Sunday, October 19, 2008

one of the things i like best about barack obama is one of the most anathematic things about him, at least as far as his liberal base of support would be concerned, were they not so intent on his chances of victory, and that is his clear recognition of the central front in the war on terror, or islamic extremism, or whatever you want to call it.

afghanistan, and pakistan.

whatever aspersions have been cast on him over here for his politicization, witting or un-, it is undoubtedly a good thing that david petraeus is ascending to command of centcom. he's a smart, capable guy, and we need that, because, despite the enduring popularity of iraq so far as media attention and public outcry go, afghanistan and pakistan is actually a much more dangerous and potentially catastrophic situation than iraq could ever hope to be. the taliban is, at least to some extent, a cat's paw for the pakistani intelligence service, which exists as an independent power/player in that less-than-ideally-stable country's political ecosphere.

they are also getting strong enough to mount direct attacks on our military outposts, which is horrifically scary. that they don't have to skulk about in hiding and constrain themselves to guerrilla tactics means they have men and materiel to spare, which means that we're creating insurgents/terrorists/taliban fighters faster than we can kill them. the most probable explanation is that, because we lack sufficient boots on the ground to guarantee order and stability we are constrained to fight more of the conflict from the air. when we do that, we end up killing civilians in large numbers.

think about it from the locals' perspective: assholes from the other side of the world drop a satellite-guided bomb on top of somebody's wedding, killing dozens on what should be a joyous day. how do you think you would feel about people that did that, whether they acknowedged their error or not? what if that was your cousin getting married? or the kid you grew up with?

this kind of stuff happens all the time over there. and one of the main reasons it happens is because all of the available combat brigades that the army and the marines can muster are deployed in iraq, which when you take an objective look at it is really a second-order concern, so far as the national security interests of the united states are concerned (yes, we need that oil, but we need it less once we commit to a domestic green energy revolution, which we have to do anyway, but more on that some other time).

and yes, barack obama is right that we will need to redeploy a significant number of the troops that are freed up when we draw down forces in iraq directly to afghanistan, but even if we were able to redeploy the entire force there, which is absolutely ridiculous to even speculate could happen, we would still be far from the threshhold established back when it might have mattered by soon-t0-be-outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff eric shinseki in terms of the ratio of soldiers to civilians necessary to ensure the stability and good order which would be necessary (though not sufficient) to establish some kind of viable self-sustaining political order that would be able to take over eventually. to wit, we do not have the military (or, at this point, economic) resources, or the national will, to occupy afghanistan in sufficient depth to ensure a good outcome politically.

which brings me back to david petraeus, the guy who turned iraq around when most people had concluded that it couldn't be done.

the conventional wisdom is that the additional deployment of combat troops, the surge, as it were, was the primary change-engine. that the nobility and professionalism of american soldiers and marines was of such great magnitude that the simple addition of a few extra combat brigades was enough to turn the tide.

that such nobility and professionalism exist i do not doubt. to attribute the anbar awakening and the standing down of the mahdi army to the presence of a few extra troops is magical thinking at best, and not even the good kind. the end of the shiite intra-fighting (between the mahdi army and the iraqi army) was brokered by the iranians, for one thing. and the sunni awakening had a lot to do with a) them realizing what assholes the al qaeda guys were (al qaeda in iraq did mostly bomb iraqis, remember) and b) us giving them lots and lots of money and guns.

the reason capitalism always wins is that everybody likes money. and the more they have, the less interested they are in unrest. once we started paying the sunnis to police themselves and turn on the foreign fighters in their midst, things mellowed out quite a bit. so long as they get their piece of the pie they'll be invested in the general good, which removes a major destabilizing factor from the overall political equation.

which brings me back to david petraeus, the guy whose idea most of this was, and what a good thing it is that he's moving on to the afghanistan theatre.

when first we fought the afghan war, and chased the taliban in the mountains of waziristan, we were playing right into bin laden's trap. his avowed strategy (and it wasn't a half-bad one, really) was to punch us in the nose, which he did, then draw us into a long, drawn-out land war in afghanistan, bleeding us like they bled the soviets back in the eighties until we decided to leave them alone and let them establish their caliphate or something. the reason we stomped them so definitively was because we bribed the other warlords in afghanistan, who knew the terrain and the people, and who'd coexisted uneasily with the taliban and were glad enough to be rid of them if they could, to fight with and for us.

all we had to do was finish the job ourselves, which we didn't. we had the fuckers holed up in caves, for fuck's sake, but we'd had such a clean war i guess nobody wanted any americans to die, even to get bin laden. it's the only reason i can think of that isn't too horrible to contemplate. i treasure american servicemen and -women as much as the next red-blooded american, but part of what they are for is to die so we can kill fuckers like bin laden.

and because we didn't, the taliban was able to retreat to a safe haven (in nuclear-armed pakistan, which is totally awesome. they shoot at us when we chase the taliban back to the border now) and regrow their forces to the point that they can now mount traditional military offensives on american positions in broad daylight.

but we won't have enough soldiers to deploy the forces necessary to do what has to be done ourselves, and our nato allies aren't going to pony up enough either, since none of their populations have the stomach for ongoing military casualties that we do, and even we're kind of shaky these days. which means we're going to have to figure out who to bribe and how much to get some local help. and i'm glad david petraeus is in charge there now, because he seems to understand this kind of thing pretty well.

and yes, he's going to need some more soldiers. but hopefully he'll be smarter about using them, and hopefully, when barack obama is president, this theater of operations will get the attention it deserves, because it is far and away the number one threat to world stability and american national security.

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