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Digging Our Grave in the Graveyard of Empires

June 25th, 2010 No comments

What is it about Afghanistan that destroys every empire that tries to hold it? The Soviets, the British…all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great—empires have been destroyed by attempting to invade and occupy this desert.

The only reason the United States is in Afghanistan is because of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda wanted to draw America into a long and costly war that couldn’t be won, slowly draining our economy until we could simply no longer afford an empire. The way things are going, it’s looking like 9/11 will go down in history as the most successful terrorist attack of all time. Thanks to Bush’s knee-jerk reaction to the crisis and the inability of the neoconservatives surrounding him to come up with any response other than a military one, the perpetrators of the attack ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Thanks to an explosive article in Rolling Stone this week in which General Stanley McChrystal shot himself in the foot with a few quotes undermining the civilian command, the media has once again shined the spotlight on Afghanistan. But in typical TV-news fashion, the focus has been almost exclusively on the personal drama between McChrystal and Obama, and almost no attention has been paid to the underlying issue of whether or not our strategy in Afghanistan can actually succeed.

It’s a shame that the bulk of this article, which is actually an extremely well-crafted look at the broader Afghanistan issue, has been ignored while all of the focus has been on the few sections in which McChrystal makes his controversial comments. So I’ll try and pick up the slack by commenting on a few passages speak to the larger story of what’s really going on there.

First of all, you have to understand the nature of our strategy. Proposed by McChrystal himself, the COIN (COunter-INsurgency) strategy would seem on the surface to actually have a chance of working:

COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.

Rather than just killing the “bad guys”, our soldiers would be there to help the civilians, win their hearts and minds, and get them to help us defeat Al Qaeda.

The problem, of course, is that we’re not really fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, for the most part, has moved to Pakistan, and in Afghanistan we’re mostly fighting insurgents who are opposed to U.S. military presence and the Karzai government. The Karzai government itself is notoriously corrupt and likely stole the last election. If this is the government we’re supposed to be defending, it’s no wonder so many Afghanis are against us. It would be as though we sent American troops to quash the Green Revolution in Iran last year after Ahmadinejad stole that election. By propping up Karzai, we’re basically propping up Afghanistan’s Ahmadinejad.

It’s a vicious cycle. Our presence there is a result of the violence, while the violence is a result of our presence there.

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

Another problem with COIN is the lack of any clear picture of what victory would look like:

Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. “This is going to end in an argument.”

Case-in-point: Did we “win” the war in Iraq? Some say yes. Others laugh hysterically at those who say yes. The best case scenario is that the same will eventually go for Afghanistan, many years from now when our country is so broke that today’s economy will seem like the good old days.

Finally, COIN is terribly unpopular among the soldiers themselves:

Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

I don’t really agree with this sentiment because I think soldiers should hold their fire as much as possible, and all-too-often make excuses to shoot first and ask questions later, but if the soldiers actually carrying out the strategy are opposed to that strategy, chances of success are significantly lower.

When all is said and done, the simple question is whether or not we have a real chance of succeeding in Afghanistan. We’re just so busy wrestling with the question of what “success in Afghanistan” could actually mean that it’s impossible to make an accurate assessment of our chances. But the final paragraph of the Rolling Stone article paints a pretty grim picture:

After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack. The very people that COIN seeks to win over – the Afghan people – do not want us there. Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse….So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.

And now, thanks to that very article, Stanley McChrystal is no longer in charge. Obama tapped David Petraeus to carry out the COIN strategy, and as much respect as I and most Americans have for Petraeus (who was doing the right thing in Iraq long before the rest of the military caught on), a hopeless strategy is a hopeless strategy no matter who is in charge.

But I’ll end on a slightly optimistic note regarding General Petraeus. This may be our best opportunity to actually start pulling out of the grave before we’ve dug ourselves in too deep. Obama and the slew of Washington-insiders who surround him have bought into the conventional wisdom that ending the war would be political suicide. He’d be accused of weakness and of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Petraeus, on the other hand, is extremely popular particularly among conservatives. If he were to summon the testicular fortitude to tell the American people like it is—to say to Obama, “I’m sorry but this war can’t be won”—it would give the president exactly the cover he needs to pull out. Right-wing attacks would be blunted before they could even begin, as Obama could make it clear that he was only doing what General Petraeus recommended.

But if Petraeus behaves like a typical general and insists on continuing to fight at all costs, I’m afraid we’re going to be there for a long, long time. The grave we’re digging just keeps getting deeper, and unless someone in a position of power summons the courage to toss political expedience aside and do what’s necessary, it won’t be long before the American Empire finds itself buried beside all who came and failed before us.

Props to Bill O’Reilly

June 25th, 2010 No comments

There are two kinds of conservative talk-show hosts: those who believe in what they say, and those who just pander to right-wing audiences because of all the money to be made in that racket. I’d put almost everyone at Fox News in the latter category, most especially Sean Hannity (a total phony only trying to copy Limbaugh’s success) and Glenn Beck (probably conservative but not nearly as far-right as he pretends to be). The only guy at Fox News who I think is the least bit genuine is Bill O’Reilly.

Don’t get me wrong–I disagree with him on almost everything. But he’s not nearly the demon that many on the left (I’m looking at you, Olbermann) paint him as. If you’re a liberal looking to weigh your opinions against those of an honest conservative (see my post on confirmation bias below), O’Reilly is your best bet.

He’ll go after the bullshitters no matter which side the bullshit is coming from. While the rest of the corporate cronies at Fox News are desperately trying to get their Tea Party audience to see BP as the victim in the aftermath of the oil catastrophe, O’Reilly actually defends the president’s cajoling of BP to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to compensate victims:

Cynics might say that he’s just pandering to his own audience of working-class folks by taking sides against the most unpopular corporation in America, and there may be some truth to that, but I’m willing to bet that deep in his heart of hearts he really does believe that the government ought to force BP to pay up.

And he’s damned right. BP isn’t going to compensate victims out of the goodness of its heart, and people like Michelle Bachman, Joe Barton, Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck and the rest know it. They just take the side of the corporate giant because they’re a part of the same machine. Protecting giant corporations is what pays the bills.

O’Reilly himself serves the machine by distracting his audience with culture war issues, but he’s succesful enough that he doesn’t always have to tow the corporate-propoganda line. In this case, he went after Bachmann’s ridiculously disingenuous idea that the escrow fund is some kind of mafia-style shakedown and actually got her to back down significantly. Thanks to him, it’ll be harder for republicans to defend BP, and easier for congress to make them pay the people whose lives they’ve ruinned.

Credit where credit is due.

Confirmation Bias

June 25th, 2010 No comments

I’m still on the fence about Twitter, but one of the decidedly positive things about it is the exposure to certain articles I would never have read had I not clicked on a link in somebody’s tweet. Yesterday I came across this article which I think is a must-read for anyone who gets their news from almost exclusively one source, be it Fox News, MSNBC, or even network television.

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

Our brains are configured to seek patterns. As such, we tend to see what we’re looking for. We’ve all experienced coincidences in which we think of an old film for the first time in years, and suddenly we notice that film being mentioned all over the place. There’s nothing miraculous about this–it’s just that we take in so much information that our minds have to filter it. It filters out whatever it finds irrelevant or contradictory and leaves us with whatever is relevant to or supportive of our pre-existing thought patterns.

When a conservative watches the news, his mind only pays attention to the facts that support his conservative worldview, just as a liberal pays attention only to facts that confirm his liberal bias. Cable news commentary shows are so popular because the information comes pre-filtered. The mind doesn’t have to dismiss contradictory information because it’s only exposed to information that confirms what it already believes.

Does this mean that everything we believe is wrong? Of course not–it only means we should make an effort to get our news from a variety of sources and to be open to considering other points of view.

I get most of my news from lefty sources, but I make sure to expose myself to conservative arguments as well from time to time. Occasionally I’ll even let one sway me. Still, I would probably do well to spend more time outside the liberal media bubble.

But in its defense, the liberal media bubble isn’t nearly as closed off as the conservative bubble. Liberal blogs often post conservative arguments and liberal talk shows often show clips from conservative talk shows in order to refute those arguments. None do it better than The Young Turks, as Cenk Uygur often plays entire segments of conservative shows so that nothing is taken out of context. But how often will a conservative host expose their viewers to lengthy arguments from the liberal side? They may have a liberal guest on to present an opposing viewpoint, but that guest is typically shouted down without being given an opportunity to fully make their case. The viewer only remembers the shouting match, while the actual point being made is filtered out and forgotten.

If all you want is to have your pre-existing worldview confirmed, then by all means watch nothing but Fox News or MSNBC. But if what you want is a well-informed, thoroughly considered opinion which you can defend with confidence, you have to expose yourself to other sources and remain vigilant against your mind’s innate confirmation bias.