Obama’s direction on Afghanistan really shouldn’t surprise anyone. He spent twelve months on the campaign saying that the Afghanistan operations were badly under-resourced. And he’s playing the game they all play of listening to the generals. Taking advice from the generals is admirable of course, but there’s an old saying that when you’re holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Generals make a career out of planning military operations. It’s what they live for. McChrystal was hardly going to tell Obama that they had done all they can militarily and it’s now time to concentrate on economics and infrastructure, was he? Ask a teacher what they solution is, and he’ll say education. Ask an economist, and he’ll say tax cuts. Ask a soldier and he’ll say more troops. I’m not suggesting that more troops are not needed, just pointing out that everyone sees the situation through their own prism.
I know it’s embarrassingly fashionable to link to Andrew Sullivan but I think his analysis is pretty well spot on. The operation deserves one last chance at victory, however slim (given the experiences of every other military power that has ever tried to control Afghanistan) that victory might be. And an Obama administration at least has the credibility to try. If nothing else, they have the credibility of not having stuffed it up before. The Bush administration, with their fatal combination of arrogance, ignorance and wishful thinking, had been so wrong, so often and in so many ways on the handling of both Afghanistan and Iraq that even if they came up with a winning strategy, no sane person would trust them. If you engage a builder put an extension on your house and it falls down four times, are you going to believe him when he says he’s got it right this time? No, you give him the benefit of the doubt the first time, and after that you get another builder. If this new builder suggests the same thing as the previous guy wanted to do on his fifth attempt, that tells you there might just be something to it after all, and maybe this one has the nous to do it properly. Or it may be a lost cause. But Obama and his generals and their troops deserve the chance to succeed where Bush failed.
This will not be like the troop surge in Iraq. Bush supporters like to say that it worked, but the other flank of that surge strategy was to pay the insurgents to switch sides. Unless they intend to employ a similar strategy in Afghanistan, then it’s going to be a harder slog. And even then, nothing is going to change the fact that the US is an invading force and will never be seen as liberators.
Don’t believe me? Imagine you’re an American – or perhaps you don’t have to imagine. If you’re a mad leftie, imagine Bush is still in office, if you’re a mad rightie you can just imagine it’s today. You really hate the president and everything he stands for. But even so, how would you feel about a foreign power – let’s say, the United Arab Emirates – “liberating” you from that tyrant? They have a different culture, a different religion, a different language but at least they don’t make you pay tax. Do you feel liberated? Do you wave signs saying thank you? Of course not! The president may be a son of a bitch but he’s your son of a bitch and you fight your own battles thank you very much! Well, now you know the boat that Afghans and Iraqis are in – stuck between corrupt locals and an invading force that claims to be benevolent but obviously has their own interests at heart.
(and if you think the scenario I’ve suggested is too outlandish to contemplate, then for pity’s sake STFU about “tyranny” or get a real problem)
George W Bush had a pretty good retort for those who criticised him for his arrogant swagger. He said, “In Texas, we call that ‘walking.’”
If Obama were to dignify accusations of dithering with a response, he might say, “We call that ‘thinking things through so that we don’t make a complete balls-up of it like the last mob did.’”
He who hesitates has probably thought of something others didn’t.