Monday, December 24, 2018

Whaddaya know, I'm with Chomsky

Rebel-held Douma, May 2017, photo by ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images, via TheOdysseyOnline.

"Let's declare victory and go home." There was a lot of logic to that position in the Vietnam case, as had become clear to everybody by the time the Ford administration got around to it, about seven years too late for the victory-declaration part.

But what was really needed in that case was for the United States to lose the war, as did duly happen, and for somebody to win, namely the Communist Party of Vietnam and its armed wing, the People's Army, which was fully prepared to take power, though its rule would be harsh for the first decades, and a lot of people wouldn't be able to live with it—there was also a broad willingness in the US to take on refugees from Vietnam, which did a lot to alleviate that. It would have been much better if the US had lost a bit more definitively, and begun paying reparations as well, for the terrible environmental and economic damage it had brought about, but that did not happen. (Although the trade embargo ended under the Clinton presidency and economic cooperation became very lively under Obama.)

What I want to say is, when you make a violent assault on a country and recognize that it was the wrong thing to do, it's not enough to dust off your hands and walk away, "Oops, my bad." You need to do something about the horror you've created and to take some punishment. You need to give something back, preferably in a peaceful currency. If World War II was really "the good war", it was less on account of the wickedness of the enemies (nobody prevented the Rape of Nanjing or the Holocaust or gave Jewish refugees a home in North America) as much as the Marshall Plan in Europe and the Japan reconstruction initiatives, which truly did something to atone for the atrocities committed in turn by the Allies.

It would also have been a lot better if the US had definitively lost the war in Iraq, only in this case there wasn't anybody available to lose to—that is, I thought there was somebody (as I started saying four years ago), in the form of the populist-nationalist Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who was almost equally hostile to the US and Iran, and eager for collaboration with Sunni and actual-leftist factions, but I was alone in that view until lo these many years later, after his Sairun party won enough seats in the May elections to become an essential element in any ruling coalition, and some of the wise men started noticing him, like Michael D. Sullivan in Foreign Policy (a post slightly marred by Sullivan's insistent belief that he was just as right when he was anti-Sadr as he is now that he's pro):
I have read the doom and gloom articles. I have received panicked e-mails, Facebook messages, and WhatsApp texts from friends who have served in Iraq. They all ask the same question: “Sadr? Really? Didn’t we fight this guy for years? How can this happen?” They, too, lost loved ones fighting against Sadr’s militias in Najaf, Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood, and along the infamous Route Irish from the Green Zone to the Baghdad airport. I understand their fears because I once shared the same concerns. However, having been in Iraq for multiple combat tours and during last month’s parliamentary election, I now have a much more positive view of the country than I ever would have imagined.
Although at this point, seven months out from the election, they still haven't quite got a government together, and Sadr's own status—he didn't run for a parliamentary seat himself—remains very undefined, so we still can't say what's going to come of it, but it's becoming plausible that we might manage to end up losing well.

I don't see how that happens in Syria, where the US hasn't been directly involved enough to lose properly, and there are not only no "good guys" to win, but no Syrians at this point at all, just ethno-religious factions whose Syrian identity is completely broken and of course refugees busy trying to survive. It's not clear what would constitute "winning" for anybody, or where reparations could be addressed.

The US is deeply responsible for the tragedy, but more through what we didn't do than what we did: the criminal neglect that chased the Sunni hardliners from western Iraq into eastern Syria to create the Nusra and ISIS organizations while Bashar al-Assad was slaughtering liberals in the west. There are some legitimate steps the US could take to mitigate the harm we've done, but pulling out the 2000-odd US noncombat troops (who are, by the way, in virtually no physical danger themselves, in spite of all the dead guys Trump imagined rooting for him from paradise) isn't really one of them: to the contrary, as Noam Chomsky told The Intercept last September, these troops are actually doing some good, very inexpensively, stopping violence instead of perpetrating it:
In my opinion, it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Kurdish areas. They have the one part of Syria which has succeeded in sustaining a functioning society with many decent elements. And the idea that they should be subjected to an attack by their bitter enemies the Turks, or by the murderous Assad regime, I think, is anything should be done to try to prevent that.
If I were emperor, I'd probably prefer adding the Kurds to the longer-term solution I've been advocating forever, of a massive expatriation of Syrian civilians to the United States, from refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey and also from Syria itself, at least two million and at this point probably more, and then evacuating the troops. But as long as that's not going to happen, let's not simply evacuate them, as if we had nothing to do with the mess at all. "Oops, sorry."

In Afghanistan, things are different. It's been clear for a good 200 years that nobody will ever win a war in Afghanistan, and progress only occurs when everybody agrees to lose, which could really happen in the evident stalemate between the US-backed government and the Taliban. I can definitely imagine something good coming of a new withdrawal of US troops, following the long-term withdrawal from around 100,000 at the height of the Obama "surge" in 2011 to 8,400 at the end of the Obama administration and boosted back up to around 14,000 since Trump's inauguration. Trump says he wants to cut it back to around 7,000, essentially confessing that his own mini-"surge" has been a failure, which is true, and I have no objection to that.

What's going on, in fact, seems to be basically the initiative of that wily old Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, appointed by Pompeo as special representative, who has been holding negotiations with the Taliban (and without the Afghan government) in Abu Dhabi that have made some real progress, as we learn from M.K. Bhadrakumar at Asia Times:
Succinctly put, the Trump administration timed a crucial confidence-building measure by publicly backing the promise that Khalilzad made to the Taliban delegation at the Abu Dhabi talks – namely, “We [US] want peace here with respect to set objectives – that Afghanistan will not be a threat for the US – and that we have a positive relationship with Afghanistan.” (See Khalilzad’s interview with TOLO News.)
Khalilzad added: “I explicitly told this to the Taliban team in Abu Dhabi… For example, the presence of the United States in Afghanistan relates to the situation. Our goal is not to have permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The goal is that if Afghanistan becomes peaceful and terrorism from Afghanistan is not a danger to the world, the United States will withdraw and will have a new relationship with the government of Afghanistan based on a bilateral agreement.”
You know when somebody says "the Trump administration timed" something it wasn't Trump, or anybody in the highest echelons of that chaotic company. The troop withdrawal hasn't been officially announced yet either, only anonymously leaked, which you may not have realized; and Afghanistan hasn't been mentioned once on Trumpy's Twitter feed (whereas "Syria" has come up six times since 22 December, and I don't think he's mentioned Afghanistan publicly at all since 21 November, when he promised, falsely, that he'd visit troops there sometime). 

My suspicion is that it's Khalilzad himself who is behind the withdrawal proposal, as a confidence building measure, with backing from whatever knowledgeable people remain in the State Department (and Pompeo may be a shameless flunky but he's not an ignoramus, as the choice of Khalilzad shows), and Trump may not know about it at all; that they're hoping to lock him into the plan before he's completely aware of what's going on. And Afghan presidential elections are coming up in July, and peace would be the best campaign argument President Ashraf Ghani could make. Good luck!

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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