Doubling Down in Afghanistan

History, or the future (however you want to look at it), has a funny way of rearing up and biting leaders who think they know what they’re doing.  Take Barack Obama.  Only weeks before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, he made a "pragmatic" decision to give way on the expansion of deep-water drilling off U.S. shores in return for political support on his energy bill that might never have added up to much.  In the process, he said on camera: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."  His decision, which left the oil industry’s key lobbying outfit, the American Petroleum Institute, dancing for joy, doesn’t look quite so pragmatic or advantageous now.

The president undoubtedly already rues the day he ever put those words on the historical record.  Imagine, however, that, in the same situation, he had done the difficult, unpragmatic thing and said something like: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs still cause spills and deep-water drilling is simply too dangerous for our planet, so I’ve decided, despite the obvious political problems involved, not to open up new, ever deeper, ever more sensitive or climatically extreme areas off our coasts to the oil industry.  And I’m instructing my secretary of the interior to make sure that whatever drilling is already underway is safe."  He’d be in a lot better shape right now, though the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t.

Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his true-believer government thought that a flotilla of peace activists determined to break the blockade of Gaza by steaming towards it with humanitarian relief supplies would be easy enough to control in the usual tough-guy ways.  Call in the military, treat the activists goonishly in international waters, and a lesson would be learned.  And indeed, a lesson has been learned — by the Palestinians, the Turks, and others.

In the process, the Israelis managed to turn the Mavi Marmara into the SS Exodus (the famed ship of Jewish refugees assaulted by the British in 1947), the Palestinians into Jews, Gaza into Israel before its establishment, and themselves into the oppressive, imperial Britons.  No small trick in a single night.  The Israelis will surely rue the day they ordered an assault on the six-ship flotilla in international waters when, if they had let the ships through, nothing much would have happened.  In this case, the path of seemingly least resistance — to wield force — may have profoundly changed the international equation to Israel’s disadvantage.

And then, of course, there’s the war in Afghanistan, which is for the time being largely out of American consciousness.  On that war, Obama made another assumedly pragmatic decision on entering the Oval Office: it would be politically easier to expand the fighting there, blunt the momentum of the Taliban, and worry about withdrawal later.  This, too, passed for pragmatism in Washington, especially for a Democratic president, supposedly vulnerable on national security issues and seeking a second term (something all American presidents desperately desire).

So, on December 1, 2009, he went to West Point and, with a reluctance you could feel — even naming the date in 2011 when his administration would begin a troop drawdown —gave his "surge" speech to the nation.  He could have given quite a different speech.  (I even wrote a withdrawal speech for him whose key line was: "Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.")  He would have taken flak.  The media would have been an instant echo chamber of outrage and criticism.  But he would have made it through and ended two wars.  No such luck.

As a result, sooner or later he’s likely to find himself in political hell.  Things are already going poorly in Afghanistan, not so surprising since the war there is the foreign-policy equivalent of a poorly drilled, poorly capped deep-water well in the Gulf of Mexico.  The only question is when the spill will begin gushing uncontrollably.  Unfortunately, as crackerjack TomDispatch regular William Astore points out, the Obama administration and the U.S. military high command are now hopelessly committed to a gambler’s mentality in Afghanistan, which means that, as things get worse, the war will only expand.  Escalating in Pakistan is clearly on the mind of American planners, a move guaranteed to be disastrous (which, of course, never stopped anybody).  Extending the timeline for an American stay is another obvious option.  Hard as it might have been to launch a withdrawal in December 2009, imagine just how politically difficult it will be, if things get worse, in 2011.  Where’s the value of "pragmatism" now?  Tom

Doubling Down in Afghanistan
Why We Refuse to Fold a Losing Hand 
By William J. Astore

As Congress moves toward rubber-stamping yet another "emergency" supplemental bill that includes more than $33 billion for military operations, mainly to fund the latest surge in Afghanistan, maybe we should take a page from the new British government.  Facing debilitating deficits, the conservative Tories and their Liberal Democrat partners are proposing painful cuts to governmental budgets, including military operations in Afghanistan.  As the Independent put it, quoting a senior military source, "Essentially, the Americans know we are broke and we are getting blokes killed for no good reason. Whatever the [British Ministry of Defense] says, it absolutely isn’t business as usual."  In other words, an overstretched government, low on chips and recognizing a losing hand in Afghanistan, is finally moving to cut its losses, perhaps even to walk away from the table.

The question is: Why can’t we join them?  We’re losing even more chips (adding up to a staggering $299 billion for the war in Afghanistan, and counting) and "blokes" (more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed, with their average age dropping).  Isn’t it time to know when to walk away, as Kenny Rogers sang in The Gambler, before we have to cut and run?

Instead of recognizing a losing hand and folding, however, Washington continues to double down, whether our gambler-in-chief is named George W. Bush or Barack H. Obama.  And so we’re putting on our game face again, as we shove tens of billions more into the Afghan pot, along with roughly 100,000 of our troops supported by an even greater number of private military contractors, hoping that, against the odds, we’ll draw to an inside straight even as our opponents hold flushes.

And, in case you’re not a poker player, a flush beats a straight every time.

Of Poker and War

If my poker metaphor sounds frivolous for a deadly nine-year-old war, consider it a bow to the great Prussian war theorist, Carl von Clausewitz.  He classically described war with all its uncertainties as resembling, above all, a game of cards.

To extend the metaphor in Afghanistan, we’re engaged in a high-stakes poker match at our opponent’s table, and his card sharks are remarkably adept at dealing from the bottom of the deck.  Of course, we’re alert enough to know that the game is fixed, but strangely, that only makes us more determined.  We are, in fact, insistent that ultimately we’ll make his table ours; in the meantime, we’ll bribe or browbeat his bottom-dealers for better cards, bluff or shoot our way out of losing hands.  Or so we gun-slinging Americans like to imagine.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., land of risk-takers and winners, our Washington beltway policymakers have become inured to the risks this sort of compulsive gambling entails.  They continue to throw money and men on the table, no matter the odds in the unkindest of houses (and, whatever else they’ve been, Iraq and Afghanistan certainly haven’t been kind to American agendas).

Think about it.  In the next year or two, no matter how well or how poorly we play our cards in Afghanistan, it doesn’t appear that we’ll seriously consider folding and walking away.

Take, for example, our latest do-or-die offensive about to be launched in Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, and environs.  If all goes well this summer and the U.S. military wins a few hands in the Kandahar region, Washington’s addictive mentality will doubtless take this as evidence that the tide has turned, our luck has changed.  In short, we’ll double down.

And if our offensive goes poorly?  Undoubtedly, Washington will take this as evidence that we had a chance, but didn’t ante-up enough chips or simply hit a stretch of bad luck.  Then, like compulsive gamblers everywhere, they’ll insist on playing a few more hands, but this time just a little more smartly.  In short, they’ll double down.

So, if they win, it’s "we’re on a roll"; if they lose, it’s "next hand, baby, next hand." And what about President Obama’s pledge to walk away from the Afghan poker table beginning in 2011?  Fuggeddaboudit.

Knowing When to Fold’em

War, as any sane person knows, is a life-or-death gamble, usually at long odds — and let’s face it, we’ve been gambling at the longest odds for years now.  It was never a smart move to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq, and then try to plant pseudo-democracies in soil that was unlikely to sustain them.  In Afghanistan, it wasn’t smart to squeeze local card sharks and tough guys even as they squeezed us, whether by stealing outright or forcing us to pay protection money in a rigged game.  It wasn’t smart to woo hearts and minds while busting heads and bodies ("aggressive interrogation") and plugging mid-level thugs ("targeted assassinations") with missiles and slugs, all the while knocking off far too many civilian noncombatants as we went.

Under the pressure of so many losing hands, our tactics in Afghanistan have become increasingly erratic, swinging from idealistic plans for nation-building to pragmatic "clear-and-hold" counterinsurgency, from upbraiding Afghan leaders to uplifting them.  Like a flustered gambler, we’ve lost all sense of the cards staring coldly back at us.

Now, let’s return to our British partner, sweating it out at the table.  Low on chips and holding bad cards, he’d like nothing more than to swallow his pride and get out of Dodge.  He looks for a nod from us, some recognition that walking away with our shirts still on our backs is better than losing it all.

Yet his Washington partner stubbornly plays on, compelled to double down yet again in spite of the odds.

Tell me: Is the fight truly worth it?  Is Afghanistan really the place for us to go "all-in," whatever the cost to our military, our economy, even our way of life?

Only a compulsive gambler would answer yes.

William Astore (wjastore@gmail.com) is a TomDispatch regular.  A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he taught at the USAF Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School and currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

Read more by Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.