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This presidential handicap didn’t stop Biden from going out of his way to alienate the critical ally, nor Graham from joining in to look “bipartisan.” At a huge dinner table, surrounded by 15 people on each side, Karzai called on each of his ministers to give a mini-situation report on his progress to date, which each man duly did. Karzai had rolled out the red carpet, and wanted to assure his visitors of the diminishing corruption and increasing economic life and security of his aborning nation. But Biden was there to lecture—or hector.
“We’re here to make a commitment to your country, but, Mr. President, things have got to change. President-elect Obama wants to be helpful, but this idea of picking up the phone, calling President Obama like you did President Bush, is not going to happen,” the Veep declared. In other words, you’re corrupt and incompetent, and you won’t have any access to the President because of that.
President Karzai summoned all his patience and continued to smile, saying, “No problem, I understand that.” Sen. Graham then joined in, saying that “if we don’t see some progress on corruption, on better government,” the Republicans won’t support any more troops or more money. And he could speak for his boss, Senator McCain, too.
Biden then attacked Karzai, at the State Dinner table, for not “governing with all of Afghanistan in mind,” and blurting out, “You’re the mayor of Kabul.” In other words, not only do you not care about your country, you don’t even control it outside the capital city. “Replacing governors willy-nilly has got to stop,” he added, as if the time-honored Central Asian practice of patronage was somehow metaphysically illegitimate in that primitive nation. Sen. Graham then joined in, bringing up the legendarily corrupt half-brother of the president, the now-late Ahmed Wali Karzai, and his rule of a nearby province.
Attacking a family member is taboo in all “honor-bound” societies, usually requiring the listener to exact a blood revenge. The president confined himself to: “Show me the file,” Karzai said, knowing that Graham didn’t have it to give. “We will, one day,” Graham evaded, embarrassing himself to the room.
All this prevented a real meeting of the minds. Karzai then felt obliged to defend his national and personal honor, and did so in the form of criticizing NATO’s occasional and amazingly light (by historical standards) civilian casualties. (By contrast, Pakistani president Zadari openly bragged to administration officials, “Civilian casualties concern you Americans. They don’t concern me!”)
Biden and Graham then launched into a perfectly rational defense of Coalition military legal safeguards in the Rules of Engagement (ROE) then in effect. These prevent, for example, any attacks on known Taliban fighters unless the insurgents are actually carrying weapons openly. But the senators failed to comprehend the real impetus behind Karzai’s repeated criticisms of Coalition airstrikes: endless personal attacks on himself and his governance by Westerners unused to the Afghan way of doing business—i.e., bribes, kickbacks, and other corrupt (by Western standards) means of making money.
“Let’s deal with this problem [of civilian casualties] in private,” said Biden, “and not in press releases.” Again, a perfectly reasonable request, but not one a proud man was going to agree to after being belittled in front of his entire cabinet by a notorious American blowhard. “This has gone on for too long,” said Karzai, sharply. “The Afghan people will not support it.”
But Biden was only getting started in the Kabul china shop. “We may have reached that point ourselves, and we’ll have to cut our losses. If you don’t want us, we’ll be happy to leave. Just tell us. Instead of sending 30,000 [troops], maybe it’ll be 10,000. Maybe it will just be economic assistance.” Then Biden threw down his napkin in anger. “This is beneath you, Mr. President.” Things didn’t improve from there. But the visit had accomplished two things: Graham had shown himself he was “bipartisan,” his mentor’s universal goal, and Biden had soured the good relations Bush had enjoyed with his Afghan partner by publicly humiliating the president of the country in front of all his cabinet members.
Upon taking office, and after reluctantly sending a contingent of troops long requested by the Pentagon to the Afghan theater, but oddly not sent by President Bush during his lame duck months, President Obama conducted a lengthy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. This included ten separate meetings of the national security principals over a period of several months.
One particularly melancholy observation of these meetings is the near-total absence of any consideration of what defeat would look like, and what defeat would do to the interests of the United States. No one ever mentioned it as a problem. There was endless discussion about what the goals of the Coalition should be (though oddly, no discussions about what any other members of the Coalition, like Great Britain, might have to say about it.) There were exhaustive debates about how many troops to send to shore up the situation (more on this later) and accomplish the newly defined goals, and how unimportant was defeating the Taliban to the American national interest, but according to Woodward’s account, no one ever seemed the slightest bit interested in imagining the consequences of Karzai’s democratic government falling, and the entire country devolving to a Taliban-hell once again.
The primary debate was between two factions vying for Obama’s approval, broadly speaking. One, which I call the “political” faction, argued that the only real threat to the homeland of the USA was al-Qaeda, which apparently had little to no presence in Afghanistan in 2009 (“perhaps 20-100 people,” said the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, before Obama fired him in May 2010). Al-Qaeda Central was based in Pakistan now, in the lawless tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, and neighboring territories. These advisors, led by Biden, didn’t want to openly advocate losing the Afghanistan War, but they basically felt that it didn’t matter at all to national security.
In one meeting, DNI Blair was asked if there was any chance that a reconstituted Taliban, newly rampant in Afghanistan, and freed from Coalition attacks, would pose any threat to the homeland. He demurred. Indeed, no one disagreed. But perhaps more importantly, no one bothered to ask why a resurgent Taliban wouldn’t invite Bin Laden and his minions back in, just for old time’s sake. It was simply assumed that al-Qaeda, which habitually seeks out failed states like Somalia and Yemen to infect and grow itself within, would mysteriously stay out of their fellow traveler’s wreck of a country. The two problems, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were seen purely in isolation from each other. Since the Taliban was not globally ambitious, unlike al-Qaeda, Afghanistan was just not a very important war.
Obama, who had campaigned on the liberal notion that Iraq was a “sideshow” from the “real war” against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (despite al-Qaeda in Iraq being the cause of most of the terrorist attacks in that country in 2007-2008), now continually pushed, in these ten meetings, for an exit strategy from the war he campaigned was of real importance.
This “political” faction successfully convinced the President in these meetings (who, sorry to say, didn’t need much convincing) that “it was impossible to defeat the Taliban.” All Bush-era language about defeating the Taliban was to be abandoned in the goal formulations. This proposition was simply assumed, and not really questioned by anybody—not even the military chiefs. That we had been fighting them for nine years and not eradicated them yet was assumed to be proof positive that they were an indestructible force, rather like prostate cancer, sometimes pushed back and shrunken in size, sometimes bloated and “big with rich increase,” but always present, forever.
So Secretary Gates tried to formulate a new term for the Coalition’s goal for the Taliban, which again was done with apparently zero consultation with our fighting allies in the country. This term was “degrade.” But even “degrade” was too belligerent a term for the political faction in the White House, whom National Security Advisor James Jones termed “the Waterbugs,” constantly swarming around to undermine and bypass his recommendations. Eventually the term was changed to simply “disrupt.” We would now simply “disrupt” the Taliban, and only enough to permit the Afghan government to survive and build up its own forces so that it could straighten out its own country. Again, not a single person asked what would happen to the credibility of the United States if we simply abandoned our nine year military commitment to the security of the country and let it, or some portion of it, to slide back to the tender mercies of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban. Not one soul asked why such a place would not be an inviting ground for the Bin Laden organization to move back into.
The President’s view of how long counterinsurgencies should take and how beatable an Afghan insurgency really might be reflects the naiveté of his urbane, Ivy League class and courtiers. He seems to believe that if it can’t be done in a year, it can’t be done at all.
Real insurgencies, throughout history, usually are crushed by their host countries, but they are not always crushed quickly. It normally takes a minimum of 10 years to bring an indigenous insurgency to heel. The Taiping Rebellion in China took more than twelve years and 20 million dead to suppress, despite the presence of British counterinsurgency genius Charles “Chinese” Gordon to advise and train the enervated troops of the Dowager Empress. The British Empire took another twelve years (1948-1960) to crush the communist insurgency in Malaysia, which they called with customary English understatement the “Emergency.”
Even the microcosmic Philippine “Insurrectos” led by Emilio Aguinaldo, 100 years ago, were crushed by the U.S. Army, after half a decade of vicious fighting. But in the Philippines, unlike in Afghanistan (and Vietnam) the enemy was not being constantly replenished by another host nation next door.
Even in the Vietnam template so worshiped by the Left today, the United States utterly crushed the Vietcong insurgency after the Tet Offensive of 1968, despite the VC being completely funded, supplied and trained by its northern neighbor, North Vietnam, and the Soviet Union at the top of the Communist supply chain. After Tet, the North was left without the ability to sell the idea of an indigenous, rural insurgency of innocent Asian rice farmers just trying to protect their ancestral lands. North Vietnam simply tried straight-up invasions of the South with its regular forces ever after. Even these were destroyed time and again by the United States, and it was only the Democratic cut-off of support for America’s war-torn ally, and the full withdrawal of all US forces from the region, that (two years later) resulted in the Communist win in the South.
As the President rockets ahead with his plans for a withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan, there are no signs that he or his advisers have asked themselves two basic questions: 1) if the War is hopeless, why did Gen. McCrystal succeed in routing the Taliban in the northern provinces around the Panjishir Valley, and Gen. Petraeus succeed on a shoestring in the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar? And 2) What would be the consequences of American retreat and defeat around the globe?
There are no inevitabilities in history—only the near-inevitability of failure, when the policymaker commits the Fallacy of Identity: The culpable belief that your adversary is basically like you, and thinks like you, and cherishes his children’s future like you do. In the Third World, and in particular the Muslim World, most of the time, that simply isn’t the case.
[This was the first in a series of sketches analyzing the role of naïve assumptions in recent American foreign policy.]
Christopher S. Carson, an attorney in Milwaukee, and formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and has published in such journals as National Review Online, Frontpagemag.com, and The New English Review.
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