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Axis of Agreement Watch: Joe Klein’s “Lucky” Strategy

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Last month we had the phony Afghanistan strategy review in Washington, and thanks to Politico, we got a shiny new buzzword: The “Progressive-Realist-Centrist Axis of Agreement”. It’s a fancypants way of saying “conventional wisdom”, roughly synonymous with the “Establishment” or Digby’s “Village”. Whatever the out-of-touch think tankers, journalists, and politicians in DC happen to think this week, that’s the “Axis of Agreement”.

The strategy review was Washington’s way of unveiling it’s brand new Axis of Agreement on the war in Afghanistan, transitioning from last year’s platinum mega-hit “COIN” (or counter-insurgency) to the new 2011 narrative. I wrote:

[The] review is not really a review of the military strategy, it’s an act of political theater. This is not the Commander in Chief and his generals tallying up their data and fine-tuning their tactical approach, this is the whole class turning in a book report so they get an A. [...]

[This] year’s line is “effective, affordable, and sustainable”. That means 30,000-ish troops, training police, drones ‘n Pakistan ‘n stuff, and also negotiating with the Taliban (ooh, controversy!).

Well, it’s a new year, and it’s time for the media wing of the Axis of Agreement to start turning it’s Afghanistan homework. A perfect example of this is Joe Klein’s new piece for Time titled “What It Will Take To Finish The Job In Afghanistan”. Here’s the plan:

Despite such disagreements, there is surprising unanimity about the military portion of the Afghan endgame, especially after the successes of the past six months. Within two or three years — certainly by the end of 2013 — the vast majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will depart. There will be a continuing NATO presence, perhaps 25,000 (mostly U.S.) troops, to train, equip and provide logistics for the Afghan National Security Forces and to continue special operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Kandahar and Bagram air bases will stage the operations and remain under NATO control for the foreseeable future.

Brilliant! 30,000-ish troops, training security forces, drones n’ Pakistan n’ stuff, and maybe some negotiations with the Taliban. You wouldn’t think heavyweight issues like war and peace could be so predictable, but Derrick told you, it’s all part of an orderly process.

Klein’s article was actually sent to me as a joke (h/t Steve!), but unfortunately, some folks out there are going to take this Axis of Agreement crap very seriously. They’ll twist and tangle themselves into knots trying to work out the madcap, ball-tripping logic of the new strategy.

That’s why the most important thing to remember about the whole affair is that the strategy, whatever it is this year, is totally and completely separate from reality. It’s not a real review, it’s not a real strategy, and it’s not really what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

General Petraeus isn’t making any progress, the Taliban are running rampant all over the country. Petraeus has escalated the air war, increased night raids (targeted killings and kidnappings), deployed tanks and other heavy weapons, and is now deploying even more US soldiers (another 1400 this month).

Petraeus doesn’t care about Klein’s dumbass party stories about cold storage and pomegranates, he’s going to burn Afghanistan to the ground so there’s nothing left twitching when it’s time to declare victory. In other words, you’re better off completely ignoring the strategy talk and focusing solely on the timetable. That’s what Petraeus is doing anyway.

So what does Klein tell us about the timetable?

This process will begin, on schedule, in July 2011. It will start, Administration officials say, with a formal statement from President Obama — a statement similar to his announcement in March 2009 that major U.S. combat operations would end in Iraq by September 2010 and that U.S. troop levels would be reduced to 50,000. In this case, the troop withdrawals will be minuscule at first. General David Petraeus will have all of 2011 to solidify the gains NATO troops have made in the south this past year and attempt to stabilize the other main Taliban stronghold, in eastern Afghanistan. The Administration would like to see significant numbers of troops return home in 2012, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the year of Obama’s re-election campaign; Petraeus would like them to stay on for at least another year.

In July, Obama is going to lie to you about Afghanistan exactly like he lied to you about Iraq last year (War’s over! Everything’s fine now!). He’s still going to keep 30,000-ish troops in Afghanistan, and we might not even see those levels until 2012.

That’s not an end to the occupation, or even the problems caused and exacerbated by the war, it’s just slightly reducing the number of US soldiers we have physically on the ground in Afghanistan. Because anytime you recklessly put American troops in danger for profit and political gain, you want them to have as little backup as possible, right?

That’s not good enough. The war is radioactively unpopular, with only around 35% of Americans still supporting it, and bringing the troops home ranks as one of their biggest political priorities, second only to the economy. There should be no troops left in Afghanistan by the time we get to Obama’s re-election campaign, or there will be serious consequences.

But even though the media fixates on Obama’s campaign, it’s not really important. What’s crucial is all the other campaigns that will happen in 2012. Congress is very close to ending the war outside of Obama’s control, and there are enough seats up next year that neutering the executive branch and mandating a withdrawal are highly possible.

Robert Naiman crunches the numbers:

And that is why, although of course it makes a significant difference who controls the House, at the level of how individual members vote, the recent election didn’t change that much in the House with respect to the war in Afghanistan…While 61% of Democrats voted for McGovern on July 1, among the returning Democrats in the next Congress, 73% were pro-McGovern.

Of the 162 Representatives who voted for the McGovern-Obey-Jones amendment on July 1, 2010, 139 will be returning in the next Congress. [...]

Thus, disregarding for the moment any changes on the Republican side as a result of new members or increased skepticism about the war from returning members of either party, the baseline for the most popular initiatives against the war in the new House is in the range of 139-155, not so different from the 162 of July 1. This baseline in the new House is about 60-70 seats shy of a majority.

It doesn’t matter if Obama is re-elected or even decides to run again, the numbers are already piling up. In fact, Naiman takes into account a possible Sarah Palin presidency (!!!), and finds that there would not only be enough votes to end the war in Afghanistan, but even enough to prevent all new wars from occuring (Iran, Yemen, you name it).

Let’s go back to Klein.

Obama may get lucky. It is quite possible that he will have the appearance of an Afghan solution in place, with tens of thousands of troops returning home, as he runs for re-election in 2012.

It never ceases to amaze me how folks in the Axis of Agreement can be so quick to make a wish and just roll the dice on other people’s lives. Sure, our troopers will still be getting sniped at and shredded by IEDs, and we’ll continue to massacre innocent civilians by the houseful, but hey, maaaybe we’ll have the appearance of a solution in 2012!

I guess it’s possible though, especially since we have so much throwaway money to spend, right? The Taliban could totally give up, Pakistan might get bored of its rivalry with India, and Karzai could go all straight edge and give up his gigantic criminal enterprise. Fingers crossed, everybody!

Obama would be wise to ignore Klein and friends and decide not to play chicken with the numbers. We’re not going to get lucky, Afghanistan will not magically right itself next year, particularly now as Petraeus has been unleashed to inflame the violence as much as he pleases.

Again, this is all a predictable, orderly process. Obama really only has two choices here.

He can read the writing on the wall (and in his own intelligence briefs) and start a real, substantive drawdown in July 2011, to be completed (long, long) before the 2012 campaign.

Or he can wish upon Joe Klein’s lucky star, and watch as Congress dismantles the occupation, piece by ugly, corrupt, incriminating piece, probably on prime time television.

So what do you think he’ll choose? On the one hand, you’ve got Robert Naiman (and who knows who else) drawing up the preliminary numbers for targeting weak and out-of-touch members of the Democratic party. But on the other hand, Joe Klein heard Afghan pomegranates are pretty awesome.

I think the choice is clear.

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