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"We know what happened because he said 'yes'"
November 27, 2009 3:57 AM   Subscribe

Last week on Bill Moyers Journal LBJ tapes were presented detailing Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. Moyers connected these tapes with the current U.S. administration's quest for a solution in the Afghan War.
Moyers:

Now in a different world, at a different time, and with a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different war. But once again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.

Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.

And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.

We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes. ("A Tale of Two Quagmires" - Transcript)
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum began releasing the LBJ tapes in 1993. Today, 100s of hours of President Johnson's phone conversations are available to the public. The library sells copies of the tapes to the public for six dollars each and CDs for eight dollars apiece. The LBJ library is not the only place to find these recordings.

The conversations run the gamut and reveal much about Johnson, his policies and the process he used to arrive at his decisions. Some of the topics discussed include the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, civil rights, frustration over Vietnam, social security, and Nixon. C-SPAN has a nice searchable collection of many LBJ tapes, compiled from those recordings which aired on C-SPAN Radio. The University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs has a large collection as well (I read it was all of them but am unsure if it actually is). (Prev-iously)
posted by IvoShandor (88 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sometimes I think it would be a fun experiment if all the intellectual energy expended on thinking about war was redeployed to thinking about peace.

Not talking about Moyers exactly, but Military History takes up a lot of fucking floorspace at Borders.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:08 AM on November 27, 2009


This moment from the tapes really captured my attention. It was LBJ talking to Senator Michael Mansfield. I think it was '65. (Sorry, haven't watched the episode since it aired last week)

"Our 75,000 men are going to be in great danger unless they have 75,000 more. My judgment is and I'm no military man at all, but I study it every day and every night and I read the cables, I look back over what's happened in the last two years, the last four really, and if they get 150, they'll have to have another 150. And then they'll have to have another 150."

We know where that thought ended up
posted by IvoShandor at 4:12 AM on November 27, 2009


LBJ ORDERS SOME NEW HAGGAR PANTS
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:38 AM on November 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


LBJ ORDERS SOME NEW HAGGAR PANTS

Let's see Bill Moyers connect that to Obama! (Belches)
posted by Pollomacho at 5:14 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Listening to these tapes in another context, one is reminded of the tragedy of LBJ - he was about so much more than Vietnam and his leadership on Civil Rights, the political cost of which for his party he well knew ("We've just lost the South for a generation") really contrasts painfully with the timid pygmy politics of today. I think history and culture are far too kind to JFK and have blackened the name of his less glam, far more important successor too much.
posted by The Salaryman at 5:22 AM on November 27, 2009 [13 favorites]


But the question remains, what is the alternative? If we just pack up and leave and
tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us, then what? Would this make our lives safer? Happier? Would the terrorists just go home and give up their Jihads? Would the world-wide Caliphate, just fade back into the history books? Does anyone think that Pakistan can deal with it on their own? Or that they really want more bombs in their cities? Is there anyone here, who has a plan that makes sense? Please, tell us. Please.
posted by donfactor at 6:05 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I think it would be a fun experiment if all the intellectual energy expended on thinking about war was redeployed to thinking about peace. ... Military History takes up a lot of fucking floorspace at Borders.

On the contrary, if only our society would dedicate some real intellectual energy to thinking about war, rather than just prosecuting it. The dirty secret, of course, is that almost none of those books in Borders are written by professionals. The production of 'military history' is every bit as amateur and crude as the production of 'pop-psychology' and 'pop-medicine'.

There are hardly any professional military historians working today, far too few to have a viable field. I write this as an academic military historian, shortly to change careers and do something else because there are simply no jobs to be had.

I was a grad student, back in 2003, watching with incredulity as the war in Iraq started, baffled by the way they seemed to be making every obvious mistake, violating every well-worn idea about how an invasion and occupation should be carried out.

And who was able to go on US television and say 'let's not argue about morality, let's talk about competence; this war is being fought by people who have no idea what they're doing'? Nobody. The academic system let down the people of planet earth because of that attitude, the attitude that war is immoral and therefore the study of war should be ended. The attitude that it is better to forget about such unpleasant things and conduct our discussions of war on the basis of broad and grotesquely blunt political ideologies ('be tough!'; 'peace is the answer!').

Well we've seen what happens when we ignore the study of war. Wars still happen, but when they do our societies are unable to think about it critically and we are left simply having to 'trust the generals' (or in this case 'trust the politicians ignoring the generals') because nobody can formulate a coherent argument one way or another.

Had military historians been numerous and vocal in 2003, the war in Iraq would either not have happened at all, or would have been orders of magnitude less bloody. This commentary from Moyers, respected journalist as he is, is as crude and off base as if he were conflating chemotherapy and mastectomy and nobody is going to point this out because none of the experts are going to be consulted. And it burns me up that people feel like this is a sign of progress.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:09 AM on November 27, 2009 [43 favorites]


I ask the same question about our military involvement in Afghanistan as with Viet Nam and Iraq: How will we know when we have achieved victory?

And who in the world appointed the U.S. as the world's policemen?
posted by leftcoastbob at 6:16 AM on November 27, 2009


But the question remains, what is the alternative?

minding our own business

If we just pack up and leave and tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us, then what?

then the powers of asia get to deal with it

Would this make our lives safer? Happier?

it would make our troops safer and happier

Would the terrorists just go home and give up their Jihads?

you can't rid the world of terrorists any more than you can rid it of "lone gunmen going postal" - and most of them have gone home and given up

Would the world-wide Caliphate, just fade back into the history books?

there is no world-wide caliphate - there will never be a world wide caliphate - you may as well ask if there's ever going to be a world-wide holy roman empire

Does anyone think that Pakistan can deal with it on their own?

if we can't control what happens in afghanistan, how the hell do you figure we're going to do it in pakistan?

Is there anyone here, who has a plan that makes sense?

yes - a multi-polar world of regional powers who police their own regions - meaning china, india and russia

this would be a lot better world if the americans stopped trying to run it for everyone else
posted by pyramid termite at 6:19 AM on November 27, 2009 [16 favorites]


donfactor asks:
But the question remains, what is the alternative? If we just pack up and leave and
tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us, then what? Would this make our lives safer? Happier? Would the terrorists just go home and give up their Jihads? Would the world-wide Caliphate, just fade back into the history books? Does anyone think that Pakistan can deal with it on their own? Or that they really want more bombs in their cities? Is there anyone here, who has a plan that makes sense? Please, tell us. Please.


...I'm happy to answer.

Create a NATO base or two in the region. Maybe one in Iraq (maybe south Iraq, beside Kuwait, on the ocean), one in Afghanistan. Use it to bolster "allies" in the area like Pakistan and Kuwait (I know- with friends like these... but what's the alternative?) . Use this base to launch the occasional strike as intelligence warrants.

Oh, and offer great-paying jobs to the locals, open some great schools and post juicy bounties for al Qaeda figureheads and hopefully the locals will do the heavy lifting.

This is a mediocre solution, I know. But it's feasible, and less wasteful than all-out war.

Sometimes I think it would be a fun experiment if all the intellectual energy expended on thinking about war was redeployed to thinking about peace.

Not talking about Moyers exactly, but Military History takes up a lot of fucking floorspace at Borders.


Those who don't learn from history are condemned to watch it on History Channel.

Seriously, why does the US think that they can pacify countries half a world away that they haven't begun to understand? Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan...
posted by Artful Codger at 6:36 AM on November 27, 2009


At least this time around, Bill Moyers' work is limited to running a talk show. When he was closer to power with LBJ during the time of the Vietnam War, he was occupied with gay witchhunts and the like.

How does this guy have any credibility left?
posted by Slap Factory at 6:41 AM on November 27, 2009


Oh, and offer great-paying jobs to the locals, open some great schools and post juicy bounties for al Qaeda figureheads and hopefully the locals will do the heavy lifting.

Ok, let's say I'm the Taliban or AQ; this is what I do:

The schools get bombed (especially the schools for girls), anybody taking one of your great paying jobs ends up dead in a ditch, and maybe their family too, members of my organisation who are a threat to me get turned in for the bounty or, when I don't have any people I need to get rid of, I turn in random farmers or the occasional backpacking stranger who nobody's going to notice go missing. And I use the money to buy small arms, explosives, and the other necessities of war.

Your move. How do you respond to that?
posted by Dreadnought at 6:58 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


How does this guy have any credibility left?

You see how easy it is to get distracted? There is something real out there and a lot of lives are at stake, not just American lives. So, who cares about Bill Moyers, all he's doing is reporting. And, BTW, the idea of nice separate little territories or spheres of influence would probably make the world look a lot like an Afghanistan that already has a similar structure - lots of small semi- autonomous tribal territories. And even without a lot of foreigners interfering they've been shooting at each other forever.
posted by donfactor at 7:01 AM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


How does this guy have any credibility left?

Cause people change after 50 years?

Anyway, as long as the Democrats stay in power I think the war isn't going to last that much longer. The Obey war tax has garnered a lot of support from senior democrats and in this economy there won't be the support to keep throwing money away at an unpopular war.

If the republicans win however all bets are off.
posted by afu at 7:06 AM on November 27, 2009


> Your move. How do you respond to that?

1) snark. How is that worse than the current situation?

2) more snark. I just come up with the ideas; implementation is someone else's problem.

3) I'm assuming that it would be possible for the base to be able to defend and control access to the areas immediately around the base, (as opposed to trying to control, say, the whole fucking subcontinent) so that the Taliban or AQ couldn't easily infiltrate. Of course, like the US was about the invasion, I could be hopelessly naive too, so you may consider those steps as optional. Just make a big base with a nice big wall, then.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:10 AM on November 27, 2009


Thanks for the insight Dreadnought.

I admit I have only ever really read a lot of what you will probably tell me is very lightweight stuff: Beevor and Keegan and, in an inexplicable lapse in my generally impeccable judgement, Ambrose. So my idea of a "professional historian" is probably skewiff and obviously I don't move in those lauded circles. I don't "trust the generals" exactly but I would expect the commanders of the most powerful military machine the planet has ever seen to, y'know, have done some fucking reading, and if that's not the case then I don't think it's exactly a problem with there being a dearth of professional military historians to tell people what's what, it's more of a problem with general, systemic cultural stupidity. It would be nice to have these professional military historians on the telly but it might be even better to have them lecturing at officer cadet colleges and if you cut away the bullshit the reason they're not doing that is because it isn't profitable* for anybody concerned, which is a problem larger than any other that the human species has ever faced.

I don't think that war is immoral. I think self-destruction is the most moral course humankind could ever take. But at the same time, it's sometimes nice to think that all that space given over to the endless tedious volumes about D-Day and the Civil War could be put to better use and I'm not sure that all those shelves are full because of an overarching feeling of "war is immoral and therefore the study of war should be ended".

As a tangential aside, I was looking at an apartment with my girlfriend on the weekend, and it became obvious from the second we walked through the door that it was currently inhabited by an AJ ("army jerk"). His kit was all over the place, about nine pairs of boots. On the coffee table was a copy of Generation Kill. Next to his television, Modern Warfare 2 for the PS3. On his bedside table, some grim-looking Australian Army manual on, I dunno, killing people with your socks, and something about 3 Para. And I thought, fuck this guy.

*Yes I realise conflict existed before currency but the trick with the 20th and 21st centuries is that everything boils down to the folding stuff.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:18 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your move. How do you respond to that?

Shoot all the darkies, obviously.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:23 AM on November 27, 2009


1) snark. How is that worse than the current situation?

No, that an intensificationof the current situation.

I'm assuming that it would be possible for the base to be able to defend and control access to the areas immediately around the base

And how are you going to do this? Make a walled compound? How many lives are you prepared to expend defending that compound, given the vast swathes of uncontrolled enemy territory that surround you? Is there, in terms of the ethics of a bad situation, any substantive difference between controlling a few thousand out of a population of millions and simply leaving all together?

Are you sure that your 'build a few schools and leave' plan is not simply an ethical salve to make you feel a little bit better about allowing millions of people to fall into a situation of uncontrolled civil war and repression?

These problems are not easy to solve. One thing that I keep telling my students is that very often, in international relations, there just isn't a perfect answer. Sometimes doing things which seem, on the face of them, 'right' can actually make the problem worse.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:24 AM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


How does this guy have any credibility left?

Wait, were you talking about Moyers or David Frum who's magazine you linked to?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:25 AM on November 27, 2009


> No, that an intensification of the current situation.

How so? Smaller area to defend, fewer NATO troops, fewer engagements, beyond the occasional destabilizing strike...

But look, you have experience in this area. How about less handwringing, and tell us what you'd do? (your move, in other words)
posted by Artful Codger at 7:32 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The war in Afghanistan has been about Pakistan for the past five years. We cannot invade Pakistan, as they are an ally, and, oh yeah, they have nukes.

The problem isn't that the Pakistan Government would nuke us, the problem is the right-wing factions in Pakistan's military would ally with Al Quaeda, who are still out there in Waziristan. They would love a few nukes, thanks, and in the chaos of an American invasion, the likelihood is high they'd nab at least a couple.

So! The larger strategy is this: convince Pakistan to prosecute a civil war to bring the Islamist factions operating out of Waziristan to heel, and to regain control of even the remote corners of its own country. This has been accomplished, through heavy-handed US diplomacy (like them jets we sold you on credit? Ever want to be able to afford another one?) and arrogant, vicious stupidity on the part of Al Quaeda and its allies - first killing Benazir Bhutto and then pulling the stunt in Mumbai - and now Pakistan is fighting a civil war popular with both the radical right wingers in the military, and the moderate general population. Unfortunately, they're not fighting it very well, and it's losing popularity, fast...

The other half of the strategy is to make damn sure Pakistani rebels can't use Afghanistan for logistical support and retreat, and that's where we come in. The plan is to use the new troops to guard and protect the civilian population and civilian infrastructure, to steal support from insurgents and foreign guerilla fighters - which, to be blunt, should have been the strategy back in 2002. It may be too little, too late.

Meanwhile, Bin Laden keeps making his tapes, because Bush wanted to play tanks and soldiers with Saddam instead of win the war against Al Quaeda in Afghanistan.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:35 AM on November 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


With Bush, Cheney and now Obama I think you can make a case for requiring military service to run for public office like in Starship Troopers. One of the reasons that the Cuban Missile Crisis didn't escalate into a war because the leaders on both sides had seen what war was like in WWII. These millionaire candy asses that can't be bothered to serve and now run this country are a bunch of goddamn chickenhawks (except for the ones that aren't, like Webb).
posted by zzazazz at 7:48 AM on November 27, 2009


I think the historical record shows that worrying about the "right move" is a purely academic exercise. As an academic (albeit in an unrelated field) I'm all in favor of that. But simply put, doing the right thing is often not even a consideration, and it's never the only one. So all the theoretical good we could do by staying in Afganistan and making all the right moves has to be balanced against the fact that we have been there for about seven years and we've made one wrong move after another. All the good we could do if our society was completely different doesn't weigh very heavily against the evil we have done, and continue to do. I don't see cold-blooded military competance as any more realistic than knee-jerk opposition to unnecessary military adventures, whereas I find the latter much preferable. In any case, I don't think there's any such victory condition as "killed the last terrorist", and it might behoove us to consider that every bomb we drop might very well create more terrorists than it kills. This is especially the case if "terrorist" is defined to be "someone who is fighting a guerilla war against the US or its propped-up government".

On preview:
The idea of a military-run government makes me sick, and at no point during Starship Troopers did I ever think "yes please". Anyway, McCain had plenty of war experience, but he was singing songs about bombing Iran.
posted by Humanzee at 8:00 AM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's evident that there can't be an indefinite occupation. You can't police an entire nation from half a world away. They must police themselves. Therefore, the solution lies in convincing a sufficent portion of the populace that they want what we want, and empowering them to achieve it. The question is, what do we want? Stability, peace and prosperity would seem to be the minimum requirements. The third requirement is vital as a means of maintaining popular support for the other two.
It's very difficult for us to achieve prosperity in rural parts of Afghanistan, where the opium poppy is a major cash crop. This, of course, presents a political issue for the occupiers, which they have thus far dealt with by burning the crop and impoverishing the people. That is not a good way to win hearts and minds. Violent struggle is a lot easier to foment amongst the dispossessed.
We need to search for better solutions. Why not just buy the poppies before you burn them? Or, as in the EU, pay the landowners not to grow anything? Restoring some prosperity in this way would be relatively quick and easy, and would serve as a platform for peace and stability in the short term. In the longer term there would have to some plan to transition the economy to some other model, but that's a problem for another day. It would be a hard political sell in the West, where it would no doubt enrage the moral majority, but would it be any harder than trying to maintain support for unending war?
posted by Jakey at 8:05 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


How about less handwringing, and tell us what you'd do? (your move, in other words)

I feel fortunate, every day, that I don't have to make that choice. But if you put me in charge of the war, somehow? I would probably do the 'surge' as the least-worst option. The 'surge' is hopelessly miss-named. It's not actually to do with having more people as it is to switching to a suite of counter-insurgency techniques which have been 'proven' (I use this term with all appropriate caution) in other conflicts through long experience. It just happens to take more people than they have in country at the moment, which is why it's being confused with an escalation of the war.

Essentially, you stop worrying about 'killing the enemy' and start focusing on keeping people safe. So you have guys situated in the villages, protecting all your new schools and good paying jobs. Gradually, goes the theory, you create a zone of order which contrasts with the zone of chaos controlled by the insurgents. Rather than feeling aggrieved by both sides, people start to look at you as the 'good guys'. Insurgent fighters come home and take up peaceful pursuits or join up with your local allies. As local conditions improve, people have less and less motivation to rebel against the government. With time, you set up a virtuous circle of de-escalation as the insurgency peeters out to a few, hard-core fighters who are generally despised by the population and can do little more than hide in the back hills.

It's a dangerous plan, it takes a lot of people, it would take years and years to pan out and it might not work. But it's the only plan that I know of that's worked anywhere, and seems preferable, to me, to simply leaving the country and allowing all those thousands of people to die or suffer a fate worse than death.

Such are the terrible risks and calculations faced by people who take on the mantle of command. Which is why I generally avoid such things.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:23 AM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


So all the theoretical good we could do by staying in Afganistan and making all the right moves has to be balanced against the fact that we have been there for about seven years and we've made one wrong move after another.

we came in to find bin laden and eliminate the taliban

we have FAILED - we have LOST - and even if we were to do both tomorrow, we took way too much time to do it

would that obama had the sense and courage to see this and tell the people that
posted by pyramid termite at 8:25 AM on November 27, 2009


On poppies; we had early on paid Taliban and poppy growing stopped. And then....the issue is not just the drugs but the possible use (again) of Al Qaeda training camps, which the Taliban had alalowed OBLadin.

But Afghanistan is a different issue. For Viet Nam and LBJ, I suggest you ignore a lot what gets said here and go to Georgetown Univ, where declassified NSA documents are stored. Then, search for Gulf of Tonkin and you will find out how we got into a war based upon--surprise--a big lie.
posted by Postroad at 8:26 AM on November 27, 2009


For this analogy to work wouldn't Obama have to be afraid escalation could tip the scales and bring the Soviets in? Is the USSR going to reform and attack if Obama sends more troops?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:32 AM on November 27, 2009


The only way the last 8 years makes sense is if Cheney was really a deep-cover Iranian mole.
posted by The Whelk at 8:47 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Taliban live in Afghanistan. They are not going anywhere, neither will they take lessons from the west as to how to conduct themselves or their society. Thinking we can change them is dangerous arrogance.

For me, the only course is negotiations including the Taliban to affect our withdrawal. The Taliban must be included in a coalition govt and after we leave, with luck and American money, maybe things will turn out OK.

It looks like I will not vote for a president in 2012. Maybe things will be a little clearer after Obama speaks on Tuesday.
posted by wrapper at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


dreadnought >
It's a dangerous plan, it takes a lot of people, it would take years and years to pan out and it might not work. But it's the only plan that I know of that's worked anywhere, and seems preferable, to me, to simply leaving the country and allowing all those thousands of people to die or suffer a fate worse than death.

I appreciate your response.

But... is this even feasible? Could enough funding and soldiers be found among US allies, especially given current economic conditions?

it seems to me that the last 7 years show that this isn't possible. Which is why I'm floating the idea of bases. I understand your point of protecting the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, but I respectfully suggest that they would have been better off overall over the same 7 year period if their countries hadn't been invaded... just on civilian casualties alone.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2009


The only way the last 8 years makes sense is if Cheney was really a deep-cover Iranian mole.

Or a self interested douche bag trying to make shit loads of money.
posted by chunking express at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


to make you feel a little bit better about allowing millions of people to fall into a situation of uncontrolled civil war and repression?

So we're staying in Afghanistan to prevent civil war? If we leave, the whole country falls into chaos? You're kidding, right? Civil war is the norm in Afghanistan, and has been for a long time. It's also dirt poor, and there's currently an entire economy built around our occupation: we have to pay off the very people we're supposed to be fighting so that they don't blow up our supply routes and convoys. What does that tell you about what the "war" means to the Taliban? Besides opium, there's the mercenary economy that we're helping to keep alive. Anyone who thinks this situation will ever have a decisive victory is naive. All our being there does is help to keep Afghanistan mired in corruption and war. Could the situation get worse if we leave? Sure, but OTOH it's hard to imagine the situation being any worse than it already is.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:35 AM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Moyers' thread of comparison runs long and deep, and I was impressed by the many points in which there is correlation.

  • President inherits an unpopular land war in Asia from predecessor.

  • Presidential military advisors are demanding escalation of conflict.

  • Ambassador to the country in which we are fighting is recommending non-escalation or withdrawal.

  • Repeated revelations of corruption within the government of the country, which is supposed to be our support and eventual source of stability in that country.

    The only real difference is that we have not put a military draft in place during this conflict, so there is not a popular uprising against the war, as it is being fought by volunteers. The side-effect of this is the three, four, even five tours of duty which our forces are being made to endure, rather than the single tour which was common during Viet Nam.

    There are absolutely no easy solutions to this, but by looking in the mirror of history, we can hopefully draw out useful lessons about how to proceed. I just hope that those who are in positions of power are actually looking backward in order to move forward, rather than trying to reinvent all these decision processes. This is a spiral of history I hope we can move off of.

    Moyers ended a broadcast a week or two ago with an editorial comment saying that he hopes the American people will push for instatement of the draft, should Obama choose to escalate the war. His point was that only then would those who are ordering all this fighting have to face the true costs of what they are wreaking upon the nation. I'm not sure I agree, but I thought it was an interesting concept.

  • posted by hippybear at 10:16 AM on November 27, 2009


    Wait, were you talking about Moyers or David Frum who's magazine you linked to?

    Was Frum organizing anti-gay witchhunts against political opponents? I missed that story.
    posted by Slap Factory at 10:41 AM on November 27, 2009


    HP LaserJet P10006: "So we're staying in Afghanistan to prevent civil war?"

    No.
    posted by Joe Beese at 10:42 AM on November 27, 2009


    The only real difference is that we have not put a military draft in place during this conflict, so there is not a popular uprising against the war, as it is being fought by volunteers.

    <>
    I was always wondering why there haven't been uprisings and protests during these wars, as there were during the Vietnam war. I never thought about the draft.
    The bitter old man in me always attributed it to us being entertained to the point of apathy, where we couldn't give a rats a$$ about the world around us because we were too busy watching movies or playing video games...

    The whole draft issue makes a lot more sense.

    Thanks for mentioning this, hippybear - you just saved me an AskMe question! Now I can pose my "should I eat it" question a week earlier!
    <>
    posted by bitteroldman at 10:44 AM on November 27, 2009


    Why do I have the sudden urge to blend up some smoothies in my MAGIC BULLET®?

    Nothing to do with LBJ, surely.
    posted by Sys Rq at 10:45 AM on November 27, 2009


    It's funny reading these comments with people asking what's a better idea and playing gotcha when someone else is fool enough to make some suggestion. Donfactor asked for what to do. I don't know what to do. Anyone who gives you some pretty plan with spreadsheets and graphs and tells you they have an answer is blowing smoke up your ass, plain and simple. However, having a good grasp of US and World history, I at least do know what not to do.

    Escalating the war and adding more troops is most likely not going to lead to any semblance of victory. There is overwhelming evidence of this in the historical parallels that others have cited above, and what Moyers show was about. This would be our what not to do option.

    Once you eliminate that option, well, then you do something else. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. In a world with imperfect information and an almost complete lack of ability to predict the future, you use your empirical evidence to tell you what is most likely to fail and avoid that choice. After that you hope you're people are smart enough to avoid doing something that is going to lead to an even more colossal failure. It's far better to not even have a plan, than cling to plan that will most likely lead to disaster.
    posted by herda05 at 10:46 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


    (Also: Glenn Beck is so totally aping Costner-as-Garrison it's not even funny.)
    posted by Sys Rq at 10:47 AM on November 27, 2009


    IvoShandar:

    Thanks for this...and the responses, too.

    This is why we keep the records, but if we've learned nothing from them, then the fault lies with us and our own temerity and timidity.
    posted by aldus_manutius at 10:47 AM on November 27, 2009


    Dreadnought: "Are you sure that your 'build a few schools and leave' plan is not simply an ethical salve to make you feel a little bit better about allowing millions of people to fall into a situation of uncontrolled civil war and repression?"

    IANAPMH*. But I assume that in Victorian England there were those who justified staying in India because, after all, there was no realistic chance of those impossible people being able to run their own country?

    To be clear, I'm not criticizing your comments - which have been the most valuable contribution to this thread. I'm saying that we can't be the solution because we are the problem.

    * I Am Not A Professional Military Historian
    posted by Joe Beese at 10:55 AM on November 27, 2009


    > It's funny reading these comments with people asking what's a better idea and playing gotcha when someone else is fool enough to make some suggestion.

    Well, I like cracking wise on the blue with the rest of y'all, but occasionally, very occasionally, I think that it might be a bit more helpful if I float a suggestion, rather than just riffing, to prove (to myself) that I'm doing a bit more than just snarking..

    > It's far better to not even have a plan, than cling to plan that will most likely lead to disaster.

    All I can say is that I didn't intend the attack on Afghanistan to last longer than WW II, and me 'n Barack were against Iraq 2 from before the start, so that makes us fucking geniuses, compared to the Bush administration.

    But here we are. I invite you, and anyone to play along. Float a suggestion. At this point, we need all the ideas we can get. Who knows, your crazy idea may be crazy enough to work.
    posted by Artful Codger at 10:57 AM on November 27, 2009


    We're currently spending about $85 billion a year in Afghanistan. Obama's plan will probably bring that up to about $100 billion. Afghanistan's GDP is ~$10 billion. For what we're spending there, for dubious results, we could make everyone in Afghanistan roughly 10 times richer. We could take them from a per capita GDP of $416 to $4,160, roughly on par with Albania and the Ukraine and better than Iraq and China.

    That's my plan. Give everybody a ton of money, basically a guaranteed minimum income, an idea that's been discussed here before. Keep enough of a military presence--preferably well trained units that are familiar with the languages and cultures--to distribute the payments and train local security forces. Other than that, pull out post haste.

    Also I'd just like to point out that if you pronounce LBJ's name as 'El B.J.' it is hilarious.
    posted by jedicus at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


    jedicus: it's a great plan, but doesn't that demand that we continue to spend money on Afghanistan at current levels for ever and ever, amen? I mean, I love the concept of using our money to raise the standard of living there rather than feeding the military-industrial complex and Blackwater / Xe et. al and stuff... But at what point do we withdraw that $100bn a year and return that money to our own economy / support rather than just making the Afghan people into the nanny state which we refuse to enact here at home?
    posted by hippybear at 11:24 AM on November 27, 2009


    The USA hasn't been able to run its own country competently. It shouldn't be trying to run others.
    posted by five fresh fish at 11:24 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


    it's a great plan, but doesn't that demand that we continue to spend money on Afghanistan at current levels for ever and ever, amen?

    Well, no, I think the plan should have a built-in phase out. At a minimum it should phase out at about the rate we can reasonably expect the Afghan economy to grow. More realistically it should probably phase out on roughly the same time table as the occupation. I would guess we'll effectively withdraw from Afghanistan in 7 years or so. If Obama hasn't gotten us out of Iraq and Afghanistan by the time his second term is up (assuming he wins a second term), I think it's pretty doubtful that the Democrats will retain the presidency.

    The other thing is that the plan wouldn't be solely funded by the US. The various allies that are also invested in Afghanistan would probably feel a lot more comfortable about sending money rather than military support. Germany and Britain come readily to mind as examples.

    Nor is there any particularly reason to actually go with $100 billion per year. I'm not an economic expert, but I imagine some fraction of that would also work pretty well. My point was that even the worst case--spending the same amount for ever--is probably better than what we're doing now.
    posted by jedicus at 11:35 AM on November 27, 2009


    Artful Codger, my comment wasn't meant to snark. It was more meant to people who seemed to be defending the status quo or escalating with more troops. At least that's the way I read Donfactor's comment (correctly or not).

    I think you and Dreadnought are having an enjoyable, entertaining, and intelligent debate. I'm enjoying reading the comments back and forth. But it's a fool's errand to me to playing guessing games about a plan. Anything anyone comes up with can be taken apart by what if scenarios, as you and Dreadnought are eloquently displaying.

    Personally I'm for anything that doesn't involve a "counter-insurgency" which seems to be the popular fad in military circles.
    posted by herda05 at 11:42 AM on November 27, 2009


    With Bush, Cheney and now Obama I think you can make a case for requiring military service to run for public office like in Starship Troopers.

    Bush was in the Texas Air National Guard; the man may not have seen combat, but he definitely fulfilled any sane "served in the military" requirement. If you want to require combat experience, you're going to either totally exclude women or at least massively bias against them; plus, you'd end up having a potential public service corps made up almost entirely of Army and Marines. The Navy very rarely comes under fire at all these days, and the basic nature of the Air Force is that only a tiny subset of it actually goes into combat, the rest being a massive support system for those few. I know it's usually just a rhetorical device, but that's what "Requiring military service" really means.

    Besides, why not say that only people who've been doctors, nurses, or EMTs can run for President, given how vital health care is? Hell of a lot more people die from preventable diseases than any modern war.
    posted by Tomorrowful at 11:42 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I'm with wrapper on this one. A political settlement by the Afghan players on the ground is currently our best possible scenario. The take-hold-keepholding-build strategy does not work in Afghanistan. You hold a village, but outside the village belongs to the Talibs/Haqqani/Hizb etc. and they're sitting there thinking, 'let's see who rusts first'.

    Also, I don't think the US went in because they wanted to be world policemen. They went in to avenge 9/11 - which they failed adequately to do - and then spectacularly screwed the place up, not by putting in too many troops, but too few: by ignoring the place, re-empowering a bunch of thugs with no legitimacy in place of international peace-keepers, and blocking the most significant faction from any involvement in the state thus giving them every incentive to try to destabilise it. Basically, a manual of what not to do. Obama has inherited this scenario, and it's an invidious position to be in.
    posted by YouRebelScum at 11:47 AM on November 27, 2009


    Afghanistan: two worldwide empires down, one to go.
    posted by telstar at 11:54 AM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


    Okay, how about it if you don't have to have served in the military to be in government, you just have to have to have served in the military (and, yeah, maybe in combat) in order to vote "yes" to send a bunch of poor people's children off to be killed.
    posted by Trochanter at 12:55 PM on November 27, 2009


    Wait, were you talking about Moyers or David Frum who's magazine you linked to?

    Was Frum organizing anti-gay witchhunts against political opponents? I missed that story.


    David Frum the guy that lead the movement against Harriet Meyers's Supreme Court nomination, not because of her lack of qualifications (which he didn't find lacking), but because she wasn't conservative enough? The David Frum that wrote about John Kerry's non-existant extra-marital affair with an intern in the National Review? Oh, no, surely not him!
    posted by Pollomacho at 1:00 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


    BHO has the Taliban's pecker in his pocket?
    posted by orthogonality at 2:02 PM on November 27, 2009


    telstar: that's a myth. Only the Russians were brought down by Afghanistan. British interest in Afghanistan was strategic, and in the end they got what they wanted out of the place - a buffer. Sure, neither the retreat from Kabul nor Maiwand could be called a resounding success, but the Brits played, over a period of seven decades mind you, a successful game, keeping their interests in India protected. Not to mention that directly after Maiwand they roundly beat Ayub Khan and took advantage of the political situation on the ground to back a total bastard who did what they needed him to do (towers of skulls notwithstanding). If Obama were to use that approach, he would minimise troop commitments or bail out, let the Afghans fight it out, watch the situation very carefully and some years down the line try to back a leader who would follow certain red lines - like not supporting terrorists.
    posted by YouRebelScum at 2:19 PM on November 27, 2009


    Is there anyone here, who has a plan that makes sense? Please, tell us. Please.

    Dorronsoro:
    Objectives in Afghanistan must be reconciled with the resources available to pursue them.
    The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.
    The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations
    The main policy objective should be to leave an Afghan government that is able to survive a U.S. withdrawal.
    Strategy should differentiate three areas and allocate resources accordingly: strategic cities and transportation routes that must be under total Afghan/alliance control; buffers around strategic areas, where NATO and the Afghan army would focus their struggle against insurgents; and opposition territory, where NATO and Afghan forces would not expend effort or resources.
    Withdrawal will allow the United States to focus on the central security problem in the region: al-Qaeda and the instability in Pakistan.

    “Seriously, why does the US think that they can pacify countries half a world away that they haven't begun to understand? Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan...”

    Because it’s possible to do.
    The relationship is somewhat analogues to what I understand film making to be. You have the writer/director/actors who know how to make a film and understand what an audience likes or doesn’t and know what will work and what won’t. Then you have a bunch of goofs in suits in the front office who think they really know what people want and they don’t need to know about art or anything, never been behind a camera, done any editing, or entertained an audience with their skill, but goddamn they drive a nice car and look good and they’re always on the phone so they must be important - won’t give you the $2 billion you need to make an excellent high concept film that might not break box office records its first week out but will be remembered in perpetuity like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and will eventually make back far more money over the long run.

    But they will give you $160 billion to make a schlocky special effect popcorn movie with a $80 billion ad campaign that will shatter the box office its first week. Sure, it will fail miserably after that because it’s a shallow nothing of a film where even the big stars won’t go and shop it around on the talk shows, or if they do you can tell they’ve got ashes in their mouths, but none of that matters because all you need to do is get enough investors on board from that first week’s run, then you can make another bustout film, do the same thing, and keep the whole thing rolling for years while your production company socks it away.

    Counterinsurgency operations can, do, and have worked. There are countless examples (British in Malaya or Kenya offhand) the Indians have forgotten more about COIN than most states ever learn (ask anyone who’s been to Vairengte). The problem is going from operations to politics. What’s the political goal?

    That’s not the old trope of blaming the politicians for not letting the military 'win', that’s just being realistic and saying we have to know what 'win' means in the first place – it’s tough to try and suit resources to the goal rather than looking at what you’ve got to work with and having that dictate how you accomplish your goals.

    As it is we’ve got a huge leg up in terms of forming viable counterinsurgency goals in that we’re not there for colonial reasons as the British were in Kenya (neo-colonial, arguable, but different discussion.) And so we aren’t saddled with trying to split insurgents from people who are likely to be very sympathetic because we actually are oppressors (how we’re viewed – different story) and so we don’t have to rely on repression, but we can (as the British did) alter our strategic and operational plan to suit circumstances.

    Of course, we’re still apparently working on the latter. But the inception of the war in Afghanistan seemed to be “go there and mill around.”

    So the new focus on the government and population is a good move. But I think there’s still a lot of drive to win this on military terms and that’s not going to work where – in contrast to the British COIN campaigns where the insurgents were isolated and didn’t get a lot of external support – you have Pakistan and other interests to contend with.

    So again –doable, but the longer it goes, the less likely any strategic change is going to succeed. At least as far as the recent history of counterinsurgencies go.

    “Bush was in the Texas Air National Guard; the man may not have seen combat, but he definitely fulfilled any sane "served in the military" requirement.”
    Naaah, he really didn’t.

    “The idea of a military-run government makes me sick, and at no point during Starship Troopers did I ever think "yes please".”

    It wasn’t a military run government. It’s Heinlein’s fault for focusing so much on that storyline and hybridizing a work of fiction that way. But that aside, he did say military service made up less than what 2% or so of franchisees? Anyway, small amount.
    It was mostly some sort of public service. I think this would be great. Have people build houses, dig wells, other such things for a few years - do something for someone other than themselves and serving their own interests. I don’t know how limited the other side is. I think the right to self-determination is inherent, so voting – dunno. But being in office or some such, maybe. I can see arguments both ways.

    The military thing though – you have so many people who’s idealism is unchallenged by practical experience and unlimited by the grisly realities. They make no connection between signing a piece of paper and mangled limbs and torn off legs and dying people bleeding out in rubble so they can just roll on and on about how wonderful their goals are heedless of the costs.

    Something yeah should be done about that. Not sure what though. But I sure as hell wouldn’t send anyone to fight unless I was absolutely sure there was no other option. Folks like to say “no other option” but I’m not so sure it means what they think it means.
    It's not merely that so few people have been exposed to war, or danger, or even been in a fight, it's that so few of them have ever had any real power all they want to do is use it.
    You see this when people get trained or after lifting weights for a while, they get the new muscles, the new skills, and they want to kick ass because they've never kicked ass before.
    In this case, yes, they're isolated from it.
    Instead of seeing the guy who's sworn to duty and who will listen to what you will say they see the potential result of kicking the world into the shape they want it by proxy.
    Forgetting of course the 'proxy' bleeds, feels pain like anyone else, has a family and a world outside serving and is making a sacrifice that it's your responsibility to utilize only in dire need.
    Hell, how many people in the U.S. have really been in dire need? Much less commensurate with the power to do something about it.
    Seems like there were some on 9/11 and Bushco screwed that up. Since then, some incidents aside, exertion of that kind of power has been mostly optional and devoid of truly dire need.
    posted by Smedleyman at 3:05 PM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


    Backing Dorronsoro for great analysis. My knowledge is a few months out of date now, but those interested in informed analysis on the current problems, and some recommendations, might be interested in some of these writers and institutions:

    The Afghan Analysts Network;
    Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit;
    Andrew Wilder;
    Antonio Giustozzi;

    My all-time favourite analysis of aid and statebuilding in Afghanistan is by Astri Suhrke, although it's probably a bit old now.
    posted by YouRebelScum at 3:33 PM on November 27, 2009


    I don't want this to sound like too hostile a comment, but I've been working all day talking to very smart, dedicated students who are trying really hard to learn how to deal with the complexities and dangers of international relations. Many of them are going to be in the diplomatic or intelligence services next year. Others want careers as human rights workers or conciliators or aid administrators. A few of them are in the military services of various countries. Most of them seem very young, to me, and often a little naive. And I have to show them really horrible things, things which I know will twist them, distress them, make them afraid and hardened and bitter.

    But they try, you see, they really try to understand and come to terms with the world in all its horror and beauty. And they're willing to accept that there aren't easy answers, and yet to try anyway with all of their youthful hope behind them.

    And then I turn on my computer at home again and I read comments like herda05's.

    But it's a fool's errand to me to playing guessing games about a plan. Anything anyone comes up with can be taken apart by what if scenarios, as you and Dreadnought are eloquently displaying.

    I know it's not your fault. You're just talking through your ideas on the internet about a subject of passing interest. Hell, I do it too. It wouldn't make me frustrated, even, if I didn't have the terrible feeling that these ideas are the dominant ones in the debate about military policy in our society. I feel like a climate scientist must when people say 'oh well I'm sure there's two sides to the story... oil companies have an agenda, but so do those environmentalist types...'

    What does it mean that my students are working so hard to learn about the world, when they're going to go work for people who think things like: 'defending the status quo or escalating with more troops'. I mean you understand, don't you, that 'escalation' and 'increasing troop levels' are different things, right? Well if you don't, you're in pretty good company. Most of our political and media opinion leaders don't either.

    You have to understand that for me, for many many people, and certainly for the population of Afghanistan, this isn't an idle question. These are things people have dealt with very deeply, issues they do not confront lightly, decisions which must be taken with the utmost seriousness. It bothers me that somebody like Moyers, a man whose commentary on many issues I've come to admire, can make such a trite and misleading comparison as this, a comparison I would never accept from my students, and that he can use his media platform to make it and nobody even blinks.

    Because people get mad when fake science is done by people who don't know science, even when bad design is done by people who don't know fonts... but that foreign and military policy is just a matter of... well, of fashion.

    Personally I'm for anything that doesn't involve a "counter-insurgency" which seems to be the popular fad in military circles.

    I am sad now.
    posted by Dreadnought at 8:42 PM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


    Dreadnought: The dirty secret, of course, is that almost none of those books in Borders are written by professionals. The production of 'military history' is every bit as amateur and crude as the production of 'pop-psychology' and 'pop-medicine'.

    Very interesting! Are there any authors who you would recommend? Anyone writing real military history/science for the layperson?
    posted by heatherann at 8:44 PM on November 27, 2009


    Because people get mad when fake science is done by people who don't know science

    Sorry to say, but I'm finding your appeal to your own authority on the subject of "military history" not especially enlightening or useful to the present discussion; mostly it just reads as a smoke-blowing defense mechanism.

    The situation in Afghanistan may be complex, but in the final analysis are options are between "really bad" and "worse."

    On Tuesday the President is supposed to tell us why sending an additional 35,000 troops is necessary. Unless I'm mistaken, this decision has already been made.

    So what are we discussing, exactly? Some of us (me, for instance) think sending more troops is a really, really bad idea. Others may think it's a good idea. Only time will tell, but the decision, so far as I can see, is already made.
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:19 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


    Yyyyeah, appeal to authority really should come with either credentials or solid and tangible topical arguments. So far, I like the cut of your jib, but quote a few papers or books on the topic you feel illustrates the point, either in the particular or in the general. (Xenophon or Polybius or another moldy-oldie would make me sad. Unless it was Clausewitz, then I'd simply be impressed you made it through one of the awful translations. Hard-core!)
    posted by Slap*Happy at 10:27 PM on November 27, 2009


    appeal to authority ... quote a few papers or books on the topic you feel illustrates the point ... Clausewitz, then I'd simply be impressed

    The irony, here, is that I haven't actually committed appeal to authority fallacy... yet. I've expressed frustration that somebody like Moyers would presume to speak on a subject he clearly doesn't understand. I've expressed exasperation that political leaders seem unwilling to listen to experts on the subject. I've displayed sadness that ordinary people are not crying out for real leadership on this subject, even assuming that the cases made by knowledgeable and thoughtful people are nothing more than 'fad'. But none of these things are appeal to authority. I have -- in the face of real temptation I might add -- thus far refrained from saying 'you should follow my plan because of my (unstated and frankly rather dubious) credentials'.

    You know what would be appeal to authority? Saying 'Clausewitz said this so it must be true'. Exactly what you're asking me to do.

    So you want me to appeal to authority? Fine.

    If so, I'm certainly not going to turn to Clausewitz, because Clausewitz, famously, barely discusses irregular warfare. He was, of course, writing in the wake of the failed counter-insurgency campaign in Spain but fails to account for it (aside from a relatively brief and not-too-illuminating section) in On War for reasons that critics of his work have found hard to work out. Perhaps mostly because it didn't accord with his high-politics view of the role of warfare in interstate conflict.

    Perhaps there's no greater authority, in this matter, than the Allied military government in Germany, 1945 on, who succeeded in taking over an extremely hostile country, a country with a history of collapsing in to anarchy and being overrun with politically invidious militias who promptly turned around and caused difficulties for this country's neighbours, and who at the moment that the Allies invaded, had already set up a specially trained 'stay behind' guerrilla movement. This was the kind of performance that our political leaders promised us upon the invasion of Iraq, and this is the kind of performance that I for one was expecting them to at least try and achieve. Unfortunately, they did none of the things that they had done in 1945 and the whole enterprise was doomed to failure.

    There's no one good source on allied military government in post-combat operations for WWII. You can read many pieces of the puzzle in various survivor accounts and official archives. The political dimension of the occupation is admirably covered in Noel Annan's Changing Enemies, a fascinating book which lays out the highly successful 'cruel to be kind' approach taken by the British in reestablishing democracy in Germany. Some years after I read this book, I was fascinated and horrified to find out that people in the US government had had no idea that such things had taken place and had simply assumed that the success in Germany indicated that invading places was easy. I had a particularly illuminating conversation about this with a young lady from Rand who told me that 'I just went to a talk on the occupation of Japan, and it turned out that they did things we could never do, like bringing in censorship'. My response was 'wait... you're fine with bombing weddings, but censorship is where you draw the line?'

    Probably the best source I can think of on the failure of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (and by best I mean, the one that most closely accorded with my ideas... I'm only human!) is Correlli Barnett's paper for the Foreign Policy Centre entitled Post-conquest Civil Affairs. Let this be the last time I am ever forced to publicly agree with the esteemed Dr Barnett, but his paper is spot-on.

    Last year I personally raised this argument with John Gaddis who, I'm happy to say, was not able to come up with a coherent repost, although he very politely disagreed. Professor Gaddis is a very polite man indeed.

    But that part of my survey on the authorities on this subject only really covers the causes of the initial failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. What of the road ahead?

    Perhaps the most comprehensive and illuminating document on the counterinsurgency (known to those slavishly devoted to this faddish way of thinking as 'COIN') would be the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual itself, which can be downloaded in its entirety here. This weighty tome carries with it the authority of almost every working expert on the subject and is in broad application wherever COIN is discussed. Lead on the project to write the manual was no less a figure than General David Petraeus, a man who first came to my attention back in 2004 when I spoke to a certain Washington war reporter who came back from Iraq singing his praises. I would, naturally, fallaciously appeal to the reputation of that reporter, but I'm forbidden to do so under the Chatham House Rule.

    Flipping through my copy, I note that it also acknowledges some of the most important books in the literature of COIN (a subject in which I have to acknowledge a lack of expertise), especially Sir Robert Thompson's classic Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. For a widely read, widely available, and very readable update of Thompson's work, I might recommend Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, written by another COIN Manual consultant, John Nagl. This book is not perfect, but it's good enough that I set it as required reading on one of my classes.

    For more focused material about how this applies in Iraq and Afghanistan, I might recommend David Kilcullen's The Accidental Gureilla, or a new book by journalist Thomas E Ricks, which I haven't read yet, but about which I heard a very interesting talk, called The Gamble. Ricks actually argues (to bring this full circle) that the 'surge' in Iraq was a failure because the success in reestablishing security was not matched by a political settlement that would be able to make that security permanent. I would argue that it's very possible to say that the reason that political settlement didn't work, is because the occupying powers were not willing to interfere in the domestic politics of the country in the way that they were in other, more successful occupations. Perhaps, paradoxically, we need to actually be less 'democratic' in order to give democracy firm roots in these countries.

    Ok, so appeal to authority ended, I have once again laid myself open to the charge that I'm somehow patronising the inhabitants of Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that they don't have the ability to set up a stable government of their own and on their own terms. The comparison has already been made with the British choosing not to pull out of India. This is a little ironic, as one of the big reasons that Britain pulled out of India in 1947 is that they they were no longer able to ensure secure civil government, and that they felt that this was delegitimising for them.

    I don't think that it is racist or patronising to acknowledge that there are severe problems with political leadership and governance in Iraq and Afghanistan. European countries have experienced similar problems in the past. When Germany was abandoned to armed and politically extreme factions in 1919, the result was war and chaos. We have allowed such factions to take root in these countries by failing to provide security to a fledgling civil society, and by refusing to interfere when ethnic and sectarian parties, as well as parties controlled by warlords, set themselves up as the primary conduits for political expression. We should have insisted that the political system be kept on ice until multi-ethnic parties had had time to organise, until proper civil society had taken root. Now we have to decide whether to go through that process again from scratch, or to leave now and let the local armed factions fight it out at the expense of the ordinary local people.

    What we should do, I honestly don't know. But I do know this: any solution based on slogans is a suspect solution. I stand accused of 'blowing smoke' to conceal my position, but how much more hand-wavy is an argument which says something akin to 'give peace a chance', where 'peace' is defined as a little less war for 'us' and vastly more war for 'them'?
    posted by Dreadnought at 10:57 AM on November 28, 2009 [11 favorites]


    any solution based on slogans is a suspect solution.

    And any conclusion that is platitudinous yet requires so many words to get to is a suspect conclusion.

    somebody like Moyers would presume to speak on a subject he clearly doesn't understand.

    I'm not sure why you think this; is it b/c you disagree that Afghanistan should be compared to Vietnam?

    there are severe problems with political leadership and governance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    There are severe problems with leadership in America, and one of them is knowing when the imperatives of maintaining a cumbersome global military empire are in stark opposition to the needs of the citizenry. It might be too sloganeering for you, but almost everything about America right now reeks of an empire in steep decline. Endless foreign occupations lacking clearly discernible goals are part of that reality.
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:09 AM on November 28, 2009


    any conclusion that is platitudinous yet requires so many words to get to is a suspect conclusion.

    Wait... so you think that we should have solutions based on slogans? I'm not sure what you're arguing here. Or are you saying that the COIN manual is a platitude? I'm confused.

    I'm not sure why you think this; is it b/c you disagree that Afghanistan should be compared to Vietnam?

    Well yes, but mostly that you can't compare Johnson's policy in Vietnam with the 'surge' plan in Afghanistan. About the only things they have in common is the fact that they both involve soldiers.

    It might be too sloganeering for you, but almost everything about America right now reeks of an empire in steep decline. Endless foreign occupations lacking clearly discernible goals are part of that reality.

    I'm not sure it's really as simple as that, but even so, most of the historical examples raised above have about countries successfully retreating from empire with a minimum of bloodshed. If you believe that the the USA is an empire and that it is in decline, then surely the Malayan Emergency is exactly the kind of model that you should be looking to.
    posted by Dreadnought at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2009


    Wait... so you think that we should have solutions based on slogans? I'm not sure what you're arguing here. Or are you saying that the COIN manual is a platitude? I'm confused.

    I'll assume your confusion is not sarcastic and explain: the conclusion that "policy should not follow slogans" is platitudinous (its own kind of empty slogan) b/c no one is about to disagree with it.

    you can't compare Johnson's policy in Vietnam with the 'surge' plan in Afghanistan. About the only things they have in common is the fact that they both involve soldiers.

    This seems pedantic and absurd. At the very least there is a symbolic comparison to be drawn here: the question being whether anyone in power understands what "victory" is supposed to look like.

    I'll close with this:

    Stanley Karnow is the author of Vietnam: A History, generally regarded as the standard popular account of the Vietnam War. This past summer, Karnow, 84, picked up the phone to hear the voice of an old friend, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The two men had first met when Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and Karnow was a reporter covering the war. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was calling from Kabul. The two friends chatted for a while, then Holbrooke said, "Let me pass you to General McChrystal." Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, came on the line. His question was simple but pregnant: "Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?" Karnow's reply was just as simple: "The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place."
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:14 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


    I'll assume your confusion is not sarcastic

    Ok, I'll be honest, maybe a little. But I was also genuinely perplexed. I didn't rock that platitude for no reason; I really do think that you're giving me slogans rather than arguments.

    vis:

    This seems pedantic and absurd.

    Why?

    Look, you basically dared me to show that I knew what I was talking about, and I think I kind of did. And maybe I got a little snippy, and for that I apologise. But now I want you to do the same for me. Why is Obama's policy the same as Johnson's? And before you answer that question, keep in mind that I'm looking for substantive connections here, not merely symbolic ones. My other question is the one I had to answer above: what do you think we should do? And keep in mind, as you answer that question, the one thing that everybody knows for certain about this whole sorry mess: there is one option that is completely off the table, and that is to go back in time and never have invaded in the first place.

    If you want to stay, what strategy would you employ so we don't just have 'more of same'? If you want to deescalate, how would you do so without leaving only a vulnerable remnant? If you want to withdraw, how would you do so without causing a bloodbath or creating a new terror state?

    These are the questions that we, as an alliance, face. Let's address them directly.
    posted by Dreadnought at 1:36 PM on November 28, 2009


    Why is Obama's policy the same as Johnson's?

    It's not the same the way H20 is the same as water, but there are parallels between the situation in Afghanistan and the one we found ourselves in in Vietnam: we are entangled, now as then, in a long and increasingly unpopular foreign war with no clear sense of how victory is to be achieved, or even if it can be achieved. We are increasingly seen by Afghanis as meddlesome occupiers, and we are fueling a set problems that is in many ways beyond our control. Those are the parallels. Obviously the Viet Cong are not the Taliban, Obama is not Johnson, there is no draft, etc., but to deny that there are parallels seems like wishful thinking.

    If you want to withdraw, how would you do so without causing a bloodbath or creating a new terror state?

    This question already assumes its own answer. I see no evidence that either a "bloodbath or terror state" (both of which are not exactly non-slogan-like terms) will occur if we withdraw. I do see things will continue to get worse if we stay.

    Let me ask you a question: if you think we should stay, are you willing to go over there yourself and die for the cause?
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:49 PM on November 28, 2009


    the question being whether anyone in power understands what "victory" is supposed to look like.

    Sorry, I realized that I didn't address this intelligent point. To be honest, I've never really encountered a situation in which we do know what victory looks like. Ask anyone who's lived in a war zone what victory meant, and see if they can pronounce the word without bitterness.

    The Malayan Emergency is a great example of this. The British decided they weren't going to leave until there was a viable, multi-ethnic party in charge. As it happened that multi-ethnic unity fractured very shortly after allied troops pulled out, and Malaysia suffers racial strife to this day. But in the mean time, there was no bloody partition of the country, no widespread massacres, or mass ethnic cleansing, none of the terrible bloodshed that some thought inevitable. A partial political solution gave a grace period for society to get past the kind of awfulness that we saw in India/Pakistan. Was this enough? I don't know. War is like that.

    So what should be, as somebody said above, our 'victory condition'? I don't know. There are several options on the table, and no doubt more will come up in the future. When you look at actual historical wars, victory settlements tend to be hammered together out of whatever lumber comes to hand, and usually fairly late in the progress of the war. And keep in mind that this kind of war tends to play out fairly slowly, Malaya too twelve years and that's widely considered the world record, so it's early days yet.
    posted by Dreadnought at 1:51 PM on November 28, 2009


    Spoken like a true armchair warrior.
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:52 PM on November 28, 2009


    to deny that there are parallels seems like wishful thinking

    No, there are certainly parallels, but they're not the most important ones. Obama is switching to a widely supported new COIN strategy with a track record of success. Johnson was intensifying an 'operations analysis'-lead strategy strategy which had already been shown not to work. Obama's policy is targeted at reducing the level of 'kinetic' violence, Johnson's was about increasing it. In Vietnam, the insurgency had a strongly nationalist flavour, one which made it harder for foreign troops to be perceived as 'good guys' by the local inhabitants. In Afghanistan, the nationalists tend to be in support of foreign intervention, and the insurgency has a predominantly ethnico-religious character. All of these are important points of difference.

    I see no evidence that either a "bloodbath or terror state" (both of which are not exactly non-slogan-like terms)

    Look, I'm not saying you can't use noun phrases. I'm just saying that policy has to be nuanced.

    Ok, so let's play this scenario through, step by step. Nato begins to pull out. What happens next? Who takes over, and how? Who has enough legitimacy and enough arms to control the country, and what do they turn that country into? 'Bloodbath' is my short-hand for an uncontrolled civil war of the kind we see too much of in the Great Lakes States. 'Terror state' would be something like a resurgence of the Taliban, who were very unpleasant indeed.

    Let me ask you a question: if you think we should stay, are you willing to go over there yourself and die for the cause?

    That's a very difficult question to answer, and one that I think about every day. My flippant answer is that I'm not actually arguing that 'we' should stay. I'm just saying that withdrawal isn't a simple, uncomplicated moral good.

    More seriously, though, I think the question cuts to the heart of why so many people think that my field of study is immoral. If you study cancer, nobody asks you whether you would be willing to step in and take chemotherapy for your patients. If you study war, there is always that lingering implication that just thinking about the subject will put you in a position where you might have to make recommendations about sending other people to die. And then why not you?

    I don't know. I really don't know. But people are going to die either way. If I say that I want the smallest number of people to die, does that let me off the hook? Or am I still morally compromised? (I think I still am) I have to look these people in the eye pretty much every day.
    posted by Dreadnought at 2:20 PM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


    Spoken like a true armchair warrior.

    I think that's actually kind of cruel, and lowers the tone of the discussion.
    posted by Dreadnought at 2:21 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


    I see no evidence that either a "bloodbath or terror state" (both of which are not exactly non-slogan-like terms) will occur if we withdraw.

    I support Dreadnought on this: there is absolutely no doubt that violence will occur. There are several distinct groups, each with their own armed troops, their own claims on power, a history of using violence to further their goals, against each other. It will be the nineties all over again, except this time with no opportunity for civilians to flee to Pakistan. After the inevitable nasty civil war grinds to some sort of military equilibrium (rather like towards the end of the nineties), it will probably end in an extremist Islamic state.

    I think the 'people in charge' are well aware of what victory would look like: a political equilibrium which all major parties with troops are willing to go along with. Unfortunately, Mullah Omar, Haqqani, Hekmatyar et al. don't want to play because they think they can get what they want by waiting out the US. Which is why the US is trying to bring them to the table by denying them access to areas of the South, starving them of oxygen so to speak, and harming them militarily where possible. As a solution, it isn't working.

    But the US has a responsibility to the Afghan people for being the principal agent of the current situation. Wringing hands when watching the refugee flows and the civilian deaths in a year's time is just not good enough.
    posted by YouRebelScum at 2:52 PM on November 28, 2009


    What's the deal with liberal Democrats and escalating unwinnable wars?
    posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:56 PM on November 28, 2009


    what's the deal with conservative republicans and escalating budget deficits?*

    *not being snarky - it's actually interesting to consider what each party's presidents think they can get away with and what they can't, based on what the opposition will say - republicans spend like crazy to prove they're compassionate while democrats escalate wars to prove they've got balls

    george w bush could have withdrawn from iraq or afghanistan without great political cost - obama can't - (but i'd rather have a president who cared more about doing the right thing than getting re-elected)

    posted by pyramid termite at 7:13 PM on November 28, 2009


    pyramid termite: we should hang out more, bro
    posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:54 PM on November 28, 2009


    george w bush could have withdrawn from iraq or afghanistan without great political cost - obama can't -

    Huh?
    posted by Sys Rq at 2:53 PM on November 29, 2009


    Spoken like a true armchair warrior.
    posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:52 PM on November 28 [+] [!


    Don't be silly - Dreadnought sits at an office chair while working.

    More seriously, Dreadnought is an 'arm-chair warrior' to the same extent that a doctor is a 'office-chair patient' or a chemist is a 'lab-bench molecule'. He's not a soldier; he studies soldiers, politicians and strategy for a living. This makes him no less of an expert on war and organized violence than a cancer researcher is an expert on that disease, though they may have never had cancer.

    And for all that veterans are, of course, experts on the personal experience of war -- which is why historians and scholars value their writings so greatly -- they are not necessarily experts on the practice of warfare. That is why officers go to military colleges and graduate school to be taught by historians like Dreadnought.

    /disclosure: I am married to Dreadnought, but as a fellow scholar I'm offended at a deeper level by this sort of dismissal of research and study.

    Let me ask you a question: if you think we should stay, are you willing to go over there yourself and die for the cause?

    Are you willing to move to an Afghan village to experience first hand the results of precipitus withdrawal?
    posted by jb at 6:27 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


    And keep in mind that this kind of war tends to play out fairly slowly, Malaya too twelve years and that's widely considered the world record, so it's early days yet.

    You know, not to be all fuck you or anything, but that statement does slightly smack of the sort of abstraction that only a disinterested chickenhawk type person would ever commit. People are dying. People. Dying. Killed. By the thousands. To nonchalantly put that in terms of world records in order to justify the continuance of a self-perpetuating war is more than a little bit ghoulish.

    (I'd rather not mention the whole having one's spouse fight one's battles thing, because I'm really not that sort of person, but given the context it's really hard not to point and laugh.)
    posted by Sys Rq at 12:51 PM on November 30, 2009


    (I'd rather not mention the whole having one's spouse fight one's battles thing, because I'm really not that sort of person, but given the context it's really hard not to point and laugh.)

    Really? Because I find that most civilized people can restrain themselves from being petty.

    I disclosed the fact that I am married to Dreadnought because I believe in openness and honesty. But I also have never posted anything I did not also believe whole-heartedly in, even for my best friend. We don't agree on everything -- post on modern poetry, and you can see us get at each others' throats.

    But in this case, I do agree with him and I trust his expertise. Because in 2003, he understood what was going wrong in Iraq when no one else on the media -- or on Metafilter -- did. He explained it to me, and what they should have been doing according to their own manuals.
    posted by jb at 5:43 PM on November 30, 2009


    that statement does slightly smack of the sort of abstraction that only a disinterested chickenhawk type person would ever commit

    I'm going to assume you hadn't read to the end of the thread when you formulated that sentence. Do you really think that my comments, taken as a whole, demonstrate a callous disregard for the realities of this or any war?

    Even so, given that I've tried to be as open and honest as possible, I have to say that I find it a very hurtful personal attack.

    I would like to politely ask you to apologise, first for the skin-crawling, horrible implication that I don't care about my students, friends and colleagues deployed overseas, and second, to my wife, for the implication that she is not capable of thinking for herself or formulating her own comments.

    Please, let's keep this civil and not cross those kind of lines.
    posted by Dreadnought at 5:43 PM on November 30, 2009


    To add to my comment -- Dreadnought won't say this himself, because it is too personal. But your comments were especially hurtful because he knows that so many people think that military historians "like" war, and don't care about people dying.

    Well, I don't know about other military historians,* but I know that it is no game to Dreadnought. He has studied the evidence of war atrocities that they don't show the public; they gave him nightmares. He has shared with his students drawings of the aftermath of Hiroshima that made me sick to look at. And even though his dissertation was itself on a very dry and technical strategic topic, he still took time out to discuss the real horror and fear of nuclear war. He also did so in the first day of his class on 20th century history -- he could have taken a very realist, dispassionate approach to the subject he teaches, but he refuses to.

    Studying war is like studying cancer -- it's something people do to try to prevent it or, when that is not possible, ameliorate it. Any recommendation from Dreadnought is based on his knowledge of the history and practice of war, but with the sole intention of trying to prevent worse violence and suffering. I would hope that all who are consulted as experts on miltary history or military affairs would take warfare as seriously as Dreadnought does.

    *Notably Keegan also takes pains to talk about the horror as well as the practice of war.
    posted by jb at 6:10 PM on November 30, 2009


    I would like to politely ask you to apologise, first for the skin-crawling, horrible implication that I don't care about my students, friends and colleagues deployed overseas

    Duly noted. I cherry-picked the last remark before HP Laserjet's "cruel" name-calling, and expressed my disgust with what I read. The disgust remains. I politely decline the generous opportunity to apologize.

    and second, to my wife, for the implication that she is not capable of thinking for herself or formulating her own comments.

    Now, I mean, really. I was merely pointing out the irony of the situation; I find that most civilized people have an appreciation for irony. Yes, it was indeed a petty (and, I'll add, quite crass) observation, but a harmless observation nonetheless. Besides, if there's any implication there, it's precisely the opposite of what you've apparently inferred.
    posted by Sys Rq at 7:16 PM on November 30, 2009


    You know, not to be all fuck you or anything, but that statement does slightly smack of the sort of abstraction that only a disinterested chickenhawk type person would ever commit. People are dying. People. Dying. Killed. By the thousands. To nonchalantly put that in terms of world records in order to justify the continuance of a self-perpetuating war is more than a little bit ghoulish.

    If you can magic up a spell that would end the war, be my guest, but I bet you can't, so to call someone who understands better than I and certainly better than you, that there are no quick fixes to an insurgency a nonchalant chickenhawk is pretty ironic.
    posted by Snyder at 11:12 PM on December 1, 2009


    Dreadnought, thanks for your contributions to this thread. They're the sort of thing I read MeFi hoping to find. I had honestly never noticed the error in equating "escalation" with "increasing troops", but I will now.

    For a widely read, widely available, and very readable update of Thompson's work, I might recommend Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, written by another COIN Manual consultant, John Nagl.

    Nice, I'll check that out. Any highly readable books you can recommend would be appreciated too. :)

    (I'd rather not mention the whole having one's spouse fight one's battles thing, because I'm really not that sort of person, but given the context it's really hard not to point and laugh.)

    What, so she's not allowed to comment in the thread? Don't be ridiculous. And what's with all the "chickenhawk" this and "armchair warrior" that shenanigans? You can't disagree without insulting people? Maybe I've been hanging out on the Green too much lately, but I expect better of MeFites.

    posted by heatherann at 7:04 AM on December 2, 2009


    Studying war is like studying cancer -- it's something people do to try to prevent it or, when that is not possible, ameliorate it.

    That's kinda funny, as peculiarly like the speaking of a citizen of a dominant power. Like war is a regrettable action, but whaddaya gonna do? But consider this: what if you lose that war? Then the question of whether or not to fight it becomes much more acute. But there's no way the US, with its multi-trillion dollar military could possibly lose this war. Right?
    posted by telstar at 2:21 AM on December 5, 2009


    No way whatsoever that the military could lose a war!

    The rest of the nation, however, could easily lose everything they hold dear, as the country is driven to bankruptcy.
    posted by five fresh fish at 9:22 AM on December 5, 2009


    That's kinda funny, as peculiarly like the speaking of a citizen of a dominant power. Like war is a regrettable action, but whaddaya gonna do?

    Neither of us are Americans, actually. But no, I'm not a pacifist. I think that sometimes going to war is a regrettable necessity, either in self-defence or in the defence of an overriding humanitarian agenda.

    If you want to disagree with this on pacifist grounds, I totally, totally respect that. There are lots of people who see all violence as fundamentally immoral, and that's a position that I can respect even if I don't share it. For example, Gandhi said that we should have passively resisted the Nazis. I don't think that would have worked, either in the short or long terms, but I can't look down on Gandhi for saying it, nor does it make me think any less of him.

    But consider this: what if you lose that war? Then the question of whether or not to fight it becomes much more acute. But there's no way the US, with its multi-trillion dollar military could possibly lose this war. Right?

    On the contrary, Nato (it's not just the US by the way) could very well 'loose'. No strategy is risk free, here, or even particularly safe. I would compare this to a hostage situation: you can go in with guns blazing, you can try and talk the guy down, you can just leave the area and hope that the hostages somehow get free on their own. But in all cases, simply by being there we are morally entangled in the situation and in all cases our decisions have moral consequences.

    As for the financial cost... well again that's fraught with complication. For Americans, in particular, the choice is not one of leaving or taking on more debt. The choice is more like a) leaving, b) taking on debt, c) raising taxes on multimillionaires by a few percentage points. It's not like war is bad for the economy. Economic considerations must be secondary to those of human lives or what do you become? Exactly the kind of heartless 'my wallet is more important than your life' person that Sys Rq was railing against.
    posted by Dreadnought at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2009


    Exactly the kind of heartless 'my wallet is more important than your life' person that Sys Rq was railing against.

    I was? That's news to me. No, I'm pretty sure I was "railing against" something—someone—else entirely. (But, yeah, lives do trump dollars.)

    But in all cases, simply by being there we are morally entangled in the situation and in all cases our decisions have moral consequences.

    I couldn't agree more. Solution: Extricate.
    posted by Sys Rq at 3:00 PM on December 7, 2009


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