The Afghanistan Parenthesis [UPDATED]

Recent restatements of policy from high-ranking administration officials flatly contradicts what Americans heard the president declare last Tuesday at West Point.
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[Updated below]

An unusually reflective lawyer once advised a purchaser of a house that a contract should not be signed or money paid before the seller made all the final repairs and improvements. "Do it straight and plain -- you don't want the tail in the door." Something about President Obama's West Point Speech on Afghanistan brought to mind that suspicious proverb.

To take a country farther into a questionable war ought to be harder than opening a parenthesis and saying you know where you will close it. Yet Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan had all the composed clarity of a logical proposition. Throughout the speech -- which sought to justify the most important act of his presidency -- Obama was poised and moderate-sounding. His idea of what his escalation would do seemed moderate, too, and definite: self-contained and self-terminating. The 30,000 troops will go into Afghanistan quickly, he said, so that the last arrive within six months. They will commence their departure a year later, in July 2011. It was a gratifying picture and an orderly one; and yet it raised a question. Can you turn up the violence of a war and then turn it down? Will it stop, like that, when you tell it to?

President Obama justified the intensification of his commitment in Afghanistan by the fact that we are still fighting Al Qaeda. It was Al Qaeda that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, he said, and the organization now operates in the border-region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We therefore have a double reason for scouring the country of the remnants of the fanatical sect. For Pakistan has nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda wants to obtain such a weapon, and if it had one it would use it against the United States. Yet here occurred the first of several noticeable omissions. According to the president's national security adviser, James Jones, Al Qaeda's members now number as few as 100. The president also asserted -- on what evidence he did not say -- that Al Qaeda is locked in a stable alliance with the Taliban forces. Yet James Jones in the same remarks concluded that he does not "foresee the return of the Taliban" to power. Obama, then, was playing up the links between Al Qaeda and the Taliban in much the way his predecessor played up the supposed links between Al Qaeda and the Baath Party of Iraq; but, with Afghanistan today, as with Iraq in 2004, it is easy to put oneself in possession of facts that refute the claim.

We know now that the effect of the American bombings and invasion was initially to put to rout and scatter the group and then, with the stimulant of the Iraq war, to multiply it into a score of sects and cells whose names we barely know -- in North Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Yet the president spoke as if Al Qaeda were the name of a distinct, finite, searchable entity that can be subdued by an intensification (lasting exactly 18 months) of American fighting in the country that was once its camp. As for the Taliban, whatever else they may be, they are native to Afghanistan. This cannot be said of Al Qaeda, but it cannot be said, either, of the soldiers, trainers, advisers, and contractors sent by the United States.

There is a misjudged air of precision in the idea of a renewed and extended war that closes at 18 months because that "benchmark" was settled in advance. How can anyone be sure that the scale of so entangling a mission, with so many pitfalls, will fit neatly into the shape of a year and a half? From another point of view, the case for the urgency of the mission -- that the protection of American lives in the U.S. depends on it -- really proves too much. If the enemy is so potent and has so long and sure a reach -- if the surviving 100 members of Al Qaeda are among the greatest dangers the U.S. faces in the world -- we should be willing to stay and fight for fifty years or a hundred, and to colonize the country if need be, with a million settlers acting as our sentinels.

The truth is that half of the president's logic believes in the urgency of this mission and half perceives no urgency at all. Since people who fear for their lives tend to err on the side of self-protection, we may infer that something other than the imperative of national self-preservation drove the West Point speech and is driving the new policy. Several possibilities are obvious and have been much discussed: President Obama's cautious relationship to the military; his wariness of the ambitious general David Petraeus, and the commander of forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, who is an emanation of Petraeus. By leaking the high-end figure for the numbers of troops he would have liked, McChrystal threatened to outflank the president, and that threat has been quelled only for the moment. Meanwhile, Obama's fear of being called weak on defense by Republicans, and thus seeing his stature in foreign affairs diminished for the rest of his term, was doubtless a motive as well. A president needs a war, or so they say. Having a war did not protect Lyndon Johnson from an insurgent movement in his own party's primaries that denied him a second term, nor did it save Richard Nixon from being driven out of office in disgrace, but the superstition remains: it never harms a president to have a war in his pocket.

President Obama's assurance about the neatness of the solution extends beyond the violence of the war to the resolution of Afghanistan into a better political society under American guidance. He told his West Point audience that the Karzai government may have proved itself corrupt, but we expect the new money being sent to be placed in the hands of the uncorrupt, and we will expect all the corrupt to be "held accountable." But how? By what species of oversight, given the scarcity of competent civilians and Americans on the ground who even speak the language? At this point, one is struck, not for the first time, by a psychological oddity in Obama's makeup. He is almost convinced of the omnipotence of words. When once he has persuaded himself of a thing -- that it is true, or that it is plausible and might become true -- the words that embody his conviction have for him the quality of deeds already done. It did not work so happily with his spoken wish for a freeze of Israeli settlements; and he has seen the word falter on the verge of the deed once more, in the wish for a comprehensive health care bill before the summer or before Thanksgiving. Still, his sense of the omnipotence of words was at work in his declared belief regarding the utility of an 18-month extension of the war.

Obama dealt in passing with the Vietnam analogy, in an attempt to dispel the fears that a similar entanglement is on the brink of recurring. Yet he argued the point in a way that could only remind his older listeners that the president was very young during the Vietnam War. His study of it has been abstract and conventional. He said the analogy did not hold because in Vietnam we had no allies. In fact, Australia and South Korea both gave non-trivial assistance, in the form of ground forces, and other allies of the time gave less direct assistance. The number of troops supplied by our European allies in Afghanistan has been comparatively modest, in spite of the ostensibly greater danger to them by the proximity of Al Qaeda to Europe. The president also noted that Vietnam had never attacked the United States, whereas Al Qaeda did attack us. But that contrast loses its force under two legitimate questions: who exactly are Al Qaeda now, and where are they located? In many ways the Vietnam War, though of an atrociousness the Afghanistan War has not yet approached, was pursued by the U.S. obedient to a much sounder theory than any offered for the present war. The theory was that World Communism was all one thing and its spread to a single country would lead inevitably to its spread to a continent. The theory turned out to be false; and its falseness was perceived as early as 1964 by critics of the war such as Hans J. Morgenthau. But what are we doing in Afghanistan but following an inferior and less persuasive version of a similar theory: namely that World Terrorism is all one thing, that its heart is in Afghanistan (because that is where we found it), and that if we don't "defeat" it soon by "completing the mission," the terror will stay and spread.

Omitted is the fact that Afghanistan is not our country. Admittedly, this is a truth that comes hard to Americans. "The very idea of the fabrication of a new government," wrote Edmund Burke, "is enough to fill us with disgust and horror." But David Brooks disagrees: "aside from killing bad guys," he wrote in the spring, American troops are "also trying to figure out how to reweave Afghan society." By what right do we engage in the reweaving or the fabrication of a society that has thrown out conquerors for thousands of years? The effect of the self-conceit can only be to unite the society in hostility against us. For America to look on the native resistance to an occupying army as proof of terrorism will surely increase the obduracy of the resistance itself, and serve to recruit more terrorists.

Our war in the border regions is being fought by drone assassinations. A man at the control sits in front of a screen in Las Vegas, and fires when he has a certain shot. To a primitive mind (but not only to a primitive mind), this experiment on a country not our own has the trappings a video game played in hell. But the procedure was here embraced by the president in the antiseptic idiom of a practiced technocrat. He gave no sign of the effects of such killings by a foreign power out of reach in the sky. To assassinate one major operative, Baitullah Mehsud, as Jane Mayer showed in a recent article in the New Yorker, 16 strikes were necessary, over 14 months, killing a total of as many as 538 persons, of whom 200-300 were bystanders. What comes of the reputation of policemen in a crime-ridden neighborhood when they conduct themselves like that? And what makes anyone suppose the reaction will be less extreme when the policeman comes from another country? And yet, from the president's West Point speech, one would not guess that he has reflected what our mere presence in West Asia does to increase the enchantment of violent resistance and to heat the anger that turns into terrorists people who have lost parents, children, cousins, clansmen, and friends to the Americans. The total number of Muslims killed by Americans in revenge for the attacks of September 11th now comes to more than a hundred thousand. Of those, few were members of Al Qaeda, and few harbored any intention, for good or ill, toward the United States before we crossed the ocean as an occupying power.

President Obama closed his speech by offering his large American audience a warm bath of self-love about the American way of life. The rest of the world will want to "access opportunity" and resemble us as soon as they learn what we are really like, he said. This long peroration was ordinary and at the same time reminiscent of the war speeches of George W. Bush. By contrast Obama did not talk about the abstract issue that would have taken some courage to broach: the danger that war is becoming an integrated part of the American way of life. George W. Casey, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, has spoken in several recent speeches about the present as "an era of persistent conflict." So deeply has the Cheney Axiom of Endless War now taken hold of the minds of officials and policy-makers. Yet nowhere in his speech did the president address the risk of this view for democracy, or separate himself from the doctrine itself. Indeed, he has gone some way to embrace it and join the pattern of "persistence" -- with the reservation that he thinks by setting limits he can remove its sting.

Hans Morgenthau, in one of the articles he published against the escalation in Vietnam, paraphrased the lines of Goethe's devil on the fatality of every choice: take a first step and you are a free man, take the second and you become the slave of the first. For Obama, giving the command of Afghanistan to General McChrystal was the first step, and a step he must have taken knowingly. Then came the leaked memo from the ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, urging Obama to send no more troops -- and with that letter, an almost miraculous chance of a reprieve. Nobody could have said those words with more effect, since Eikenberry is a military man, and one whom both Petraeus and McChrystal had looked up to. He was throwing Obama a lifeline; but the miracle was unorthodox, and Obama has the caution of the orthodox. He acted as if the memo had never been received. The new shipment of troops to Afghanistan is his second step.

Barack Obama is the most convincing person he knows. He can convince himself of a proposition, "A," and a second proposition, "Not A," and come to believe that the two may be combined. At West Point, he seemed to want to avow a policy and disown it in a single breath. But there are circles that can't be squared; and it is with war as with other fatal commitments: the way in is not the way out.

Update, 12-7-09:

"There's the bit where you say it," wrote a famous modern philosopher, "and the bit where you take it back." Of course the bit where you take it back is familiar to politicians. But seldom even in politics is a resonant promise emptied of all meaning by a hairsplitting retraction in a span of just five days. In interviews taped for Meet the Press, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton took back Obama's deadline of July 2011 for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan: a cutoff the president had laid down with maximum fanfare. Gates revised the promise to assert that the withdrawal will be slow -- a thing that takes place "over a period of time" and will only begin in July 2011, if then. "We will have a significant -- we will have 100,000 forces--troops there," said Gates. "And they are not leaving in July of 2011."

This restatement of policy flatly contradicts what Americans heard the president declare on Tuesday at West Point. The Secretary of State, for her part, appeared to agree with the Secretary of Defense, but the vagueness of her phraseology suggested a larger confusion of purpose which Barack Obama's drawn-out reappraisal has apparently carried with it from the start. At stake in Afghanistan, said Hillary Clinton, is not "an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in January 2011, we can begin a transition." Not a drop-dead deadline, you see, but a sort of blurry deadline, a faint-line deadline, from which we can stagger toward a realistic deadline if we like, or decide at that point to play a different game altogether. The Afghanistan policy of the Obama administration is on automatic pilot without a pilot.

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