February 2, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Sixteen More Years of 'Groundhog Day' in Afghanistan?


Twenty-two years ago at an airfield in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, President Bill Clinton spoke to an assembly of US soldiers and tried to capture the importance of their mission. “Step by steady step,” he said, “you are making history here in Bosnia. Don't you ever forget that, even when this extraordinary mission may seem routine.” He then tried to add a bit of levity to the gathering. He slyly noted, “I am told that some of you have compared life here with the Bill Murray movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ where the same day keeps repeating itself over and over and over again.”

Today, some sixteen years into the war in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine either point being expressing by the current president, or by any president, for that matter. Either a straightforward explanation of the importance of the war and the progress being made or a throwaway remark about how repetition seems endless in combat would not make much sense with respect to Afghanistan, after all.

On the first point, as Steve Coll vividly explains in the New York Times, we don’t really know why we are in Afghanistan any longer. “What interests justify our sacrifices?” he asks, adding that no recent president has adequately answered this question. Even more uncertainty obscures how the war might end and how it will be remembered in history.

On the second point, any reference of the movie “Groundhog Day” to US soldiers would likely seem too grimly accurate to add any levity. Indeed, it does seem as if the same day keeps repeating itself over and over. As I explain in a new piece for CNN.com, a notable feature of the bombing last Saturday by the Taliban that killed more than a hundred people in Kabul is that it could have happened any day in recent years. In essence, it did. In Afghanistan some 60 security incidents, including armed clashes, roadside bombs, targeted killings, abductions, and suicide attacks, are reported each day.

What this grim and unrelenting bloodshed makes clear is that, after 16 years of war, the United States is not winning in Afghanistan. Insurgent strength may grow and shrink over time, but the Taliban are no nearer to defeat today than they were a day or a decade ago. Meanwhile, America's longest war grinds on.

In fact, recent years have shown that small tinkering with US warfighting, by adding a few more troops here or a few more bombs there, has achieved little. As I explain,

Hoping that a little more force is the missing element that will get the Taliban to relent has proved just as misguided as hoping that a few more US troops will. So long as the Taliban leadership is secure in its Pakistan safe havens, so long as it can recruit more fighters to take the place of those lost, so long as insurgents can increase costs on the Afghan government, and so long as the Afghan government is riven by corruption and division, the Taliban can just wait us out. After all, they live there. We don't.

The result is that for too long the United States has pursued a strategy of not losing in Afghanistan — a strategy that looks set to continue on without change. Please take a few minutes to read the full piece at CNN.com. As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.

We Can’t Win in Afghanistan Because We Don’t Know Why We’re There

Steve Coll/The New York Times

“Why are we in Afghanistan? What interests justify our sacrifices? How will the war end?” asks Steve Coll in the New York Times. No recent president, including the current office holder, has offered convincing answers to these critical questions, Coll says. Pakistan remains a troublesome partner in fighting insurgents and the Taliban is as strong and secure as ever. “Stalemated civil wars like Afghanistan’s can last a very long time,” Coll cautions. “They end only through negotiations with the enemy.”

Afghanistan's Bloody Week Shows How US Policy There Is Failing

Amanda Erickson/The Washington Post

“The president and his generals still can't offer any real sense of what a win in Afghanistan might look like or how we might get there,” writes Amanda Erickson in the Washington Post. The spate of recent and deadly attacks by the Taliban, as well as the growth of other insurgent groups in the country, only underscores this central point. “Today, the Taliban controls about a third of Afghanistan, more territory than at any point since the US intervention,” she writes.

How Wobbly Is Our Democracy?

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt/The New York Times

“America today is not on the brink of a coup or a civil war,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in the New York Times. But if you are looking for additional reassuring news in this smart op-ed from the authors of “How Democracies Die,” then you might be disappointed. Further polarization and an erosion of the norms of forbearance pose systemic risks to American politics. “The lessons of history are clear,” they write. “Extreme polarization can wreck even established democracies. America is no exception.”

The Myth of the Liberal International Order

Niall Ferguson/Global Times

Taking to the pages of the pro-Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times, historian Niall Ferguson makes the odd case that the Liberal World Order never existed. And even if it did, he writes, it was “neither liberal, nor international, nor very orderly.” He marshalls an intriguing set of reasons why this might be true, but the provocative, even counterfactual argument here is ultimately in the service of something much more straightforward and important. “What comes next?” Ferguson asks. His conclusion that major powers such as China and the United States, as well as others, should find ways to work together on common problems is surely right.

Europe Is Back. And Rejecting Trumpism.

Peter S. Goodman/The New York Times

Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chinese President Xi Jinping was celebrated as the new standard-bearer of globalization. This year, however, it was a trio from Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron “laid claim to the mantle of leader of the free world,” Peter S. Goodman explains in the New York Times. He was joined by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister of Italy. Each advocated for the European project and against the staunch nationalist sentiments that have taken root on the continent and elsewhere. “The three speeches resonated as a broad rebuttal of the doctrine that Mr. Trump has made his own,” Goodman explains — namely, the America First agenda.

Donald Trump in Davos: Dollar Talk Adds to Fears of Trade War

Sam Fleming and Shawn Donnan/Financial Times

It’s been a decade since the global financial crisis and things are finally looking up. Growth has returned to the world’s economies. The stock market is up a lot, as President Trump has noted. Yet optimistic outlooks were asterisked recently by the threat of looming currency and trade upheaval. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made comments welcoming a weaker dollar, which were quickly followed by a rebuke by the European Central Bank president. As Sam Fleming and Shawn Donnan explain in the Financial Times, this flap, coupled with uncertainty over the future of US trade agreements, has thrown a bit of gloom on an otherwise sunny world economic outlook.

The Dark Side of America’s Rise to Oil Superpower

Javier Blas/Bloomberg

By the end of the year the United States may well be the world’s biggest oil producer. Oil is down to about $65 a barrel and soon America may not need to import it at all. Such a turn of events could have several significant outcomes, as Javier Blas explains in this smart report in Bloomberg. Relations between the United States and large Middle Eastern oil producing powers may drastically change as the United States becomes more powerful. As well, Russia could quickly find itself in even more dire straits if the price of oil remains depressed well into the future.

The Growing Danger of Great-Power Conflict

The Economist

The possibility of war between great powers looms closer than we may think, explains the leader in the Economist. The Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy (which I wrote about last week) ranks Russia and China as America’s biggest threats. If Moscow and Beijing push for regional hegemony, conflict will almost certainly arise. Additionally, war on the Korean peninsula looms as an ever more immediate threat as North Korea continues to build up its nuclear arsenal.

It’s Time for Mahmoud Abbas to Go

Roger Cohen/The New York Times

“Never, through decades of national struggle, have the Palestinians been weaker,” writes Roger Cohen in the New York Times. While there is no shortage of blame to go around for the stalled peace process, Cohen adds, too much of the blame can be put squarely on Mahmoud Abbas, the 82-year-old Palestinian president. “By dismantling Palestinian freedoms, by disempowering his people, Abbas has been undoing the foundations of statehood and sapping the energy that comes with personal agency,” Cohen writes. It is past time for new, younger Palestinian leadership, he concludes.

Davos 2018: Southern Africa Faces a Full-Scale Revolution

David Pilling/Financial Times

Leaders from South Africa, Angola, and Zimbabwe trekked to Switzerland recently to convince the assembled business leaders and bankers at the World Economic Forum that their countries are ripe for investment. As David Pilling explains in the Financial Times, it is a time of important change in these African nations as Cyril Ramaphosa, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and João Lourenço replace Jacob Zuma, Robert Mugabe, and José Eduardo dos Santos, respectively. “Yet amid all the flurry of change, one thing remains constant, Pilling adds. “The three liberation parties that brought us to this point are not going anywhere.”


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