Escalating Afghanistan, Here and There

Image: Flickr/ISAFMediaMy paid daily editing responsibilities promise to tear me away from doing much thinking and writing in the next week or two. (I may be a bad journalist, but I do try to be a conscientious one.) So in lieu of my usual lengthy thoughts, or tirades, I want to highlight some other bright folks' work out there in the ether.

Today, David Petraeus and the Afghan campaign are on my mind. Over at Wired's Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman wonders what the golden general has up his sleeve now that he's asking Washington for an additional 2,000 troops downrange. "What, you thought the surge was over?" Ack asks. It's the third Afghan troop increase of the Obama era, and I'm with analyst Joshua Foust in wondering if this mini-escalation -- when we were supposed to be Afghan-izing the combat -- bears the imprimatur of the disastrous neocons, namely the Petraeus adviser Frederick "raw power" Kagan.

Meanwhile, Petraeus is providing a clear -- and welcome -- voice against homegrown Christian extremism, which he says "could endanger troops and...the overall effort in Afghanistan." The extremism he has in mind is that of central Florida pastor Terry Jones, who's inciting his flock to burn Korans on September 11 this year. That "is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems -- not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community," Petraeus told CNN over the weekend. From where I sit, Pastor Petraeus is preaching to the choir. Amen, general.

Even so, given his surge-related switchbacks, it's fair to ask Petraeus and the Obama administration just where we are in the Afghan campaign and what we possibly hope to accomplish with more military engagement. Instructive on this point is Foust's recent post for the PBS program Need to Know, in which he pretty effectively shows that infrastructure development in Afghanistan has helped, rather than hindered, the violence. It's enough to make us question the basic underpinning of counterinsurgency strategy as practiced by the US: That the final stage of stability can be gotten by putting progress on a pallet and shipping it to every "underdeveloped" hotspot. I've written about this phenomenon in relation to Vietnam, as has the outstanding historian Michael Latham, and I suspect there's a lot more to be written about modernization ideology in the coming years.

But as far as our current Afghan situation goes, what really sticks in my mind -- and has shaped my thinking of late -- is this 20-minute video of jihadi life in Afghanistan, captured by a Norwegian journalist who embedded with the Taliban. Watch the entire clip, and ask yourself -- as I have -- whether NATO military presence is the solvent for jihadist violence, or the catalyst. It's both, of course. But the degree to which our presence turns obscure rural hut dwellers into holy warriors is alarming, especially when it confronts us in video form. Sometimes you're the rebel alliance, sometimes you're the empire. I now fear we may be too much of the latter to be of much use in policing the world.

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