President Obama has committed 17,000 additional troops to Operation Enduring Freedom, our misadventure in Afghanistan. His generals don’t know what to do with those troops when they get there; they’re not even sure what troops to send. Someone on Obama’s sprawling national security team should have told him it’s a bad, bad idea to send troops into a combat zone without a well-defined task and purpose. Ronald Reagan’s 1983 end-zone fumble in Beirut should serve as a shining example of that maxim, but today’s defense hierarchy isn’t keen on learning from the past. Neocon luminary Fred Kagan, chief architect of the surge strategy, taught military history at West Point for a decade, which shows you how little regard the Army has for the subject.
The Keystone Kollege of Armed Konflict Knowledge that all our generals seem to have attended doesn’t place much importance on coherent strategy making, either.
Who’s on First?
As investigative historian Gareth Porter revealed recently, Obama was willing to go along with the full 30,000-troop escalation monty for Afghanistan until the Joint Chiefs admitted they didn’t have an endgame in mind and Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, couldn’t tell him what he planned to do with the extra troops. Back in the day, all those four-stars would have kept smoke grenades handy so they’d have something to blow up the boss’s skirt if he asked a hard question. Things changed over the last eight years. McKiernan must have made the sound of one jaw dropping when he heard a commander in chief ask "why?" Talk about shock and awe.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his rear echelon commandos have been working on an Afghanistan strategy for dog years and still haven’t hit the dartboard. One segment of the security brain trust thinks the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban. Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says the Afghan people are “the real centers of gravity.” Sen. John Kerry says the center of gravity in Afghanistan is in Pakistan. Let’s hope Obama stays mindful of Kerry’s track record vis-à-vis winning strategies.
Like most military matters, the center of gravity concept is broadly misunderstood, especially among the military’s top brass. Clausewitz dictated that the center of gravity must be "the point against which all our energies should be directed." For his admonition to have any meaning, centers of gravity must be related to our objectives. Hence, the enemy center of gravity is the main obstacle between us and our goal and is the thing we must defeat, destroy, annihilate, deceive, bypass, sucker punch, pacify, erode, eradicate, and otherwise put the whammy on in order to achieve victory. Once we formulate a reasonably concrete and achievable goal, the center of gravity becomes relatively easy to identify.
Unfortunately, the "concrete and reasonable goal" factor has been AWOL since the neoconservative movement turned U.S. foreign policy into a radical equation.
We won’t make Western democracies out of either of our Bananastans. We won’t eliminate corruption in them. We won’t stem opium production. If we effect regime change, then we’ll just be swapping out puppets. It’s too late to keep them from becoming failed states, because they already are. We might make things so Afghan girls can go to school, but that’s a cockamamie reason for a bankrupt hegemon to wage war, especially given that half the kids in urban America don’t finish 12th grade.
Young Mr. Obama has said he wants to ensure that Afghanistan and by extension Pakistan “cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States.” That at least reflects a legitimate U.S. security goal, which is more than you can say for any of the gas his generals have been passing off as strategic acumen. Unfortunately, as objectives go, it’s so unrealistic as to be downright hallucinatory. If you can launch an attack on the United States from atop the Himalayas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, you can launch one from any spot on the surface of the earth, or buried beneath it, or floating above it.
We can’t draft enough people to occupy that much territory.
We Don’t Know
We don’t know the enemy. The term "Taliban" describes an array of groups with different leaders. Warlords and drug lords are a whole separate power paradigm: some are aligned with one Taliban or another, some aren’t. The line between good guys and bad guys in the Bananastans is wafer thin; the official governments and their agencies are hardly more than sanctioned gang bangers. Then there’s the average Joe Bananastan who’s just fed up with the U.S. air strikes on all the weddings he goes to. And, oh yeah, none of those people had anything to do with 9/11.
Air strikes have, however, "heightened the threat" of al-Qaeda "to Pakistan as the group disperses its cells [there] and fights to maintain its sanctuaries." That’s according to the New York Times, the newspaper of record whose sources for that factoid were "senior analysts and officials of Pakistan’s main spy service" who "spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the agency’s policy."
Great. Caesar’s. Ghost. Anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials are to reliable sources what Pig Latin is to Latin. Equally unreliable and equally anonymous CIA officials recently told NPR that their air strikes in Pakistan have "decimated" al-Qaeda’s leadership and that they now foresee a “complete al-Qaeda defeat” in the region. That’s a remarkable conclusion considering that the CIA’s best sources of intelligence on Pakistan are Pakistani intelligence officials. It doesn’t take a bloodhound to sniff two separate agendas here.
Despite knowing nothing about ourselves and even less about the enemy Sun Tzu’s recipe for disaster à la king Obama is going ahead with the Bananastan escalation his feckless generals and defense secretary have recommended. Obama says "the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action." He probably feels pressured to shoot first and think later, but that’s never a good idea. I’m not a world-class military historian, but I’m a fair one, and I know of no instance in war where doing nothing proved to be an inferior course of action to doing something stupid.
The closest thing we have to a legitimate security concern in the Bananastans is that evildoers might get control of Pakistan’s nukes and the oil pipeline that runs through Afghanistan. There’s a very simple military solution to both of those problems: blow up the nukes and blow up the pipeline. Blowing stuff up is the one thing Obama’s generals know how to do real good.
In a March 6 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama said he is considering a plan to "reach out" to moderate elements of the Taliban. That’s a fantastic idea, and the best possible way to reach out would be to have our troops line up and shake the hand of each and every one of those mother’s sons and then climb on a plane for home.