Realists Warn on <strike>Iraq</strike> Afghanistan War

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afghanistan stamp.jpgPolitico‘s Ben Smith got the scoop on a letter today drafted and signed by a number of realist-tilting scholars and commentators raising many of the key questions and concerns about growing US presence in Afghanistan that were Obama’s concerns about Iraq.
I have signed this letter along with a number of others I respect including Robert Jervis, Christopher Preble, Rajan Menon, Andrew Bacevich, Jack Snyder, David Rieff, Gordon Adams, Jonathan Clarke, Michael Desch, Stephen Walt, Eugene Gholz, Sean Kay, Scott McConnell, Barry Posen, and many others. The list will be added to in coming days.
The letter is important as I think it captures well the views of an important wing of the foreign policy establishment that is arguing that it is unconvinced by the White House’s depiction of objectives and the rationale for deployed resources in the Afghanistan conflict.
A key line of the letter reads:

Today, we are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building.

The letter is signed by individuals and not institutions — and I happen to work with some of the nation’s leading authorities on AfPak issues such as Steve Coll and Peter Bergen who each have compelling perspectives on the Afghanistan situation that deserve to be scrutinized closely as well. The New America Foundation also co-manages and co-hosts the AfPak Channel with Foreign Policy magazine that has become a must-read for anyone following the evolving challenges in South Asia.
On the New America Foundation front, there is an AfPak Channel focused event titled “Covering Afghanistan” this Thursday featuring Steve Coll and Peter Bergen of New America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, and Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy.
And soon, I will be working with my colleagues to organize a very large conference on America’s engagement in the region that assembles advocates, semi-skeptics, and foes of the President’s current Afghanistan course.
The letter comes after the jump.


The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC
Dear Mr. President:
During your campaign for the Presidency, Americans around the country appreciated your skepticism of the rationales for the Iraq war. In 2002, you had warned that such an endeavor would yield “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences.” You pointed out the dangers of fighting such a war “without a clear rationale and without strong international support.” As scholars of international relations and U.S. foreign policy, many of us issued similar warnings before the war, unfortunately to little avail.
Today, we are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building.
First, our objectives in that country have grown overly ambitious. The current strategy centers on assembling a viable, compliant, modern state in Afghanistan–something that has never before existed. The history of U.S. state-building endeavors is not encouraging, and Afghanistan poses particular challenges. Engaging in competitive governance with the Taliban is a counterproductive strategy, pushing the Taliban and al Qaeda together instead of driving them apart. If we cannot leave Afghanistan until we have created an effective central government, we are likely to be there for decades, with no guarantee of success.
Second, the rationale of expanding the mission in order to prevent “safe havens” for al Qaeda from emerging is appealing but flawed. Afghanistan, even excluding the non-Pashto areas, is a large, geographically imposing country where it is probably impossible to ensure that no safe havens could exist. Searching for certainty that there are not and will not be safe havens in Afghanistan is quixotic and likely to be extremely costly. Even if some massive effort in that country were somehow able to prevent a safe haven there, dozens of other countries could easily serve the same purpose. Even well-governed modern democracies like Germany have inadvertently provided staging grounds for terrorists. A better strategy would focus on negotiations with moderate Taliban elements, regional diplomacy, and disrupting any large-scale al Qaeda operations that may emerge. Those are achievable goals.
Third, an expanded mission fails a simple cost/benefit test. In order to markedly improve our chances of victory–which Ambassador Richard Holbrooke can only promise “we’ll know it when we see it”–we would need to make a decades-long commitment to creating a state in Afghanistan, and even in that case, success would be far from certain. As with all foreign policies, this enormous effort must be weighed against the opportunity costs. Money, troops, and other resources would be poured into Afghanistan at the expense of other national priorities, both foreign and domestic.
Mr. President, there is serious disagreement among scholars and policy experts on the way forward in Afghanistan. Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case. We urge your administration to refocus on al Qaeda and avoid an open-ended state-building mission in Afghanistan.
Sincerely,
Gordon Adams
American University
Andrew Bacevich
Boston University
Doug Bandow
American Conservative Defense Alliance
Ted Galen Carpenter
Cato Institute
Jasen Castillo
Texas A&M
Jonathan Clarke
Carnegie Council
Steven Clemons
New America Foundation
Michael Cohen
New America Foundation
Michael Desch
University of Notre Dame
Carolyn Eisenberg
Hofstra University
Ivan Eland
Independent Institute
Bernard Finel
American Security Project
Eugene Gholz
University of Texas – Austin
David Henderson
Hoover Institution
David Hendrickson
Colorado College
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
American University
Robert Jervis
Columbia University
Sean Kay
Ohio Wesleyan University
Peter Krogh
Georgetown University
Christopher Layne
Texas A&M
Anatol Lieven
King’s College
Justin Logan
Cato Institute
Douglas Macgregor
Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Scott McConnell
The American Conservative
John Mearsheimer
University of Chicago
Rajan Menon
Lehigh University
Robert Paarlberg
Wellesley College
Charles Pena
Independent Institute
William Pfaff
Author and syndicated columnist
Barry Posen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
John Prados
Author
Christopher Preble
Cato Institute
Daryl Press
Dartmouth College
David Rieff
Author
Paul Schroeder
University of Illinois
Tony Smith
Tufts University
Jack Snyder
Columbia University
Robert W. Tucker
John Hopkins University – SAIS
Stephen Walt
Harvard University
**This letter reflects the opinions of the individual signatories. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.**
— Steve Clemons

Comments

42 comments on “Realists Warn on <strike>Iraq</strike> Afghanistan War

  1. Kathleen Grasso Andersen says:

    arthurrrr…mwaahhh..luv u 2

    Reply

  2. arthurdecco says:

    Kathleen and JamesL, Thank you once more for your incisive, focused and non-partisan commentary.
    You’re both a breath of fresh air in the stultified hallways of right-now TWN discourse.
    I thank the rest of you for your wit, both demonstrated and imagined.

    Reply

  3. Outraged American says:

    POA:I wouldn’t bet your life on my intelligence.
    Now the imp who runs Steve’s website is playing.
    Steve, fire your webmaster, in every sense of the word. Testicles
    on sticks around a campfire can be yummy when eaten with soy
    sauce and mustard, I had them in Thailand. And then get
    someone who is just really somber and wants war all the time to
    run TWN. Meaghan McCain is the next one up.

    Reply

  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “It’s obvious that Kotzabasis’ native language is Klingon”
    Really??? Gads, I woulda sworn it was Dementianese spoken with a slight racialsimian accent.
    OA, for the life of me, I thought you were more intelligent. Why in God’s name would you purposely piss off someone like Worf? Are you suicidal?

    Reply

  5. Outraged American says:

    It’s obvious that Kotzabasis’ native language is Klingon.
    Now back to typos-Steve people on macs who are all elitists and
    deserve to be fed foie gras till they die of liver failure, cannot post
    correctly. We have to type so fast our eyes burn in order for your
    site (it’s called The Washington Note BTW) to accept our posts.
    This is an issue of grave national concern. Where’s your
    webmaster? Off in Cuba diddling that chick in the bikini?

    Reply

  6. kotzabasis says:

    Kervick
    I can’t let this go for the amusement of your reply.
    So you take partly your cue from the obscurantist part of the Republicans who considered Roosevelt to be leftist in your inability to make your own assessment about the latter’s political credentials. Roosevelt was a patrician by birth, education, and temperament. And Randolph Hearst himself hammers the nails in the coffin of your argument. It was he who supported Roosevelt’s candidacy for the presidency. Was Hearst also a leftist?
    You really confuse pragmatism-which has no political ‘gender’ of either left or right-with leftism. Was the pragmatic New Economic Policy of Lenin that he was forced to implement after the inimitable disaster of his initial economic policies a revolutionary leftist policy?

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  7. Dan Kervick says:

    In the context of the depression, leftist economic policies are particularly pragmatic.
    But please come to America and help convince all of the Republicans that FDR was not on the left, as we all think, but was actually either a conservative or on the center-right! Maybe we could even get a single-payer health plan if they swallow that.

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  8. kotzabasis says:

    In the context of the depression you depict the pragmatic politics of the New deal as leftist?

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  9. Dan Kervick says:

    So the highly subtle politician Roosevelt hardly exhibited any leftist tendencies during this peak of American conservatism.
    OK … New Deal, not leftist. Got it.

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  10. kotzabasis says:

    Kervick
    Your second post makes a cogent argument of your position whereas your first one in my opinion was redolent with ideology than with clear cold analysis. Certainly what you say about “commando raids” is true. I myself argued back on October 2001, that Special Forces would play a pivotal role in defeating terrorism. But it’s not enough to ‘hit’ individuals such as Nabhan but more importantly to deprive the terrorists collectively of their ability to be successful in their operations as General Mc Khrystal did—the present commander in Afghanistan—in Iraq with his Special Forces by killing or capturing a great number of al-Qaeda leaders and thus depriving al-Qaeda in Iraq of being successful in its operations, according TO Bob Woodward, and hence leading to its defeat.
    In regard to Franklin Roosevelt, you are forgetting that he was president of the United States at a period when Americans were most conservative and ‘locked’ in their isolationism after the liberal excesses and follies of Woodrow Wilson. So the highly subtle politician Roosevelt hardly exhibited any leftist tendencies during this peak of American conservatism, even if he was a closet leftist who in my opinion never was.

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  11. JamesL says:

    Kathleen, re GWOT: Yes, absolutely.

    Reply

  12. Kathleen Grasso Andersen says:

    John Waring…thanks!!!..Ho Chi Minh also got rid of the Japanese for us in WW2 and we renegged on our promise to him not to back the French again…and then we had Eisenhauer cancelling the upcoming UN Observed election because Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win it by 85%…I found Hungarian Ambassador Victor Bator’s book “Vietnam: A Diplomatic Tragedy” the most clear explantion of what it was all about.
    Michael Scheurer’s book “Imperial Hubris” is just as clarifying for me on OBL/USA dynamism…and long term association…
    JamesL…GWOT for me is a major psy-op propaganda campaign…it’s not a global war ON terror but a global war OF terror with international “extraordinary renditions” and black sites with torture…we let all the Bin Ladens fly home on 9/12 and then scooped up a bunch of ordinary folks with Arabic names, shipped them off for some “enhanced interrogations” and called it a war on terror justifying the swiping away of many, many of our own civil liberties….slick…
    So now we’ll be hearing about the IAEA/Green Salt forgeries/Iran/Uranium…

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  13. ... says:

    the ”’war on terror”’ as viewed from the other side is a war on anything the usa gets involved with militarily in others countries…. what part of the ”’war on terror”’ don’t ya get??? keep bringing terror to others countries, and that is what you will probably get in return..

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  14. WigWag says:

    “Hey WigWag, since you imply that anyone with boots-on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan must of necessity support the war, how do you account for Eric Margolis, who’s not a signatory to the letter but surely agrees with its sentiments?” (Curious Observer)
    You’re mistaken, Curious Observer; I never implied that everyone with *on the ground experience* in Afghanistan supports the Administration’s policy. What I said is that people who have studied Afghanistan, reported on it and spent time there, should have their views taken more seriously than those who pontificate from an office in the Kennedy School with large picture windows overlooking the Charles River.
    Steve Clemons is right; people with foreign policy expertise can make valuable contributions to this important debate. But it seems to me that real Afghan experts, whether they agree with the Administration’s position or not, have a particularly valuable perspective that should be given disproportionate weight.
    As for your comment about Holbrooke and East Timor; as you surely know, it was Jimmy Carter and Zbignew Brzezinski who insisted on supporting Indonesia in the Security Council and with foreign aid in their lust to win Indonesian support in the Cold War. It’s ironic that you bring it up in this discussion because it was Carter and Brzezinski who planted the seeds that we are now reaping in Afghanistan.
    If you think Holbrooke is a “war criminal” you must also think Carter and Brzezinski are “war criminals.”
    Do you?
    Of course none of them are; your comment is hyperbole. But there is no doubt than many of the wounds the United States suffers from today are self-inflicted.
    My guess is that this makes us pretty much like every other world power in recorded history.

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  15. JamesL says:

    Thanks John Waring 7:45 for putting it so well.
    The “global war on terror” is implicitly sold to the public as ‘strategic’ in importance. The resulting assumption is that nothing can possibly be more important than strategic actions supporting national security. Citizens can therefore, with a relieved mind, supposedly justify (or quell misgivings) spending more than we can afford as a nation on military adventurism that defends “national security”. Pre-GWOT wars allowed rest periods between campaigns. The GWOT allows no national R&R, ever, and in fact continually suggests more and more resources be shoveled to the military.
    I do recall various national and state heads of the National Guard explicitly warning that the National Guard, which Bush employed to an extent no other president had, was broken, that its people and their families were overextended and at the breaking point, that its equipment reserves had been depleted and shortages existed. I do recall that military acceptance standards had been lowered to try to maintain recruitment. I do recall that the military was seeing a growing and significant early departure of trained people having the goal of following the money and becoming “contractors”, each departure of which multiplied the cost of maintaining that individual as a GWOT participant. I do recall that military recruitment was way down, below target numbers, and that more incentives (each adding to the cost of war) were being offered. Those stories are now not months, but years old.
    As quick as the military is to trumpet any success, I have not seen any stories saying military recruitment is way up. I do not see any stories about the tightening of military entrance standards. I do not see stories of ecstatic crowds welcoming boatloads of happy and relieved troops who know they are home for good. I do not see stories about National Guard leaders saying they are at 100% strength, or that equipment reserves have been re-established. So I must believe that those things have not happened, and the silence of the media perhaps represents more than lassitude on their part.
    The US has not demonstrated that its military can rebuild countries. Examples of Japan and Germany 60 years ago don’t fit today’s realities of nations politically fragmented even before the US arrives to fragment it some more. We are sending troops first, not builders, educators, and money that avoids the pockets of corrupt leaders. You can’t hammer a nail with a cruise missile.
    There is no more fundamental strategy than to keep one’s nation economically healthy. Without that, the days of warring for whatever reason are numbered.
    Dan Kervick: “I have long argued that the real, effective part of the war on terror is based on a combination of improved intelligence, collective law enforcement and apprehension, and covert small-scale military operations against key individuals.”
    The very real danger in this is of course that the same structures may be employed against domestic political enemies, and in the age of the Paytriot Act , that means for permanently secret reasons.

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  16. Curious observer says:

    Hey WigWag, since you imply that anyone with boots-on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan must of necessity support the war, how do you account for Eric Margolis, who’s not a signatory to the letter but surely agrees with its sentiments?
    Hung out with the mujahedeen in the 80’s? Been there. Interviewed bin Laden? Done that. Yet he thinks the war is utter folly. Amazing, I know…
    As for Holbrooke, he deserves every bit of scorn heaped upon him for everything he’s done going all the way back to propping up the thug Suharto in Indonesia in the 70s. Never forget the remark he made in 2000, when he was advising Gore and his partner in crime Paul Wolfowitz was advising Bush. “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep [East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.” War criminals, all.

    Reply

  17. Dan Kervick says:

    Kotzabasis,
    Thanks for focusing on what I wrote, and not on me.
    I believe the war on terror has been won partly through the kinds of methods that were brought to bear against Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan this week in Somalia – in this case, a commando raid. I have long argued that the real, effective part of the war on terror is based on a combination of improved intelligence, collective law enforcement and apprehension, and covert small-scale military operations against key individuals. It has also depended on infiltrating, shutting down and interfering with financial networks, communications networks and weapons networks. This part of the war on terror began in real earnest under Bush – although it actually began earlier than that – and has continued under Obama. And I generally support it.
    I supported the assault on Afghanistan back in 2001, and I freely admit that the assault did play an important early role in the fight against Al Qaeda. I stopped supporting Afghanistan later in the game, as it was transformed into something that, as I see it, had less and less to do with Al Qaeda. I elevated my criticism of the Afghanistan war last fall, after Obama was elected, because I saw his election was likely to bring a dangerous escalation of the war, and also bring some liberal interventionists to power – people like Richard Holbrooke, Susan Rice and Hilary Clinton who have tended to support the use of ambitious military operations to spread democratic liberalism and give a makeover to various parts of the world.
    I have arguing been against these liberal interventionists and their grandiose plans for years, especially in connection with the war against terrorism. I have argued that terrorism is a more or less permanent problem, the threat and incidence of which can definitely be minimized, but that can’t be ended by these hugely ambitious and unrealistic plans for “draining the swamps”, or by new “Marshall plans” for the Middle East. My attitude has been that jihadist terrorists don’t attack us because they are poor, or because their societies don’t grant them enough dignity, or for any of the other psychological reasons liberals frequently offer. Terrorism is not a social-psychological sickness to be cured with social therapy. They attack us because they have clear and intelligible strategic aims – mainly to get us out of parts of the world they don’t want us to be in – and have adopted terrorism as the most effective tactic in pursuing those strategic aims. Personally, I would like to give these guys their wish and get our military the hell out of their region altogether. But in the meantime, we have people plotting to kill innocent Americans, and we have to get them before they get us.
    The war on terror was not assisted by the war in Iraq, which only created a branch of Al Qaeda where none existed before, and provided a recruiting tool for jihadists by providing a vivid example of US barbarism and iniquity. It was an old-fashioned bomb ‘em up and shoot ‘em up war – not a subtle application of asymmetric warfare. It was based on a crude psychological estimate of the impact of “shock and awe” – in other words, on the beliefs promoted by some that Arabs are dumb, skittish animals who can be deterred by indiscriminate combinations of loud explosions and sexual humiliation. It was not justifiable by any of the standards applied to war by civilized people, on either the left or right. It was a criminal and counterproductive atrocity that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. That war was both a massive blunder and a hideous crime.
    I made no implicit or explicit claims about where great statesmen can be found on the political spectrum. So I’m not sure how that part of what you wrote applies to my argument. Still, since you brought it up, I think many people would classify Franklin Roosevelt as a great statesman, and he was definitely not of either the right or the center right.

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  18. WigWag says:

    Steve, I agree with you about Richard Holbrooke. It seems to me that he takes to government the way other men take to drink; that is with great passion and intensity.
    But for reasons that are unclear to me, a cottage industry has sprung up aimed at insulting him. A February, 2008 profile in the New York Times (that was widely picked up in the blogosphere)said,
    “And even friends acknowledge that Mr. Holbrooke is intently focused on his own legend. (Many people have personal trainers; Mr. Holbrooke has a personal archivist.)”
    After the President, Holbrooke may have the most difficult job in the Administration. At the very least it’s the most difficult foreign policy job.
    His critics should cut him a little slack.

    Reply

  19. kotzabasis says:

    Kervick
    Four fatal flaws lay in your argument. First, we live in times where SOME wars have become asymmetrical and great dangers arise from the latter. Yet you are stuck to a redundant past of solely symmetrical wars between powerful or well organized nations. Secondly, you assume wrongly and against all documented evidence that both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “entanglements of the final generation of IMPERIAL OVER-EXTENDERS.” (M.E.) Thirdly all the great statesmen of the past were conservative and of the centre-right. And fourthly, while you admit that al-Qaeda has been ‘defeated’, you loathe conceding that they were defeated in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq which you opposed and you still do.

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  20. Dan Kervick says:

    As these wars grind on, I know I should feel disturbed by what is happening, especially given the increasing casualties of late. But I can’t help feeling that the situation is now more sadly, fatalistically absurd that horrifying.
    Are there really any models of success in state-building projects such as the US has been involved in this decade? I know there are examples of well-organized states with well-organized militaries that have been defeated in war, and which having surrendered were then susceptible to systematic reform, because they were just about as unified in defeat as they were in war. But are there any examples of the successful use of militaries to build real states out of disordered despotisms and anarchic warlord-run battlegrounds, on territories the size of Iraq and Afghanistan?
    The authors of the letter say we should “focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda”. But we just saw a news report this past week that told us there is barely any Al Qaeda left. We continue to beguile ourselves with images of a global posture of permanent war against some hideous phantom horde. But in fact, there is no such horde.
    We remain bogged down in two foreign military interventions that we can’t possibly win, but that we can ignominiously lose. So we just stand there with our backs to a crumbling levee, holding back the tide of the inevitable indefinitely. Both of these interventions are extremely long by historic US standards. Yet serious people talk about one or both of them going on for decades, and then defend them anyway. Surely something has changed for the strange when a country like the United States gets to the point of contemplating decades of war to accomplish aims of such dubious strategic urgency; and when it internalizes a distorted view of itself as a weak and threatened island state surrounded by a sea of enemies, and treats states and disorganized peoples with sick and feeble economies, and relatively paltry militaries, as though they were mortal threats.
    It is really not that mysterious what is happening in our world in actual, historical time. The United States, which built a sustained era of global primacy on the ruins of a world war from which it emerged victorious and relatively unscathed, in possession of a populous industrial powerhouse by which it could subordinate the wretched and pulverized global remnant for decades as the latter built and rebuilt, is entering a new phase in its history, when it will consolidate, contract and assume a slightly more modest role as a great power among other powers in a more multipolar and economically dynamic world.
    The United States helped build the world that increasingly circumscribes its power. And that’s actually a good and natural thing. My sense is that most everyone instinctively understands and recognizes these historical processes, even those who strike assertive poses and pretend not to believe in them, and even though it is still considered impolite or heretically unpatriotic to acknowledge them. And it is at least possible that these processes can take place in a somewhat rational, non-cataclysmic way. But perhaps it is more likely that the movement will take place with some rough and very destructive jerks.
    Maybe this is the way such changes usually go, but it seems that as US power declines the US torments itself with ever more fantastic conceptions pf what can be accomplished with limited power. Iraq and Afghanistan are such torments, and one might guess that only one of two things can happen. Either some great statesman, who understands the movements of history, will use some foresight and pull the plug on these two transitional adventures before they take their greatest toll, and will bravely take the fall for the ruinous entanglements of the final generation of imperial over-extenders. Or else we go along in the way states usually go along, letting events determine us, blundering toward a larger calamity.
    It’s probably not going to be pretty here in the US. No matter when the retrenchment comes – this year; five years from now; fifteen years from now – the president who orders it is going to have to deal with the bitter, frustrated imperial dead-enders, possibly even gangs of violent brownshirts, who don’t live in actual history but in a mythical kingdom, and who will revile the leader who dares look reality in the face, and dashes their immortal pretensions.

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  21. kotzabasis says:

    Clemons offered a “wing of the foreign policy spectrum” that will not fly. Only a member of the New America Foundation related to Nostradamus could predict the “length” of any war and consequently its cost. As to consequences these could either be positive or negative. Positive if the war is won and negative if it is lost. To ask “lucid questions” to unanswerable ones like the length of a war is an unproductive, futile, wasting exercise. And the eminent signatories of the letter have signed a document that is “lucid” in its fatuousness that will have no impact on American strategy in Afghanistan, providing Obama does not go to water on his initial stand.

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  22. ... says:

    john waring sums it up really well.. thanks –

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  23. David says:

    Thank you, John Waring.

    Reply

  24. ... says:

    anyone who is in favour of war in afgan is probably working in the defense industry, or has some ties to it… it’s quite a large part of the us culture it seems… war and more war, or talk of war…. the only way it makes sense for the usa to be in some other country making war is for it to have its head up its ass so far, it thinks being in a foreign country making war on others is a good pragmatic decision without considering the stupidity of all the previous wars bringing the usa to where it is now..

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  25. Steve Clemons says:

    Wig — You make an interesting point about Richard Holbrooke’s comment. I think that some use the reference in the way you describe — but I really don’t. For the record, I like Richard Holbrooke and am a great fan of his tenacious focus on achieving results. I would be more comfortable with the liberal interventionist community if they thought through priorities and action plans in the way Holbrooke does. He is not a perfect man — but who is. I have written in very strong support of Holbrooke on this blog in the past.
    My acceptance of this reference in the letter — which I didn’t draft — is that I believe Richard Holbrooke gave as honest and direct answer as he could at the moment. It was not inelegant. It was honest given the cacophonous views inside the administration on objectives and outcomes.
    More importantly, I think that Richard’s view of having rather fuzzy endgame and benchmark scenarios is shared by a great many debating this policy issue.
    I don’t want to argue that some aren’t depicting Richard’s statement in exactly the way you describe — but I want to make it clear that I am not, and I am not intending any ridicule of him.
    I think Richard has the most toxic job in the administration — and it will be extremely difficult to pull off, but frankly — compared to what both George Mitchell and Dennis Ross have accomplished in their brief roles, I think one has to tip the hat to Holbrooke for working his tail off to generate some change in the way things are working in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    I have differences with him – and it’s our job in the civil society part of DC to poke holes in what government is doing — but I’m very impressed with Holbrooke and his team.
    I realize that others like to institutionalize a dislike for Richard — but he’s done great things for the country and I don’t share that perspective.
    best, steve clemons

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  26. ... says:

    JAMES BAKER, an important part of the carlyle group that likes profiting off war… what a coincidence he is in favour of the war in afgan! who wudda thunk it??? wait! wigwag is quoting him, so it all makes sense…

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  27. WigWag says:

    One final comment about the letter itself;
    Not only was quoting Holbrooke’s inelegant remark childish, it was almost certainly counterproductive.
    When Holbrooke made the comment, blog posts appeared almost immediately at the Washington Note, Steve Walt’s blog at Foreign Policy and elsewhere ridiculing what he had to say.
    Now some of the people who pounced on Holbrooke are signatories to a letter that repeats the sarcasm about Holbrooke’s Potter Stewart moment.
    Do Steve Clemons and others really think the most effective way to influence policy is by repeatedly ridiculing one of the President’s trusted foreign policy advisors?
    Hasn’t it occurred to this sterling group of academics and think-tankers that by ridiculing Holbrooke in a letter to the President that they are also ridiculing the man to whom their letter is addressed?
    The natural question to arise from all of this is whether this group is truly attempting to share a different perspective with the President or whether they are merely engaging in a cheap publicity trick.
    Is it policy they care about, or copy for their blogs and discussion topics for their graduate seminars?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

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  28. JohnH says:

    In a bizarre sort of way this could all turn out for the best. The neo-conmen and their fellow travelers brought us a rousing success in Iraq. (Not!) Now they are pushing for a repeat in Afghanistan. Then it’s onwards to Iran.
    By the time this is all over, the military will be bogged down in the quagmires of all its successes. The limits of America’s power will be thoroughly exposed. And there will probably be a general disgust, finally emerging in a consensus that military occupations are not a transformative tool and that the whole idea was pretty stupid to start with–the military is only really good at killing people and destroying things.
    Then maybe the military can return to its Constitutional role of defending the country. And to do that, you don’t need nearly as much of a military. Perhaps then it can be right sized to that task, freeing up lots of money to pay down the massive debts to China, Japan, the Petro states and Social Security.
    Some times really bad ideas need to be taken to their logical consequences, untold though the suffering may be.

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  29. WigWag says:

    “I thought you were going to name “experts”. What, exactly, is Kerry an “expert” about?” (POA)
    I don’t necessarily disagree with you about that, but Kerry, Scowcroft and Baker have at least as much expertise as many of the people who signed the letter to Obama.

    Reply

  30. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Another harsh critic of the Bush policy in Iraq who supports an expanded effort in Afghanistan is the Chairman of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry”
    I thought you were going to name “experts”. What, exactly, is Kerry an “expert” about?

    Reply

  31. WigWag says:

    Another vitrolic critic of the Bush policy in Iraq who has expressed at least modest support for the Obama policy in Afghanistan in Steve’s buddy, Brent Scowcroft.
    On August 7, 2009 Scowcroft was interviewed by Voice of America. Here’s a short summary of what Scowcroft had to say,
    Brent Scowcroft Analyzes Foreign Policy Issues Facing Obama Administration
    By Anna Zalewski and Carol Castiel
    Washington
    07 August 2009
    “One of America’s foremost experts on international affairs says that President Obama’s new policy of “opening to the world has been an enormous success.” General Brent Scowcroft, a widely-respected former national security advisor who served under US Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, tells VOA’s Carol Castiel and senior news analyst Gary Thomas, that Obama has so far “done a terrific job of changing the mood inside the United States and towards the United States.”
    Nonetheless, General Scowcroft, who vocally opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, cites enormous diplomatic challenges facing the Obama administration – in Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and North Korea.
    Scowcroft says that trying to create a modern state in Afghanistan will be much harder than it has been in Iraq. But he endorses the new US counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan – improving security by gaining the allegiance of the local people to support the war effort…”
    Another harsh critic of the Bush policy in Iraq who supports an expanded effort in Afghanistan is the Chairman of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry.
    This is from an op-ed the Kerry wrote for the Washington Post,
    A Race Against Time in Afghanistan
    By John F. Kerry
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009; Page A17
    “No foreign power has remained welcome in Afghanistan for a sustained period, and the British and the Soviets paid a bitter price for trying. Our goal has never been to dominate Afghanistan but, rather, to eliminate al-Qaeda’s haven and to empower Afghans to govern their country in line with their best interests and our national security.
    We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are in anything but a race against time in a region suspicious of foreign footprints. The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state — but to make sure it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan.
    We must renew our original mission — and President Obama has rightly pledged to recommit to Afghanistan as the center of our global counterinsurgency campaign, beginning with the deployment of as many as 30,000 additional troops. In 2006, I argued that more troops were needed. I still believe that…”
    The letter to the President that Steve signed implied that it’s mostly the kooks who got us into Iraq who support Obama’s Afghan policy. Here’s the exact line from the letter,
    “Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case.”
    It’s not just people who thought we would face few problems in Iraq who want to “deepen our involvement in that country,” it’s realists like Baker and Scowcroft and people that Steve respects like Kerry.
    What the signatories to the letter thought they were accomplishing by pretending that this obvious fact didn’t exist is mysterious to me.

    Reply

  32. WigWag says:

    One example of a harsh critic of the Iraq War who gives Obama good marks for his policy towards Afghanistan is former Secretary of State James Baker. (His co-chair on the Iraq Study Commission, Lee Hamilton is less enthusiastic about Obama’s Afghanistan policy.)
    This is from an interview Baker and Hamilton gave to Jim Lehrer of the PBS show, “News Hour”
    JIM LEHRER: What about Afghanistan? President Obama is going to send 17,000 more American troops in there. Is it a parallel situation at all with Iraq? Is this the right thing to do, the right decision to make now, looking at it now?
    JAMES BAKER: Well, you know, the attack on the United States in September 2001 originated in Afghanistan. I think it’s the right decision for the United States and for the president of the United States to be very concerned about that country becoming a safe haven for other terrorist attacks on the United States. So I must say, yes, I think so.
    Hopefully that we won’t have to be gradually escalating the number of troops. There’s a serious — everybody will tell you today that we have some serious problems there. We need to see more participation by our NATO allies in the fighting there.
    But was it — is it the right decision to try and deny Afghanistan, deny a failed state to al-Qaida? Yes, it is.
    JIM LEHRER: Is it a war that is winnable? Is it a war in a traditional sense,…that, hey, OK, now we’re going to go to war, we’re going to escalate the war with 17,000 more troops in Afghanistan, and on such and such a — in such and such a time, we’re going to win this war?
    JAMES BAKER: I don’t think our goal there is a Jeffersonian democracy. The president has been cleared about that, the new president and the secretary of defense, who carried over from the Bush administration. They’ve both said very clearly denying al-Qaida a failed state in Afghanistan is our objective.
    JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Secretary, this has been going on since 2001.
    JAMES BAKER: That’s right.
    JIM LEHRER: And there we are. We’re putting 17,000 more troops in there. What happened?
    JAMES BAKER: Well, that’s right. Well, what we had in there before wasn’t enough, obviously.
    JIM LEHRER: But that was…
    JAMES BAKER: But the objective is still a very noble and worthy objective, in my opinion. This is where the attacks on the United States originated from.

    Reply

  33. JohnH says:

    This letter is a very positive development, though it does not go nearly far enough. And, whatever took you guys so long?
    Let’s hope that this group follows this initiative with another that recommends ending military operations altogether and replacing them with police and intelligence operations, something that should have been the focus from the start.
    And could this distinguished group start to act preemptively instead of waiting 8 full years to voice concerted concerns? The US simply cannot survive a third quagmire in Iran. If you think America is exposing the limits of its power now, wait until Iran has been unsuccessfully occupied for 8 years!

    Reply

  34. John Waring says:

    How many times must the United States engage in military adventures abroad before we gather the sense to conclude such missions are beyond the will, wit, and wallets of our polity?
    We got Vietnam wrong. We were not containing communism. We were blocking national unification. The Vietnamese considered us a colonial power, successors to the French. Neither the US not the South Vietnamese regime had legitimacy. The North Vietnamese did have legitimacy, because they defeated the French and threw them out of the country. The victory of the North over the South was a moral victory. The South Vietnamese army had the military means to stop the North. They lacked the moral will to stand and fight. To do so would have been to oppose national unification.
    We got Iraq wrong. Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD, nor did he have anything to do with 9/11. He was both a bulwark against Iran, preserving the regional balance of power, and he was a bulwark against al Qaeda. Never would he permit an independent power within his domains. Certainly, he was a thug. Few shed tears at his passing, but the US supported him when we thought it in our interests to do so. His removal simply put Iran in the strategic catbird seat, and took Saddam’s ruthless lid off internal sectarian hatreds. Our sending a largely Christian, evangelical at that, army into Islam’s second most holy land gave al Qaeda its greatest recruiting tool ever. Thomas Ricks described our policy perfectly, a “FIASCO,” akin to “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck”. And please spare me any triumphal narrative concerning the surge. The irreconcilable factions in Iraq will be fighting it out for years after we depart. Did not Baghdad get ethnically cleansed beneath our very noses? Are there not four million displaced Iraqis?
    So, with two epic disasters under our belt, we dare opt for a third? Afghans unite only to throw the intruder out. The Taliban is now an umbrella organization of many a strange bedfellow, simply because we are there. Our presence is uniting the land of 10,000 wars against the US. In Michael Scheuer’s pithy words, “All the fighters are on the other side”. This is not a dilemma our can-do military can overcome. It is a brutal historical fact. We cannot transform that primitive, desolate, rugged, desperately poor, fiercely tribal, devoutly Muslim land into something it has never been in all its recorded history. All of our horses and all of our men and all of our deficit financing cannot change Afghanistan. If ever pessimism were warranted, Afghanistan is that place.

    Reply

  35. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “While that may be true as far as it goes, it is also true that many experts who believe the Iraq War was a mistake that should never have been undertaken, also believe that military success in Afghanistan is worth pursuing”
    Yeah??? Like who?
    Name ’em.

    Reply

  36. WigWag says:

    Steve, I understand that if we relied for policy advice only on people who have actually been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, we would deny ourselves the advice of alot of smart people who have valuable contributions to make. I also understand that people like Schmidle, Bergen and Coll don’t necessarily agree with each other or with all (or even most) aspects of Obama’s policy.
    Several of the signatories to the letter are truly impressive people. You’re one. Who can help but respect the first hand knowledge and the sacrifice that Andrew Bacevich has made even if you disagree with him? And even Mersheimer is an impressive figure; even if he knows next to nothing about Afghanistan but what he reads in the newspaper, watches on CNN or gleans from academic journals.
    My objection to your letter goes beyond the fact that several of the signatories possess no special insight that should motivate the President or anyone else to take their advice seriously. There’s actually a line in the letter that is emblematic of a less than serious approach to this very serious issue.
    This line was frivolous,
    “…an expanded mission fails a simple cost/benefit test. In order to markedly improve our chances of victory–which Ambassador Richard Holbrooke can only promise “we’ll know it when we see it”–we would need to make a decades-long commitment to creating a state in Afghanistan, and even in that case, success would be far from certain.”
    One of your guest posters penned an essay on Holbrooke’s line when he first uttered it. Many bloggers at the time commented derisively about the Holbrooke remark and I admit that it seemed ridiculous to me as well.
    But upon reflection, Holbrooke’s careless comment says alot less about him than it does about the lack of seriousness on the part of people who cite it. This now includes yourself and all the other signatories to the letter.
    It is self-evident that Holbrooke was speaking in short-hand. Certainly his paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about pornography was silly; but it was no more than that.
    Love him or hate him, it is perfectly evident that an experienced, serious diplomat like Holbrooke wasn’t suggesting that the metric for success in Afghanistan that either he or the President was adopting was something as flippant as his comment implies. Do you or the other signatories of the letter believe that when Holbrooke, Obama, Clinton, Jones, Gates, Mullen, etc. sit around a table to discuss Afghanistan that they are so vacuous that “we will know success when we see it” is the standard to measure success that they are planning to adopt?
    Of course you don’t. Holbrooke spoke inartfully; I suspect most of the signatories to the letter have done that themselves at one time or another. Including a reference to that line in your letter to the President was gratuitous, disrespectful and less than serious.
    You would think that would be obvious to the skilled and learned experts who believe the President should take their views about Afghanistan with the seriousness that their stature in the foreign policy world justifies.
    The letter is also deceptive when it states,
    “Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case.”
    While that may be true as far as it goes, it is also true that many experts who believe the Iraq War was a mistake that should never have been undertaken, also believe that military success in Afghanistan is worth pursuing.
    In fact, many of the critics of the Iraq War including John Kerry and Jim Baker (he’s a realist isn’t he) believe the Iraq War was a mistake precisely because it siphoned off resources that should have been devoted to fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Pretending this isn’t true, just makes the signatories look petty.
    It’s not just that several of the signatories are less than impressive; it’s that the letter itself that is less than impressive.

    Reply

  37. sikander says:

    Interference in Pakistan’s national affairs is increasing every day and there is a need to put an end to this.
    http://real-politique.blogspot.com

    Reply

  38. Steve Clemons says:

    Wig — thanks for your thoughtful comments about my colleagues Peter Bergen, Steve Coll, and Nick Schmidle. I respect those who have solid on the ground experience — but I also respect those who ask lucid questions about their government’s activities and commitments — as Obama did on the Iraq War, though he had never been there. I find the dismissal of those you have written off on the letter (including me) a bit off track.
    Your larger point about thoughtful, informed commentary is well taken — and I’m in agreement, but most of those signing this letter meet that bar in my view. And you should not expect that Peter, Steve and Nick are in line with the administration’s course. They will speak for themselves in due course — on Thursday and at other events I will organize — but my sense is that the way they frame the challenges differ from each other and the administration’s own position.
    What I have offered above is a wing of the foreign policy spectrum — and it should be heard like other wings.
    All best, steve clemons

    Reply

  39. Steve Hynd says:

    How much time has Rory Stewart spent in Afghanistan, since he agrees in every respect with the signators of this letter? ummm…lots.

    Reply

  40. Outraged American says:

    Peter Bergen was not the last journalist to interview Bin Laden
    before Sept. 11: Abid Jan was, so that immediately discredits
    anything that comes out of Bergen’s self- aggrandizing mouth.
    Kathleen, please resend your phone #!
    I’m disappointed that Walt believes in the Al Qaeda myth. Anything
    to keep your bread buttered, I guess.

    Reply

  41. WigWag says:

    “The letter is signed by individuals and not institutions — and I happen to work with some of the nation’s leading authorities on AfPak issues such as Steve Coll and Peter Bergen who each have compelling perspectives on the Afghanistan situation that deserve to be scrutinized closely as well.” (Steve Clemons)
    That’s an understatement if ever I’ve heard one.
    One thing that differentiates Coll and Bergen from most of the signatories of the letter is that they actually know something about Afghanistan. They’ve studied it for years, they’ve been there and they’ve produced quality reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan that’s widely respected.
    How much time have Walt or Mersheimer or Preble spent in Afghanistan or Pakistan? How hard is it to pontificate from a comfortable office in Cambridge or Chicago or Washington, D.C.?
    Does anyone have a busier travel schedule than Steve Clemons? But with all that globe trotting, how much time has he spent in South Asia?
    Commentators like Coll and Bergen have earned the right to have their opinions taken seriously; they’ve formed their opinions from first hand experience. The same is true for a young reporter like Nick Schmidle who put his life on the line to get the story right. It’s also true for an old pro like Jim Fallows whose reporting on the Far East was done after living first in Japan and now in China.
    A significant number of the signatories who signed the letter to Obama don’t have any greater knowledge than the average citizen who reads the newspaper regularly. A credential, an academic title, graduate student lackeys or a corporate credit card don’t translate into superior knowledge or insight.
    I am sure the Obama Administration will treat the letter with all the respect that it deserves.

    Reply

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