Thursday, April 7, 2011

US's Heavy Hand in Afghanistan: Lessons for Libya - and for Obama

As a new analysis by Ahmed Rashid at BBC makes plain, it's difficult to claim that, after almost ten years in Afghanistan, the US intervention has, on balance, been a positive development in the region.  For many years to come, historians will be arguing the what-if's of this very costly expedition.  What if George W. Bush had kept US military attention focused on al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan instead of recklessly (and, all in all, fruitlessly) invading Iraq?  What if Barack Obama had not let himself be maneuvered by the Pentagon into ramping up, rather than drawing down, the US military effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan?  And what if, in all of these theaters, the US had gone in with at least some accurate understanding of the intricacies of social relations, tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and deeply seated cultural and religious diversity in them?  Might things be turning out differently?

We'll never know.  But I think that, based on the experience and results of the last ten years, we can conclude that the longer the US military presence is prolonged, the deeper the US military footprint, then the greater the opportunities for "shit to happen" (what we historians euphemistically refer to as  "contingencies of human agency"), for bombs to be dropped on the wrong people (or on so-called "bad guys" who are simply fighting to defend their homes against unwanted outsider), for night raiders to bust down too many doors and humiliate too many families, and for the American presence to spark an anger that smolders into hatred, and then erupts into misdirected violence (as with the UN personnel who were butchered at Mazar-i-sharif).  Rashid warns us, straight out:
Afghans and Pakistanis are warning the Americans that there is enormous anti-American rage building up in both countries - and the usual tactics to address this, such as more US aid or more visits by US officials - will do little to reduce it.
How many lives truly are better, or more secure, after almost ten years?  Can anyone make a truly convincing case that the US military intervention has improved the prospects, the chance for a happier, more productive, more secure future for the majority of the people of Afghanistan? Pakistan? Iraq?  Can anyone make a convincing case that, ten years after, the US stands taller in the court of world opinion, or that America's actions have won the respect and admiration that, so many of us are convinced, are our birthright as Americans, as leaders of the "free world"?

I ask these questions now, because the Obama administration has steered the ship of state right up to the edge of another maelstrom, into the vortex of which - unless he and his people are wise enough to start rowing, hard, away from the edge  - it's bound to slide.

Libya became one of the new blooms of the Arab spring when some of its people rose in protest against the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a sometimes pathetic yet ruthless figure whom we have alternately demonized (often rightly so) then coddled when he decided to dance to our tune.  When his security forces resorted to violence against the protesters, many of them took up arms against him and seemed to be on the brink of chasing him off.  But then he regained his equilibrium, rallied his military, drove back the rebels, and made dire threats about brutally finishing them off.

It's hard to blame Mr. Obama for reacting, for wanting to "do something."   With an esteemed humanitarian such as Samantha Power at one shoulder, and a self-serving politician like Nicolas Sarkozy at the other, urging him to do the right thing, to  exemplify American values and American leadership, it's perhaps fair to say that the better angels of Obama's nature got the better of him.  With the backing of the UN Security Council and the Arab League, Obama rolled the dice, committing US warplanes and ship-based cruise missiles to "saving" the rebels with a no-fly zone, gambling that these measures would jump-start a chain of events that would bring down Qaddafi and ring in a new democracy in Libya.

But Qaddafi is still at the craps table.  His security forces remain in the field, even after some major shellacking (to borrow Obama's post-election-returns term) by the US-led "Allies"; he himself remains defiant; and the rebels whom we were once glorifying are turning out to be a highly unorganized, largely unknowable, internally divided mixed bag.  They want Obama to arm them; they complain that, by turning over the air attacks to NATO's underequipped forces, he's dooming their cause; and even if the rebels were to achieve a military "victory," that would not necessarily result in "success" (as in a democratic, forward-leaning new Libya).  More likely is a continuation of the current stalemate, with the rebels trying to consolidate control in the east (the old Cyrenaica), Qaddafi ensconced semi-comfortably in the west (in Tripolitania), and probably enough instability all around for jihadists to insert themselves in pursuit of their own goals.

And into that mess, some "experts" (such as Max Boot and General James Dubik) are calling for the insertion of US boots on the ground. (Evidently, US shoes are already on the ground in the person of CIA operatives authorized by Obama.)  John McCain and Joe Lieberman are demanding that Obama provide the rebels with a "more robust and coherent package of aid" (read: more and better guns - even though most of the rebels have no idea how to use them.  Of course, a contingent of US "advisers" = boots on the ground - might fix that, no?).   At the other end of the scale, some are chastising Obama for foolishly compounding an already essentially untenable military and fiscal situation for the US.  George Will lambasts Obama for caving to the impulse of "humanitarian imperialism" whereas Doug Bandow resorts to wording much less kind, referring to Obama as a "fool."  Both of them insist that Obama back up and get the US out of there.

Which I hope he will do, and the sooner the better.  By opting to send more arms, or put even a few advisers' boots on the ground, Obama will guarantee a slide of his ship of state into that vortex.  Once there, US boots - and likely more of them - will be "needed" there a long time.

And the US presence will prolong itself.  And shit will happen.  And those boots - and all that's bound to come with them - will tread heavily on the Libyans, as they have on Afghans, and Pakistanis, and Iraqis - and on how history, in the centuries to come, will remember the United States of America.

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