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Obama’s Afghan Box Canyon

Although Obama may enjoy a brief up-tick in poll numbers after his talk, as soon as larger numbers of American bodies come home in flag-draped coffins, and Walter Reed fills up again with the damaged bodies and minds of soldiers whose lives have been ruined, the country will turn against what it thought, in November, 2009, was a good idea.

Anyone who’s been to Afghanistan knows that its eastern mountains bordering Pakistan are filled with countless box canyons from which the only way out is the same way you came in. They’re deadly – Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in this nightmarish geography – because it’s easy for insurgents to rain RPGs, mortars, and small arms fire down on soldiers who never see what’s coming or from where it’s coming.


Thanks to George Bush’s seven years of neglect, President Obama finds himself in just such a deadly box canyon in Afghanistan, militarily, politically, and financially. Tuesday night, he’ll lay out a strategy to do the nearly impossible: Outline a way out without getting out or getting trapped.

Carefully leaked snippets of what he’ll say at West Point are telegraphing that he won’t agree that the best way out of Afghanistan is to leave. So, we’re likely to hear some new version of the old version of the story.

Beyond Bush, a good measure of Obama’s dilemma is that someone high up in the Pentagon or working on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s staff in Kabul leaked his troop proposals to The New York Times and other reporters and then gave a public speech in London touting his views while the president was still forming an overall strategy; the speech earned the general a face-to-face dressing down from Obama on Air Force One as it sat on the ramp in Copenhagen after the president’s appearance at the Olympic Selection Committee. McChrystal got off easy because Harry Truman fired Douglas Macarthur for doing pretty much the same thing over Korea.

A combination of the leaked memo and McChrystal’s telling the Institute of International and Strategic Studies that a scaled down policy favoured by Vice President Joe Biden would lead to "Chaos-istan" narrowed Obama’s options. It gave Republicans a chance to scream “Listen to your general!” while allowing the left to accuse the president of opening the door to another Vietnam quagmire.

Even Bill Moyers – who was present at the creation of Lyndon Johnson’s mess – is expressing strong reservations. Besides announcing his retirement, Moyers devoted an entire Journal episode a week ago to a detailed recounting of how LBJ spent more time “listening to his generals” than to thoughtful people such as Senators William Fulbright and Richard Russell or newspaper publisher John Knight who, while recognising the domestic political risks, were telling the president Vietnam was a mistake, we should get out because Americans would be fighting for a decade and 50,000 soldiers would be killed.

How sadly prescient Fulbright, Russell, Knight, Sen. Wayne Morse and others were in 1965.

Military Debacle
As Danny Schechter wrote at Media Matters a few days after Moyer’s broadcast his cautionary warning, “The parallels with the present day, and the upcoming decision by President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan, are unmistakable and undeniable.”

As did LBJ in 1965, today the words “winning” and “finishing the job” and “fighting terrorists” creep into nearly every discussion of Afghanistan. Politicians, so-called military experts, reporters, pundits, talking heads, Dick Cheney, and loudmouth idiots insist upon looking at the war through a cracked prism, one that sees Bullets Over Broadway as the only possible, logical outcome if we don’t throw everything we’ve got into a fight in Khandahar.

The fact is, there’s a military debacle awaiting Obama behind every boulder.

“Whether Obama can 'finish the job' in Afghanistan depends on what he defines the job as,” Juan Cole wrote at Informed Comment, his authoritative blog on the Middle East and South Asia. Cole continues, “If it is to build a 21st century Afghan state and crush the Taliban and other Muslim political movements in the Pashtun areas, then I am extremely skeptical. If it is to prop up a shaky … Afghan government and military before pulling out, then his odds of success, while still bad, do rise.”

Obama will reportedly send 4,000 military trainers as part of the escalation. He could send 40,000 and it wouldn’t make any difference. There are widely published reports that desertion rates in the Afghan army runs at 25% and illiteracy rates among soldiers is roughly 90%.

How can a soldier be taught to stand and fight when they can’t read the manual that explains how to load a magazine cartridge into their rifle or clean the damn thing?

Moreover, soldier’s pay is low: Much lower than the $5 a day farmers, who are mostly non-political but whose families are starving, get paid by various insurgents for planting a roadside bomb or two before disappearing into the countryside. And, for the most part, working part-time for an insurgent group is a whole lot safer than being a semi-trained, illiterate, uniformed solider going into battle under corrupt leadership.

Regardless of the President’s strategy, there is disaster awaiting American, Canadian and NATO troops. Just ask Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan. The British. The Soviets.

Political Nightmare
There could be as much of a disaster awaiting Obama at home, where he hasn’t come across as fighting for serious health care reform, more interested in getting one or two Republican votes than in fulfilling a major campaign promise.

“It is extremely dangerous for him to go on alienating his base, which wants peace and prosperity,” Dr. Cole predicts, “with policies that make rightwing Republicans happy – coddling bankers in a jobless recovery and escalating an eight-year-old, increasingly unpopular war. The rightwing Republicans will vote for these in Congress but blame Obama for them, and benefit from Democratic disillusionment in 2012.”

Obama is in the same box canyon politically as he is militarily.

If he doesn’t send more troops, the deadly stalemate will continue and the GOP will have an election issue that could draw independents and moderate Republicans back into the fold.

If he sends more men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan, he won’t have any greater success at stabilising the country yet many Democrats and most progressives will feel betrayed again. Although Obama may enjoy a brief up-tick in poll numbers after his talk, as soon as larger numbers of American bodies come home in flag-draped coffins, and Walter Reed fills up again with the damaged bodies and minds of soldiers whose lives have been ruined, the country will turn against what it thought, in November, 2009, was a good idea.

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Blank Checks
Even worse, the GOP will seize on the cost of escalating the war – which is something like $1-million per soldier per year – as an excuse to cut much-needed social programs at home: The public option, education, jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, converting to a greener economy, dealing with climate change, all will suffer as a result.

Moreover, fiscally conservative Democrats in Congress – of which there are far too many – will join in, effectively blocking what sound economists such as UC Berkeley’s Robert Reich and Princeton’s Nobel Prize winning Paul Krugman – among many others – demonstrate is a much-needed additional stimulus to bring down the nation’s unholy unemployment and underemployment numbers, noting that current debt levels can be dealt with later because low bond rates show the market isn’t worried about how much the US owes.

As recently as Monday morning, Krugman wrote in his New York Times column a major new jobs program is needed, warning that while “(a)ll of this would cost money, probably several hundred billion dollars … (b)ut has to be weighed against the high cost of inaction in the face of a social and economic emergency.”


The question is whether Congress would support such a programme. The House might but it’s likely to get bottled up in the Senate – along with nearly 1,000 other measures the House passed this year but the Upper House has yet to discuss.

Meanwhile, Obama is stuck trying to find his way out of a box canyon that, first, Bush’s neo-cons and, more recently, Gen. McChrystal led him into without getting another 3,000 to 5,000 Americans killed as needed program at home go wanting.

Charley James
The Progressive Curmudgeon

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