t understand the politics behind it, it’s going to be just as confusing and frustrating as the mainstream media makes it appear. If we can see ourselves with the same clarity that we see Afghans however, the whole Beltway affair will make a lot more sense.

Politico lays out the story for us:

As the Obama administration prepares to release its third strategy review of the war in Afghanistan, discussion of U.S. policy focuses on three conflicts. First, the actual military campaign against Afghan and Pakistani insurgents. Second, the political jockeying among Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his countrymen and international groups attempting to get a handle on massive corruption and poor governance. And third, the Washington shadowboxing between factions supporting “double down” or “out now.”

Meanwhile, a growing progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement has emerged. This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that share a stunning amount of agreement. As a group, they offer a way forward that could be effective, affordable and sustainable.

How do you like that phrase, “progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement”? It’s like someone disemboweled Morning Joe and bled out all the undigested bullshit buzzwords onto the screen. Read the rest of this entry →

No Really, We Should Abandon Afghanistan

2:21 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

photo: Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Finish The Job™

One of the most obnoxious arguments for continuing the occupation of Afghanistan is what I like to think of as the “Charlie Wilson excuse”, referring to the film Charlie Wilson’s War. In one of the closing scenes, just after the character Wilson is told that his Afghan funding will be cut, he stares off warily toward a dark horizon while the viewer’s subconscious is treated to the sound of jet airliners, a nod to 9/11. The message is simple: We abandoned Afghanistan once before and the US was attacked for it. Now that we’ve gone back in, we have to stay and finish the job.

Never mind the fact that 9/11 was carried out by Saudis operating in the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and let’s not forget, US flight schools. No Afghans, no Pakistanis, and nothing at all to do with the Taliban. Ignore that stuff, we have to finish the job in Afghanistan or else we’ll get hit with another 9/11.

It’s stupid, roughly the equivalent of baby talk in terms of having a substantive discussion about the history of terrorism and Central Asia, but that also means it’s really easy for the average war supporter to regurgitate. It’s no wonder it’s the favorite of every politician, especially the White House, whenever they need an excuse for extending the occupation. It’s not as effective anymore, mind you, the majority of the country has turned against the war, but that hasn’t stopped them from hammering this childish myth into our heads. Here’s the latest version from the US envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke:

Responding to a question, Holbrooke said the United States committed a mistake in abandoning Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and it would not repeat the same mistake.

He emphasized that US commitment to this part of the world is long and enduring and would encompass economic development as well.

It’s nice and simple, as long as you know absolutely nothing about history. Here’s the problem: Nobody has abandoned Afghanistan in decades. It’s like they can’t be left alone! The Soviet withdrawal is one of the few highlights Afghans have in their recent history. Everything else is one long, unbroken line of foreign interference.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

Pakistan: Diplomacy vs. Giving It All Away

3:01 pm in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

How are we going to deal with Pakistan when they’re openly flaunting their proxy war against the United States? How should we respond when they say stuff like "we know where the [Taliban] shadow government is"? Or this:

“We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us,” said a Pakistani security official, who, like numerous people interviewed about the operation, spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. “We protect the Taliban. They are dependent on us. We are not going to allow them to make a deal with Karzai and the Indians.

Again, "we protect the Taliban." Pakistan protects the Taliban. That’s in addition to them training and equipping various Taliban militias and even funding suicide attacks and IEDs against American troops. We, as in you the American tax payer, give Pakistan billions of dollars in aid and weaponry, including directly reimbursing them for their army operations (down to paying for the bullets fired). And yet they’re killing our troops and protecting insurgents/terrorists.

Our relationship with Pakistan is deeply, deeply flawed. How do we fix this?  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

I read in the paper that you don’t care about Afghanistan

3:36 pm in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

I’m not perfect. I don’t get everything right, not by a long shot. For example, remember my optimistic response to Thomas Ruttig’s pessimistic report on the Kabul Peace Jirga? Turns out I was super wrong about that. I understand this blogosphere of ours is an open debate, and I’m willing to reassess how I may have misjudged whatever the situation is on any given day.

So when I see a headline in the New York Times like "In Midterm Elections, Afghan War Barely Surfaces", something that directly contradicts my analysis, I’m more than happy to take a look and see what we have to learn.

According to my reading of the facts, the movement to end the war in Afghanistan is exploding. Congress is slowly waking up it, and we’ve seen triple the votes to block the war from what we saw just last year. A few more votes like that and it’s over. Not only that, but I’m hearing directly from candidates that their constituents are very interested in the war in Afghanistan. Read the rest of this entry →

Rethink Afghanistan: What does it mean to be less safe?

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

In our latest video from Rethink Afghanistan, we hear a tale of the deadly consequences of war directly from those most affected by it, the Afghans themselves. Zaitullah Ghiasi Wardak describes a special forces night raid which resulted in the death of his 92 year-old father, allegedly shot 25 times as he lay in his bed. It’s a disturbing and gripping story that exposes what Nick Turse calls "real war."

Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war. Real war. War that seeks you out. War that arrives on your doorstep—not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day. The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.

Here was a man who had lived 92 years, surviving kings and communists and criminal despots just to eke out a small living for his family in eastern Afghanistan, and we ended it at all with one botched night raid, one piece of bad intelligence, one misstep in our "population-centric" counterinsurgency campaign and targeted counter-terrorism operations.

Now we could waste our time endlessly debating the finer points of COIN doctrine, the motivations of the special forces, whether it was deliberate or accidental, a war crime or a tragic error, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. The sundry fallacies of COIN have already been thoroughly exposed, here and elsewhere, and the really pressing questions about this specific event in Wardak province can only be answered with a thorough investigation of government and military officials.

Instead we should see this as an example of what those who oppose the war are talking about when they say it isn’t making us any safer. Both presidents Bush and Obama framed the war in terms of national security, keeping America safe, and so it only follows that as the facts of our occupation come to light, we reach the conclusion that the war isn’t making us safer. In fact, it is making us less safe.

But what exactly does that mean, to be less safe? This video is the perfect answer. Read the rest of this entry →

American “National Interest” and the War in Afghanistan

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

When I originally posted my snotty response to Spencer Ackerman’s civilian casualties post, I had planned on all but ignoring his substantive arguments (which are most obviously phony) and instead focused on his ridiculous characterizations of anyone questioning Afghanistan policy as a whole ("U.S. withdrawal comes with a pony for every Afghan citizen"). But Spencer insisted that I was taking insurgents causing civilian casualties as a given whereas he considers it a more "salient point." He writes:

[...]Some of the most convincing arguments I’ve read against both the war and the prosecution of it have come from people…who start from the premises of war supporters and argue that on their own terms the war doesn’t make sense. That stuff causes me to rethink and adjust…

I’ve written about this before, that those pushing to end the war should most certainly not be accepting the premises of the war makers, and should instead articulate their own specific national interests and the policies to realize them. Provide an alternative, not necessarily a counter. But it also strikes me vaguely as something of a Celestial Teapot, the philosophical exercise wherein the burden of proof is on the person who says something amazing exists (a teapot floating in space) and not on the person who refutes it (there is no teapot).

In our sense, it is the folks arguing that war leads to peace and stability in Afghanistan asking those who say otherwise to try and work backwards from their own twisted arguments, to prove their war wrong. Once you start accepting their premises, about civilian casualties, counter-insurgency doctrine, or whatever it is, then proving your case to actually end the war becomes almost impossible.

Quite frankly, I’m not the one advocating for a decade-plus, trillion dollar occupation of Afghanistan in order to create a "stable security sector", so it’s not really my responsibility to help "adjust" and refine the arguments of anyone who does advocate for it. Rather those pushing for an end to the war are advocating their own policy to achieve their own national interests.

Cutting the trillion dollar war is because we need that money for our broken economy, job creation, and so forth. By withdrawing our military from Afghanistan we are strengthening our national security, removing our troops from an unwinnable quagmire that kills them there and at home, as well as removing the bloody occupation which provides much of the impetus for terrorist attacks and the Taliban insurgency. It’s not simply red teaming the pro-war crowd, it’s an independent political movement.

But in this case, we should take Spencer up on his invitation. Not only will he get what he wants, a discovery that on his own terms the war doesn’t make sense, but it will also help us understand exactly what it is that the United States’ national interests actually are in Afghanistan. Read the rest of this entry →

Exit Timetables, Job Creation, and a Pony for every Afghan!

11:00 am in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Spencer Ackerman is a busy guy. In addition to his blogging, tweeting, and everything else he does, he just took on new responsibilities writing for Danger Room. So I can only assume he wrote this post on civilian casualties in some sort of exhaustion-fueled dementia:

Here’s where those who base their opposition to the war its promotion of human suffering have to meet halfway as well. If the U.S. stops prosecuting its end of the war, civilian casualties will not end. What will end is the civilian casualties we directly cause. The Taliban-led coalition will continue its insurgency until victory or negotiation, with all the acceleration of civilian casualties that will entail. (I would think it’s likely that the Taliban would greet an abrupt U.S. withdrawal, in the absence of a capable Afghan security apparatus, as a disincentive to negotiate, since its coalition will perceive itself to be winning. Negotiations would become a venue for the Karzai government to capitulate.)

Regular readers of this space will recognize the problems immediately. "Until victory or negotiation?" The Taliban already think they’re winning, that’s what all this talk about breaking Taliban momentum is about. And news flash, the Taliban have been negotiating for a long, long time. I also admire his "prediction" that negotiations will force Karzai to capitulate, since that’s also been going on for a long time. But whatever, Ackerman’s probably just sleepy, so we’ll look past it.

Instead, it’s this that really jumped out at me [emphasis mine]:

Now, you can argue that such a circumstance ultimately benefits the U.S. national interest better than an indefinite, bloody and expensive war. Or you can argue that the counterinsurgents are wrong, and while civilian casualties are to be avoided in general, they don’t have strategic implications. But you can’t simply argue that a U.S. withdrawal comes with a pony for every Afghan citizen, since that overlooks the United Nations’ documented increase in the proportion of civilian casualties for which the Taliban are responsible.

Really? So if you oppose the war out of concern for civilian casualties (read: basic human decency), you’re naive and un-serious. You think ending the war is the same as giving every Afghan a pony. In addition to being stupidly ignorant and flat-out untrue, it’s also more than a little bit insulting. Read the rest of this entry →

Afghanistan: What Happens When Our Allies “Do More”

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by Josh Mull

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

If you’ve been following the recent military operations in Helmand and Kandahar, you’ve likely noticed that it’s been something of an unmitigated disaster. And not just a disaster in the sense that most of our military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been disasters, this is the make-or-break moment for the US counterinsurgency strategy. My colleague Derrick Crowe writes:

No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a “shaping,” “supporting,” or “economy of force (read: leftovers)” operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.

Fail there, fail everywhere. Couldn’t be any more clear than that. And that’s not his characterization, he’s citing the people in charge. Derrick then offers us some advice:

Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He’s hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, “bleeding ulcer” trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration.

Right, when you pressure your representative to block the funding, they need to be made fully aware that our strategy is broken and ruinous. But the problem is, it won’t be that easy. Politicians can be very slippery, even the ones we like, and they’ll try to shift the blame on to someone else. "No, it’s not the strategy," they’ll say, "it’s our allies. Our allies need to do more." The folks on Capitol Hill are big believers in Counterinsurgency doctrine, and as we’ve seen, COIN is not a doctrine, but an ideology that can never be proven or dis-proven. Communism isn’t the problem, it’s "human nature" that fails. Conservatism can’t fail, only you can fail to be conservative. And our COIN strategy can’t fail, it has to be the fault of our allies.

But that’s wrong. Our allies have been doing more, a lot more. NATO, Karzai, and Pakistan have all been participating in President Obama’s escalation strategy, and that is only making the problem worse. If we see what it is our allies are actually doing, we’ll find that the COIN defenders are wrong. Our counterinsurgency strategy, the idea that occupation and war have anything remotely to do with stabilizing and developing a nation, is the problem. The US will try to shift the blame onto our allies, but as we’ll see, Derrick is right, it’s our war that is the problem. Read the rest of this entry →