There was only a twinkle of presidential ambition in the eye of then-Senator Barack Obama when in the fall of 2002 the young Illinois politico stood before a large crowd in Chicago to speak his mind about war. The push to go to war in Iraq was his immediate concern (one shared later by his fellow Democrats when it became politically smart to adopt an anti-war stand), but by calling the planned action “a dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics,” Obama plainly spoke about where he saw the dividing line between righteous and unrighteous armed conflict.
The simple redundancy of his Chicago speech made it resistant to quick retort – a feature of his rhetorical style that critics still grapple with today – but really it was nothing more than a repacking of the more moderate anti-war voices who had dissented with regard to another foreign war thirty years deep in the nation’s memory hole. Obama’s Chicago speech was the highlight of his curriculum vitae as the sport of exploiting imperfections in the Bush administration’s war strategy became one of the great political spectacles of our time. It was therefore predictable that when his lust for the White House placed him on the campaign trail in 2007, his anti-war stance became both his foreign policy credential and his wartime agenda.
It was only natural that the conflict in Afghanistan would become Obama’s cause célèbre on the campaign trail; were he to have focused energy on parroting the party line about Iraq his voice would have been just one more baritone in harmony with the Mormon Tabernacle choir-sized field of Democrat presidential hopefuls. Plus, the American cause in Iraq had brightened and an end was in sight, but not so with Afghanistan. The political realities quite simply yelled out for him to focus his neo-liberal energies on the armchair quarterbacking of a war that by even the most hawkish accounts was going poorly. By staking out that war for himself, Obama was able to come across as fresh and insightful.
August 12, in New Hampshire, the junior senator sat the kids in Nashua down for another episode of Father Obama’s treatise-in-installments on the art of war. Once again, his statement was a masterpiece of rhetorical alchemy; two parts blue dog concern for America’s power and might, and one part bleeding heart passion for ending the grimmest and most certain outcome of all war – death.
“We’ve got to get the job done [in Afghanistan]. And that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.”
At that moment in the dusk of a Nashua summer evening, voters heard everything they would ever need to know about how a future President Obama would use the US military. Wars of the Obama era would always be rational, dispassionate, principled, apolitical, and would never utilize tactics that would include air-raiding villages or killing civilians.
It is shocking and disappointing then that, by Obama’s own definition, Afghanistan is now Obama’s ‘dumb war’.
Like so much about this president’s first term, when fanciful speeches must give way to action the reality of his choices must cause many an Obama supporter to reach for the Xanax. The war in Afghanistan that Obama confidently bragged to voters that he make winnable, has devolved into a series of drone attacks and air raids on villages, in which the numbers of civilian dead are reported by many observers to far exceed the body count of high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.
On January 23, 2009, when the mess on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was still being mopped up from the Inaugurasm, US drone aircraft (including the well-known Predator drone, redesigned to carry a load-out of high-powered ordnance) conducted strikes on targets in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan. Although reports indicated that fifteen were killed in the attacks, the Times of London reported that sources indicated three children were among the dead.
Since Inauguration Day, Afghanistan under Obama’s command has become every bit the dumb war he defined before his election, dumber because of his continued use of drone aircraft (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), a campaign begun under Bush and which has typically caused high death tolls among civilians coinciding with the achievements of killing Al Qaeda and Taliban command elements.
The January 23 raids were notable only because they were the first to have been ordered by President Obama; subsequent have been even more deadly for civilians caught in the combat zone. Unfortunately, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a concern for the Obama administration only in so much as they conflict with the desired image of Obama as a new breed of benevolent warrior. It is politics – specifically the enhancement of Obama’s military resume – that appears to guide his war strategy, not reason or principle.
These tactics are precisely those that were condemned by Obama the candidate when used by his predecessor. They have inflamed Pakistani and Afghani government officials who have warned that the probable effect of raining down munitions on villagers will be to give Taliban and Al Qaeda forces a useful tool to convince those same civilians that they fight against a common enemy – the US-led coalition. But the real ignorance of Obama’s war policies is not in the use of counterproductive tactics, it is the failure to employ tactics that support a clear strategy for long-term victory, a feat that has eluded the great empires of the British and the Soviets in our own time.
In a war that has now become a counterinsurgency, maintaining support from the local population is a crucial element of success, an observation that has been put before the Obama administration and the US Congress by many foreign policy advisors including David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert and former advisor to General David Petraeus during the critical surge campaign in Iraq.
According to Kilcullen, the small proportion of civilian casualties in the January 23 attacks underrepresents the typical amount of collateral damage in drone attacks. Kilcullen claims figures that show an alarmingly high ratio of civilian casualties to combatants. His opinion had been a widely-discussed thorn in the side of Obama’s Afghanistan team since Kilcullen’s interview in early February of this year with The Financial Times. In the interview, Kilcullen asserted that since 2006 the attacks made by drone aircraft have taken 700 civilian lives while only eliminating 14 of Al Qaeda’s middle and lower-rung leaders in Pakistan territory.
“That’s a hit rate of two percent on 98 percent collateral. It’s not moral,” Kilcullen said.
Kilcullen also stated that the drone strikes “have a negative strategic effect in that they incite Punjabi militancy, which is the biggest problem in Pakistan right now.”
That is the policyspeak equivalent of the idea that excessive loss of civilian life as a result of American military operations gives insurgents significant tools to rally support from the population being bombed. It is a sentiment that is remarkably in tune with the one President Obama made in New Hampshire in the summer of 2007. In fact, Kilcullen’s critique is really just a diplomatic way of saying that Obama is engaging in dumb war. Those are my words, of course, but Kilcullen has repeated his own assessment before congressional committees, as well as penning an op-ed in The New York Times with Andrew McDonald Exum.
But the drone attacks are only a cluster of data points to suggest that Obama’s Afghanistan policy is failing his own standard of rationality; they do not support a strategy to affect a positive outcome in line with the long-term goals of regional stability and US security. The tactical accomplishments from one day of bombing in which a handful of Taliban are dispatched to sit with Allah are small in comparison with the often quieter strategic victories that will be needed to win the war, stabilize the region, and inoculate Afghanistan and Pakistan from the diseases of the drug trade and radical Islamism in the form of the Taliban.
Even if the US should manage to avoid harming a single civilian from this day forward (an impossible goal) would President Obama be waging smart war? I would share in Kilcullen’s joy that drone fighters might go back in their shipping crates, but that small tactical shift would only offer opportunities to rebuild positive relations in Afghanistan’s rougher provinces. And yet, believing that there are easy roads to building friendships with the Afghani people is another example of President Obama’s naiveté. Too many cheering crowds and fainting audience members may have gone to his head; the cult of Obama’s personality does not extend to Central Asia and there always seems to be enough in common among the ethnically and tribally divided Afghanis to bind them in fierce and unflinching opposition to outsiders.
Winston Churchill, long before World War II would prove his mettle as a historic national leader, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill spent several weeks in 1897 as a journalist chronicling his observations of the “frontier war” between British forces and Pashtun rebels in the Swat Valley, the region of Pakistan that has been a mote in the eye of American-led coalition forces fighting to win a war in neighboring Afghanistan. This excerpt from “The Story of Malakaland Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War” offers Churchill’s description of a territory as impossible to pacify as any that the British Empire had ever confronted.
The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. … Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger. [Emphasis mine.]
Although those words were committed to posterity in 1898, even present-day writers capture a similar sense of Afghanistan as a place that seems to exist a state of nature such as the one envisioned by Rousseau, a place where self-interest and bonds of fellowship guide events. In the words of Stephen Tanner, author of “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban”, an excerpt of which was published at the National Review Online:
Left to their own devices, Afghans engage in internecine battles, or simply enjoy freedom — not the kind enforceable by a Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, or Communist Manifesto, but of more ancient derivation — unbothered by government at all.
It would seem then that the question is not what tactics should be used, but what our ultimate goal should be? If voices of those who have studied the complexities of Afghanistan like Tanner are correct, a strategy similar to the one in Iraq will be disastrous for our efforts in Afghanistan if it attempts to impose a government on people who have not developed a want for one. The disaster could only be made worse by pursuing military objectives in ways that alienate the Afghanis or their Pakistani neighbors. The authors of a Center of Strategic and International Studies’ report published in May of this year, suggests “the war in Afghanistan is as much a war of perceptions as it is a war for control of territory. No one who was in government at the time of Vietnam can avoid a grim feeling of déjà vu.”
And yet, with the so many heralds sounding the alarm, President Obama, advised chiefly by his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, very little evidence has emerged to suggest that US strategy has grasped the nature of true victory in Afghanistan. Complete victory can only be achieved when the people of Afghanistan perceive the United States as an ally, in word and deed. Some version of that goodwill may have existed after US-financed covert operations helped Afghani insurgents expel the Soviets, but the US withdrew once its immediate interests were resolved and left a power vacuum in which groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda grew strong and the perception of the US as fickle and untrustworthy were allowed to fester.
The report yesterday that the US bombed 300 tons of poppy seeds in southern Afghanistan is therefore one more sign of the shortsightedness of American war planners. Although the drug trade fills the coffers of America’s enemies, it also puts food on the table of many Afghani families who may have no better option.
Do President Obama and Mr. Holbrooke believe that the opium farmers in the Helmand province – now one of the wealthiest and most dangerous in the country – are going to perceive actions to damage the drug trade as directed at the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but not at themselves, when their livelihood is threatened? We should not be so silly to think that way if we still believe ourselves to be a superpower. If, as some experts suggest, the economic incentives driving the drug trade has been manufactured – the need of Afghani farmers for guaranteed income is met by insurgents who offer cash in advance for planting opium instead of other crops – the entire scenario of our engagement seems to require tactics of rescue – not attack – in which the Afghani people are valuable assets in the struggle to rid their own nation of an evil influence.
As troop levels increase (scheduled to reach 68,000 by the end of the year) the opportunities for victory increase but what they do while there is more important than the number of boots striking the tarmac in Kandahar. President Obama must puts aside ego and politics and reclaim the purpose with which we initially went into Afghanistan, when it was perceived by most to be a smart war intelligently fought. The greatest achievement of Obama’s term in office might be recognizing his own hypocrisy before Afghanistan becomes a full-blown modern-day Vietnam. That’s right, President Obama; LBJ was also too proud to admit he was fighting a dumb war too.
[This post originally appeared on UnequalTime.com at http://unequaltime.com/2009/07/afghanistan-its-your-dumb-war-now-president-obama/]