Giving the Devil His Due: Donald Trump and the Afghan War

I’m not a Satanist, but I do believe in fairness, so I don’t mind giving the Devil his due. The Devil in this case is Donald Trump, and his achievement is getting us out of Afghanistan. Or, well: signing a deal that if adhered-to, and if all goes well, will someday get us out of Afghanistan. I ended my 2008 review of Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban like this:

To ‘keep trying’ to occupy and rebuild Afghanistan is to sacrifice lives and money on an ill-defined, increasingly pointless, and probably Sisyphean venture. A thousand lives and billions of dollars into that quest, we’re no closer to its completion than we were when we first started. That is as much a ‘punishment of virtue’ as anything Chayes describes. We’re entitled to ask when it will end.

We now have a better sense than we did a few days ago of “when it will end.” The answer is: some day. To paraphrase Metallica, the good news is that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be a freight train coming our way.  Continue reading

The “No Boots on the Ground” Fraud

I spent a fair bit of time during the fall of 2014 boring the readers of this blog with my insistence that despite Obama’s “promise(s)” not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria, he would eventually find some disingenuous, incremental way of putting them there. Since “boots on the ground” doesn’t really mean anything, military speaking, the phrase is practically designed to guarantee plausible deniability: you can promise not to put “boots on the ground,” then send military personnel to the relevant place, and then deny that that’s what you meant by “boots on the ground.” No, no: “boots on the ground” referred, all along, to those military personnel that we haven’t (yet) sent, not the boot-wearing ones that now happen to be there.

I may be a newly-minted Democrat, but I’m not dumb, amnesiac, or loyal enough to our President to forget that this is just a tired variant on the semantic game that the Bush II Administration played with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” As we all by now know (or ought to know), very strictly speaking, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion; it’s just that the WMD we found found bore no relation to the WMD that furnished the rationale for the invasion. So if the invasion of Iraq was predicated on “finding weapons of mass destruction,” very narrowly conceived, well, it was a great success: weapons were found. But this is just a pathetic way of saving a pathetic thesis. The war was predicated on finding usable stockpiles of WMD, and precisely none of those were found.

Continue reading

Anything Goes: Further Studies in American Foreign Policy (Veterans Day Edition)

Pausing to observe American foreign policy in the making is like pausing to observe a car wreck on the highway: there’s no point in doing it, but there are times when it really can’t be helped. It’s always just the same gruesome scene, but today is Veteran’s Day, so there’s no averting one’s eyes from the mechanism that creates the veterans we’re supposed to be “celebrating.” In honor of that day, today’s blog post will be an exercise in decoding the euphemisms of war-talk, and translating them into our wholesome native tongue.

The lead story in yesterday’s New York Times was, “Obstacles Limit Targets and Pace of Strikes on ISIS.” Three passages in it are particularly instructive. Here’s the first:

President Obama’s decision last week to double the number of American trainers and advisers in Iraq, to about 3,000, and request more than $5 billion from Congress for military operations against the Islamic State was viewed as clear acknowledgment of the challenges in fighting a limited war. They are especially acute when Washington’s allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria need far more training to battle a formidable adversary that offers little in the way of clear targeting.

In an interview broadcast Sunday, Mr. Obama said he had made his decision, announced Friday, in order to accelerate the mission by taking a set of fresh, if incremental, steps toward greater involvement.

“What it signals is a new phase,” the president said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that,” he said. “And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.”

Here’s the second:

“The airstrikes are buying us time. They aren’t going to solve the problem by themselves,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and a former top commander in Iraq. “It’s going to take people on the ground, ground forces.”

General Odierno said the priority was developing “indigenous forces” to retake territory from ISIS. “Over time, if that’s not working, then we’re going to have to reassess, and we’ll have to decide whether we think it’s worth putting other forces in there, to include U.S. forces,” he said.

And here’s the third:

Senior American commanders are preaching patience and warning against trying to replay previous air campaigns on the shifting battlefield of Iraq.

“Every air campaign is different and can’t be a reflection of a past one,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey G. Lofgren of the Air Force, the deputy commander of coalition air forces in the Middle East. “A lot of people would like us to drop hundreds of bombs and make the problem go away, but it’s not that kind of war.”

The first passage tells us that we have entered a war that can only be won by the use of ground troops. The two possibilities for the use of grounds troops are either Iraqi troops or American troops. Iraqi troops cannot win the war, but the passage tells us that while we are doubling the military advisers we send to Iraq, we will not be sending American troops there. If this sounds like a classic case of willing the end but not willing the means, maybe it does because that’s what it is.

The second passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president, tells us that in fact, we will have to send American troops, whether the president likes it or not. This claim has the merit of willing the end and willing the necessary and available means to it. It has the demerit of contradicting what the president just supposedly said. It remains unclear whether Odierno is defying the president, in collusion with the president, or simply hasn’t gotten his story straight. The bottom line, however, is that what he says about the insertion of U.S. troops contradicts the president’s assurances that they won’t be sent.

As we all know, anything follows from a contradiction. So what the conjunction of Obama’s and Odierno’s claims amount to is: anything goes.

The third passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president’s subordinate, tells us simultaneously that the war’s course is unpredictable, inscrutable, and discontinuous with past experience–and that it is a war of a knowable and determinate kind, a fact known by past experience of wars of that kind.

That’s a contradiction, too. So the third passage, like the conjunction of the first two, underscores the same message: anything goes.

When it comes to the conduct of our foreign policy, what I think we’re being told is that anything goes. Given that, this video strikes me as the only fitting response to the absurdities of our military leaders.


I’d like to think that we’re bound to answer when they propose.

On a more serious note, in honor of Veterans Day (or more precisely, of the veterans themselves) please consider making a donation to the Walter Reed Society, or some comparable organization. Huge numbers of veterans still need our help–and at this rate, indefinitely will.