Monday, July 26, 2010


The leak of thousands of confidential documents relating to the war in Afghanistan (see Wikileaks, the NYT, the Guardian and Der Spiegel) and the response from the White House demonstrates that if Obama is not careful, the so-called 'graveyard of empires' will be the place where the trust and hope that were placed in him in 2008 will be definitively buried. That the same administration which promised to be the most open in history is waging a war that rages across Afghanistan and is increasingly spilling into Pakistan is nothing short of tragic, and is the result of a political calculation made before November 2008 rather than any particular principle.

This is not the clearly-defined military and civilian action that Obama spelt out in his West Point speech (problematic in itself). His speech made no mention of U.S. soldiers operating in Pakistan, and it took the New York Times to tell us in February of this year that the military presence in that country had in fact been expanded...something all the more chilling when we recall the last great military quagmire in U.S. history--Vietnam.

In response to the leaked documents, the administration, with National Security Advisor Jim Jones leading the charge on this count, even played that most sordid of cards: suggesting that the release of these documents would put national security and soldiers' lives at risk. This is absurd coming from the very parties that have made the decisions which (now by their own admission, the Pentagon's April 2010 report being particularly enlightening on this count are resulting in an appalling litany of failures: more civilian deaths in Afghanistan--with more and more of these being caused by U.S. and ISAF forces (a better recruiting tool for fundamentalists than could ever have been dreamt up in some cave in Tora Bora); attacks being planned on the U.S. (in New York earlier this year) by groups that didn't exist in 2001; the growth of a costly and unwieldy national security apparatus (see the Washington Post's recent feature that some claim does very little to protect us, but which compromises our liberties and ideals; the funding of warlords and the concomitant undermining of the very civil society whose cultivation was so central to the President's West Point speech; the alleged betrayal of the U.S. by Pakistan's intelligence and military community, to whom we've long given absurdly unqualified financial and logistical support; and a constant shifting of strategy that seems to do nothing other than increase the number of tragically young men and women coming home in coffins or else marked for life by their experiences in ways that the rest of us can never understand.

Obama and his officials frequently point out that theirs is not the administration that began the war. This is true. But they made a very deliberate and calculated decision to continue and escalate it.

In 2002, an Illinois State Senator spoke out against a war: 'A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics'. I can scarcely imagine a greater or more wretched irony than that the hopes and needs resting on the career of a man whose meteoric rise to power came as a result of his condemnation of a 'dumb war' should be let down because he chose to make just such a war his own.


  1. Wow, "graveyard of empire" good thing we don't have an empire. (Just threw that red meat out there in case Kartikeya, was feeling frisky). I obviously haven't combed through all 92 000 pages but my feeling so far is sort of summed up by Fred Kaplan in Slate, "There's nothing here that's new to people who have been paying attention" In fact on some level i'm kind of encouraged that at least within the miltary people are acknowledging all that seems to be going wrong. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Still I think we might have to pull out and follow a Biden type plan. It has always seemed to come down to, just like Vietnam, if the local government can't get it's act together there is pretty much nothing we can do to make it work.

  2. I agree that there's not much new in the cosmic sense...I think that what the documents probably do in their chaotic way is to simply further illustrate how long this has been a mess without people doing much to sort it out. And the examples of unaccounted-for civilian deaths might be small news in one sense (in that we know it happens), but if there's any interest in bringing people to justice for them, they're important.
    The trouble is, it's been going wrong in one way or another from the outset. And even if you identify a problem, it's difficult to correct it if you also keep changing the goal.
    The problem with the Biden plan from a 'national security' standpoint is that it doesn't learn any lessons. Relying on cruise missiles won't get many soldiers killed, but it will continue to alienate the same people we've been alienating with this kind of approach for years. We're back to where our troubles started without anyone having bothered to draw the line between points A and B.
    I'd just add that part of the reason the local government can't get its act together is that we've been sending it conflicting signals for years, and have also been undermining it by promoting different and less accountable forms of governance in the Afghan localities. I don't know if this means that the military goals of counterinsurgency are utterly incompatible with the concomitant fostering of democratic institutions, but it's certainly a problem. That's not to let Karzai off the hook, but to acknowledge that we've had a pretty firm hand in the creation of the dilemma.