Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Does not compute

The president has consistently reassured us that Afghanistan is vital to American national security because our involvement there is the only way to be sure a reconstituted al-Qaeda is unable to stage a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I'm not the only one who's been hearing this, right? For just one example, here's what President Obama said last December in announcing the Afghan escalation:
I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.
He repeated the sentiment just weeks ago during his Oval Office speech on the Iraq drawdown:

And no challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al Qaeda.

Americans across the political spectrum supported the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan, there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there. But we must never lose sight of what's at stake. As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists.

So I was surprised to see this in today's Morning Defense:
OVERNIGHT ALERT FROM THE POST –Woodward’s book, due out Monday, describes the administration as “barraged” with terrorist warnings on U.S. soil. But Obama told Woodward: “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever... we absorbed it and we are stronger.”
I think we all understand the political realities involved in this, and there's no doubt the president would suffer terrible consequences if he were to be seen admitting that terrorism is a danger we simply have to learn to live with. But when I think about what we can "absorb" and about the president's stated belief that "we are stronger" after having suffered through the consequences of 9/11, it makes me wonder whether we're stronger for the $70B we're spending annually in Afghanistan, or for the thousand-plus U.S. lives that have been lost there, or for the consequences of our involvement there like reduced flexibility in our land forces, physical and psychological strain across the force, and the eroded moral force that accompanies a superpower being seen as a vanquished occupier.

If we could "absorb" another 9/11, then WTF are we doing in Afghanistan? (For whatever it's worth, I'm not the only one wondering.)


  1. I don't see where he says it's the "only" way to do anything, nor where he says an attack can be absolutely prevented. He believes that letting the region backslide increases the likelihood of attack. In the Woodward statement, he says we'll do "everything we can to prevent it." Put these two together, and you have him saying we'll do "everything we can" to prevent the region form backsliding, because not to do so is not to do "everything we can" to prevent an attack (not that one can be absolutely prevented). Now, "everything we can" do is a quantity that can be calculated different ways, but I think it is reasonable to understand it to mean "everything we can do that won't massively unbalance our means to our ends, or break our country's economic position," and this view is consistent with his attempts to fashion a strategy that isn't a ten-year involvement or $1 trillion commitment. Now, it might very well be that you a) don't believe Afghanistan is important enough to do "everything we can," even if that is understood as I describe, to stabilize it, or b) you think the resources he ended up coming to commit goes beyond that definition of "everything we can do." But I don't see the contradiction inherent in his words.

    We could absorb another 9/11, he is saying, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to do "everything" he can to stop it anyway. That is his job.

  2. I agree with Michael. Both statements are true, that our government policy is to prevent any attacks against the US homeland, and similtaneously, we can absorb a 9/11 attack. By the mere fact that our government has continued to run and our economy staggers along as it has for the past 8 years, it stands true.

    Terrorism is not an existential threat. At the same time, the inertia of the past administration's efforts doesn't allow for Obama to suddenly disengage out of Afghanistan or reduce the effort against al Qaeda. So he's applying the brakes, slowly, while making public statements that reflect the "accepted position" of the administration.

    The Woodward book should prove interesting, blog fodder for the next few months at least.

  3. Sure we could absorb another 9/11, just like we absorbed 9/11. An attack of that nature isn't enough to grind the country to a halt.

    But you can be damn sure whoever the President is when we "absorb" that next attack is probably looking at retirement if they are in their first term.

  4. Here's the point: it's the president's responsibility to lead a sane national conversation about the best ways to protect ourselves against terrorism, and the sorts of things that offer little security in exchange for a cost that's too high. I think it's fair to say that the war in Afghanistan fits into this latter category. Your mileage may vary.

  5. I think it is hard to lead a sane national conversation when you have high ranking military officers running around undermining this position, and using their funding to buy "strategic assessments" and press to argue the opposite.

    Obama may think we can absorb it, but his "subordinates" are using people like Steve Biddle and Fred Kagan and Max Boot and John Nagl as surrogates to argue that we have to be in Afghanistan because of terrorism. Makes you wonder who is working for whom.

    But at least now, can we once and for all dispense with the fiction that what Petraeus is up to reflects the President's will as opposed to a carefully orchestrated media/bureaucratic/political effort to thwart the president's preferences?

    Sorry to thread-jack, and feel free to delete if you want, but it strikes me that focusing on the comment rather than the dysfunctional policy process that makes the comments seem incongruous is an example of missing the forest for the trees.

  6. @ Gulliver

    I completely agree, the problem is the political reality the President faces if in fact an attack happens. If one would, and it could be linked back in some way to Afghanistan/Pakistan, then if we're still running around in the sandbox, he's got political cover of "hey I was doing everything I could". If we're out, or with a vastly diminished presence, he'll get crucified by the opposition.

    From the excerpts leaked today, and putting into context what's been "known" before, it seems it was ultimately a political triangulation by the President. No option by themself was palatable, but meshed what appears to have been his preference (up and leave) with the political cover of staying a bit longer, with the benefit that if it actually works (I define works being AQ isn't setting up again anytime in the next decade and the Taliban are having to at least play nice) he can get the credit.

    As to your opinion that the sane conversation by the President would include the costs of staying for what we are actually getting, I agree. But I don't think its a political winner, and probably a political detriment. More importantly, I think that's his, and his staff's view. So it either gets pushed aside or softpedaled because of the domestic political pushback it would get. So in the meantime they are left with pushing concepts like "resiliance".

    So what's the gameplan? Win a second term and then introduce it into the national discussion as reelection to the executive branch is no longer an issue for the President. It's too bad Lincoln was assassinated when he was, because it might have been a somewhat parallel track for us to compare historically if he had lived to see the reintegration of the South during Reconstruction (assuming he wouldn't have turned all FDR after two terms). He would have been "free" to push his more moderate reforms on the South than the more punitive ones pushed by the Radical Republicans after his death.

  7. I agree with most of what's been said. The president should take the iniative to start a sane national security dialogue. It' also political suicide to try and do so. He should do it now, becasue for 9 years, it hasn't been all that sane, and the spending levels are becoming unmanagable.

    My added comment here is to ask a question. If we assume two things, 1. that we as a nation can withstand another 9/11, and 2. that eventually we will leave Af/Pak before we "defeat Islamic extremism".... What happens if that 9/11, or larger, or smaller, event occurs in the U.S. and is found to originate again from the Af/Pak area? Our response could be unfathomably destructive to all parties.

    I'm not meaning to use the above example as an excuse to stay, only as another way of getting at the "safe havens" argument of national security.

  8. Again, my point is that it is not in the president words that you can find a mismatch or contradiction. He says we'll do everything we can to prevent an attack, and he says that involves increasing and capacity in the region, which (by his actions) apparently involves doing what we're doing there. The issue you can find is in any of the factual questions on which that chain of reasoning, or in the overall question of whether the thing he's holding out as needing prevention (a 9/11-level attack) is worth. By all means, the president should foster realistic discussion of all those questions, though at the same time he needs to take a position and lead on them, not just debate. Regardless, we should have those debates. But the view that these various quantities are not in balance amounts to a particular position you can take in those debates: formally, the president's words are not at odds with each other. So I am saying, let's just go ahead and have the debate about the relative values in question and not try to play semantic gotcha, because we really don't have the goods on the president here in the way this posts suggests. After all, in the same breath that he says we could absorb another attack, he also says we'll do "everything we can" to stop one, which immediately eliminates in terms of his own words the policy consequence of his "absorb" comment. IN his view, we can absorb it, but we have to do everything we can to stop it, and that involves solving AfPak. There's no conceptual contradiction there, only vast fields for debate about empirical facts and the relative value of outcomes of various probabilities, associated risks, and expenditures, which is the same debate that is ongoing, on which we know where the president stands, but in which we can continue to vigorously argue that he should change his positions.

  9. Gulliver, how well do you think the international financial system and economy could survive a nuclear strike against a major global population and economic center?

    I think there is a significant risk that such a nuclear strike would set off a financial panic.

    In late 2008, banks almost stopped lending to each other, causing nearly every large financial institution in the world to fail simultaneously, and for the global payment system to stop functioning. I.E. no one in the world able to get their checks cashed, withdraw money from their accounts at ATM machines, inability to send wire transfers.

    In late 2008 the world very nearly had a financial meltdown induced global depression. [Including food shortages around the world since transportation companies would be unable to buy gas to transport food.]

    The global financial system remains fragile. Could it survive a nuclear hit from AQ linked Takfiri extremists? Uncertain.

    There is a significant risk AQ linked Takfiri networks might steal Pakistani WMDs and use them in a terrorist attack against Russia, Europe, India, North America or some Shiite population center. I don't think an attack against Shiite population centers would set off a global depression, but a WMD strike against North America, Europe, Russia or India might

    This is arguably the most important reason to prevent Pakistani WMDs from falling into the hands of Takfiri extremists.

    The question then becomes how to cost effectively transform Pakistan into a successful free country that is able to defeat extremists [similar to Malaysia, India, Indonesia or Turkey] over the long run, and prevent Pakistan from falling in the short/intermediate run.

    This is by far the primary reason for the international involvement in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has little else of global strategic or economic value other than its relationship with Pakistan.

  10. The question then becomes how to cost effectively transform Pakistan into a successful free country that is able to defeat extremists [similar to Malaysia, India, Indonesia or Turkey] over the long run, and prevent Pakistan from falling in the short/intermediate run.

    Imagining that this can be effected through war in a neighboring country is the very height of stupidity (or to be more charitable, magical thinking).

    Anand, I'm going to be frank: I find your repeated and only very marginally relevant filibustering on this subject to be unoriginal, boring, and (in a dramatic feat of understatement:) unconvincing.

  11. Most of the commentators here know my proposed solution to Afghanistan . . . for the international community to give them $300 billion in grants over 20 years [$200 billion to fully fund the ANSF, $60 billion to fund non ANSF related education, $40 billion to fund Afghan physical CAPEX (transportation, power, sewege)], and for international financial institutions to lend Afghanistan another $50 billion that the GIRoA can use for additional physical investments and short term health care expenditures. [To be repaid over several decades with natural resource royalties.]

    I haven't seen any proposals suggesting how the GIRoA/ANSF can win its war with AQ/Taliban with less than $350 billion, $300 billion of which would be grants. Does anyone have any ideas?

  12. "Imagining that this can be effected through war in a neighboring country is the very height of stupidity (or to be more charitable, magical thinking)."

    Gulliver, do you think Pakistan could survive the full brunt of the Taliban [Lashkar al Zil/Iyas Kashmiri + TTP + TNSM + Siraj + LeT/JeM + Lashkar e Jhanvi]? If the GIRoA/ANSF are defeated, this is very likely what would happen.

    "I find your repeated and only very marginally relevant filibustering on this subject to be unoriginal, boring, and (in a dramatic feat of understatement:) unconvincing." Translation, you don't think Pakistan is likely to collapse into chaos and civil war in which many hundreds of thousands of people probably die if the Taliban defeats the GIRoA in Afghanistan.

    Can you explain your rationale?

  13. To articulate our differences.

    I think that complete Taliban victory over GIRoA almost inevitably leads to Pakistani civil war which kills hundreds of thousands or more. You, Gulliver, don't agree.

    Maybe, over the next few weeks, you might think about writing an article explaining why you don't think a complete Taliban victory west of the Durand leads to Pakistani civil war.

    Thinking out-load, the only way I can see a full scale Pakistani civil war being avoided is if the Pakistani Army renews its historic alliance with Al Qaeda and Taliban linked networks. This isn't likely, because too many Pakistanis are now too angry with their former allies. But it is possible.

    Is a third scenario possible [besides full Pakistani civil war, Pakistani/AQ/Taliban alliance]? If so, what is it?

  14. Anand--I don't agree with Gulliver on all of this and I also don't agree with you. A suggestion though: go read Gilles Dorronsoro's work. I think you'll find it interesting.

  15. Oh crap--that was me at 1231. Wasn't logged in. And to be clear, I don't necessarily agree with all of GD either. Once I've sorted it out, I'll post something.

  16. Lil, thanks for expressing yourself politely. ;-)

    Lil, if the Taliban were to overrun all of Afghanistan, do you see any possibility other than:
    1) full scale Pakistani civil war that kills hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis and leaks out of Pakistan's borders [in the form of terrorist attacks against international Shiite population centers, Russia, Europe, North America, Europe, Xinjiang, Thailand, Indonesia, Phillipines]
    2) A renewed Pakistani Army, Taliban and Al Qaeda alliance. [unlikely]

    If so what is this possibility? I don't see it.

    Sure the above is a red herring since the international community will not let it happen; even Gilles would advocate international training, equipping, funding, advising of the ANSF to prevent the fall of Northern and Western Afghanistan, probably for the very reasons mentioned above. Even if America betrayed the ANSF/GIRoA, likely Russia, India, Iran and Turkey would help the GIRoA/ANSF hang on in parts of Afghanistan as Afghanistan plunged into a generational civil war that likely kills hundreds of thousands or millions of Afghans.

    I disagree with some of Gilles' assumptions. I think international funding, equipping, training and advising can be more successful than he does. Gilles seems to believe that long term civil war--horrific though it is--in Afghanistan and Pakistan is inevitable and the international community should be focused on cost effectively containing it rather than preventing it.

    Gilles favors a smaller international effort to fund, equip, train and advise the ANSF than I do. Be interested in knowing Gilles' perspective on bringing Pakistan, India, Russia into NTM-A in a large way. [All want to join, however the Afghans have refused to let Russia and Pakistan train ANSF to date. America has blocked Indian participation.]

    In my view ISAF should give GIRoA a public ultimatum. Accept Russian and Pakistani help to train ANSF or else ISAF will reconsider support for GIRoA/ANSF. Be curious to know if Gilles agrees.

  17. Complicated discussion. As usual, above my head. This is an interesting point (and horrific, as stated):

    "Gilles seems to believe that long term civil war--horrific though it is--in Afghanistan and Pakistan is inevitable and the international community should be focused on cost effectively containing it rather than preventing it."

    I'd be interested to hear your views Lil, if you've got time :) Sorry I haven't commented much lately. Alas, busy at work.

  18. I'm really sorry but I don't have time to get into this. Too much other stuff (work) going on. Getting the work done involves sorting this out though so I'll be back once that's done...

  19. Oh, of course, Lil! It was rude of me to make a request when your time is limited.

    How about I pop into the comments section, now and then, with links that might be of help to you and the others?

    That sounds like a plan! :)

  20. That wasn't rude at all Madhu--no worries. If you have links though, I'm always up for those!