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Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I watched Obama's West Point speech last night, in which he stated and attempted to justify his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. It was beautifully written, eloquently delivered, and utterly incoherent. Let me explain.

The premise of the speech is that the presence of Al Qaida in safe havens on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a threat to the national security of the United States sufficient to demand military action. His brief and formulaic defense of this thesis was a citation of 9/11 and the statement that in the past several months, the United States has foiled efforts on American soil to mount new terrorist attacks. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the premise [although I believe that it is gravely flawed and, as stated, untrue.] As President and Commander in Chief, Obama said, he has a constitutional duty to respond to this threat.

The response will consist of sending 30,00 additional troops, starting early in the new year, whose mission, along with the troops already in Afghanistan, will be three-fold: To reverse the Taliban military advances that have placed the present government and the American troops in an eroding and defensive military position; to train Afghan security forces so that they can themselves deal with the Taliban; and to disrupt Al Qaida by putting additional pressure on their borderland safe havens, this last in cooperation with Pakistan.

And in 18 months we will begin the orderly withdrawal of our troops.

Say what? if the presence of Al Qaida in the border areas is a threat to our national security now, then their presence in those areas in eighteen months, should they still be there, will STILL be a threat to our national security. If disrupting them [not killing them, note, or defeating them, or wiping them out, note] is an appropriate response to this threat to our national security now, then it will be an appropriate response for as long as they remain relatively well-organized and protected in those areas. How then can Obama possibly decide, now, to withdraw in eighteen months?

Fine words and an eloquent delivery cannot remove the contradiction at the heart of this new policy.

But the premise is flawed and the inference from the premise is inconsequent. Al Qaida is not a threat to our national security, at least as that term used to be used. Al Qaida is not capable of mounting an attack on the United States. It is capable, as it has shown, of carrying out terrorist attacks on U. S. soil, one of which, unpredictably, was hideously successful. I say unpredictably because the planners of that coordinated attack did not themselves expect that the twin towers would be totally destroyed. The death toll that day was 3,000. That is roughly a third of the number of people who die each day in America. The economic effect on America was small enough to make virtually no impact on national income statistics. Not to put too fine an edge on it, the damage done to America by Goldman Sachs and AIG was immeasurably greater. Each year, fifteen times as many people die in the United States because they are medically uninsured. The appropriate response to Al Qaida is steady, sophisticated, unrelenting anti-terrorism police work, both at home and abroad, of the sort that Great Britain for many years mounted against the IRA [never mind the rights and wrongs of that matter].

Will Obama's three-pronged strategy work? Of course not! The increase in American forces will inflict a number of defeats on the Taliban, but they have been devastated before and they are still there. Does anyone think they will not be there in eighteen months? The efforts to "train Afghan security forces" will fail. Why? Because their inability to enforce the central government's will in Afghanistan is not a result of inadequate training. The Taliban have had no training at all, nor have they been the recipients lately of American weapons [they were, of course, armed and in effect brought into existence by America during the Russian occupation, but that is another matter, and best forgotten.] Will the Kharzai government end corruption? of course not. What we call corruption is the way in which public affairs are organized in Afghanistan. Oh, some cosmetic changes will be made. Hillary Clinton will yell at Kharzai a bit. But does anyone suppose there will be a fundamental and irreversible change in the way Afghans do business, in eighteen months? To ask the question is to answer it.

This is now Obama's war. And it will be the downfall of his presidency, even though I fully expect that he will be re-elected in 2012.


NotHobbes said...

So what if Al Qaida and the Taliban simply disperse, melt away into the hills and reform their units there in 16 months time, just enough preparation time to give departing US troops an almighty bloody nose?
It would all too easy for them to do something of that nature.
American(And British) lives will be lost for no reason at all.
Further escalation
Depressing thought.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, and in the so-called tribal areas, it is not the Taliban who asre giving Al Qaida safe haven, but tribal groups fiercely independent of the Pakistani [not Afghan] government. It is a hopeless "fool's errand," as Democratic Representative David Obey called it.

NotHobbes said...

A fools errand indeed.
The Jester won`t be paying so high a price as those unfortunate enough to be sent on his errand though.

Unknown said...

I would like to focus on the parenthetical comments: "The Taliban have had no training at all, nor have they been the recipients lately of American weapons [they were, of course, armed and in effect brought into existence by America during the Russian occupation, but that is another matter, and best forgotten.]"

How are we to better understand the origin of these "terrorist" groups, and their appeal? Is it "religion" again, or anti-imperialism, or anti-modernity? I would think that understanding the origin might better guide present policy (except that Obama is also a student of history and knows far more about Muslim culture than I do).

NotHobbes said...

"Obama is also a student of history and knows far more about Muslim culture than I do" and he no doubt has a whole host of well informed advisors; making his decision all the more baffling.
When even an ordinary Joe in the street can see that the Taliban are not going to be fazed in the slightest-indeed they may well be rejoicing; looking forward to more sympathy, more recruits, more money from around the world- then one has to question the competency of the most powerful man on earth.
This decision, along with his pledge to close guantanamo and subsequent backtracking, have seen his standing rapidly decline with a lot of Europeans

Robert Paul Wolff said...

In response to Ann: The Taliban are not, of course, by anyone's definition, a terrorist group. They are religious fundamentalists who seek to establish what they believe to be a religiously appropriate society in Afghanistan [which is to say, a society that, among other things, hideously oppresses women.] Their relationship with Al Qaida is, so far as I can tell, purely self-interested on both sides. Such evidence as I have seen suggests that world-wide, what prompts the use of "terror" as a tactic is foreign occupation, more than any other factor.

I have just been watching Clinton, Gates, and Mullin testify before a joint session of several Congressional committees, and they are now massively backing away from the commitment to withdraw in eighteen months. This is not going to end well.

Unknown said...

I think it is a political move. USA thought that it would be a easy fight and were wrong. Now, they've made a mess in Afghanistan and can't leave things like that. Not because of good will, it is because USA is loosing the chair of ruler, even here in Latin America -just see the problem in Honduras that Brazil is questioning USA decisions. Thus, Obama need to straight things up, even if things are not straightened up de facto, so this problem will not be used to prove a weakness of their methods.

Unknown said...

From my (perhaps parochial) perspective living near NYC, and also as an economist: markets do not work if people fear IEDs and suicide bombs, whether bazaars or malls. Terrorism has very serious consequences. 9/11 helped to bring about a major recession. Individuals who are willing to die are a major whatever scale. Our modern high-tech weapons may not be a match....underscoring Rodrigo's point re: US decline. This decision by Obama may hasten the decline, not avoid it...especially since the US can no longer afford the financial and human costs of the war.

But what is the alternative? No one can prosper in fear and uncertainty...or merely live, if that life is surrounded by fear and destruction.

NotHobbes said...

I am loathe to say this Ann, but living in fear of terrorism is something that had little(if any) impact on the British way of life for decades.

I agree that Obama`s decision will floor the accelerator in America`s decline. I can only see this conflict escalating and the US becoming entrenched there for decades.

Unknown said...

Even for the British, I suspect that defending against terrorism can be somewhat costly. Witness the impact on the airline industry in the US after 9/11. On the other hand, this serves as a stimulus to the "security" industry, let us call it, with contractors and computers developed for surveillance of all kinds. [But from this we at least have the defense spin-off of the internet. :-) ] But please be assured, I would much prefer economic stimulus policies other than another extended war...for everyone, health, and international aid...which may be more effective than the well.

Maciek said...

Hallo! My name is Maciek Chmielinski, and I come from Poland. One of the Polish postpunk-bands -"Kult" - sings: "I don’t believe the politicians"; I remember about this sentence especially when I hear politicians telling about interests with the language of values. I don't know, or Mr. President USA Barack Obama is doing this, but as a citizen of the little and not important Country in Central Europe, which send military groups to Afghanistan to help the USA, I fully agree with opinion that we should "take our bags" and leave Afghanistan, Iraque or Tschetschenia (how to write that in English?) so quickly as it possible. This is of course an objective fact, that the Afghan-Pakistan border is an area, where many of terrorist groups have a good place to train the murderous skills and - maybe - live "like in heaven"(I doubt it, but probably Mr. President Obama have better information than I). I agree that this is a dangerous "fireplace" of terrorism. But the main question here is the problem - what gives us the right to land in an alien Country and make the war on his territory. Only answer could be: an attack on us. Was the WTC-Tragedy an attack from the Afghanistans side on USA or Poland? No! In my opinion conflict in Afghanistan is another dangerous "casus" in international politics, which helps easy legitimize an unjust aggressions. There is of course a big difference between authoritarian Russia of Wladimir Putin (where, for example, Children in schools take Russian lessons using books about Putin's life - the same practice, like in the USSR-period - with Lenin or "batiushka" Stalin) and the old democracy - USA, but I propose to pay attention, that Russian Army exterminated a big part of Tschetschenian population in the name of fighting with terrorism and narcotic-mafia. And it was an objective fact too, that a lot of people in Tschetschenia dealt with narco-business and terrorism. The same we can say about France or Great Britain; in this Countries a lot of people make the same businesses. Maybe USA and Poland should send there his military groups to help poor French or British people to become free from terrorist and narco-business threat?

Maciek said...

I am really far from thinking in a national (or tribal?) state categories, but with Presidency of Barack Obama I was personally connected hope to change this situation and to end this war, in which are involved American and Polish soldiers. We can looking for terrorist in many countries, but punish the "terrorist-country" with an military aggression, means for me simply not to take seriously an idea of dignity of men, and to treat instrumentally all Afghanian people (not only this, who helps terrorists but this, who not helps them). I know, that this looks probably too simply and black-white, but I am convinced, that we can see war only in two optics: in the optic of strategic games or in the optic of human dignity. There is no other solution, one excludes other. I prefer an optic of dignity of men, because I wouldn't live in a world of "war-lords". I know that after WTC-tragedy many of American people desire the revenge; it is very humanly and fully understood. Till WTC-tragedy Americans have had the luck, not to have the war on his own territory (since very long time); the WTC-Attack have to be really traumatic for them. I think I can a bit understand this trauma, because I come from the Country, where two world wars and 50 years of communism destroyed all high culture and costs a lot of human beings; especially second world war is in Poland very good remembered and really deeply rooted in public mentality. Probably this is one of main reasons, why I am not enthusiastic to war in Afghanistan in spite of that, that I am really afraid of global terrorism. But I am convinced that we should fight with this danger in our own home and don't use a measures, which could be probably proper in wars between Countries, but not against terrorist organizations. This looks like we will struggle against Italian or Russian mafia bombing Rom or Moscow. Best Wishes (English isn't my mothers-tongue, so if something is unclear, please ask, I try explain), Maciek.

Unknown said...

Maciek, your points are very important and very clear. Thank you.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Welcome to the blog, Maciek. Your English is fine. I do not know a word of Polish, even though my father's family came to the United States, by way of Paris, from Suwalki, Poland, near the Lithuanian border. That was in 1880, and our name was Zarembovich then.