Seeing the Forest for the Trees in Afghanistan


The Washington Post ran a feature yesterday that asked a number of foreign policy experts to offer their first impressions of President Obama’s speech at Camp Lejuene.
I found many of the responses interesting, but was particularly struck by Andrew Bacevich’s comments. Bacevich teaches International Relations at Boston University and is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
He wrote:

A promise to end the war in Iraq formed the cornerstone of Barack Obama’s run for the White House. Yet his announced “withdrawal” plan ends nothing. It serves chiefly to reorder the Pentagon’s operational priorities. Meanwhile, the “Long War” — conceived in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and now in its eighth year with no end in sight — continues.
For President Bush, Iraq was priority No. 1. He expected victory to yield a rich strategic and political payoff. He neither gained victory nor reaped any payoff. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Long War’s other fronts, languished as afterthoughts. Obama’s plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq to a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops now transforms the Persian Gulf into a secondary theater. In effect, the president is orienting the Pentagon’s attention back to Central Asia, the front where the war began in 2001. Yet in doing so, he implicitly recommits the United States to what has become an open-ended military endeavor.
Lost in the shuffling of troops is any clear understanding of that endeavor’s strategic rationale. Iraq alone has cost the United States a trillion dollars or more. The putative success of the “surge” notwithstanding, we have achieved exceedingly modest and tenuous gains. To imagine that simply trying harder in Afghanistan and Pakistan will produce a happier outcome is surely a fantasy.
Bush hoped to transform the Middle East. Obama’s instincts point in a different direction. To preserve the American way of life, he appears intent on changing it, a project with vast economic, social and even cultural implications.
The Long War is incompatible with that project. Protracted war or domestic reform: We may be able to afford one. We cannot afford both. So Obama must choose. If, instead of choosing, he tries to finesse the Long War — and shifting the weight of U.S. military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan amounts to little more than temporizing — his reform agenda is likely to be stillborn.

Bacevich’s comments serve as a useful reminder that the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq were both borne of a a strategic vision that considers radical Islamic terrorism to be America’s “defining ideological challenge” that will last for generations.
President Obama’s first move – shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan – is a tactical decision to emphasize one battle over another, rather than a strategic shift from “transforming the Middle East and Central Asia through military force as priority number one” to “anti-terrorism through law enforcement, limited military campaigns, and economic development as one priority among many.”
As President Obama comes to grips with the multitude of challenges America faces, I hope he will end the “long war” as it was conceived by the Bush administration and offer an alternative strategy to manage international terrorism that is proportional to the threat and leaves room for other priorities.
— Ben Katcher


11 comments on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees in Afghanistan

  1. MediaMentions says:

    On this note, here’s something else from the current news for Afghanistan:
    I honestly think that if things don’t start to level out soon, then they won’t for a long time.


  2. MediaMentions says:

    When will this end???
    It’s about time the troops got sent home for some well-deserved peace.


  3. David says:

    This absolutely needs to make its way into Obama’s consciousness.


  4. MJ Rosenberg says:

    Great piece, Ben. See Bob Herbert today.
    Nice meeting you yesterday.


  5. TonyForesta says:

    Politicians brute various parables on TV proclaiming noble causes, and valiant efforts and loving thebabyjesus, and all the while enormous fortunes and trillions of the peoples dollars are funnelled offshore into senseless, needless wars, warfighting enterprizes, – and are ruthlessly prosecuted feeding the avarice and savage, exceeedingly well paid beasts of private intelligence and military industrial complexes exclusively!!! We are raped, ravished, enslaved, and controlled.
    The predator class is seeking our (poor and middle class Americans) total devastation, and destruction.
    The predator class imagines they can use the terrible swift sword of the state militaries, police, and private militias to ruthlessly oppress and suppress American’s, – they are woefully mistaken. In a world where there are no laws, – there are no laws for anyone biiaaattchez!!!


  6. Pacos_gal says:

    Elizabeth, I think this photo was taken by Sgt. Brandon Aird, who is in Army Public Affairs.
    I found this picture and a write up on the following website:
    “Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able
    Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan Aug. 22.”
    By Sgt. Brandon Aird,
    173rd ABCT Public Affairs KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan
    It’s an interesting read and the photos are fabulous.
    Now back to regular scheduled discussions.


  7. JohnH says:

    “How the US military would have any beneficial use whatever in the quest for energy independence is beyond me.” Yet many of us are convinced that “energy security” that was the underlying, unspoken goal of GWOT. Fighting Islamic terrorism provided a convenient cover.
    If so, the Bush administration proved categorically that military occupation is useless in securing oil supplies. Years ago, the Iraq invasion had already caused the third largest disruption in world oil supplies, exceeded only by the Arab embargo and the Iranian revolution. By now it probably represents the greatest disruption in world oil supply. Likewise, the attmpt to militarily secure oil and gas pipeline routes from the Caspian basin through Afghanistan has proven to be a total failure.
    The nice thing for the bone headed foreign policy mob is that they don’t have to admit to their colossal failure because “energy security” was never an official objective–never even mentioned. Folks like TWN never really questioned what they were doing. And the military can continue its counterproductive wars without being held accountable to this day! Talk about the American people being sold a bill of goods!


  8. JamesL says:

    I greatly appreciate Mr. Bacevich’s clarity and courage. However the great underlying threat to the US, excluding Israel, is not Islamic, Afghani, Iraqi, or military. It is energy self sufficiency. We are on borrowed time, with the military consuming the equivalent of a couple states of the union whil supplying no any tax income. Energy is the only realistic place to make a national war effort at this time. All these other theaters of conflict are just… theater. How the US military would have any beneficial use whatever in the quest for energy independence is beyond me. The two war front (we can’t afford even one now) must include energy. Send the boys and girls home and get them working again.


  9. JohnH says:

    Great to see that people inside the Beltway are finally starting to recognize the obvious: “Lost in the shuffling of troops is any clear understanding of that endeavor’s strategic rationale (Bacevich).”
    Sad to see that these same folks steadfastly continue to take the Bush administration at its word that “the war in Iraq were both borne of a strategic vision that considers radical Islamic terrorism to be America’s “defining ideological challenge” that will last for generations.”
    The Islamic terrorism (or as Israelis say terr-rrorrr-rrism) story was only product positioning, cynically used to market of a war whose true motivations remain a closely guarded secret.
    The time is long overdue for America to be informed of the endeavor’s true strategic rationale, if indeed there is any.


  10. Elizabeth says:

    Photo credit? It’s a great picture and I’d love to know who the photographer is (and I’m sure the photographer would love to be credited).


  11. ... says:

    a change in spending where the military industrial complex isn’t at the top of the list??? it’s not a remote possibility.. the long war will remain on…. shifting chairs on the titanic, or wars in the mid east – it all does the same- prolong the inevitable…


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