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I am often amazed at how the context in which something is presented affects what we read, see, or hear. It also seems that politicians work hard to form arguments in a context that obscures the otherwise untenable position they support.
In an earlier life, I was part of a citizen’s committee to help craft a ‘sign ordinance’ for our town. I am a strong believer that either you participate in the process or you shut up and take your medicine. But this was a hard one for me. Don’t get me going about sign ordinances in general.
The committee met about a dozen times for an hour or more and each member spent quite a few hours researching, studying, and generally trying hard to come up with reasonable solutions to appease the public without overly restricting the rights of the sign owners/merchants, etc. It never ceased to amaze me the passion people had for restricting “ugly, commercial signs.” What also amazed me is how people could get all fired up about a few signs, calling them “a blight on our community” or “the ugliest structures ever made by man.” Yet, they could not even see, let alone object to, the telephone and power poles that were present everywhere, in residential as well as commercial areas. In the context of their passion about how ugly the signs are, most folks miss the power poles that truly are ugly. The picture below is an example:
Have you ever heard of a city ordinance against power and phone poles because they are ugly? The anti-sign crowd likes to claim that signs are not necessary, yet right next to the sign for a gift store is a sign of the same size directing you to the City Library.
Here are a few things that make me wonder and each shows just how the context of the situation or statistic determines how it is viewed:
Number One – In Iraq, in 2009, there were 149 U.S. personnel killed. That is a lot of people and something that should cause a good deal of concern. This is a political hot button issue and these deaths get a great deal of press, as they should. (source – http://icasualties.org/) In Washington, D.C., in 2009, there were 144 people murdered, the lowest number since 1966. With a population of almost exactly 600,000 that means a rate of 24 per 100,000 (from – http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/dccrime.htm). There were approximately 200,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq in 2009 so the death/murder rate in Iraq would be about three times that of Washington D.C., unless you take the entire population. In that case (estimates vary widely, pending the source and the political intent of the study/report), there were about 4700 civilians plus about 300 soldiers killed in Iraq in 2009. With a population of about 32,000,000, that would indicate a “murder rate” of less than 16 per 100,000. Doesn’t this mean that it is 50% more dangerous to be a resident of Washington, D.C. than of Iraq. Where is the outrage about crime in Washington, D.C. to match the outrage over the deaths in Iraq? I guess it is because we view crime in D.C. as a normal thing and in that context, 144 murders is no big deal. A war, anywhere, is not a normal thing so loss of life in a war is a big deal?
Number Two – Actor Wesley Snipes was convicted of tax evasion for not filing his required tax returns. He has a pretty high profile and I am sure part of his 3+ year sentence was meant by the IRS and the Courts to send a message to others who would consider evading taxes. He has lots of friends and fans, but sending him to jail will only really hurt his immediate family to any great degree. On the other hand, Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner did not pay his taxes for four years. He was then audited and ordered to pay about $35,000 in back taxes, he did not do so for almost two years until President Obama offered his name for Treasury Secretary. He then paid but wasn’t charged interest or any fines. Had he been jailed for tax evasion (which was the clear case, at a minimum for the two years after the audit) many people would have been hurt. And many of those people were very powerful people, like the President. In the context of Wesley Snipes, Geithner would have made a better example of what happens if you evade taxes. In the context of the powerful in Washington, this lawbreaking is hardly noticed …..like the telephone poles.
Number Three – Much like our belief in the rule of law, most Americans believe that justice is blind, or at least, should be. The idea is that if we lend power to our government to allow it to help us keep social order, that power will neither be abused nor used to favor one group over another. Yet, in the context of fair and equitable laws and justice, we constantly allow our government to favor one group over another. Examples? Ill-named “Equal Opportunity” laws and regulations established by our government regularly give advantages for one group over another. Tax policy becomes codified in ways that say that if you make more money than I do, you must pay taxes at a higher percentage than I. Labor law famously favors groups of workers who join Unions over groups of workers who employ others. Why do we allow this? It is because of the context within which the argument is framed.
Number Four – In the context of hour long waits in line for fuel and prices doubling for gas in a year, it was easy for politicians to sell the public on the need for a Department of Energy. Again we were asked to forfeit a bit more power and a bit more of our hard-earned money to our government to pay for a “needed” agency to help save us from greedy foreign suppliers of fuels. The Department of Energy was formed by an act of Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter in the Summer of 1977. In the 30 years since it began operations in 1980, what has the Department of Energy done for us, in exchange for the power over us and the tax dollars spent to enable its activities? What have 15,000 government employees and about $25 Billion a year produced? It is a good question. The better question is: If, today, there were no Department of Energy, how much better or worse off would we be? My guess? We would have somewhere near $25 Billion in tax dollars to spend on something of value.
Final thought on “context:” Politicians tend to manufacture crises to which they propose government solutions. If we continue to allow politicians to manipulate us in this way, government will continue to grow and freedoms will continue to shrink. It’s time for us to start looking at the picture and ignore the frame.
Mr. Obama needed the vote of the anti-war left and made promises to secure that vote. Among the promises was a change of focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. This is one of the promises that Mr. Obama has kept.
The bad news is that, in spite of appearing to take Afghanistan seriously and adding combat troops, Mr. Obama has decided to try to win back the anti-war left by naming a date for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This is a huge strategic blunder. Imagine you are interested in buying a house and the owner tells you that if he can’t sell it for $250,000 by the end of the month, he is dropping the price to $199,000. Is there any chance you would not wait? in Afghanistan, now all that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have to do is wait. Why expend people and resources fighting the Americans when they can plan to attack Kabul once the Americans have left?
This pronouncement, just to buy a few votes, goes beyond stupid. It borders on criminal. Decisions like this need to be made based on a overall international strategy, not on local politics. And rather than announce such plans publicly to buy votes, they should be kept secret to protect our interests.
Whether or not we should be in Afghanistan is a different question. It is probably one worthy of a discussion so here are some thoughts/opinions:
1. Neither Iran, Pakistan, or Russia want the Taliban to become too powerful. It is in the interest of these three to keep Afghanistan in a state of continual civil war. Keeping the USA involved is great for all three countries in that it keeps us occupied and saves them the trouble of dirtying their hands. Russia particularly likes to help us waste money, time, and assets.
2. Pakistan has a fine line to walk. They have enemies at every corner (Iran, India, and potentially the Taliban in Afghanistan. They like having the U.S. around to help them secure their boarder with Afghanistan and when things go wrong the U.S. is a handy scapegoat.
3. Russia is delighted that we are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. It removes us from the international stage. How else would they have marched into Georgia without so much as a show of force from the USA?
4. Iran is delighted that we are involved fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It saves them from having to expend resources to protect their border with Afghanistan. It gives Russia and Iran the opportunity to produce nuclear power in Iran which would likely never have been allowed to happen had the U.S. not been spread so thin.
Here is a report from Stratfor that discusses some of the ramifications of our reaction to 9-11 and the policies that continue today based on the attack 9 years ago. I think it gives a perspective not often debated in the U.S. and one we must consider.
“9/11 and the 9-Year War is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”
By George Friedman
It has now been nine years since al Qaeda attacked the United States. It has been nine years in which the primary focus of the United States has been on the Islamic world. In addition to a massive investment in homeland security, the United States has engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups.
In order to understand the last nine years you must understand the first 24 hours of the war — and recall your own feelings in those 24 hours. First, the attack was a shock, its audaciousness frightening. Second, we did not know what was coming next. The attack had destroyed the right to complacent assumptions. Were there other cells standing by in the United States? Did they have capabilities even more substantial than what they showed on Sept. 11? Could they be detected and stopped? Any American not frightened on Sept. 12 was not in touch with reality. Many who are now claiming that the United States overreacted are forgetting their own sense of panic. We are all calm and collected nine years after.
At the root of all of this was a profound lack of understanding of al Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions. Since we did not know what was possible, our only prudent course was to prepare for the worst. That is what the Bush administration did. Nothing symbolized this more than the fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that they would use them against the United States. The evidence was minimal, but the consequences would be overwhelming. Bush crafted a strategy based on the worst-case scenario.
Bush was the victim of a decade of failure in the intelligence community to understand what al Qaeda was and wasn’t. I am not merely talking about the failure to predict the 9/11 attack. Regardless of assertions afterwards, the intelligence community provided only vague warnings that lacked the kind of specificity that makes for actionable intelligence. To a certain degree, this is understandable. Al Qaeda learned from Soviet, Saudi, Pakistani and American intelligence during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and knew how to launch attacks without tipping off the target. The greatest failure of American intelligence was not the lack of a clear warning about 9/11 but the lack, on Sept. 12, of a clear picture of al Qaeda’s global structure, capabilities, weaknesses and intentions. Without such information, implementing U.S. policy was like piloting an airplane with faulty instruments in a snowstorm at night.
The president had to do three things: First, he had to assure the public that he knew what he was doing. Second, he had to do something that appeared decisive. Third, he had to gear up an intelligence and security apparatus to tell him what the threats actually were and what he ought to do. American policy became ready, fire, aim.
In looking back at the past nine years, two conclusions can be drawn: There were no more large-scale attacks on the United States by militant Islamists, and the United States was left with the legacy of responses that took place in the first two years after 9/11. This legacy is no longer useful, if it ever was, to the primary mission of defeating al Qaeda, and it represents an effort that is retrospectively out of proportion to the threat.
If I had been told on Sept.12, 2001, that the attack the day before would be the last major attack for at least nine years, I would not have believed it. In looking at the complexity of the security and execution of the 9/11 attack, I would have assumed that an organization capable of acting once in such a way could act again even more effectively. My assumption was wrong. Al Qaeda did not have the resources to mount other operations, and the U.S. response, in many ways clumsy and misguided and in other ways clever and targeted, disrupted any preparations in which al Qaeda might have been engaged to conduct follow-on attacks.
Knowing that about al Qaeda in 2001 was impossible. Knowing which operations were helpful in the effort to block them was impossible, in the context of what Americans knew in the first years after the war began. Therefore, Washington wound up in the contradictory situation in which American military and covert operations surged while new attacks failed to materialize. This created a massive political problem. Rather than appearing to be the cause for the lack of attacks, U.S. military operations were perceived by many as being unnecessary or actually increasing the threat of attack. Even in hindsight, aligning U.S. actions with the apparent outcome is difficult and controversial. But still we know two things: It has been nine years since Sept. 11, 2001, and the war goes on.
What happened was that an act of terrorism was allowed to redefine U.S. grand strategy. The United States operates with a grand strategy derived from the British strategy in Europe — maintaining the balance of power. For the United Kingdom, maintaining the balance of power in Europe protected any one power from emerging that could unite Europe and build a fleet to invade the United Kingdom or block its access to its empire. British strategy was to help create coalitions to block emerging hegemons such as Spain, France or Germany. Using overt and covert means, the United Kingdom aimed to ensure that no hegemonic power could emerge.
The Americans inherited that grand strategy from the British but elevated it to a global rather than regional level. Having blocked the Soviet Union from hegemony over Europe and Asia, the United States proceeded with a strategy whose goal, like that of the United Kingdom, was to nip potential regional hegemons in the bud. The U.S. war with Iraq in 1990-91 and the war with Serbia/Yugoslavia in 1999 were examples of this strategy. It involved coalition warfare, shifting America’s weight from side to side and using minimal force to disrupt the plans of regional aspirants to gain power. This U.S. strategy also was cloaked in the ideology of global liberalism and human rights.
The key to this strategy was its global nature. The emergence of a hegemonic contender that could challenge the United States globally, as the Soviet Union had done, was the worst-case scenario. Therefore, the containment of emerging powers wherever they might emerge was the centerpiece of American balance-of-power strategy.
The most significant effect of 9/11 was that it knocked the United States off its strategy. Rather than adapting its standing global strategy to better address the counterterrorism issue, the United States became obsessed with a single region, the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush. Within that region, the United States operated with a balance-of-power strategy. It played off all of the nations in the region against each other. It did the same with ethnic and religious groups throughout the region and particularly within Iraq and Afghanistan, the main theaters of the war. In both cases, the United States sought to take advantage of internal divisions, shifting its support in various directions to create a balance of power. That, in the end, was what the surge strategy was all about.
The American obsession with this region in the wake of 9/11 is understandable. Nine years later, with no clear end in sight, the question is whether this continued focus is strategically rational for the United States. Given the uncertainties of the first few years, obsession and uncertainty are understandable, but as a long-term U.S. strategy — the long war that the U.S. Department of Defense is preparing for — it leaves the rest of the world uncovered.
Consider that the Russians have used the American absorption in this region as a window of opportunity to work to reconstruct their geopolitical position. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, an American ally, the United States did not have the forces with which to make a prudent intervention. Similarly, the Chinese have had a degree of freedom of action they could not have expected to enjoy prior to 9/11. The single most important result of 9/11 was that it shifted the United States from a global stance to a regional one, allowing other powers to take advantage of this focus to create significant potential challenges to the United States.
One can make the case, as I have, that whatever the origin of the Iraq war, remaining in Iraq to contain Iran is necessary. It is difficult to make a similar case for Afghanistan. Its strategic interest to the United States is minimal. The only justification for the war is that al Qaeda launched its attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. But that justification is no longer valid. Al Qaeda can launch attacks from Yemen or other countries. The fact that Afghanistan was the base from which the attacks were launched does not mean that al Qaeda depends on Afghanistan to launch attacks. And given that the apex leadership of al Qaeda has not launched attacks in a while, the question is whether al Qaeda is capable of launching such attacks any longer. In any case, managing al Qaeda today does not require nation building in Afghanistan.
But let me state a more radical thesis: The threat of terrorism cannot become the singular focus of the United States. Let me push it further: The United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States. Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attack. That is a tragedy, but in a nation of over 300 million, 3,000 deaths cannot be permitted to define the totality of national strategy. Certainly, resources must be devoted to combating the threat and, to the extent possible, disrupting it. But it must also be recognized that terrorism cannot always be blocked, that terrorist attacks will occur and that the world’s only global power cannot be captive to this single threat.
The initial response was understandable and necessary. The United States must continue its intelligence gathering and covert operations against militant Islamists throughout the world. The intelligence failures of the 1990s must not be repeated. But waging a multi-divisional war in Afghanistan makes no strategic sense. The balance-of-power strategy must be used. Pakistan will intervene and discover the Russians and Iranians. The great game will continue. As for Iran, regional counters must be supported at limited cost to the United States. The United States should not be patrolling the far reaches of the region. It should be supporting a balance of power among the native powers of the region.
The United States is a global power and, as such, it must have a global view. It has interests and challenges beyond this region and certainly beyond Afghanistan. The issue there is not whether the United States can or can’t win, however that is defined. The issue is whether it is worth the effort considering what is going on in the rest of the world. Gen. David Petraeus cast the war in terms of whether the United States can win it. That’s reasonable; he’s the commander. But American strategy has to ask another question: What does the United States lose elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?
The 9/11 attack shocked the United States and made counterterrorism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. That is too narrow a basis on which to base U.S. foreign policy. It is certainly an important strand of that policy, and it must be addressed, but it should be addressed through the regional balance of power. It is the good fortune of the United States that the Islamic world is torn by internal rivalries.
This is not dismissing the threat of terror. It is recognizing that the United States has done well in suppressing it over the past nine years but at a cost in other regions, a cost that can’t be sustained indefinitely and a cost that could well result in challenges more threatening than a rising Islamist militancy. The United States must now settle into a long-term strategy of managing terrorism as best as it can while not neglecting the rest of its interests.
After nine years, the issue is not what to do in Afghanistan but how the global power can return to managing all of its global interests, along with the war on al Qaeda.”
Our inertia, and politics, have us stuck in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Isn’t it time to reengage in the world and lessen our commitment to supporting the governments in Kabul and in Baghdad? I know it isn’t a time to be using Afghanistan as a political tool to boost November election prospects.
For those of you who doubt that the purpose of this speech was campaigning, please reflect on the following:
Hyping a speech for a week before it happens is done to create news, typically for an un-newsworthy event. By toying with the press for a week, he has taken their attention off of the Health Care Debate. This allows that effort to press on under the cover of darkness (or at least with minimum press scrutiny).
Setting a time line for withdrawal of forces based on the election calendar rather than on the achievement of goals is designed to effect an election, not to achieve battlefield or diplomatic success. He had to reassure his anti-war base that he was going to withdraw troops before the next time they get to vote for him.
Speaking for 35 minutes in front of a national television audience is a way to take millions of dollars of free publicity. If he really wanted to tell our enemy our strategy, which it appears he did, he could have merely made a press release. In fact, he could have made his decision, in private, three months ago and been much more effective.
I wonder what the opposing coach would do if your coach made a speech to the crowd before the game saying, “After the first half is over, we will start playing our third string quarterback. We all know he can’t pass, but don’t worry because we will have a big lead by then.” My guess is that the opposing coach would burn the clock as much as he could to hasten the time when he would be playing against the third string. I’m pretty sure that is what we saw last night. What, You don’t think the Taliban would like to wait until they are fighting against an inferior Afghani military?
I’m saddened and worried that our President finds it more important to campaign than to run the affairs of state.