Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Greenwald, Benen

with 10 comments


Not only did he refrain from those manipulative appeals, he made explicitly clear that we are in Afghanistan to serve our own interests (as he perceives them), not to build a better nation for Afghans. Nation-building, he said, goes “beyond … what we need to achieve to secure our interests” and “go beyond our responsibility.” We’re there to serve our interests and do nothing else. That should throw cold water on all on the preening fantasies of all but the blindest and most naive “liberal war supporters” that we’re there to help the Afghan people.

It’s true that we were never there to nation-build—but if the new strategy is not intended to fulfill, as I wrote last night, our basic obligation to the Afghans not to leave their country in complete shambles as we withdraw, then what it is after? What national interest or security objective is served by prolonging our occupation of Afghanistan? Maddow is surely right that “preemption,” as a strategy, is nonsense. In the post last night, Traxus flags Chomsky’s resource-war critique—but I don’t see how Obama could genuinely think this supposed “interest” could ever be worth the high costs of escalation.

It should go without saying that the need to be perceived (either personally or nationally) as having “won” is not a strategy either. What then is the job that we are now staying to finish?

We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

But if this is our strategic goal then surely we can never leave.

Let me be clear: none of this will be easy. The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.


To the basic strategy question I can only add Steve Benen’s tactical questions:

I don’t know what the 30,000 additional troops are going to do when they get to Afghanistan. I don’t know what our new objectives are. I don’t know how U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011 — just a year after additional troops arrive — or what can reasonably be accomplished over the preceding 12 months. I don’t know how we’ll pay for the escalation. I don’t know if we’ll meet benchmarks, or if the benchmarks actually exist. I don’t know how the administration can pressure the Afghan government, or how it will respond. I don’t know if the Karzai government can be trusted, or whether it will ever have the confidence of the Afghan people.

Other than that, the whole situation is as clear as day.

This is the first time I can remember Steve criticizing the Obama White House in such strong terms, which goes to show what a lead balloon this really is. David Dayen says last night’s speech seems “designed to displease everyone,” adding:

Afghanistan and Pakistan is really a least-worst scenario after eight years of war, and so we got an unsatisfying “get in to get out” strategy without any tactical information and based on an extremely shaky premise.

Read Dayen’s whole piece, as his unpacking of this “extremely shaky premise” is more or less exactly right. Like Dayen I can’t share Obama’s judgment that this is “least worst.” This road goes nowhere good. If this is our new strategy, we should just leave now.

10 Responses

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  1. “I don’t see how Obama could genuinely think this supposed “interest” could ever be worth the high costs of escalation.”

    i think washington self-deception and pr is multi-tiered. the initial invasion was justified by self-defense and retribution. then there was a moral obligation not to leave afghanistan a shambles. the (ideo) logical conclusion to this was nation-building. this was all under bush, who was too idealistic. now with obama the moral obligation is still part of the justification but now it means ‘scaling back down’ to self-defense and some vaguely defined ‘national interest.’ bush could say we were just helping them; obama has to say we’re helping them to help ourselves. but he can’t explain why it helps us because that would move beyond common sense into cynicism.

    who knows what either bush or obama really believe? maybe they’re conflicted. maybe they’re cynical. or intimidated. does it really matter?

    because meanwhile the long-term u.s. power strategy toward the middle east has shown no evidence of changing its basic contours since the 1970s or earlier. it’s just gotten more and more extreme. i don’t know how you can believe in climate change, peak oil, and the role of the 1970s OPEC crisis in restructuring the U.S. and world economy but still imply that oil resources and the correlating imperial politics of ‘stabilization’ are in any way a minor feature of the last 10 years.


    December 2, 2009 at 2:05 pm

  2. who knows what either bush or obama really believe? maybe they’re conflicted. maybe they’re cynical. or intimidated. does it really matter?

    I think it matters because there’s a story they tell, when they’re not in front of the camera, to justify these actions to themselves. My attempt in the sentences you didn’t like was to imagine what that story was: I don’t think it’s Chomsky’s, even if on some other level of analysis resource war and stabilization can be be said to be the “real” reason these things have been happening for so long.

    Obama or the “deciders” in his administration was presented with an argument that he or they apparently accepted — and I submit we could understand and counter his actions better if we knew what the content of that argument really was.


    December 2, 2009 at 2:13 pm

  3. (Which is to say I don’t think I implied anything about the Chomsky thesis other than that I don’t think this is the story Obama tells to himself about the escalation.)


    December 2, 2009 at 2:13 pm

  4. Treading lightly here, because I am mostly ill-informed about all this Afghanistan business and only caught the last half of the speech. But from my reading I think the objective clearly is to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country and providing a safe haven from which AQ can develop greater operational capability. The extent to which that objective is feasible and based on sound factual premises seems to be at the crux of most expert commentary. See, e.g.:

    Shankar D

    December 2, 2009 at 3:59 pm

  5. shankar,

    well yes but the self-defense premise is kind of obviously absurd , isn’t it? it’s straight bush doctrine, as maddow points out in one of gerry’s earlier posts.

    even on its own premises it’s an unconvincing prediction. the taliban are a nationalist movement. they only relied on al-qaeda because of bin laden’s money and (u.s.-supplied) fighting skill/resources. now al-qaeda is dirt poor. yes military people and secret unnamed sources (as in iraq) have been talking up a renewed alliance but public information suggests the opposite. here’s one among many articles:


    December 2, 2009 at 7:59 pm

  6. gerry –

    if pentagon and state department planners aren’t talking about exercising ‘american global leadership’ to control the ‘volatile’ middle east in part within the context of resource conflict then it’s not the ‘real’ reason these things have been happening.

    it’s likely the supposed threat of the taliban and al-qaeda is just beltway wisdom at this point. i don’t think anyone is outright lying about that. but it’s also common wisdom that the middle east is strategically important for geographical reasons and resource reasons. it’s not secret knowledge that only leftist intellectuals like chomsky and david harvey are aware of.

    the sentence preceding the one i highlighted is: “What national interest or security objective is served by prolonging our occupation of Afghanistan?” which i took to suggest that the national interest is what obama had in mind when making this decision, which you don’t think was influenced by the longer-term history of american state discourse on the importance of economic (if not political) control of middle eastern oil resources. chomsky cites james jones (obama’s national security advisor) as making a resource-centered argument for NATO expansion. but it would be exceptional to the last 50 years if talk about resource control played no role in this decision, and it doesn’t matter if obama himself thinks about it in those terms or if he’s convinced by the self-defense argument, or some other combination.

    obviously we can’t know the answer to this question, which to me makes it strategically irrelevant.


    December 2, 2009 at 8:20 pm

  7. Traxus – No, I don’t think it’s obviously absurd. I think Rachel’s comment is a thoughtful one, but ultimately, whether you define a war as preventive rather than preemptive turns on your analysis of the facts. The Iraqi regime posed no meaningful threat to the United States, so the only way to make sense of launching an invasion of the country was a tenuous factual analysis positing that Saddam might develop WMDs and hand them over to terrorists with whom he’s never had any kind of operational relationship. Al Qaeda, essentially by definition, poses a threat to the United States, and the strategy here is to deny them the resources by which to operate effectively.

    So the relevant issue is not the doctrine of preventive war in the abstract, it’s the factual question that your second paragraph addresses: to what extent does keeping the Taliban from overrunning Afghanistan actually deny Al Qaeda the resources by which to operate effectively?

    On that score, I haven’t read enough to have a well-developed view; what I have read is mixed, but on the whole, leaves me somewhat skeptical. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I will note that I think it’s a bit superficial to just note that the Taliban is a nationalist entity. There was a reason they harbored AQ in the first place and were willing to be run out of the country to protect them. Of course, the thinking that led to those decisions may have changed, as your helpful link suggests. I’ll keep searching for informed comment on this, though I fear that once again, we may ultimately be at the mercy of unspecified and unverifiable “intelligence reports,” just as we were in the case of Iraq.

    Shankar D

    December 4, 2009 at 1:57 am

  8. were willing to be run out of the country to protect them

    I think there’s even some late dispute over the extent to which this was true.

    Much of the meat of this particular dispute seems to be based in this Oct 2001 Guardian article:


    December 4, 2009 at 10:12 am

  9. doesn’t the threat for preemptive war have to be ‘immediate?’ ‘denying al-qaeda resources’ by attacking a country they’re not currently operating in seems not to meet this criteria. i suppose it might if anyone had reason to believe they still have the resources to carry out another 9/11, but no one does. the expressed fear is that they may one day regain that ability if we don’t blitzkrieg afghanistan right now. even if one does accept these ‘facts’ it’s hard to call the escalation preemptive.

    also the notion that al-qaeda is ‘by definition’ a threat is very convenient and therefore suspicious. all one has to do is hint at the presence of ‘al-qaeda’ somewhere in the general vicinity to justify any level of military response. no one is ever ‘at the mercy’ of alleged intelligence reports. there was plenty of intelligence about the imminence of a terror attack before 9/11 that provoked no response. lots of people saw through the WMD reports well before it was officially revealed that they were bogus. if the last 10 years are anything to go by, public information is more reliable than secret, hidden sources whose authorship and authority can be manipulated at will.


    December 5, 2009 at 10:34 am

  10. I think this conversation has now jumped blogs.


    December 5, 2009 at 9:06 pm

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