The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ceterum Censeo Talibanem Esse Delendam

Like their Roman counterparts in days of old, the two great elder hawks of our own Senate – John McCain, in the role of Cato the Censor, and Joe Lieberman, playing the ever-loyal Fabius – graced the editorial pages of yesterday’s Washington Post to proclaim with Sabine austerity, Ceterum censeo Talibanem esse delendam (i.e. “Moreover, I advise that the Taliban must be destroyed.”).

McCain and Lieberman profess themselves “troubled by calls in some quarters for the President to adopt a ‘minimalist’ approach toward Afghanistan.”

Perhaps they were referring to an article in the current edition of Newsweek by Rajan Menon, a Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University. Menon predicts President Obama’s recent decision to send seventeen thousand more troops to Afghanistan “will push the United States deeper into a quagmire.” He suggests six alternative strategies for Afghanistan.

First, make it clear the U.S. seeks no permanent military bases/presence in Afghanistan. Second, offer the Taliban a ceasefire on a reciprocal basis. Third, convene a Loya Jirga (i.e. “grand assembly”) to reform the dysfunctional political system in ways that empower outlying regions. Fourth, involve Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan. Fifth, pledge not to attack Afghanistan, providing it refrains from hosting terrorism. Sixth, help to finance rebuilding Afghanistan and improving its quality of life.

McCain and Lieberman are having none of this. “Just as in Iraq,” they conclude, “there is no shortcut to success, no clever ‘middle way’ that allows us to achieve more by doing less. A minimalist approach in Afghanistan is a recipe not for winning smarter but for losing slowly at tremendous cost in American lives, treasure and security.”

Several of McCain’s and Lieberman’s postulates invite skepticism. “A narrow, short-term focus on counter-terrorism . . . would repeat the mistakes made for years in Iraq before the troop surge,” they warn at one point in their article.

When exactly did the U.S. ever define our mission in Iraq as strictly counter-terrorism? After the initial invasion and our failure to find large, widespread caches of WMDs (and even before it for that matter), former President Bush promised the overthrow of Iraq’s brutal totalitarian Ba’ath regime and its replacement by a secular constitutional democracy.

If McCain and Lieberman believe “we need a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency approach” in Afghanistan, they should be heartened to learn that, rather than falling down on the job, the Obama Administration appears to be anticipating their concerns. “Top aides to President Obama are recommending that the United States combine a boost in military deployments with a steep increase in civilian experts to combat a growing insurgency in Afghanistan,” the Associated Press reported yesterday.

One part of the plan will involve naming former senior American diplomats to key posts in Afghanistan as well as adding hundreds of civilian aides under the U.S. Ambassador and his top staffers. White House officials described the concept as similar to “the Surge” in Iraq but accomplished with political/diplomatic forces as well as military ones.

McCain and Lieberman further maintain that Afghan civilians will risk their lives to help U.S. forces “only if they believe we are committed to staying and protecting them from the insurgents and helping to improve their lives.”

Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, reaches the same conclusion from a different direction. In today’s Wall Street Journal, he insists, “Anbar turned only when the Sunni insurgents had grown convinced that the Americans were there to stay.”

Yet these assertions are at odds with polls that have consistently reflected two-thirds to three-quarters of Iraqis favoring (imminent) U.S. withdrawal for the past several years. Moreover, many analysts fear stepping up air strikes and other military operations in Afghanistan will result in more civilian deaths, increasing anti-U.S. sentiment and benefiting the Taliban, despite that group’s policy of deliberately staging attacks designed to increase civilian casualties.

“I've been very concerned about an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops for a variety of reasons, including the size of our footprint in Afghanistan, and my worry that the Afghans come to see us as not their partners and allies, but as part of their problem,” Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates confessed recently.

McCain and Lieberman define military success in Afghanistan as “a stable, secure, self-governing [nation] that is not a terrorist sanctuary.” They assert their belief such an environment is achievable there. A conservative peer seems to dispute them and claim it already achieved.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens shares the two Senators’ concerns that the U.S. is losing its commitment to Afghanistan. Yet when he describes the “circumstances that define Afghanistan today,” it is apparent he sees their entirely empty glass as half full.

It is true, he concedes, that the Taliban is resurgent militarily and “much of the countryside is unsafe.” However, he approves the cities as mostly safe. What is more, statistics just published by Jason Campbell, Michael O’Hanlon, and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution show that while Afghan public support for the U.S. and their own government have fallen in half over the past two years, an equivalent decline occurred for their support of the Taliban from its highest levels in 2007.

Stephens finds Afghan President Hamid Karzai weak “but he is legitimate.” He considers Afghanistan’s government and infrastructure dysfunctional and corrupt “but at least there's a system.”

Stephens argues that although NATO was slow in training the Afghan army and police, this is finally starting to happen. Official U.S. source in Afghanistan reported just this morning that Afghan and international forces killed thirty-four militants and destroyed a cache of bomb equipment over the past two days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters the Obama Administration was working on “an integrated strategy” to train the Afghan military and police as well as to support “governance, rule of law, judicial systems, and economic opportunities.”

Finally, Stephens admits the opium trade is flourishing and growing in Afghanistan but notes its government still officially condemns it as unacceptable and a criminal operation.

None of this impresses McCain and Lieberman because success not brought about directly by overwhelming military victory is inconceivable to them. Stephens humorously explains their intransigence as a rejection of the liberal logic reductio ad Vietnam, in which any long-term U.S. military conflict is presumed to end in failure.

Stephens goes on to wonder how his peer Bob Herbert of the New York Times could term Afghanistan “a quagmire” in 2009 after previously denouncing the Bush Administration in 2006 for “taking its eye off the real enemy.” It never seems to occur to Stephens that, rather than being diametrically opposed, Herbert’s current observation directly follows from the accuracy of his previous one.

Much like Cato before him, McCain views his beloved country as the victor in two previous Punic Wars, with Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. He now wishes to exhort his more timid fellow citizens on to a third engagement. Disregarding the appropriateness of the appellation “victorious” as applied to Iraq for a moment, McCain is completely ignoring the fact that Afghanistan is not a new war.

None of this means to suggest the United States faces no future significant military challenges in Afghanistan and probably Pakistan as well. We must diminish the Taliban’s current level of influence as well as locate and contain al-Qaida forces hiding in the mountains for far too long.

Yet neither of these goals augurs a huge, bloody, and years-long military occupation that transforms Afghanistan into a democracy made in our own image as the only means to attain success. This is the lesson of Iraq we would do best to learn from and avoid.

McCain and Lieberman are correct that “a comprehensive overhaul of our war plan is needed and quickly.” Luckily, it appears the Obama Administration is engaged in this very activity and developing a strategy far superior to their stentorian admonitions.

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