War and Peace, by Barack Obama

December 3, 2009

Bernd Debusmann— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

It is a timeline rich in irony. On Dec. 10, Barack Obama will star at a glittering ceremony in Oslo to receive the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. That’s just nine days after he ordered 30,000 additional American troops into a war many of his fellow citizens think the U.S. can neither win nor afford.

Whether the sharp escalation of the war in Afghanistan he ordered on December 1 will achieve its stated aim – disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: more troops equals more fighting equals more deaths — of soldiers, insurgents and the hapless civilians caught in the middle. Not exactly a scenario of peace.

In Oslo, Obama will become the fourth American president (after Jimmy Carter, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt) to be handed the coveted peace medal and invited to give the traditional Nobel Lecture. It is meant to spell out the award winner’s vision of peace, a challenging task for a man who just picked a much bigger war from a range of options that included reducing the U.S. military presence.

Resolving the contradiction will require the mastery of words of Leo Tolstoy, author of the epic novel War and Peace about the run-up to the unsuccessful invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

The deployment Obama announced at the U.S. military academy at West Point will bring U.S. forces to around 100,000, more than three times as many as when the president took office in January. The combined strength of American troops and soldiers from 42 other nations will be 140,000 – the same level as the peak of Soviet forces during an eight-year war that ended in a humiliating defeat.

Obama and his war council are as confident that the U.S. will not share the same fate as they are determined to reject comparisons between the American involvement in Afghanistan and the war in Vietnam. “This argument depends upon a false reading of history,” Obama said in his West Point speech.

Some respected experts disagree. “For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military reenactment of the Vietnam war,” Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason write in the latest issue of Military Review, published by the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center, “and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events 50 years ago is deeply disturbing.”


The alternatives for a new Afghan strategy the president discussed over the past three months in lengthy sessions with his war council included reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan and stepping up missile strikes and special forces operations against al Qaeda militants on the Pakistani side of the border, the region that serves them as a safe haven.

Instead, the president decided on what looks like doubling down on a bad bet.

Obama himself pointed to a big obstacle on the road to success for his war plan: “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not re-emerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.
“And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population.”

The key words are “full support” and Obama did not explain where that might come from. From a corrupt, inefficient government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans? On the Pakistani side, from a weak president with strained relations with the military?

David Obey, a Democratic congressman who will play a key role in the impending Congressional wrangling over how to finance the war, spelt out the problem in an early comment on Obama’s speech: “We can have the most carefully thought out policy in the world but if we do not have the tools on the ground, the odds for success are stacked against us. And right now, the only tools available to us are the Pakistani government and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. Both are incredibly weak reeds to lean on.”

Can those reeds be turned into solid tree trunks? Obama thinks such a near-miraculous transformation can be achieved by setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 by which time, or so the wishful thinking goes, Afghan security forces can fight the insurgents themselves.

The withdrawal deadline has been criticized by Republicans, many of whom – unlike Obama’s own Democrats – applauded the escalation. But Republican critics need not worry – White House officials say July 2011 is the deadline for Americans to begin (the emphasis is on begin) to pull out. No word on how many.

And in any case, the beginning is subject to review in December 2010.

Which almost certainly means the U.S. will be in Afghanistan for the long haul. There is ample time for Obama to work on solutions that would merit a Nobel peace prize. Unlike the one he is getting on Dec. 10 for, as the citation put it, capturing the world’s attention and giving its people hope.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com


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The WAR MACHINE is very healthy in America. We need to get out of Afghanistan asap. So that we cam fight another war somewhere else!

Posted by goyama | Report as abusive

The only way to resolve the contradiction is for the committee who selected Obama to admit they were way too premature.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
-Henry Ford

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

Interesting piece

Posted by Richard Baum | Report as abusive

Obama’s heart is in the right place. He feels some responsibility to the people of Afghanistan and so he wants to create some breathing room for the government to establish itself and provide for its own security.

Unfortunately I don’t agree. The government in that country is corrupt. There doesn’t seem to be very much action taken on the part of the Karzai government to remove the corrupt elements from government.

Then again, that culture has a different understanding of what the rule of law means. We should not be spilling any more American blood. We do not occupy land. We will not take anything away from that country that is of benefit to our society. All we have done is to kill and destroy in the hopes that the current government can clean up and establish itself.

This is not a worthy cause. Bin-Laden is not even on the agenda. And more people have been killed under the guise of pursuing him than were killed in the attacks. War is not the answer. More troops will only end in more death on both sides.

Those fighters have nothing to loose. Their home has been decimated. Our warriors have families and homes to come back to. It’s not worth it to continue fighting. There are better ways to establish lasting peace and we need to explore those ways.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

The key here is that success depends on the Afgans. If they want their country to change, then they will be the key to success. If they prefer corruption and war, then this mission is doomed to failure. I wish I knew what the Afgans were thinking!

Posted by terets | Report as abusive

Perhaps the president should re-name himself, to better reflect his bellicose actions: George W.Obama.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

Very thoughtful article and comments. All I can offer is my personal response to the news: it was sad. But also followed by a feeling like, “well, the boss has made a decision; I don’t like it; Here we go.”

I’d point out this “border,” between Pakistan and Afghanistan is another one of the ‘divide and conquer,’ creations of Western colonialism, as they gleefully carved up the world into little pieces for themselves.

It does seem like war has become part of American business and steps need to be taken to stop that. How?

Well….I put idea on on my site and in political forums. We all can do the same.

Posted by citizenbfk | Report as abusive

Without corporate citizenship it would be near impossible to have a military/industrial complex. It forces personal accountability by removing the vale of false citizenship granted to the amorphous identity of a corporate name.

If reasonably short term limits are imposed on elected representatives, it becomes impossible to build a military industrial complex. Term limits force out old thinking and replaces it with ideas that meet the needs of the times. It also opens the opportunity of service to a much broader pool of talent.

Then war machines can be a thing of the past. And wisdom could establish its place in guiding the affairs of human beings.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

An argument was made to me that term limits would remove a citizen’s freedom to vote for a candidate that has been a consistently good performer.

If a public servant is doing a good job and wishes to continue serving the people, then that person should be free to serve, and the voter should be free to vote.

Although I do think my argument had some good points to it, I can’t argue with the logic. Limiting a freedom such as voting for one’s preferred candidate, is not the way to ensure the very freedom to vote.

So I turn away from calling for term limits in the legislature. There does remain the subject of corporate citizenship however, and there has been no sound reason for it to continue. It was a bad idea when it was first introduced, and it’s a bad idea now. Citizens are individual people. Businesses and other groups are made up of people. And the law of our land already protects our people.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

The concept of corporate entities was introduced back in the roman ages and has been with us since then.

It is as old and solid a principle of law as any other you could care to name. Almost as old as the concept of legal rights or private property rights. And certainly older then very recent legal concepts such as international human rights.

And even if we removed corporate citizenship, it wouldn’t have any effect on the arms industry.

Corporations are individuals. People are individuals. Corporations can manufacture weapons for governments. People can manufacture weapons for governments.

The situation would be exactly the same. The only distinction would be whether people manufacture and sell weapons as a corporation or a partnership. The legality remains the same.

So if there was as you say, a ‘military industrial complex’ that exists, then the difference between corporate and partnership would mean very little.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive