I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda -- together again

We're constantly told that the reason it is so dangerous to leave Iraq prior to the "completion of the mission" -- whatever that might mean today -- is because premature withdrawal will create a "vacuum" that will enable Al-Qaeda to use Iraq as a base for training and other activities. And it's probably true that that will happen.

But that (according to the U.S. military) is exactly what has already happened in a substantial portion of the country and we seem completely incapable of doing anything about that (if we were unable to prevent it from happening in the first place, it seems to be a fair inference that -- in the absence of a major change in strategy and a massive increases in resources -- we can't reverse it).

But worse than that is the fact that the power vacuum which we are told is so dangerous already exists not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan -- the one great success of the Bush administration -- where we rid that country of the evil Taliban and denied Al-Qaeda free rein? Except for how we haven't done any of that. Quite the opposite:

Al-Qaeda's influence and numbers are rapidly growing in Afghanistan, with fighters operating from new havens and mimicking techniques learned on the Iraqi battlefield for use against U.S. and allied troops, the directors of the CIA and defense intelligence told Congress yesterday.

Five years after the United States drove al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the CIA, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that both groups are back, waging a "bloody insurgency" in the south and east of the country. U.S. support for the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai will be needed for "at least a decade" to ensure that the country does not fall again, he said.

We've been inundated with endless happy talk about how we shattered Al-Qaeda's infrastructure and have them on the run, impotently hiding in caves with no leadership (with the completely unimportant exceptions of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, the group's two top leaders for the last decade; but we sure did get their endless army of "number threes"). Yet all of that talk about how much we have crippled Al Qaeda is pure fiction, says Noam Chomsky the President's hand-picked CIA Director:

Hayden told the Senate panel that the Taliban, aided by al-Qaeda, "has built momentum this year" in Afghanistan and that "the level of violence associated with the insurgency has increased significantly." He also noted that Karzai's government "is nowhere to be seen" in many rural areas where a lack of security is affecting millions of Afghans for whom the quality of life has not advanced since the U.S. military arrived in October 2001. . . . .

Hayden said yesterday that "the group's cadre of seasoned, committed leaders" remains fairly cohesive and focused on strategic objectives, "despite having lost a number of veterans over the years." Bin Laden himself, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, continue to play a crucial role while hiding out somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Hayden said the organization had lost a series of leaders since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the losses have been "mitigated by what is, frankly, a pretty deep bench of low-ranking personnel capable of stepping up to assume leadership positions." Hayden said the lower ranks are dominated by men in their early 40s with two decades of experience fighting.

Shortly before the election, someone leaked a CIA assessment to David Rohde and Jim Risen, who wrote an article in the New York Times describing the CIA's concerns about the inability of the "Afghan Government" to "exert authority beyond Kabul," as well as the corruption of its police force and army that is so pervasive that it basically requires them to be re-built from scratch. Even Bush officials, on the record, are giving extremely grim assessments of Afghanistan:

Ronald E. Neumann, the American ambassador in Kabul, said in a recently that "the United States faced “stark choices” in Afghanistan. Averting failure, he said, would take “multiple years” and “multiple billions.” “We’re going to have to stay at it,” he said. “Or we’re going to fail and the country will fall apart again.”

What is the U.S. going to do about all of this? The few war advocates left insist that all we need in Iraq is just some more troops and some more time. Except we don't have more troops (according to the military itself) and the ones we do have are spread thin and exhausted from multiple tours of duty. And even if we did have some magic troops materialize for Iraq, what would we do about Afghanistan, which -- according to Bush's own ambassador -- requires a commitment of enormous additional resources over many years just to prevent the country from "fall[ing] apart again"?

And even if these severe and dangerous problems could be solved with a massive increase in resources (money and troops) -- an extremely precarious premise, to put it mildly -- how would we pay for that? The Republican propaganda machine has made even the mere mention of tax increases politically toxic. Even the suggestion that the Bush tax cuts maybe shouldn't be made permanent was a weapon that was used by Republicans in an effort to keep themselves in power. And we are a country that is drowning in deficits and buried by debt. "Imperial overstretch" doesn't even begin to describe the untenability of our predicament.

The real problem is that we don't actually debate the issues that are the real ones because they are too politically radioactive. The real choice is whether we want to maintain our presence and controlling influence in the Middle East and, if so, (a) why do we want to do that?; and (b) what are we are going to do to enable us to maintain that dominance? But we can't discuss item (a) in any constructive way because doing so requires a debate about the role of oil and our commitment to Israel, both of which are strictly off limits, as the President himself told us:

The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.

It may be the case that we need to preserve our influence in the Middle East. Perhaps we want to control oil resources or assume primary responsibility for ensuring a steady and orderly world oil market. Or perhaps we want to commit ourselves to defending Israel as the only real outpost of Middle Eastern democracy and/or an ally of one degree or another in protecting our vital strategic interests in that region (if any).

There are reasonable arguments to be made in support of all of those views (on both sides), but those issues have been cemented with a mandated orthodoxy and no examination of them is allowed (if one wants to continue to be heard in the mainstream). So we dance around the real questions and are stuck with superficial and contrived "debates" about what we are really doing, all of which obscures our choices and our reality far more than clarifying them.

If preserving our dominance of the Middle East is something we want to make a priority, then we would need to decide what sarifices we are willing to make to do so -- how we will massively expand our military, the increase in indiscriminate force we are willing to accept, and how we are going to pay for our imperial missions. Because as long as we are committed to dominating that region, we are going to be engaged in a long and likely endless series of wars against religious fanatics and various nationalistis who simply don't want us there and are willing to fight to the death -- making all sorts of sacrifices -- to prevent us from dominating their countries.

If we want to fight the wars necessary to maintain our dominance in the Middle East, then we should do so. And if we don't, then we shouldn't. But this middle course -- where we plod along aimlessly, starting wars that we're not really committed to winning and therefore are losing -- is not only the most incoherent course, but also the most destructive one.

What is indisputably clear is that our current course is totally unsustainable. That's just reality. It isn't that things have progressed too slowly in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's that the situation has deteriorated in both countries, to the point where Al Qaeda now has not one but two countries (not counting a nuclear-armed Pakistan) in which it is more or less free to operate. And the stronger they get, the more of our resources are needed to keep up. Yet we don't have the resources needed and aren't willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get them. But we pretend that's not the case by insisting on our divine entitlement to magical victory and depicting those who claim otherwise as people who hate the troops and don't want to win.

Incremental changes and some mild limits on this administration are nice and welcomed. But the damage done to the United States by this administration over the last six years is truly severe. It's fundamental damage, and it requires much, much more than some tinkering around the edges. We need a debate and re-examination of the core premises of our foreign policy and our role in the world. That, in turn, requires a willingness to call into question the most sacred orthodoxies, which, in turn, requires real political leaders with the courage, credibility and skills to do that. Does anyone see any of those?

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