Obama’s Team Stumbling into Afghanistan Trap


(photo credit: Jon Taplin’s Blog)
In the book, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy, which is an April-May 2008 rolling conversation between former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft with Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius, Brzezinski says this:

I think it was too bad that we cut off International Military Education and Training (IMET) for so many years [with Pakistan]. We didn’t have the opportunity to train these younger officers. We have a specific problem, which is the Pashtun area and the frontier area, the sanctuary for Al-Qaeda. We have to deal with it, but we have to be very prudent so as not to galvanize Pakistani politics into irrational anti-Americanism, some of the makings of which are already underway.
To the extent that we have to act, we should act discreetly and avoid publicizing what happens. My guess is if we do that, the Pakistanis in power will see their interest is also in not publicizing it. But if we start boasting, as we are lately, we will make it increasingly impossible for any Pakistani government to accept our actions.
Public emotions will surface. The army may be resentful. And then the consequences are unpredictable. We can probably handle the problem in Afghanistan for quite a while, since we still have some residual sympathy from the help we gave the Afghans against the Soviets. But if the turmoil in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan, I think we’ll be faced with an altogether unmanageable situation. Unmanageable if we get more involved and bogged down, and unmanageable if we abruptly terminate and leave. (empasis added)
So I would say prudence, prudence, prudence over again, and let the Pakistanis sort out their problems. Stop lecturing them on democracy, and be sensitive to their historical geopolitical interests. And emphasize that they have a kind of friend in Afghanistan, which gives them strategic depth vis-a-vis India. But at the same time, we should be careful not to make the Afghans think they’re going to be the satellites of Pakistan, which is a difficult game.
Beyond that I simply don’t advocate any political activism regarding Pakistan itself. (pp. 107-108)

I think that Brzezinski’s impressions of Afghanistan were accurate in April-May 2008 and prescient today. There probably was some residual sympathy among the population for the U.S. — but that now seems to be gone or has dramatically withered.
korischake.jpgFormer Bush administration State Department Policy Planning deputy director Kori Schake said as much in her contribution to a 5-part snapshot titled “How Not to Lose Afghanistan” that appeared in the New York Times today.
Schake, who used to advise both the Rudy Guiliani and John McCain presidential campaigns but was in my view a closeted realist in those camps, wrote:

More American troops isn’t enough to succeed in Afghanistan. What else needs doing depends on why you think the Taliban have gained ground in the past 18 months.
Is it because we have too few troops to hold areas that have been cleared of Taliban influence? Is it because Afghans are fundamentally sympathetic to Taliban aims? Or are Afghans so downtrodden from the terror and distrustful of American staying power they won’t stand up and help?

Schake is asking exactly the right question — which many advising Obama seem to not be investigating vigorously. Why are the Taliban succeeding so dramatically in the assessments of Afghans? And what has happened to the residual support that Brzezinski hoped would hold us over?
Unless we get that question right, Kori Schake is absolutely right that throwing more troops into the situation is wrong-headed and potentially counterproductive.
The Obama connected contributors to this piece offer depressingly dim visions of what a US policy course towards Afghanistan should be comprised of.
riedelb_portrait.jpgFirst, Brookings scholar and Obama transition team figure Bruce Riedel advocates in his contribution to the New York Times Afghanistan roundtable more troops and more roads — but mostly more troops. He barely touches anything beyond a troops-focused lens through which to approach Afghan stability.
Second, Center for A New American Security Senior Fellow John Nagl, famous for the understudy role he held working with General David Petraeus on counter-insurgency thinking and who is rumored to be among potential successors to Kurt Campbell and Michele Flournoy at CNAS (who are both becoming senior Obama administration officials), thinks we need to see force deployments upwards of 600,000 to make a real counter-insurgency effort work in Afghanistan.
Nagl and the entire CNAS team are deeply wired into Obama Land — and his primary focus in dealing with Afghanistan is militarily oriented — first a pumping up of US and NATO forces and a huge buildup of Afghanistan’s military. Virtually nothing else discussed.
The strongest critic of this approach, embraced by Obama’s advisers, is Andrew Exum, a soldier who served in Afghanistan in the US Army between 2002 and 2004. Exum is the author of This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Frontlines of the War on Terrorism and edits the counter-insurgency blog Abu Muqawama.
Exum suggests that the absence of a coherent, multi-faceted strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan is quickly dooming the operation in the guts, minds, and hearts of European allies. He notes that few of our forces speak Dari or Pashto, which is undermining the effectiveness of our counter-insurgency efforts. And he says that given current trends, anything that might look like success in the long run may cost several thousand more American lives and another trillion dollars added to our long term bills. He appropriately asks whether the cost of that kind of “succeess” is worth it.
I would add that that would not be something I could ever define as “success.”
Kori Schake rejects the notion that more troops would be effective without attaching a benchmarkable plan to bolster governance in the country. She argues that poppy farms aren’t expanding in the conflict zones but rather in the areas of the country that are stable but corruption-ridden.
Schake seems reluctant to endorse any deal-making with the Taliban, which my colleague and Second World author Parag Khanna says will be necessary particularly given the Taliban’s deep social roots in Pashtun and Punjabi realities.
Khanna suggests the boldest vision for approaching Afghanistan: a focus on cross-border military management between Pakistan and Afghanistan which seems highly unlikely to me at this time — but at least is an interesting and novel suggestion. More importantly, Khanna appropriately depicts this as a double bubble problem. If one squeezes militants on one side of the border without dealing with the other, they’ll simply balloon to the less vigorously secured region.
Khanna states that we need provisional reconstruction on both sides of the border — with particular emphasis on hospitals, schools, roads and power generators. And he says we need the active support of the Chinese, Arabs and Turks in making any stabilization plan work.
Parag Khanna and Kori Schake — neither of whom is excessively close to the Obama team (though I just learned that Khanna did play a role under Riedel on South Asia policy) — seem to have the most interesting and compelling analyses and prescriptions of the Afghanistan problem.
Obama is running on a path in his stated Afghanistan policy that has very high risks for his presidency and for the nation. We need a new Bonn Conference — of the sort that former US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad and former Presidential Envoy James Dobbins pulled off which brought together the various powerful kingpins in the region — those allied with us and those not.
Dobbins has stated that the Afghan reconstruction and stabilization effort was the most comparatively under-resourced of all such US foreign policy efforts since before the Marshall Plan, and thus the challenge of a similar approach when trust has been eroded and America so badly underperformed makes the problem much worse today than in 2002.
But throwing more troops into this mess is the kind of mistake that the previous administration would make — and Obama needs to show that he has learned something of those mistakes we are not trying to move beyond.
— Steve Clemons


19 comments on “Obama’s Team Stumbling into Afghanistan Trap

  1. TokyoTom says:

    Steve, a key to Afghanistan that everyone prefers not to think about is the way that our war on drugs simply incentivizes lawlessness, in the exact same way that our prohibition did. Lawlessness and corruption are now rampant wherever – from Afghanistan to Mexico – we are trying to stop abroad the cultivation of drugs that Americans and others want to consume.
    When will we learn the lesson that the answer to the crisis of paternalism is not MORE government and greater militarization of foreign policy (and of our own domestic police forces)?


  2. Bart says:

    It is worrying that the current economic slump will facilitate military recruitment for our operations in Afghanistan. Our recruiters should include a “truth in joining” statement to the effect that:
    History is against successful Western invasions of that part of the world and most probably your blood will be shed in vain.


  3. All Mi T says:

    although I give him a D on his economic stimulus (spending) plan, I give him an A for Playing the Muslim Card and calling them out to be part of the solution


  4. Steve Clemons says:

    Thanks UNRR….just visited your site. Thanks very much for the link and please visit often. I’ll be checking out your daily fives…best, steve clemons


  5. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/27/2009, at The Unreligious Right


  6. TonyForesta says:

    There is a grotesque dishonesty in America’s framing of the wars in Afghanitan, in Iraq, and all US military interventions. The peoples treasure and the blood or our soldiers and innocents in the respective victim nations are justified by entirely deceptive bruting of noble causes and ends. But there is nothing noble about controlling access to, and distribution of oil and energy.
    I submit that our warmaking enterprizes in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond have nothing to do with defeating the Taliban, or al Quaida, or any jihadis massmurder gang, and everything to do with control of and access to oil and energy resources.
    Our politicians and pundits brute all kinds of glorious theories and lofty justifications for this or that military necessity, but fail to mention the actual strategic objectives and what it is that would truly define victory in any of these endeavors, which has nothing to do with democracy, or liberation, or providing schools, or stopping opium production, or peace of earth and goodwill towards men, or any of the hollow blandishments bruted by our socalled leaders, and pundocracies, or socalled academic “experts” in this or that think tank, and everything to do with access to, and control or oil and energy resources.
    The people are being lied to, yet again. Defeating jihadi freaks and whatever threats they may pose will require police and intelligence operations, – not invasions or occupations and thousands of troops in uniform roaming the mountains, forests, and deserts like legionaires.
    Note Patreaus’s proclamation of new supply routes agreements with Russia among other regional powers as an alternative to the deteriorating supply route options in Pakistan, that were repudiated by Russia the next day.
    Read this article http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KA27Df01.html and weep.
    The crux of this deception is clearly defined in this passage: “Russian experts have let it be known that Moscow views with disquiet the US’s recent overtures to Central Asian countries regarding bilateral transit treaties with them which exclude Russia. Agreements have been reached with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Moscow feels the US is pressing ahead with a new Caspian transit route which involves the dispatch of shipments via Georgia to Azerbaijan and thereon to the Kazakh harbor of Aktau and across the Uzbek territory to Amu Darya and northern Afghanistan.
    Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the region’s hydrocarbon reserves.”
    So in truth and reality, Afghanistan, like Iraq, most US military interventions – are all about the oil.
    The question that should be asked is – are the American taxpayers better served by spending trillons of the peoples dollars and oceans of the peoples blood in pursuit of oil and energy resources of the past, – or would that blood and treasure be better applied toward work on developing the green technologies that would eventually reduce America’s dependence on oil and the primary source of energy.
    The US oil and energy oligarchs will not allow America to entertain new technologies or any threat to thier total domination and monopolization of the worlds energy supplies. The oil and energy oligarchs want the world addicted to oil for their own singular profit and political power, and any serious attempt to counter thier total dominance and monopolization of the worlds primary energy source will be met with ferocious resistance.
    Yet, the people and our leaders must have the courage to force this change, these new approaches to energy resources beyond oil or perish. Oil is a finite commodity. There will be continued savage conflicts in the future as oil and energy suppliers, attempt to defend against and push back oil and energy users.
    Is there not more benefit for future generations in investing the trillions of dollars and oceans of blood now being wasted or planning to be wasted in the doomed and fruitless, not to mention savage contests for control of the oil access and distribution in Central Asia and the ME, – on developing the green energy solutions that will replace oil as the primary source of energy?
    “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. Americans might want to look into and demand that our leadership be honest and truthfull with regard to our military adventures and socalled agreements through Central Asia, and the ME.


  7. Don Bacon says:

    To say they lack the courage to tell the truth doesn’t mean that they lack clarity of purpose.
    “We’re in Iraq to make a pile of money and kill a bunch of ****’s” — do you expect them to say that? To tell the truth?
    Nope. This is what sells in Peoria: The US is in Iraq to set the people free and it’s in Afghanistan to get that guy in the cave.
    Meanwhile, in the real world, money talks and BS walks, every time. The Dickster loves his new $2.9m house bought with Halliburton dividends, and retired military officers are making their millions with sweetheart Pentagon contracts to provide the very PR that they need in Peoria. You get a lot of “clarity of purpose” when Bob Gates hands you a ten million dollar check for doing next to nothing. Call it ‘economic stimulation.’


  8. JohnH says:

    Don–you give them too much credit. This is the government we’re talking about. This mish-mosh of corporate political interests can’t possibly have clarity of purpose.
    The only thing they can really agree on is to use PR, BS, and psy-ops to deny the obvious and try to bury all evidence that they have screwed up.
    That’s why they can’t answer basic questions, like “What are we doing in Iraq?” “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” They can all agree to dig the hole deeper and sink more money and troops, but they can’t come up with a logical explanation for it, no matter how many billions they throw at it.


  9. Don Bacon says:

    You’ve got it. There’s a fine balance required. They’re still working out the details, instability vs. investment, because as you correctly point out there is an apparent conflict. But this “Hegelian dialectic”, this thesis vs. antithesis, results in a synthesis which the new kids on the block are calling “smart power” — a new marketing term to justify their nefarious activities.
    In the meantime, in this recession, they’re going for all war, all the time. ‘Troop surge’ is the only growth industry in the U.S. — employment and profits are ‘way up, in a time of recession. Basically, in a recession, the US needs war more than it needs oil. It’s what pulled the US out of the Depression. So apparently instability trumps investment, as it did in Iraq actually.
    So the ones in charge have the clarity of purpose, which is really not surprising.


  10. questions says:

    I wonder if there isn’t a useful analogy in gang warfare in US cities — hostile terrain after a fashion (urban rather than mountainous, but lots of hiding places), lots of drugs and territorial fights, lots of people dragged in against their will and plenty of willing fighters as well, poverty issues, inadequate policing and a terrorized population….
    What makes cities turn from wastelands into healthy spaces? Economic reform, educational reform, governmental reform, policing reform, chasing out the drugs and creating alternatives to drugs, locking up some of the bad guys maybe, but more just creating more incentives for people to be good guys. It all sounds so domestic to me, and not at all foreign policy-ish. I even wonder if something like subsidized boarding schools would help by getting kids out of the way, and giving them a chance to learn. No kids, no young recruits, parents feel safer as well.
    So can the US gently encourage alternatives and let local people adapt strategies to local conditions?


  11. JohnH says:

    Don, if I read you correctly, the US military, or at least the merchants of death, like instability because it’s good for business. Meanwhile US energy giants wants a strategic presence in south Asia because of the massive energy resources and potential pipeline routes, which require long-term stability give the massive investment requirements.
    So one hand of the energy security complex wants security while the other hand likes instability.
    Kind of makes my point about clarity of purpose towards Afghanistan being totally absent, doesn’t it?


  12. Don Bacon says:

    Come on, we’re all grownups here. The US wants a strategic presence in south central Asia because there is a huge amount of energy in the area, because of its strategic position, because of the profits involved and just because it can.
    A long-term effort in Afghanistan, just as in Iraq, with ongoing instability, is just what the doctor ordered for the Pentagon. They love it. THAT’s success. They get paid by the hour, or rather the year, you might say.
    All this other official jabber-jabber is just eyewash to cover up the evil deeds that have been done and are being done at the expense of the American and Afghanistan people, neither of whom have any say in the matter except to bob their heads and say yes’m, I’ll send my boy over there because it’s the patriotic thing to do, sure is.


  13. Paul Norheim says:

    HughG is right – and especially his second point: controlling the
    Face it: There is no recipe for “success” in Afghanistan, but you
    could`t pick a worse alternative than increasing the military
    effort. It`s like drawing the wrong conclusions from the Vietnam
    war, the Iraq invasion and the Soviet war with Afghanistan
    combined – you couldn`t possibly think of anything more
    foolish then that.
    Besides: America is broke. It can`t afford a substantially
    increased military effort, neither can it afford a Marshall Plan.
    The only option worth considering, as far as I see it, is a
    Marshall Plan where the US shares the burden with Europe,
    possibly also involving other countries in the Middle East and
    But of course, if JohnH is right (which is very likely), when he is
    hinting that this is about controlling energy resources, then the
    US will continue to screw up Afghanistan like it`s been doing
    since Brzezinski first got the Soviet Union bogged down there in
    The best option for the country, I think, and in the long term
    security interest of other countries, is this: A low key Marshall
    Plan. carefully planned, thought out, and implemented – and
    not any grand scale effort of nation building with overambitious
    short term goals. More roads than drones. More translators
    than soldiers. Lots of teachers, and no missionaries of any kind
    – neither those promoting the Gospel nor those promoting The
    American Way.


  14. WigWag says:

    “We can probably handle the problem in Afghanistan for quite a while, since we still have some residual sympathy from the help we gave the Afghans against the Soviets.”
    This is one of the most disingenuous sentences you will ever read.
    Zbignew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter created the Afghan Mujahideen which evolved into the Taliban. Why did they do it? According to Brzezinski it was to lure the Soviets into the “trap” of attacking Afghanistan so that the Soviet State would be weakened.
    Here again is the famous Brzezinski Le Nouvel Observateur (France), interview from January 15, 1998:
    Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
    Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
    Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
    Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
    Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
    Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
    Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
    Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
    Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
    Brzezinski: Nonsense!…
    Would the Afghans have been better off living under a Soviet puppet regime or the Taliban? The answer is self-evident that the Taliban was far worse; if you were a woman who wanted to go to school or if you were a gay person who wanted to be left alone; the Soviet puppets were no problem; the Taliban killed you. The idea that most Afghans are grateful for US help in ridding Afghanistan of Soviet influence is hogwash; just another urban myth. Afghans have “residual sympathy” for the United States because of the role we played in the late 1970s and early 1980s; baloney!
    Most of the problems that exist in Afghanistan today can be directly traced to Brzezinski’s and Carter’s deal with the Devil. Citing Zbignew Brzezinski as someone who has anything of intellectual or moral value to contribute to the debate about Afghanistan today is very strange indeed.


  15. JohnH says:

    “Schake is asking exactly the right question.” NOT!!!
    None of these so called experts is asking anything close to the right question: a) what is America trying to accomplish? and b) what would success look like.
    Ambiguity of purpose may be convenient for disguising the foreign policy mob’s real ambitions from the American people. However, when clarity of purpose — the hallmark of effective leadership — is totally absent, the result will be unguided, counter-productive thrashing about, like what is happening now.
    Many of those in the Times piece yearn for a secure and stable Afghanistan. Excuse me, but how does that do to advance America’s “vital strategic interests,” (to use another ambiguous term that is clear as mud)?
    So is the goal really to control Afghanistan, or not? If so, then let’s debate the wisdom of that idea. If we’re NOT there to control the place, then what are we doing there at all?
    “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” –Yogi Berra


  16. Don Bacon says:

    Okay, let’s get the question right.
    Are the Afghans, just like the Iraqis and the Viets before them, angry and resentful of a brutal western foreign military force messing up their lives and destroying their property, their relatives and their neighbors?


  17. DonS says:

    Zbig: “Unmanageable if we get more involved and bogged down, and unmanageable if we abruptly terminate and leave”. I guess I’m just slow, but the only thing I can deduce from his quote is a “non-abrupt termination” is all that’s left. Otherwise the quote means nothing. Why not just say that!
    Nagl: “600,000” to fight a counterinsurgency. Yeh, right. Better stick to academics.
    Dobbins: Afghanistan “reconstruction the comparatively most under-resourced . . . since the Marshall Plan”. Well, with the economy the way it is here, Obama is going to have a hard time selling reconstruction; easier to sell armed intervention. And he’s already all but signalled big troop buildups. So why in the inaugeral did Obama allude to forging a “peace” in Afghanistan? Just rhetorical smokescreen?


  18. MarkL says:

    Face it, war is the business of the US.
    Obama got elected on the promise of expanding the warfront with Afghanistan into Pakistan, and he’s followed through on his promise with dispatch. His corporate backers hope he can bring better “success” than Bush, so the next war will be an easier sell.


  19. HughG16 says:

    1. Prosthetics.
    If you want to win hearts and minds, start with arms and legs. There are an unbelievable number of victims of land mines and other explosive devices – including American cluster bombs – in Afghanistan. The quality of their lives is, obviously, profoundly affected by their ability to get around. And the prosthetics they need are in dreadfully short supply, as every one has to be custom fit to its owner. This is the place to start.
    2. Opium.
    What, exactly, is our goal in Afghanistan? At a bare minimum, it ought to be to deny easy, safe haven to Al Qaeda and friends. A more ambitious goal would be to put a reasonably effective national government in place – the only thing that ever seems to work against insurgents. How do we make this happen? First, by cutting off the supply lines to the bad guys. And how do we make THAT happen?
    By buying up all the opium. Buy it, sell as much as possible to the pharmaceutical companies and burn the rest. You’d keep the farmers happy, you’d take actual control of the opium supply for the first time in history, you’d deny the bad guys funding, and you’d even begin to normalize the flow of commerce, e.g. you’d know when and where a whole lot of people are going to go to sell their stuff. Good Taliban-bait.
    3. Security.
    If we’ve begun to win hearts-and-minds through the supply of prosthetics and basic health care, and we’ve continued our work by providing a dependable revenue stream for opium farmers – while denying those funds to the enemy – we can begin to focus on security. Secure the roads to the hospitals. Then secure the roads between farmers-and-markets. Clear, hold and build.
    These three strategies combined have a chance of working. Without #2, we might as well fold the tents now.


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