Thursday, September 3, 2009

Afghanistan for Dummies

Ray McGovern

I’m going to ask for my money back. I’ve seen this Afghanistan movie before. The first time, Vietnam was in the title.

As in an early scene from the Vietnam version, U.S. military officials are surprised to discover that the insurgents in Afghanistan are stronger than previously realized.

And our protagonist, Gen. Westmoreland — sorry, I mean McChrystal — sees the situation as serious but salvageable. As Westmoreland did with President Lyndon Johnson, McChrystal is preparing to tell President Barack Obama that thousands of more troops are needed to achieve the U.S. objective — whatever that happens to be.

As in Vietnam, uncertainty about objectives and how to measure success persist in Afghanistan. Never has this come through more clearly than in the fuzzy remarks of “Af-Pak” super-envoy Richard Holbrooke who has purview over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Aug. 12 at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Holbrooke tried to clarify how the Obama administration would gauge success in Afghanistan.

John Podesta, the center’s president who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and served as head of Obama’s transition team, waxed eloquent not only about his friend Holbrooke but Holbrooke’s team; really spectacular, impressive, multidisciplinary, interagency, truly exceptional were some of the bouquets thrown at team members.

Holbrooke said his Af-Pak squad is “the best team” he’d ever worked with, adding that “Hillary” – the Secretary of State whose last name is Clinton – personally approved “every member.”

It may indeed be a good team but that doesn’t change the fact that it appears to be on a fool’s errand. Each member has considerable expertise to offer, but no one knows where they’re headed.

The whole thing reminds me of the old saw: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. (Or you might say Holbrooke’s team finds itself in a dark place peering into the distance looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.)

Pressing for Answers

To his credit, Podesta kept trying to get a clear answer from Holbrook about the overall objective in Afghanistan, as well as seeking some metrics to judge progress.

“There is increasing concern here at home and in allied capitals abroad about the cost of winning in Afghanistan, and to what end-goals we should aspire,” Podesta said. “I hope to focus on … our objectives in Afghanistan and how we measure progress.”

Holbrooke was as smooth — and vacuous — as Gen. William Westmoreland and his briefers were in Saigon:

“We know the difference with input and output, and what you are seeing here is input,” Holbrooke said. “The payoff is still to come. We have to produce results, and we understand that.

“And we’re not here today to tell you we’re winning or we’re losing. We’re not here today to say we’re optimistic or pessimistic. We’re here to tell you that we’re in this fight in a different way with a determination to succeed.”

In an apparent attempt to get Podesta to stop asking about objectives and how to measure success, Holbrooke tossed a bouquet back at the Center for American Progress for doing “an extraordinary job of becoming a critical center for our efforts.”

For those who may have missed it, Podesta’s Center surprised many, including me, by endorsing Obama’s non-strategy of throwing more troops at the problem in Afghanistan. (The charitable explanation is that there is something in the water here in Washington; less charitably, the Center may have feared losing its place at Obama’s table.)

Holbrooke’s flattery, though, did not deter Podesta, who kept insisting on some kind of cogent answer about objectives and metrics.

Podesta: “From the perspective of the American people, how do you define clear objectives of what you’re trying to succeed as outputs with the inputs that you just talked about?”

Holbrooke: “A very key question, John, which you’re alluding to is, of course, if our objective is to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda, and they’re primarily in Pakistan, why are we doing so much in Afghanistan? …

“If you abandon the struggle in Afghanistan, you will suffer against al-Qaeda as well. But we have to be clear on what our national interests are here….

“The specific goal you ask, John, — is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we’ll know it when we see it.” (Emphasis added.)

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