One More View of "Breaking Teeth" (Afghanistan)

Previously here and here. As mentioned earlier, I don't know enough about Afghanistan to oversee an ongoing debate about the trends and evidence there. But after an initial dispatch saying there was no hope, and a second saying there were problems but of a different sort, here is an argument from reader John Dowd, a Vietnam veteran, for sticking it out as the least-bad option. This will be it for now.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan and our policy there are in disarray....

I read the [Dalrymple] piece and found it pessimistic in the extreme and, not all that relevant to the current situation. Much of the article is devoted to the British debacle in the 1840s and the hard lessons learned therefrom. It is my view that we have learned them. I don't think the U. S. Army is going to lose 18,000 men marching through the mountainous valleys south of Kabul. Does Mr. Dalrymple think that the U. S. military men have not read the same accounts of the British route that he has?

He discusses his trip to the mountainous north in terms that are frightening and one wonders if this can possibly be the same land in which Greg Mortenson is building schools ("Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools"). His statement that a foreigner cannot walk the streets of Kabul without an armed guard strikes me as highly over-stated. I suspect foreigners walk the streets of Kabul every day. And he says:
"Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that the once-hated Taliban, far from being swept away by General Stanley McChrystal's surge, are instead regrouping, ready for the final act in the history of Hamid Karzai's western-installed puppet government. The Taliban have now advanced out of their borderland safe havens to the very gates of Kabul and are surrounding the capital, much as the US-backed mujahedin once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late 1980s."
I don't think there's any evidence to support this rather wild claim. McChrystal's "surge" was intended to neutralize the Taliban by forcing them to defend their home turf (Marjeh, Kandahar and the Helmund River valley). The Taliban in response to that initiative have stepped up their attacks outside that region, but have resorted primarily to suicide bombings, assassinations and the like. The surge may not be going as well as we had hoped, but there is no evidence (of which I am aware) that the Taliban are re-grouping. For the most part, I think they are doing what they always do, hiding out and making occasional strikes.
Much of the current higher levels of violence in Kabul has been initiated by Al Qaeda and is a run up to the military conference being held there. At least that's what some are reporting...

Nowhere in the article does he even mention what I think is the 'elephant in the room' and that is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The nukes are a major point of departure from the British debacles. We have a lot more to lose. I don't think there should be any illusion that the U. S. military is in the region to create a new Afghanistan. We are there to keep the Al Qaeda on its heels and to stabilize the region politically. So far we have been able to persuade India to stay (more or less) out it. We have not let the rampant instability in the region threaten the government in Pakistan (which is only just hanging on by a thread).

To me there are two fundamental questions facing Obama. One is how to keep the islamists from reorganizing a base of operations from which to launch terror attacks like those that have killed thousands of Americans, Europeans, Australians and others. This is and will be ongoing. There is no victory here, just a maintenance of the status quo which has, for the past few years, been mostly satisfactory. Would it have been otherwise had we not been in the region? It's an unanswerable question.

The second (and in my view) even more pressing issue is the safe-guarding of the Pakistani nukes. If the government of Pakistan topples and Islamic fundamentalists take over, India will no longer sit idly by. A major war could (and probably would) break out. Also Pakistan has tried to sell its nukes before (remember Kahn)....

Abandonment is not an option in my view. Perhaps we can engage the situation more effectively, but we cannot walk away as some would apparently have us do. The effort to date has been a huge financial drain and resulted in the loss (over nine years) of about 1000 servicemen. When I stepped off the plane in Dong Ha, RVN, U. S. losses were in excess of 400KIA a week. 2500 GIs died in the first day at Normandy.

I do think we need to redefine our publicly stated mission and make it clear that there will be no 'winning' this war. There will not come a point when we are done.

So if there is no 'winning' and there will be no point when it will be 'done,' is it in our vital national interest to be there .... indefinitely? To John Dowd's credit, he states the basic choice that bluntly. His answer is We Must. My instinct remains, We Can't.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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