This is the second of two accounts of thinktank evaluations of the war in Afghanistan. The first was a report from the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. Today, the Heritage Foundation.
The highlight of Thursday's event at the Heritage Foundation was analyst Marvin Weinbaum's scathing review of the Afghan elections. Weinbaum, who served as a member of Barack Obama's advisory task force on Afghanistan, is a former analyst for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). His report on the election, where he served as an observer during the vote, contrasted sharply with the happy talk from the administration and from official and semi-official Afghan agencies who presented the vote as an inspiring exercise in democracy.
Weinbaum warned that the election was so grievously flawed that it may serve to further de-legitimize the regime of President Karzai. Turnout was abysmally low, with only about one-third of Afghans going to the polls, and in some districts -- especially in the Pashtun-dominated south -- perhaps between 5 and 15 percent of people voted, he said. On top of that, Weinbaum said, there is evidence of widespread fraud, and virtually all of the main opposition candidates are charging that the election was rigged. More than a thousand specific complaints have been lodged already, he said, adding that he himself saw properly marked ballots for opposition candidates that had been destroyed and left scattered along a roadside. He suggested that it's likely that evidence of fraud and vote-rigging will emerge in the coming weeks, helping to convince Afghans that the election was illegitimate.
On election day, Weinbaum noted, there were hundreds of violent attacks on polling places across the country, yet most of them went unreported because the Afghan government had insisted that the media ignore them. Observers, like himself, observed the vote almost entirely in relatively secure areas, whereas problems occurred elsewhere. He suggested that large-scale stuffing of ballot boxes and manipulation of the tallying of votes occurred.
As a result, he said, "Our entire strategy may be at stake here." Asked Weinbaum: "How can we expect to partner with a government de-legitimized by the very process by which it came to power?" He zinged the Obama administration for having lauded the electoral process, a wrong-headed judgment that will only embarrass the White House when the full details of the rigged nature of the election emerge.
A key point of the Heritage Foundation presenters, including Weinbaum, is that it is critical for the White House to shore up declining political support for the war -- which is already opposed by a majority of Americans, who've told pollsters the war isn't worth fighting. So the White House is caught between two bad options: if it continues to gloss over problems like the fraudulent election, it will develop a Vietnam-like credibility gap as the truth becomes clear. But if Obama tells the truth, an American public already soured on a hopeless war against a vaguely defined enemy ten thousand miles away, with rising US casualties and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions of dollars, is very likely to decide that it's long past time to get out.
The four panelists at the event -- Weinbaum, General David Barno, Lisa Curtis, and David Isby -- all agreed that getting out of Afghanistan would be a first-order catastrophe, but they didn't prove it to me. In fact, it's a difficult case to make. Their argument was: if we leave, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their jihadist allies will gain influence across the region, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Again, as in Vietnam, all the panelists seemed content to make Vietnam-era, domino-theory arguments that the entirety of the Muslim world is at stake. To me, that's a patently absurd argument.
Here's the reality: First, if we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban may or may not take over. Most of the Afghan population hates the Taliban, and the non-Pashtun minorities won't roll over and accept a Taliban victory even if we aren't there to fight alongside them. Second, even if the Taliban do take over, or set up a statelet in the south (consolidating areas already under their control), they may or may not invite Al Qaeda to join them. Al Qaeda already has a base, in Pakistan, and so far they've been unable to use that base to attack much of anything outside the war zone. Besides, the Taliban isn't the same thing as Al Qaeda, and they may find it politic not to re-ally with Osama bin Laden's terrorist band. And third, Taliban-style Islam and Al Qaeda-style terrorism is fast losing support among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia, and there's zero evidence that the re-establishment of a Taliban state in Afghanistan would do much, if anything, to excite Muslims. In fact, it's easier to make the argument that radical Muslim extremists are energized by the US presence in Afghanistan and the concomitant jihad, and that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would calm passions, not inflame them.
Those facts didn't prevent the team at Heritage -- like the team at Brookings two days ago -- from issuing dire warnings about cataclysms to come if the US doesn't prevail.
General Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, stressed in his presentation the importance of domestic US propaganda for the war, saying that a key to the success of the US enterprise in Afghanistan is to "rebuild popular support" for a sustained US effort. Barno's main argument was that the Taliban's strategy is to "run out the clock" -- yes, he used a football analogy! In other words, the Taliban expect that US political support for the war will force a US withdrawal before we can "succeed." (I wanted to ask him if he was aware that precisely the same analogy was used in Vietnam, that the Viet Cong and Hanoi wanted to outlast the US invasion. How ironic.) Okay so far, I guess: but then Barno moved dangerously close to the Republican right's line that anyone who doesn't support the stay-the-quagmire policy is committing treason. "The idea of an exit strategy," said Barno, "plays into the hands of the Taliban strategy." That, to me, is an outrageous affront, as if differing political views about the war are "playing into the hands of the Taliban." Barno should be ashamed oh himself! But he's not. He really believes this crap.
Similar nonsense came from Lisa Curtis, a former Capitol Hill aide now with Heritage, who said that statements about "timelines" -- presumably referring to courageous Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who's challenging Democratic party groupthink -- "encourage the Taliban." Better get on board with our plan, say Barno and Curtis, or you're encouraging the Taliban. (Needless to say, it was the far right, the neoconservatives, and the Reaganauts who spent billions of dollars to support the Islamist nutcases in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, they're very upset about acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping Talibans. But a generation ago, these very same acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping thugs were our anti-Soviet freedom fighters. No apologies were heard at Heritage.)
Comic relief at the Heritage Foundation event was provided by David Isby, a self-described "military expert" and apparent loony right-winger. His two gems: (1) "We need a relationship with Afghanistan like that we have with Israel." And (2) "Every mosque in Afghanistan on Friday preaches propaganda for the enemy." Leaving aside his idiotic comment No, 1, and taking up the second idiotic comment, Isby seems to believe that the problem in Afghanistan is that the people who live there are Muslims. He proposed some cockamamie idea about how America could help reinvent Islam in Afghanistan -- a proposal that, if the Taliban got ahold of it, would adorn every recruiting poster they print. (I know that they don't actually produce recruiting posters. It's a metaphor.)