Afghanistan for Dummies

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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."

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.

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

Pressing for Answers

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

"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 ... I hope to focus on ... our
objectives in Afghanistan and how we measure progress."

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 ... 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."

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

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.)

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

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.)

almost chokes on the words as they proceed out of his mouth, and then takes a
very visible gulp of air. Up until this point, Podesta has been bravely
suppressing any outward sign of frustration with Holbrooke's malnourishing
comments on U.S. objectives and measures of success.

the "we'll know it when we see it" remark, Podesta pauses for a few seconds and
looks at Holbrooke - as if to say, and that's it? Then, like a high school
teacher ready to move on to the next ill-prepared student, Podesta utters a
curt "okay."

"Know It When You See It"

Supreme Court test involving "know it when you see it" refers to a phrase used
by former Justice Potter Stewart 45 years ago. Frustrated at not being able to
define pornography in an obscenity case, he gave up and fell back on the "know
it when you see it" formulation.

same phrase was used by a similarly frustrated official, former Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in December 2002, just three months before the
U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq. Unable to come up with any specific evidence of
Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but determined to rebut Saddam Hussein's
claims that he had none, Wolfowitz quipped, "It's like the judge said about
pornography. I can't define it, but I will know it when I see it."

is it that we let people get away with that kind of rubbish when it means
people - Iraqis, Afghanis, as well as Americans - are going to get killed and

Holbrooke's "we'll know-it-when-we-see-it" measure of success is just the
latest sign that the Obama administration has been playing the Af-Pak strategy
by ear. The President himself seems generally aware of this, given his
readiness to give wide latitude, not clear instructions, to Holbrooke and the

early hint of the disarray came on March 27, a little more than two months into
his presidency, when Obama showed up a half-hour late to the press conference
at which he announced a "comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and

explanation was given for his lateness, which required TV talking heads to
reach new heights of vapidity for a full 30 minutes. I ventured a guess at the time
that his instincts were telling him he was about to do something he would

soon became apparent that Obama's 60-day Afghan policy review lacked
specificity on strategy. The President tried to make up for that with lofty
rhetoric - kudos to the alliterative speechwriter who coined the catchy phrase
"disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda."

important, the President also took pains to assure us that: "Going forward, we
will not blindly stay the course." Rather, he promised there will be "metrics
to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable."

the key "metric" appears to be what Holbrooke blurted out on Aug. 12, "we'll
know it when we see it.")

The Wrong Man

Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have picked a loser. It is bad
enough that he does not seem to have a clue about how to measure success toward
U.S. objectives - or, at least, cannot articulate them, even before a friendly

Secretary Clinton and President Obama were also unaware of his well-deserved
reputation for logical inconsistencies, not to mention the delight he takes in
bullying foreign officials - the more senior the person, the better.

former Foreign Service officer who worked on the Balkans confided that he
believes Holbrooke actually prolonged the Yugoslav civil war for several years
by pushing a policy of covert military support for the Muslim side.

should come as no surprise, then, if Holbrooke ends up playing a role in
deepening the Af-Pak quagmire, if only by adopting a belligerent attitude
towards the Pashtuns and also the Pakistani government - not to mention rival
U.S. officials.

sum, Holbrooke will probably prove more hindrance than help in working out a
sensible U.S. strategy and objectives. Worse, he is not likely to serve as a
much needed counterweight to the generals, who may well succeed in persuading
Obama to give them still more troops for an unwinnable war.

George Will Favors Pullout

one of the new voices urging a troop drawdown in Afghanistan is conservative
columnist George Will, who showed his human side in an op-ed appearing Tuesday
in the Washington Post, "Time
to Get Out of Afghanistan

starts and ends the piece with references to a young Marine who had just lost
two buddies. To his credit, Will avoids the customary quote from the poet
Horace - "Dulce et decorum est pro patria
("How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country") or
anything like it.

says, in effect, that syrupy sentiments and faux appeals to patriotism do not
apply in present circumstances. He would probably be the last to draw this
connection, but he has begun to sound like Cindy Sheehan, who has been trying
for over four years to get George Bush to explain to her the "noble cause" for
which her son Casey died in Iraq.

ends his article with a heartfelt appeal for substantial troop reductions now,
"before more American squandered."

Kristol Clear

Wednesday, the neoconservative editors of the Post compiled a series of
rebuttals to Will's column in a section entitled "Where Will Got It
Wrong," including a lengthy excerpt from a blog post by leading neocon
theorist William Kristol, who attacks Will for sentimentality when "it would be
better to base a major change in our national security strategy on arguments."

surprisingly, given his enthusiastic support for the invasion and occupation of
Iraq, Kristol advocates "a surge of several brigades of American forces" in
Afghanistan and a determination "to support a strategy, and to provide the
necessary resources, for victory."

Kristol's blog post was an
by Post columnist David Ignatius, another enthusiastic supporter of
the Iraq War. (Like so many of his neoconservative colleagues who are such fans
of war, Ignatius never wore the uniform. His writings do not show any awareness
of what was going on in Vietnam as he pursued his studies at Harvard.)

Afghanistan, Ignatius concludes that "this may be one of those messy situations
where the best course is to both shoot and talk - a strategy based on the idea
that we can bolster our friends and bloody our enemies enough that, somewhere
down the road, we can cut a deal."

may recall that President Johnson followed a similar strategy of trying to bomb
his Vietnamese enemies to the bargaining table. Worked like a charm, as is well

the tragedy in Iraq - as well as the one in Vietnam - this is the third time
I've seen this movie.

see a clip of the exchange between Holbrooke and Podesta, click
for The Real News, and view segment 1:53-2:05.]

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