What’s worse: Steele’s Afghanistan comments or the reaction?

Chairman of the Republican Party Michael Steele made some awkward comments about Obama's policy in Afghanistan, irking the right wing. With reaction from the left no better, we see that the War in Afghanistan is simply not a left/right issue at all.

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

It shouldn’t be breaking news to anyone that the Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, said something stupid, his silliness is well known. Pretty much every time he opens his mouth in public, something bad happens to Republicans.

Only this time, it’s actually somewhat relevant to us. Here’s Chairman Steele on Afghanistan:

“The [General] McChrystal incident, to me, was very comical. I think it’s a reflection of the frustration that a lot of our military leaders has with this Administration and their prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This was not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in. It was one of those areas of the total board of foreign policy [that was at least?] that we would be in the background sort of shaping the changes that were necessary in Afghanistan as opposed to directly engaging troops. But it was the President who was trying to be cute by half by building a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should in Afghanistan. Well, if he is such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? Alright, because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed, and there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan…”

That’s a mess, but it’s a piece of conversation taken out of context, so the incoherence is to be expected. Steele’s decision to Rethink Afghanistan is very much appreciated, especially since he’s joining the majority of Americans on that point of view, but unfortunately I’m not sure his comments are particularly helpful. It’s not a complete disaster, but Steele’s comments likely won’t change a lot of minds on his side of the aisle, if any at all.

But there’s also reaction from the left, and I’m sorry to say it isn’t any better. If anything, it’s worse, but I’ll leave that for you to decide. On the positive side, we learn once again that President Obama’s policy of war in Afghanistan is absolutely not a left/right issue at all. And that’s the most important thing we can take away from this whole affair.

First let’s take a look at Steele’s comments. His dialogue is a little unclear, so here are the points he made:

  • The war in Afghanistan is Obama’s choice
  • Previously, the US had not “actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in” the war
  • Obama campaigned against Iraq, while threatening to escalate in Afghanistan
  • History teaches that engaging “in a land war in Afghanistan” is unwise and/or impossible
  • There are alternatives to engaging in Afghanistan

With the exception of his “land war in Afghanistan” assertion, what he said was true.

Obviously, the war is Obama’s choice. He’s the Commander in Chief, and for the last several years congress has all but abdicated its role in the use of military force, so any decision to remain or escalate in Afghanistan is entirely President Obama’s. No, Obama did not personally begin the invasion, that was President Bush, but the idea that Obama had no choice in the matter is simply ridiculous.

Was the US actively prosecuting or engaging in a massively bloody and expensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan before President Obama’s decision to escalate? No, it was not. The US under Bush began with around 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, and even as the situation deteriorated year after year, they only reach a max of around 32,000 in 2008. What happened next? President Obama took office, and the number of troops doubled. Now it is triple what it was when he came into office, almost 100,000.

And yes, he campaigned on that, just as Steele said:

As President, I would deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to re-enforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO’s efforts against the Taliban. As we step up our commitment, our European friends must do the same, and without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO’s efforts. We must also put more of an Afghan face on security by improving the training and equipping of the Afghan Army and Police, and including Afghan soldiers in U.S. and NATO operations.

We must not, however, repeat the mistakes of Iraq. The solution in Afghanistan is not just military – it is political and economic. As President, I would increase our non-military aid by $1 billion. These resources should fund projects at the local level to impact ordinary Afghans, including the development of alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. And we must seek better performance from the Afghan government, and support that performance through tough anti-corruption safeguards on aid, and increased international support to develop the rule of law across the country.

Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan.

Finally, was Steele right about there being alternatives to the war in Afghanistan? Yes! We talk about them all the time here, ranging from development aid to a free press to engagement with regional governments. There are many, many options besides the disastrous war policy, covering all of the US’ national security interests including counter-terrorism and stable governance.

But as for Steele’s comment about not engaging in a land war in Afghanistan? Yeah, this is just stupid.

I don’t think we’re supposed to take it literally, as I’m not sure a naval war would fare much better in landlocked Afghanistan, and I certainly haven’t seen any reports about NATO dog-fighting with Taliban MiG jets, so that leaves out the air war.

No, I’m guessing that Steele is trying to riff on the advice of a British general to the House of Lords in the early 60’s, “do not go fighting with your land armies in China.” It’s popularly known from the famous quote in The Princess Bride, “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” It refers to the period of de-colonization of east Asia (and much of the rest of world) during the 20th century, in which indigenous militant movements defeated European colonists and gained independence. The readily obvious example is the war in Vietnam, devastatingly lost first by the French and later by the Americans.

You don’t get involved in a “land war” because the natives will beat the crap out of your modern tanks and planes with sedge hats and sharp sticks. It’s not pretty, so don’t even try it.

I get Steele’s sentiment, military adventurism is definitely not a smart policy for the US. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with Afghanistan in this context. Yes, Afghanistan is hard to invade, but so is Helsinki, or Fresno, California. Nobody likes an invading army, it’s not something special about Afghanistan. The insurgents are not fighting us because they are in Afghanistan, they’re fighting us because we are in Afghanistan. That’s not our country.

So even if his comments weren’t especially helpful, Steele still comes out on top. At least he was honest, right?

The reaction from the left is sadly less truthful. We’ll use Spencer Ackerman as our example.

Now we all love Ackerman, he’s a smart guy and a clever writer. Everyone reads him, and even though he’s a stout progressive, his readership spans the political spectrum. And not in that weird Dana Milbank way, where he’s rude and dismissive of both Democrats and Republicans. No, Ackerman definitely has a clear understanding of the topics he covers, and for that reason he’s a must-read far outside of progressive circles.

But occasionally he says something that drives the left nuts. Maybe it’s that he downplays the civilian horrors of war, or his position too closely mirrors that of ISAF. For me, it’s his creepy obsession with the military executing American citizens. Whatever it is that day, we make our gripes, put his “progressiveness” in meanie scare quotes, or maybe even go all the way with “so-called progressive.” And then we promptly go back to reading everything he writes.

Well, this is one of those times when he’s not exactly doing the left, or himself, any favors.

Hey Michael Steele: there was this thing that happened on September 11, 2001 that you might have read about. Long story short: it resulted in the U.S. invading Afghanistan.

Hey Spencer Ackerman: remember how that mission was a complete and total failure? You might have read about it. Long story short: we didn’t catch Osama bin Laden!

Bin Laden expected to die. His last will and testament, written on December 14, reflected his fatalism. “Allah commended to us that when death approaches any of us that we make a bequest to parents and next of kin and to Muslims as a whole,” he wrote, according to a copy of the will that surfaced later and is regarded as authentic. […]

But the Al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead, the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organized Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or around December 16, two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area. Most analysts say he is still there today.

Yep, the guys responsible for the 9/11 attacks “walked unmolested” into Pakistan. Nine years ago. 2001. What does that have to do with occupying Afghanistan with 100,000 troops right now in 2010? Since I’m sure Ackerman would appreciate a Simpsons reference, “the opportunity to prove yourself a hero is long gone.” The guys responsible for funding and supporting the 9/11 attacks haven’t been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. Our occupation there has nothing to do with capturing bin Laden, or even Al-Qa’eda as whole (they’re gone).

Well, maybe Ackerman means we have to stop Afghanistan from being a safe haven for Al-Qa’eda. Too bad, that’s also in Pakistan. We’ve known that for years, too.

Thus, as the Pentagon was making preparations for launching Operation Enduring Freedom, it was known even to its own experts in its intelligence community that the Pakistan army and its ISI were the creators and sponsors of not only the Taliban, but also of al-Qaeda, which emerged as the most dreaded jihadi terrorist organization of the world after bin Laden shifted from the Sudan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan in 1996, from where he subsequently moved to Kandahar.

Despite this, the US chose to rely on the Pakistan army and the ISI for logistics and intelligence support in its operation to wipe out the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the IIF. The army and President General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military dictator, who had sponsored and used jihadi terrorism in an attempt to achieve Pakistan’s strategic objectives against India (destabilizing India and annexing Jammu and Kashmir) and Afghanistan (strategic depth), were sought to be projected as the US’s stalwart ally in the “war against terrorism” and rewarded for their ostensible cooperation through the resumption of generous economic and military assistance, which had remained curtailed since the Pressler Amendment was invoked against Pakistan in 1990 for clandestinely developing a military nuclear capability and further cut after the Chagai nuclear tests of 1998 and the overthrow of the elected government headed by Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister, by the army in October, 1999.

See? We know Al-Qa’eda and the Taliban are in Pakistan, we know they’re supported by the Pakistani state. So why are we in Afghanistan? Are we planning on occupying it forever, just to make sure that we “molest” the hell out of bin Laden when he crosses the border next time? What’s the decade-long hold up?

But to be fair, Ackerman is only spinning another variation of the Al-Qa’eda excuse. We expected that. The real travesty here is this:

Now, if you want to say that “the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan,” congratulations, hippie! You’re now part of the antiwar movement in this country, so you might as well argue forthrightly for the Obama administration to pull out before Gen. Petraeus — who arrives in Kabul any minute now — has an opportunity to do whatever he can. […]

You can criticize Obama’s decision to escalate that war. But you’ll also have to explain why muddling through or pulling out better serve U.S. interests against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And maybe you can make that case. But your fantasy of the Afghanistan war doesn’t inspire confidence.

Got that? If you question the US policy in Afghanistan, you’re a “hippy!” You’re not serious, just some jerk who doesn’t want to give General Petraeus a fair shake. I mean really, what is the peace movement’s strategy for Afghanistan? “Muddling through or pulling out.” That it’s, absolutely nothing more, just those two things. “Either muddle through or pull out,” I guess is what I always say.

This kind of bullshit is just outrageous. I refuse to believe Spencer Ackerman is that big of a dumbass.

Surely Ackerman is aware of the beating the war is taking in congress.

The vote in the House last night was complex, involving amendments, self-executing rules, budgets and statutory and non-statutory caps. David Dayen has some of the rundown, though more of the story keeps coming out. However, the big news of the night to me and others organizing against escalation in Afghanistan was the vote on the McGovern amendment.

The McGovern amendment, if it had passed:

  • Would require the president to provide a plan and timetable for drawing down our forces in Afghanistan and identify any variables that could require changes to that timetable.
  • Would safeguard U.S. taxpayer dollars by ensuring all U.S. activity in Afghanistan be overseen by an Inspector General.
  • Require the President to update Congress on the progress of that plan and timetable

If it had passed, that amendment would have been the beginning of the end of our war in Afghanistan, forcing the President to commit not just to a start of the drawdown – perhaps 2011 – but to and end of the war.

Does that sound like “muddling through or pulling out” to anyone? No, it’s clearly a responsible timetable for ending the war as the conditions merit, with the addition of new regulations and benchmarks to ensure that any progress made during this timetable is sustainable for the long-term, to include the responsible use of taxpayer funds. Muddling through? Are you crazy?

It gets better. The McGovern amendment got 162 votes in the House, an incredible number of members going on the record in support of ending the war. That 162 includes such notable hippies as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Jane Harman, and Rep. Bart Stupak. Gee whiz, are those house democrats or the roster of Sendero Luminoso, who can tell with all those wacky leftist wingnuts, right?

And just what exactly is Petraeus supposed to do when he arrives in Kabul? Will he make Karzai less corrupt? Will Karzai become more legitimate? Will Pakistan end its national security strategy of support terrorists and militants? Will Afghans stop being killed by NATO forces, or will they just learn to love it? Will Petraeus personally ensure that every dollar goes to the right place, nothing is wasted or funneled to the Taliban? All of our troops will stop dying? How will Petraeus do this? OK, so he arrives in Kabul any minute now. Then what?

But what do we get out of all of this, from Steele’s awkward comments to Ackerman’s inexplicable reaction? Easy: The war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the left, the right, liberal, conservative, socialist, fascist, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, Labour, Hawk, Pacifist; these political concepts just don’t mean anything in the context of this war.

Why is it always “liberals” who are against the war? Aren’t they supposed to like Big Government and spending taxpayer dollars? There’s nothing more “liberal” than our Pentagon then, and their trillion dollar occupation of Afghanistan. And “conservatives” like the war apparently, because there’s nothing more personally responsible than sending American troops off to die in some miserable wasteland because the government told you it’s necessary. It doesn’t make any sense.

If we go by the definitions of these ridiculous political terms, these nonsense buzzwords created and fueled by our media and politicians, then the entire field of US foreign policy becomes completely unintelligible. Put bluntly, it’s gibberish. Baby talk.

Ending the war is just smart policy. The United States has absolutely nothing to gain from a war in Afghanistan. Nothing. There’s no Al-Qa’eda there, we’re not going to magically turn it into a thriving democracy and stalwart regional ally just because we send in a few more guys with guns. There’s just nothing there for us. We could bring those troops home, so we’re not scrambling around like idiots every time there’s a wildfire in California or a hurricane in the Gulf. We could be spending much less than the trillions we’re spending now, and we could use it to buy things we actually need. Jobs, infrastructure, energy, education, whatever it is you can think of, the US desperately needs it.

Ignore the partisan bickering. The facts show that the war is ruining the country, it is ruining Afghanistan and it is ruining Pakistan. It has to end, whether you’re a progressive like Ackerman or a conservative like Steele.

Want to help end the war? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page.

One comment

  1. Well put. Reading responses from supposed anti-war liberals on this, some seem to delight in attacking Steele (who speaks in an even more incoherent manner than Dubya did) or in the furor his comments caused among Republicans, rather to applaud him for saying the war has big problems.

    Like, it’s more important to score points against the other side than work towards common goals, like ending our unwinnable wars

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