Making the same mistakes all over again?

The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."

Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.

All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:

  • An arbitrary end to "combat" operations in Iraq in August 2010, confining U.S. forces to a support role nowhere required in U.S.-Iraqi agreements made in the Bush Administration and curtailing the effectiveness of our contribution.
  • Not confronting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he used the courts and security forces against domestic political rivals.
  • Having expressed no interest in the importance of Parliament for the 18-month stalemate after the shamefully manipulated outcome of Iraq's elections, insisting that any agreement on future presence of U.S. military forces must be approved by that Parliament, leading to the breakdown of negotiations on any long-term stationing.
  • A ridiculously extravagant and unexecutable plan for civilian presence after our military withdrawal that conveyed the lack of seriousness in our involvement.
  • Not investing any political capital in coalescing neighboring states into support of a government emerging from international isolation.
  • And, having achieved "an end to the war in Iraq," President Obama seems not to care whether that war continues, only that we not be participants in it.

The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.

And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.

Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Sometimes a rocket is just a rocket, Anna...

The original Saturday Night Live cast used to have a skit where Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna saw sexual overtones in everything around her. Finally an exasperated Freud would explain to her, "sometimes a banana is just a banana...Anna."

The punditocracy's response to North Korea's launch of the Unha rocket on December 11 shows similar and predictable over-interpretation of Pyongyang's motives. The "Great General" Kim Jong-un is said to be using the launch to consolidate his control over the Korean People's Army. Other explanations focus on North Korean efforts to influence the South Korean or even Japanese elections, which are to be held over the next few weeks. Or is it a signal to the Obama administration as it begins a second term? 

No doubt missile tests please the KPA generals and make for good propaganda in a nation of undernourished and terrified people, but that is the same reason given for all of the previous missile and nuclear tests by the North. This is, after all, a Stalinist state driven by an "Army First" policy and a perpetual state of war with the United Nations and the Republic of Korea. Explanations that the North is trying to shape the South Korean or Japanese elections also hang awkwardly in the air, since the missile test cannot possibly help the softer-line progressive candidate Moon Jae-in to overcome his conservative rival Park Geun-Hye -- let alone the hapless Democratic Party of Japan which is about to be trounced at the polls by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party led by North Kora's worst nightmare, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Psychoanalyzing North Korea's deviant behavior is convenient in one sense, however:. it allows the State Department and White House spokesmen to to dismiss the growing threat from Pyongyang as the rantings of a teenage miscreant only doing harm to itself. If North Korea is only isolating itself from the international community, as we are told after each provocation, then there is no need to take action. One analytical explanation making the rounds describes a "cycle" in which North Korea provokes with a nuclear or missile test but inevitably returns to talks. Phew !!

The problem is that the consequences of North Korean weapons testing are not cyclical -- they are linear. Each missile and nuclear test, even a failed test, represents a new milestone in Pyongyang's well-advertised march towards marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. This most recent test appears to have ended in the successful separation of multiple stage Rockets. Recently, a senior KPA general was reported to have told military officers at a speech in Pyongyang that the nation has already achieved the ability to mount small warheads on medium range missiles. Bravado or not, that is clearly the North's goal and it grows closer with this most recent test.

The administration's response should not be based on interpreting the North Korean Unha missile launch as anything other than what it was -- a deliberate weapons development program aimed at forcing concessions on the United States and our allies through coercion. That threat requires significant countermeasures both within the UN Security Council and among US allies.