What Is Obama Thinking?
By Robert Higgs • Tuesday December 1, 2009 8:41 PM PDT • 37 Comments
President Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan during the next six months does not seem to make much sense, no matter how one looks at it. Political actions often represent tried-and-true ploys to enrich the politician’s supporters at the expense of his opponents and the great mass of the people. And perhaps this action simply falls into that category. But even if it does, it makes little sense, because Obama would seem to have many avenues open for buying more support elsewhere with the additional $30 billion a year that will be spent on this Big Push.
Hardly anybody has real enthusiasm for the plan. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are both lukewarm, at most; some are stridently opposed. The military bigwigs apparently support it, but, again, it seems that the president can appease this powerful interest group just as readily in alternative, less politically risky ways.
We might go out on a limb and assume that the president is telling the truth about his reasons for sending the additional troops: he believes, as he declares in his speech today, that “we must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum. ... And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government.” Why? Because “”it is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted.” If these statements express the president’s actual thoughts, then he is much less astute than he is usually given credit for. These reasons are so weak as to seem almost far-fetched.
Al-Qaida, if such an organization may actually be said to exist as anything more than a sprawling, loosely articulated collection of hyper-zealous, anti-American Muslims, does not need Afghanistan to plan and mount attacks against the United States and U.S. allies. Such terrorists may spring, as they have sprung, from many places in Asia, Africa, and Europe. They have emerged in Indonesia, Turkey, Spain, and Germany, just as they have emerged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern venues. Even if U.S. forces held Afghanistan in an iron grip – an unachievable condition — the security of Americans in America would not thereby be appreciably enhanced. In short, subduing U.S. opponents in Afghanistan is a low-yield investment, at best.
Worse, it is almost certainly a losing investment. Opposition to the U.S. forces and their Afghan puppets arises for the most part from the deeply entrenched tribal character of the Afghan people and their implacable desire to rid the country of any and all foreign occupiers. One need not have studied the history of the place for a lifetime to have learned this lesson.
To make his Big Push idea even more impenetrable, the president promises that eighteen months after the buildup is complete, troops will begin to be withdrawn. Does anyone really imagine that the Taliban and other anti-American groups in Afghanistan are too stupid to sit tight and wait for the foreign devils to depart? If these groups are anything, they are in the fight for the long haul. They can afford to be patient.
As they have in other occupied countries, U.S. authorities declare that they will accomplish their mission by building up “legitimate” government troops and police, by training and equipping them until they are strong enough to whip the insurgents. This plan is no more promising in Afghanistan than it was in Vietnam – indeed, I would venture that it makes even less sense in Afghanistan than it did in Vietnam. The problem is not that the “legitimate” side is not strong enough or trained well enough to defeat the “bad guys.” The problem is that hardly anybody wants foreign forces in the country. The insurgents will keep fighting until the occupiers lose their stomach or their economic or political support for remaining, and as soon as the foreign forces take their leave, their local puppets will get themselves to Switzerland or another remote refuge to distance themselves from their countrymen’s vengeance. The problem is not that the pro-U.S. forces, such as they are (and nearly all of them are in their places for the money), do not know how to fight – in Afghanistan nearly every adult male knows how to fight. The problem is that nearly all of them — even in their heart of hearts those who have been tempted by the money to join the pro-U.S. side – want the Americans and the other foreign occupiers out of their country. U.S. policy makers talk as if they lack the wit to comprehend this elementary fact.
Which suggests, of course, that the president and other top U.S. decision makers are not telling us the truth about their reasons for their decisions, especially this Big Push, which seems like the military analogue to the basic economic mistake of throwing good money after bad. Bygones, economists insist, are bygones. The costs already born are not recoverable; the more than 800 American servicemen who have already died in Afghanistan cannot be brought back to life. The vast sum of money expended, so far with absolutely nothing of genuine worth to show for it, represents forgone opportunities forever sacrificed. The idea that because so much has been committed already, the U.S. forces must remain until they “win the war” is foolish in the extreme, indeed, irrational.
Above all, the president and the other big shots, if they really cared about the well-being of the American people at large, would steer clear of trying to accomplish the impossible. The war in Afghanistan is not winnable in any meaningful sense. It’s a pure waste, suffered at a time when the American people have a multitude of more urgent needs crying out for additional resources. Which brings me back again, empty-handed, to the puzzling question I posed at the start: what is Obama thinking?