The Great Debate

Obama’s good war goes bad

By Bernd Debusmann
November 5, 2009

Bernd DebusmannIn the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the most concise analysis so far has come from America’s top soldier: “If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance (there), then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking two days after Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, by default, in August elections so massively rigged that a U.N.-backed electoral complaints committee threw out about a million Karzai votes. That forced a run-off from which his challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, saying the second round would be just as fraudulent as the first.

So much for an exercise in democracy President Barack Obama had used as his rationale for escalating the war a few months after he took office. “I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important.”

It was. It showed that the United States and its NATO allies are fighting on the side of a corrupt and discredited government in a war, now in its ninth year, for which, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, there can be no purely military solution.

An angry assessment of the Afghan leader last year by Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, has proved prophetic. Karzai, he said, had been playing the Americans like a fiddle ever since he came to power. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”

U.S. officials, including Admiral Mullen, are now calling on Karzai to purge Afghanistan of corrupt officials by arresting and prosecuting them. This is an unlikely prospect. In his victory speech, Karzai said he would work to wipe off “the stain of corruption” but said that could not be done simply by removing corrupt officials.

The implicit notice that there would be no major house-cleaning followed a telephone call Obama made to Karzai to say it was time for “a new chapter based on improved governance (and) a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption…” If previous promises from Karzai are any guide, the new chapter will remain unwritten.


Obama is close to making a decision on a request by General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan for as many as 40,000 additional troops. If the president followed the logic of Admiral Mullen’s analysis, he would send none. But he will, because he is boxed in by his own portrayal of Afghanistan as the “good war” (as opposed to the war in Iraq) and his definition of why the U.S. must be in Afghanistan.

“This is not a war of choice,” he said in a speech in August. “This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

One of the most passionate arguments against this reasoning has come from Matthew Hoh, the first State Department official to resign in protest over the war. Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain, said in his letter of resignation that if the U.S. strategy really was to prevent al-Qaeda from regrouping in Afghanistan, then America should also invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – all countries with an al-Qaeda presence.

“Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. To…follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”

Instead, he wrote, the U.S. was following the example of the Soviet Union, a previous and unsuccessful occupier, by bolstering a failing state.

66 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

the western leaders will cause the peoples of Muslim descent to rebel as they did against the Russians we cant and will not win the type of victory that we the uk won over the Argentine junta we must work to build a human bond to stop the killing of our young troops af all national armers that come
together to fight this is the war to stop the supply of the moneys that come from the globe trade in heron that kill the young no combatants and youth of the west the money that is made feeds the terrorist war on us infidels of the western world .as we in the west will feed on our own kind to ……………? rsvp

Posted by jeffrey smith | Report as abusive

I TOTALLY agree – more troops CANNOT “win.” NATO is up against a thousand-year tradition of tribal warfare (vs democracy) + Afghan-and Pakastani poverty and ignorance + Madrasas turning out endless young Taliban zealots in Pakastan and elsewhere + religious fanataacism including seeing death as a blessed event + cultural resentmrent against western occupatiuon. We need more infiltrators and special-ops forces, not more GIs! Oh – and note the media’s total avoidance of defining the specific criteria for “winning the war.”


Once again no one has a clue what conservatism is and what conservative principles are.

Liberal=interventionist foreign policy

Conservative=neutral foreign policy

Just because 6 million dead people in Vietnam wasn’t enough for some of you doesn’t make you a conservative, and just because some people have accepted reality and aren’t too stubbornly blind to see we’ve lost in Afghanistan doesn’t mean they’re liberal.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

afg & nam are two sides of one coin: conservatives detest anyone who is not one of them or who does not tow their political line. (as that amiable dunce, w, put it: ‘you are either with us or against us…’) however, what conservatives detest, they try to destroy! that’s why we have all of these ‘war on …’ whatevers. war is the conservative mind set. divide and conquer is their fundamental tactic (see above) and it has been instrumental in the establishment of the colonial world which continues to fall away. the whole notion of the ‘country’ of afghanistan is a colonial construct of the british imperial class. what could be more ‘conservative’ than that? the last i heard, the us strategy will be to separate the afgs into those ‘good’ afgs that just want live quietly and make money from those afgs that want to make trouble (i.e., get the us out of their home). thus, the us strategy is to create a civil war in afghanistan and orchestrate its movements. that way, the us can take one step back and say to the world: ‘see…we’re not doing it, they’re doing it to themselves. they need our help.’ hmmm…think i’ve seen this scenario somewhere before…was it nam? nah, couldn’t have been. there was only good nams and bad nams and we were on the side of the good ones! (of course, even the good ones had to shoot somebody in the head in front of the cameras of the world from time to time…)

Posted by dr arp | Report as abusive

The whole World is worried about this challenge, not the US only. Nothing wrong with stepping out of the box, or changing the colour of the paint and brush size, we all do it, with varied degrees of success. Escalating the situation will be like poor territorial chemotherapy, topped up with low grade morphine in a cancer ward, to end up alone and confused in a crappy room in some frail care institution, on heroine. As a finance columnist pointed out lately:- the cure could destroy the patient. Mufaso is also right, I would rather die at home in that case.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

There are so many cross-currents, it’s dizzying even to the best minds and hearts. Here’s what I would suggest: muster the biggest Afghani army possible, along with the biggest Pakistani Army possible, and squeeze the Taliban and Al Qaeda from both directions, with the goal of hammering Al Qaeda, and finally getting Bin Laden and his main support leaders.

Go in with 150,000-200,000 additional U.S. troops and international troops. I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but we either use overwhelming force, and in the process upset the Afghani’s for awhile until we can get the job done, and all the while win the psychological war by informing them what we are doing, why and for how long, or fail, fail, fail because we didn’t go in and get the job done.

Also inform the Afghani people when we are leaving – and leave when we say we will. We either fight or pussy-foot around and ultimately fall on our faces and get a whole country, region and religion to hate us even more than they do now. We need to recruit the Afghan population to back this move, or we need to get out – now. There’s no middle ground. It’s either hammer and win, or leave. Put it to the Afghan people: this is what we are proposing to do. Let them have a say. It’s their country. We can do it the way that is agreed upon, or pull out. It’s their decision, not ours. What if the U.S. was in the same position? Would we want thousands of troops occupying our country? No way. Let the Afghan people decide their own fate.

If they want us, we need to fight like hell for one year, and have the goal to get out at the appointed time, unless they overwhelmingly want us to stay. During this one year period, take part of the 150,000 troops and have them begin a ubber-accelerated crash-course with the heavily recruited Afghani army, and train them to fight like hell for the government. Train the police force in the same way. Give everyone in the police and army lie-detector tests if necessary to make sure they’re not traitors. Also begin a crash-course with Karzai and government officials to clean house, stop corruption, come down on those who are corrupt with the hammer of the law, and teach Karzai and others the fundamentals of doing good governance. If they don’t upgrade Karzai and see results, and upgrade his role as leader of the country along with the Afghan loyalists, the government will weaken and fail – without doubt.

I know these are harsh options, but harsh circumstances require a fiery response. Let’s end it once and for all and do what ever we have to do to get Bin Laden but do it in a way that it looks like it’s a clear mandate from the Afghan citizenry. Also offer a Billion dollars for the capture of Bin Laden and we’ll save a huge amount of money and lives in the long run. :-)

Posted by John Parker | Report as abusive

Obama and the Democrats campaigned since 2004 that we should be “expanding” the war in Afghanistan. Bush refused and focused on Iraq and won Iraq. Bush focused the troops in Afghanistan along the mountains/the border of Pakistan and things have remained stable. Obama removed the troops from borders so that the army could “patrol” the cities as sitting ducks and now the Taliban is streaming in and “shazam” american forces are being killed in record numbers. This is Obama’s wars. All of them.


“If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance (there), then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”
I’m afraid this applies equally to both Kabul & Washington DC.

Posted by Sam K | Report as abusive

We’re going to lose.

No, not in Helmand – that’ll remain a low intensity struggle for a couple of months… then it will turn stable.

We’re going to lose in the Sat valley in Pakistan. Not today… nor tomorrow. But certainly within the next three years.

You see, the Taliban is like quicksilver. It won’t stay put. Push it here – and it just goes somewhere else.

Western strategists have a geo-political based mindset… we think in terms of borders, terrain, geographical locations. The Taliban do not. Their strategies are based on dogma. They do not care if they establish in Helmand, or in Sat. Anywhere will do.

But we care… or we should. Strategically, I’d rather have the Taliban in Helmand than in the Sat valley (since it is already clear that we will not be able to destroy them totally).

In Helmand, NATO can fight the Taliban. But not so in the Sat valley. There we would have to rely on Pakistan to get the job done. And that raises two questions for the medium term:
a. Can they?
b. Do they want to?

So we face a predicament. If we defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, it will only result in their appearance in some other place – and almost certainly a place where we will like them even less than in Afghanistan. So we cannot afford to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But it is a bad idea to allow the Taliban to retake Afghanistan as well.

Is there an answer? No. The US and NATO will ‘surge’. The Taliban will relocate to Pakistan. Pakistan will become embroiled in an internal war of increasing intensity. And as the threat levels increase, I wonder what India and the PRC will do?

Like a fool, I breathed a sigh of relief with the fall of the USSR… no more threats of nuclear war. Thinking back now, at least the Soviet leadership didn’t glorify senseless death.

Posted by Raven | Report as abusive

They’re on the right track now; i.e. put 10-15K troops in immediately to crash-train the Afghan army and local police. And while they’re doing it, make sure the training programs highly secured, and out of harms way. Train them in hard-to-reach areas so the Taliban won’t be able to get at them.

Simultaneously, deploy a super-tough-well-manned-counter-insurgen cy-strike-force that uses ALL of the best technology and weaponry we have, and go get Bin Laden, with as much assistance of Afghanistan and Pakistan that we can get. And they have to have NATO and other organizations participate BIG TIME compared to their current commitment. This has to be a global effort and seen as such, not just a U.S. effort. Otherwise, we get all the blame when things go bad.

Also, secure small areas, and have the Army Corp. of Engineers help improve the Afghan infrastructure in those areas. This will win hearts and minds. In addition, once a rural/farming area is secured, hire expertise to destroy the poppy crops, and plant money-making alternative crops while monetarily subsidizing their loss for the short-term until they can get other crops to produce and make a profit. They may have to pay the farmers to do this kind of transition, but so what? In the long run it’ll be cheaper than losing thousands of lives and spending billions fighting a war NO ONE can win, especially when Karzai and his government is corrupt to the core.

Posted by JP | Report as abusive

JP’s, these are larger than life numbers, almost as large as the real close-out of World War Two, carpet bombing of slaughterhouses’ in fives in Dresden, Germany. You sound like a war veteran, so you should therefore know that crash-training = cannon fodder and body bags.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

more US/UK soldiers have died in iraq and afghanistan that civilians who died on 9/11.

invading other countries has never produced a good outcome for anyone. bring the troops home as it’s a waste of time, lives and money…

the problem of east/west relations is a bit like palestine-israel… occupying their country isn’t going to win hearts and minds…

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

Obama’s whole approach to war, per se, is going bad. While the US should set an example by dismantling nuclear warheads, he goes and tells the whole world over the weekend that the US will retain the ‘stick’, instead of dangling a carrot. That’s very humble pie and Warm War behavior. If one bomb gets dropped, everybody will drop theirs. If nobody drops its bomb, nobody will want to drop their bomb. Why not simply dismantle as nobody really wants to drop a bomb and turn to using GM food as WMD ? Mark, many more people than 3000 have died in NATO attacks, the only difference, it was not in one building complex in one go, nor was a civilian aircraft used.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

Probably he has information that is too confidential for disclosure.
There is always the “what if” situation. What if withdrawal from Afghanistan leads to the next 9/11? What if sending more troops increase regional instability?


Obama will never win the war in Afghanistan unless he ousts the Kazai’s government. I have a best strategic plan for the war as I have studied the Vietnam war. There are many Kazai’s officials are making huge $$$ by selling information to their enemies. The US failed in Vietnam, because many seniors of US-Backed Sai Gon government worked for the Communist North. Secret intelligence that is crucial to defeat the enemy had been leaked to the North. The US should have to learn more from Vietnam, the future failure of the Afghan war will be the same. The US built government officials who were very poor in the past have become blind by the flow of US$ and aids. Kazai and his supporters benefited from this. What can we do? The best solution to it is to get rid of Kazai. If not give him a timetable of 5 years to build a trusted government for its people or he will be killed by his enemy. Additionally, the US should conduct a survey to understand the wish of Afghan people as without the support of the local people, the failure is inevitable. The communist won the war in many countries because they spread the ideology of “people are the owner of the country” not the rich. Bring the people to the table, the US will win.

Posted by Tri Nguyen | Report as abusive

The war in Afghanistan has stopped being a practical matter of securing American freedom (not that it ever was). It has turned into a political quagmire. No matter what the president does he will be criticized. And if that’s going to be the case anyway, then better to take the criticism while sparing the blood of our protectors.

His enemies will attack his actions and point out all of the reasons getting out is a bad idea. But at least there will be no more American blood being spilled just
because old men don’t know how to get along.

First America needs to take the log out of its own eye before it can see clearly enough to remove the specks from the eyes of other nations.


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