Afghanistan, and why I don't regret getting Obama elected

Last night's speech wasn't one of Obama's greatest hits. Kevin Drum's assessment seems basically right quoting Adam Serwer's line that "It was a speech that reflected the president deciding on what is maybe the least crappy of a number of crappy options â without convincingly explaining how it would work" and adding:

There are two possible reasons for the speech being so unconvincing: either Obama doesn't know how to deliver a good speech or else Obama isn't really convinced himself. But we know the former isn't true, don't we? You can fill in the rest yourself.

The best that can be said is that I think the President treated us all like adults. Where Bush delivered platitudes and trivialize his critics, Obama gave us a set of serious, thoughtful, and generally satisfactory (if not convincing) responses to the three major classes of objections to a temporary escalation in Afghanistan (i.e., 1) it's Vietnam all over again and we should withdraw now, 2) we should muddle through with existing force levels, 3) we should massively escalate and commit to staying in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future).

I should say that I've been late in joining the camp seeking an early exit from Afghanistan. I supported the invasion, and still think it was the right course to take. Al Qaeda attacked us, and would do so again if allowed to control Afghanistan. We needed to pursue the people making war on us, and to deny them refuge by reversing Afghanistan's descent into utter chaos, or control by the madmen of the Taliban.

And I still think we have to make a serious commitment to preventing the creation or persistence of failed states, which means a greater engagement in Somalia down the line. But that needn't be a military engagement. Afghanistan isn't a failed state because there are too few soldiers there, after all. It needs civil society, and to get that, we need a bigger presence of civilian aides to build roads and sewers and schools, and need to leave the soldiering to Afghans.

If the Taliban of 2001 and the al Qaeda of 2001 were resurgent in Afghanistan, I'd support a surge of troops to beat them back, but a study of combatants found recently that many of the fighters being called Taliban simply aren't. And that changes things. The Afghan government is barely legitimate, chosen by an ad hoc means to begin with and propped up by bogus elections since. If indeed "Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes," it isn't clear US soldiers need to be involved in that fight, and it is very clear that continuing to prop up the Karzai regime and its corruption will not solve the problem. New policies are likely to essentially skip past the national government and support local projects and governments directly, letting the political chips fall where they may. That's good, if we follow through.

Reading that article in the Globe changed my mind on Afghanistan, and I'd have liked to see the President announce an expeditious exit from Afghanistan. The Taliban is largely beaten in Afghanistan, we'd do better to strengthen the Pakistanis against the remaining Taliban rather than fighting them directly, and we can call that victory. I disagree with the President's decision, but I think he's right that it isn't Vietnam (yet), and I accept his judgment that this is the right policy, assuming he sticks to his timeline and the principles he enunciated last night. I think Serwer is probably right that this decision is the least crappy of a lot of crummy options.

Others are less happy, with PZ Myers announcing Obama regret because:

He has failed to support gay civil rights.

The Stupak amendment to the health care bill seems to be sailing through unopposed.

His cozy relationship with Wall Street.

And now, his expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and his support for a corrupt and failed state.

It's an odd list. The first is only sorta true, and the big changes we need (repeal DOMA, repeal DADT) require Congress's action, not the President's. Obama could push harder, but he's got lots of other things to push through Congress, and while one hates to make these choices, I can't say prioritizing universal health care and a response to a global environmental crisis over the greatest civil rights failure of our day is altogether unjust. And FWIW, we knew during the campaign that gay rights were not on top of Obama's list of priorities, and that he was disappointingly weak on marriage equality (he ultimately came out against Prop. 8, but too late and too weakly to change the game).

The Stupak amendment is stupid, murderous, and woman-hating. It shouldn't become law, but that's not Obama's choice at this point. Congress has to vote on it, and we'll see what the President does with the final bill. I don't see how Obama gets the blame for it, rather than (say) Stupak. If Obama is to blame for Stupak, why not credit him also with advancing national health insurance reform farther than any president in US history? I sure don't regret that.

His relationship with Wall Street is bizarre, and utterly deserving of criticism. It's time for Geithner and Summers to go, but Obama is right to be pushing for stronger oversight.

As for Afghanistan, setting aside my maunderings above, here's the simple fact. Obama's announcement last night is basically identical to what he promised throughout the campaign. He pledged to reduce our presence in Iraq and to escalate and finish the job in Afghanistan. Heck, that was his line in 2002, opposing the Iraq invasion. To say that you regret electing Obama because of this is a bit odd, as it is exactly what he campaigned on doing.

Indeed, of his major campaign pledges, he's been remarkably consistent (pending Congressional action). Health insurance, clean energy and green jobs, restoring America's place in the world, leaving Iraq, closing Gitmo, defeating the Taliban â that was the Obama campaign, and that's what we're getting. I could be more enthusiastic at this point, but I regret nothing. What we need now is a better Senate, not a different President.

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I agree.

I also don't consider the claimed numbers of Taliban versus Al Qaeda versus General purpose Jihads and fundamentalist thugs to be significant. It isn't like each group has exclusive signed memberships cards and secret handshakes.

Loyalty is always fluid in such places with the calculation of who to side with being as best for the individual, family, tribe, and ethnic group being important but not so much that a few dollars won't reorder priorities. For ten dollars a day you have a part-time soldier who will shoot at anyone who doesn't offer better prospects or more money.

There is also the matter of international borders. If the Taliban find it too hot in Afghanistan they can high step it to Pakistan in about eight hours. Or vice-versa. And of course Jihadis now travel world-wide so saying there are only 200 Taliban in Afghanistan, as one report claimed, is meaningless. Give it a week and it could be 2000. If they buy allies and are willing to spend the money it could be 20,000. And the international Jihadi rat lines can easily pull in another 50 a week. Mostly from Somalia, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Europe but potentially from anywhere with an alienated and/or disenfranchised local Muslim population.

The one thing that seems clear is that there is little hope of success in grinding down or disabling fundamentalist guerrilla organizations, under whatever the label they travel under, in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, if both countries are not actively resisting at once. If we push in Afghanistan and Pakistan relaxes they move to Pakistan. If Pakistan pushes and there is no similar effort in Afghanistan they pick up and move to Afghanistan.

As far as healthcare reform, carbon controls, energy policy and Wallstreet goes we can't get it all in a stroke. The existing power bases are too rich and too well entrenched to get to where we need to go in one, or even a few, steps. We are going to have to get a few reforms in place as marker for future change. The insurance companies are quite right to fear reform and particularly a public option. Because there is precious little up side and a whole lot of down for them. People get strange idea like perhaps, just perhaps, a person might be able to get decent healthcare without working through an insurance company and your on your way to making insurance something less than essential. What next? Healthcare without middlemen?

Next thing the whole idea of essential middlemen might crumble. Banking and investment without investment bankers? CEOs making what their performance says they are worth? Energy without the old fossil fuel companies? People making the profits also paying the cost to clean up the environmental damage they do?

Get that foot in the door and start draining away their power and control and the whole interlocking power structure might fall. Yes, they have reason to fear. Ideas are powerful things. People finding out things can run, and run better, without the existing powers that be in charge is dangerous stuff.

Change is going to be slow and incremental but hopefully one day our children will be able to look back to today and wonder why we let the fools and charlatans control so much. A guy can dream.

Well expressed -- both Josh and Art.

I read PZ's comments and the reactions and was very disappointed. I was amazed at how many 'I guess I can't support Obama after all' reactions there were. There were too few 'if not Obama then who?' realists -- though there were some.

The articles I've seen recently about how the Republicans are so much more motivated than the Democrats scare me lots. I really don't want to see the tragedy that would be President Palin or Beck or one of their mental peers.