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Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam?
Posted by Paul Rosenberg on April 12th, 2009

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On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama, then an Illinois State Senator, gave a speech opposing going to war in Iraq. That speech, at that time, would prove crucial to his election, first as a US Senator two years later, and then as President, four years after that. Democrats who equivocated were a dime a dozen. Obama stood out, because he stood up when others did not, and said, “This is wrong.”

He did not oppose all wars. He cited the Civil War and World War II as specific examples of necessary ones. But, he said, “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Yet, on January 23, his third full day as President, Obama ordered two separate air strikes in Pakistan, killing 14 civilians, along with four suspected terrorists. One strike killed six civilians along with four suspected terrorists staying in their home, the other simply hit the wrong target, the home of a pro-government tribal elder, Malik Deen Faraz in the Gangikhel area of South Waziristan, killing him, his three sons and a grandson, along with three others.

Now President Obama has made it official. In addition to another 17,000 troops promised early, he made an additional pledge of 4,000 more on Friday, March 27. It was reportedly a ‘carefully calibrated’ decision, these would be trainers not combat troops, we were told. But Ray McGovern, a 27-year CIA veteran, whose career included long stretches preparing security briefs for Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., was not impressed with such fine distinctions.

“I was wrong,” McGovern wrote about his belief that Obama’s campaign rhetoric regarding escalation in Afghanistan would not be followed through. “I kept thinking to myself that when he got briefed on the history of Afghanistan and the oft-proven ability of Afghan ‘militants’ to drive out foreign invaders – from Alexander the Great, to the Persians, the Mongolians, Indians, British, Russians – he would be sure to understand why they call mountainous Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires.’”

Perhaps Obama got that briefing, perhaps he didn’t. But one thing is certain, McGovern went on to explain: he did not get the kind of intelligence briefing that used to be standard before the Bush regime consigned them to irrelevancy. Traditionally, the national intelligence estimate (NIE) had been the core intelligence product used to summarize the collective advice of the intelligence community, but as USA Today reported on September 11, 2002 (“Iraq Course Set From Tight White House Circle”), no NIE had been prepared on the topic of invading Iraq.

“An intelligence official says that’s because the White House doesn’t want to detail the uncertainties that persist about Iraq’s arsenal and Saddam’s intentions. A senior administration official says such an assessment simply wasn’t seen as helpful,” USA Today reported, adding, “Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, calls that ’stunning.’

‘If we are about to make a decision that could risk American lives, we need full and accurate information on which to base that decision,’ he says in a letter sent Tuesday to leaders of the committee and CIA Director George Tenet.”

The pressure forced an NIE to be created, but it was highly politicized, and remains a subject of controversy to this day. Now Obama has chosen a renewed commitment to an open-ended military involvement in Afghanistan with no NIE at all.

But McGovern also reminds us of an April 2006 NIE on global terrorism-ignored by Bush at the time, and now being ignored by Obama as well: “The authors of that estimate had few cognitive problems and simply declared their judgment that invasions and occupations (in 2006 the target then was Iraq) do not make us safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.”

Echoing the 2006 NIE, in January, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a policy brief, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War” written by Gilles Dorronsoro. It’s top-line recommendations were directly contrary to the path Obama has chosen:

  • Objectives in Afghanistan must be reconciled with the resources available to pursue them.
  • The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.
  • The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.
  • The main policy objective should be to leave an Afghan government that is able to survive a U.S. withdrawal.
  • Strategy should differentiate three areas and allocate resources accordingly: strategic cities and transportation routes that must be under total Afghan/alliance control; buffers around strategic areas, where NATO and the Afghan army would focus their struggle against insurgents; and opposition territory, where NATO and Afghan forces would not expend effort or resources.
  • Withdrawal will allow the United States to focus on the central security problem in the region: al-Qaeda and the instability in Pakistan.

It’s important to note that with limited resources, Carnegie says we cannot and should not focus on disrupting insurgents where they are strongest, we should focus on building something positive instead. Obama’s fanatasy of doing both is just that: a fantasy.

Of course, in the background of all of this is the strong sense of a moral obligation to combat Taliban-style fundamentalism, with its extreme subjugation of women. But Obama’s current course is detrimental to that struggle as well, according to Sameer Dossani, who in 1999 became the first staff person of the International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan, a group that was combating “honor crimes” –domestic violence up to and including murder against female family members accused of inappropriate conduct–along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Such crimes were greatly on the rise due to the spread of Taliban-style Wahabi Islam. The weapon of choice in fighting honor crimes? Education.

“We taught women their rights under Pakistani and Afghani law, we taught about the passages in the Quran that mentioned women’s rights, and we also tried to educate people about other traditions,” he wrote in an article last November titled “The Case for U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Dossani’s recommendations strongly paralleled those from Carnegie, but with an added component aimed at long-term cultural education in order to combat fundamentalism.

These are but a few of the voices from a wide range of perspectives urging us to turn away from a military approach in Afghanistan. What’s more, a February CNN poll found the American people slightly opposed to the war there-51-47%, but with 64% of Democrats opposed. While Bush never listened to those who disagreed with him politically, Obama seems to have made a fetish of the opposite: he has listened almost exclusively to Bush holdovers in the military, from Defense Secretary Gates on down, while tuning out those whose diverse alternative approaches have much more support in his political base. In doing so, he risks splitting the Democratic base that elected him-not right away, but over the course of years, as happened with Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam, who also felt a need not to break too sharply with Republican hawkishness.

Indeed, it is difficult to escape the feeling that if Barack Obama were still an Illinois State Senator, he would look at this latest push to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and conclude that it too, had to be opposed, because it is a “dumb war.”

(Cross-posted from Open Left.)

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