Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

What can we learn about Trump from his new Afghanistan policy?

Posted by sanityinjection on August 22, 2017

Last night, President Trump publicly announced a major shift in his position on Afghanistan. He plans to increase the number of American troops there by roughly 50% in an escalation of the campaign against the Taliban and their terrorist allies. This is a reversal of Trump’s campaign statements in which he called for a speedy withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. So what does this tell us we can expect going forward from Trump? Here are a few takeaways:

1) None of Trump’s campaign promises can be believed. This was a major plank of Trump’s foreign policy that attracted significant support from libertarians and isolationists, and he has completely reversed it. Don’t count on Mexico paying for that border wall either, on which no new work has been authorized to date. And don’t expect the recently commenced negotiations on NAFTA to end up with anything more than small tweaks. It’s been clear to long-time Trump watchers all along that Trump likes to shoot his mouth off, but feels absolutely no compulsion to align his deeds with his words.

2) Trump does occasionally listen to someone. He’s gone on record many times as wanting to give military leaders more say in decision making, and that’s what he’s done here. Trump’s generals managed to convince him that pulling out of Afghanistan would be like a winning lottery ticket for terrorist groups seeking a safe haven in that country. They also probably pointed out that as operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq start to wind down, it will be possible to shift resources from that theater to Afghanistan, resulting in little net increase in overseas deployments and their cost in the long term.

3) Steve Bannon has left the building. If anyone wondered if Bannon’s firing was mostly for PR reasons and thought he might continue to wield influence behind the scenes, this decision puts that idea to rest. Bannon was one of TrumpWorld’s most vocal proponents of withdrawing from Afghanistan. It’s not a coincidence that the announcement of the new policy comes shortly after Bannon’s departure.

Stepping back from Trump and looking at American defense policy  over time, it is striking how consistent it has been regardless of which party controls the White House. Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump all campaigned on the idea of reducing our foreign commitments, then ended up increasing them. What this reflects is that American defense policy, and foreign policy more generally, tends to be driven less by ideology and more by a practical analysis of the nation’s security interests. If the isolationists ever want to make gains, they’d need to start by infiltrating the “deep state” of civil servants at State, Defense, and Homeland Security who marshal the facts, figures, and projections that go into the security briefings every President receives. These officials have little incentive to suggest policies that would result in the reduction of their funding, shrinking of their departments and possibly the loss of some of their jobs. It seems to me, however, that most Presidents perceive that it is preferable to fight dragons in someone else’s backyard than to wait until they show up in your own.

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How to make enemies and influence people

Posted by sanityinjection on November 5, 2009

Today Taliban-type Islamic terrorists blew up a school for girls in northwest Pakistan. It’s the second such bombing this week and one of hundreds of similar acts of destruction committed by the terrorists over the past couple of years.

While every such attack is a tragedy, in the wider perspective of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan, these school attacks are a boon because they make it clear that the terrorists are their enemies. For rural villages in this part of the world, having a school of any kind – for girls or otherwise – is a mark of prestige and great pride for the villagers. To have their school blown up is to lose the village’s most valuable possession. Regardless of whether villagers may share the terrorists’ extreme brand of Islam, these acts drive those villagers squarely into the camp of the Pakistani government and by extension, the West. (Many of the schools were in fact built by Western aid organizations which the villagers also remember.) The Taliban’s destruction of over 200 schools in Swat was arguably the key factor in swinging public opinion and local leaders behind the government’s anti-Taliban offensive there.

Ironically, the attacks may also have the effect of convincing more traditionalist families to allow their daughters to be educated. After all, there’s nothing like being told (violently) you can’t do something to make people want to do it.

One also wonders what effect these attacks have on Taliban recruiting.  The young men who fight for the Taliban want to see themselves as brave fighters for Islam. I’m not sure that blowing up little girls meshes too well with their ideas of heroism.

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Rethinking Afghanistan

Posted by sanityinjection on October 30, 2009

I was struck by the recent decision of Foreign Service Officer Matthew Hoh to resign his post in Afghanistan in protest of what he believes to be a failed strategy. While disgruntled personnel or peacenik protesters are nothing new, Hoh exemplifies neither of those stereotypes. In fact, his record as both a  Marine and a diplomat is exemplary enough to earn him the right to have his comments taken seriously even by Afghanistan hawks. (It is significant that not one of the people interviewed by the WashPost who knew Hoh has anything even remotely bad to say about him, whereas normal institutional practice is to trash the reputation of anybody who steps out of line.) 

Hoh’s fear is that our current military activities in Afghanistan are doing more harm than good.  Speaking from his personal experience on the front lines of the Afghan provinces, Hoh argues that much of the rebel activity is locally based and not particularly affiliated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, apart from being willing to take their money. He describes the Pashtun tribes as being extremely xenophobic and not at all happy about the continued presence of American and other foreign troops.

Normally, I would dismiss this sort of thinking as liberal bloviating. But Hoh isn’t a liberal, an isolationist, or a defeatist by nature: “There are plenty of [Al Qaeda and Taliban] dudes who need to be killed. I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys.”

Hoh’s main point seems to be that we need to get the Pakistanis and Afghans to do the lion’s share of the work in eradicating Al Qaeda, and that the US’ close ties to the corrupt and ineffective Karzai government are proving to be a liability rather than a strength. Perhaps the upcoming Afghan runoff election could inject some new legitimacy if challenger Abdullah Abdullah manages to topple Karzai. But Abdullah is a northerner and even less likely to command the loyalty of the Pashtun tribal leaders.

I don’t know what the answer is. But it seems clear that pulling out of Afghanistan is not the answer any more than continuing with the status quo. The Obama Administration needs to come up with a new plan, and the time to do so was weeks ago.

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