At my Daybook today I link to a remarkable Garry Wills blog item at The New York Review of Books site, in which he reveals that he is breaking a kind of embargo a year after he and other historians had dinner with President Obama. It seems that most of them warned him about the "folly" of continuing/escalating in Afghanistan—and Wills is sad and angry that the President didn't listen one bit.
But warnings to Obama from reputable people had come long before that. The New York Times, for example, assembled a group of them who raised serious questions in November 2008, just three weeks after Obama won election.
In his race for the White House, Barack Obama called long and often for sending many more troops to Afghanistan (even before we withdrew quite a few from Iraq). It was a required thing to say on the campaign trail to show toughness and also to make the politically winning point that President Bush had fought the wrong war, in Iraq, when we had not yet cleaned out Afghanistan.
Did he really mean it, many wondered? If so, was it really the right thing to do, especially with our chief national security threat now coming from within—in the form of our economic crisis?
The New York Times in late November 2008 presented a host of op-eds on Iraq and Afghanistan, including one from a guy named Rumsfeld and another from someone called Chalabi. The ones related to the Afghan conflict should have raised questions for readers, and I hope, the Obama team. Just as the new pieces appeared, the Karzai government revealed that Obama had called the nation's leader and pledged to increase US support. And the NATO commander said he wanted to nearly double troop strength there.
The prevous August, I devoted a column to this subject after a brief flurry of front-page articles on Afghanistan arrived to mark US deaths there finally hitting the 500 mark. The war in Afghanistan, long overlooked, was now getting more notice, I observed, before asking: "But does that mean the US, finally starting (perhaps) to dig out of Iraq, should now commit to another open-ended war, even for a good cause, not so far away?"
Nearly everyone in the media, and on the political stage, still called this the "good war." Few voices in the mainstream media—and even in the liberal blogosphere—had tackled this subject, partly because of long arguing for the need to take on Afghanistan as opposed to the "bad war" in Iraq. But now some commentators were starting to sound off on the dangers.
Thomas Friedman, more prescient here that he'd been on Iraq, had just warned, "The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want....Obama needs to ask himself honestly: "Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?'"
Then, in that post-election op-ed group—none of them lefty peaceniks—the New York Times offered hard-boiled Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who warned: "Leaks of a new National Intelligence Estimate have shown that we are now losing the war for several reasons: a lack of Afghan competence; a half-hearted Pakistani commitment to the fight; a shortage of American, NATO and International Security Assistance Force troops; too few aid workers; and nation-building programs that were designed for peacetime and are rife with inefficiency and fraud."
Rory Slaughter, former British Foreign Service officer: "Afghanistan does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks. Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.
"President-elect Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs—the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.…
"When the decision was made to increase troops in 2005, there was no insurgency. But as NATO became increasingly obsessed with transforming the country and brought in more money and troops to deal with corruption and the judiciary, warlords and criminals, insecurity in rural areas and narcotics, it failed. In fact, things got worse. These new NATO troops encountered a fresh problem—local Taliban resistance—which has drawn them into a counterinsurgency campaign."
And finally, Donald Rumsfeld—you remember him—former secretary of defense: "The way forward in Afghanistan will need to reflect the current circumstances there—not the circumstances in Iraq two years ago. Additional troops in Afghanistan may be necessary, but they will not, by themselves, be sufficient to lead to the results we saw in Iraq. A similar confluence of events that contributed to success in Iraq does not appear to exist in Afghanistan.…
"Left unanswered in the current debate is the critical question of how thousands of additional American troops might actually bring long-term stability to Afghanistan—a country 80,000 square miles larger than Iraq yet with security forces just one-fourth the size of Iraq's. Afghanistan also lacks Iraq's oil and other economic advantages. It is plagued by the narcotics trade. Its borders are threatened by terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. Fractured groups of Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border do not yet appear willing to unite and take on the insurgents in their midst, as Arab tribes did in Iraq.
"Further, Afghanistan has a long history of defeating foreign armies that sought strength in numbers. The Soviet Union tried to occupy Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of troops—and withdrew, defeated and broken. More United States troops could raise tensions, particularly in Afghanistan's Pashtun south, where the insurgency is strongest."
Today, the media is filled with new warnings—from a GOP congressman in Utah to Maureen Dowd. But Obama has heard it all before, going back to, as we've seen, November 2008. Clearly a stronger outcry—in Congress, in the media, in the streets—is now required.