Been trying to get my head around Afghanistan recently. In the run-up to Obama’s long awaited speech arguments, discussions, and endless facebook comments threads abound. I also happen to have a student here who is in the Spanish military and who is going to Afghanistan in January, so that has certainly spurred my interest, as every class turns into a foreign policy argument and I find myself woefully unprepared for the battle.

I’ve started Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, which I’ve been told is a good one. Ghost Wars,by Steve Coll, has also been recommended, and I’ve put it on my wishlist.

And of course, I watched Obama’s speech this morning.

And following the speech, I’ve been trying to formulate my reaction to it, and have been trawling around online to see what others are saying.

My reaction – after a quick first viewing I am not particularly impressed. My sense is that he is not completely behind what he is saying. I’ve seen him make impassioned speeches, that leave you feeling that you’re watching someone with, at the very least, strong convictions. This speech doesn’t leave me with any sense of his convictions.

And Clive Crook at the Atlantic Online does a great job of summing up why that is:
At its center, in other words, the speech contradicted itself. You cannot argue, as he tried to, that (a) this is a war America must win to safeguard its own security, and (b) whether the US is winning or not, the troops will start to come home in 2011. If they can start to come home in 18 months regardless, why not start to bring them home now?

This just makes me think of the people who will die in the next 18 months, in the knowledge that their country has no lasting interest in this conflict, after all, the president has said as much. They’re being sent there as a political compromise, to appease hawkish politicians. It’s like sending people off to die “just in case” we can get something done at this late stage.

Obama is also coming under fire, and reasonably so I think, for seeming to tell the enemy, if not that we’ve given up already, then that we will be giving up in 18 months, so just hang in there. Also from Crook:

But it sure makes no sense to announce this accelerated schedule to the enemy, or mention that a weakened United States cannot afford to fight for long. In a war, those are not good messages to send, either to the enemy or your own people.

And in the Washington Post’s survey of reactions, Meghan O’Sullivan says:

President Obama sent a mixed message at a time when an unequivocal one was required.

I think I would’ve admired either a “that’s it, we’re out! no more!” ,or a “we’re in it until Afghanistan is stable, however long that takes”, more than the message of this speech, which seems muddled.

I understand that Obama is all about finding the middle way, but here the middle way means that both sides lose. You don’t look like you have the interests of Afghanistan in mind,( cuz you’ve already booked your ticket home) and you look like you’re willing to squander even more US lives, money and reputation.

On the flip side, here’s argument for the continued presence in the region from J Alexander Thier at Foreign Policy.

He addresses two parts of the issue. First, what are the reasons we should stay? Well, to begin with he does peddle out the Al Qaeda threat (which has been shown again and again to be minimal within Afghanistan now – they’ve moved out). Then he mentions Pakistan’s stability, briefly mentions “the moral argument” – we owe it to the region after letting it fall into chaos after the Soviets left, and mostly dwells on the adverse effects it would have on US standing were we to let Afghanistan fail.

Secondly, he addresses the challenge of actually convincing people that it is possible to do this. He admits “if there is a convincing case for the United States to remain in Afghanistan,  it is somewhat more difficult to be confident that success is attainable.” And he begins his case by saying “The current crisis of confidence over Afghanistan has a strong basis in fact.” Stupid facts! Getting in the way of our confidence!

Now, here’s a bit from a documentary on Afghanistan, called Rethink Afghanistan. I think you can get all the parts on Youtube. I’ll let you know. This is the part on security, with former CIA field operative Robert Baer’s now infamous assertion: “The notion that we’re in Afghanistan to make our country safer is just complete bullshit!”

And of course, that’s the argument that Obama peddled out at some point:

This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda.  It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.

It’s not GWB level fear-mongering, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. Especially when even Gen. Petreus himself has confirmed that there is essentially no Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan now. One has to ask what it is we’re really doing there.

And finally, interesting piece, by Andrew Wilder and Stuart Gordon, also in Foreign Policy, on the failure of US military aid: Money Can’t Buy America Love. Really? What a shocker!

Favourite line:

Marketing aid as a strategic “weapons system” is clearly a more effective way to convince Congress to appropriate funds than calling to alleviate human suffering and poverty in far-flung corners of the developing world.

Yup! We’ve got our priorities straight!

They also make a good point about how our funding priorities within the region are skewed. Instead of funneling money to more stable areas, where perhaps more siginificant progress towards development could be made, we are funneling it to the most unstable, most threatened regions.

This prioritization of insecure over secure areas is not surprisingly being bitterly criticized by Afghans living in more stable areas, who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful.

Over and over again, I read articles that point to the fact that aid coming in from above fails, because the decision makers are outsiders and don’t understand what would best benefit the society they are supposedly trying to help. This seems like yet another example.

Anyone else find interesting commentary out there? Please pass it along. I’m trying to give myself a crash course on Afghanistan!