Swagger and Bluster

Perhaps not on the level of Bismarckian Blut und Eisen, but certainly some swagger and bluster from within the Pentagon and this coming on the heels of our near ultimatum to Pakistan.

From General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan, comes these bold statements in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee:

"We can and will accomplish this mission. By this time next year ... it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum."

"And by the summer of 2011, it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win, giving them the chance to side with their government."

"The mission is not only important; it is also achievable. We can and will accomplish this mission."

The New York Times and The Hill have more on the Congressional testimony of General McChrystal and of Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan and a former US general. As the Times notes, there is a remarkable sense of unity and accord from two men who reportedly gave the President diametrically opposed views.

And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a surprise visit to Kabul is no less ambivalent: "We're in it to win."

From the Washington Post:

Gates is the first senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since Obama detailed the surge. Precise details of his schedule are not being made public for security reasons, but he is supposed to spend time with American troops as well as Afghan officials. Deteriorating weather conditions forced the cancellation of a planned visit by helicopter Tuesday to a training facility for Afghan troops.

Gates told reporters traveling with him that he intends to deliver an unusually bold message to the military men and women already fighting here: "We are in this thing to win."

Obama and his aides have generally shied away from such language, with the president telling ABC News in July that he felt uncomfortable using the term "victory" when fighting a "a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda," because the goal is to prevent attacks on the United States and because there will never be a signing ceremony with a defeated enemy.

But Gates must calibrate his message for soldiers waging war under difficult conditions. Noting that "some of the units have taken a lot of casualties," Gates said he would seek soldiers' views on "the way forward." That might include issues such as whether their equipment is adequate and whether they are ready to handle the difficult logistics of the surge.

Still, the Secretary rightly temped expectations when he noted that Afghanistan "is going to be a heavy lift, there's no question about it." Indeed.

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The Clinton-Gates Axis

Mark Landler and Thom Shanker have an article in the New York Times on the emerging alliance between Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates casting them as "two moderate pragmatists" who are likely to advocate a middle ground between the "minimalist" Biden approach that focuses on counter-terrorism and the full-on counter-insurgency approach advocated by General McChrystal among others. The article suggests that the two secretaries are expected to carry great weight as they begin to express specific advice.

The problem is that the Vice President is right in his view that a larger military presence in Afghanistan will breed resentment among Afghans especially the Pashtuns and is likely politically untenable at home. As I've noted before, a growing Pashtun nationalism is fueling the growing Taliban insurgency. A "Pashtunistan" is now a part of the Taliban platform. Recent Taliban communiques all make appeals to driving out the foreign occupiers.

Beyond this stark reality is the economic cost of the Afghan war. Since the invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, the United States has spent $223 billion on the Afghan war-related funding, according to the Congressional Research Service. Aid expenditures, excluding the cost of combat operations, have also grown exponentially, from $982 million in 2003 to $9.3 billion in 2008. The cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan will overtake that of the Iraq conflict for the first time in 2010. Even before General McChrystal's troop increase request, the Pentagon had requested $65 billion for Afghanistan on top of the basic defense budget of $533.7 billion. An escalation of any size will only add to the financial burden.

The economic cost of an escalation in Afghanistan needs to be a part of this discussion even if the seemingly influentially ascendant Clinton-Gates axis seems to ignore it.

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A Grim Photo Causes a Stir

For much of this decade, we have fought two brutal wars in Asia and yet images of the carnage are scarce. The Pentagon ban on media coverage of returning war casualties was initiated in January 1991 by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the Administration of President George H. W. Bush, just weeks before the start of the Gulf War against Iraq. The Clinton Administration extended that policy though it did grant exceptions but the George W. Bush Administration did everything in its power to prevent such images from being seen by the world going so far as to taking the extraordinary step of not photo-documenting the arrival of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base. In February, the Obama Administration revised the policy to allow the families of the war dead to make the decision whether or not news organizations could photograph the homecomings.

The Associated Press has published a photograph showing a mortally wounded 21-year-old Marine, Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, in his final moments of life after having the his lower extremities torn apart by a rocket-launched grenade. You can view the photo at Editor & Publisher.

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard was killed in a Taliban ambush on August 14th in Helmand province according to the Associated Press.

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Afghan Conflict Intensifying

In comments made during a speech at the Washington think-tank Center for a New American Security, General David Petraeus noted the number of attacks in Afghanistan over the last week hit the highest level since the December 2001 fall of the Taliban. Attacks have risen to over 400 insurgent attacks a week compared to under 50 per week back in January 2004. More from the New York Times:

The violence that has surged for two years in Afghanistan reached a new high last week, and more difficulty lies ahead, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said Thursday.

Gen. David Petraeus said the number of attacks in Afghanistan over the last week hit the highest level since the December 2001 fall of the Taliban.

"Some of this will go up because we are going to go after their sanctuaries and safe havens as we must," Petraeus, in charge of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as leader of U.S. Central Command, said during a speech at the Washington think-tank Center for a New American Security.

"But there is no question the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years in particular and there are difficult times ahead," he said.

There were more than 400 insurgent attacks last week, including ambushes, small arms volleys, assaults on Afghan infrastructure and government offices, and roadside bomb and mine explosions. In comparison, attacks in January 2004 were less than 50 per week.

Extremist attacks in the rural nation tend to increase in the summer months, and in part are spurred by military efforts to crack down on insurgents, Petraeus said.

Petraeus, who led beefed-up U.S. military efforts that helped turnabout violence in Iraq in 2007, noted several challenges in Afghanistan he did not face while in Baghdad -- including the inability of U.S. troops to live among the local residents.

It is probable that the violence will continue to escalate as Afghanistan approaches its presidential elections in August and as more US and NATO troops arrive in the country before waning as the harsh Afghan winter sets in.

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Just like a scene in one of those Sci-Fi flicks...

More than ever,  with each passing day of late, as I read more and more about the ongoing and imminent devastation of our national and global economies, I'm getting the sense of  watching one of those formulaic, sci-fi disaster flicks where a handful of scientists and some people in the White House are the only ones aware of some impending catastrophe that's going to change just about everything in our lives as we now know it.

At this point,  as far as the national and global economies are concerned, I would have to concur that the writing is, indeed, on the wall, and things are quickly spiralling out of control on a worldwide basis, economically.  It's a catastrophe that very rapidly lies not too far ahead of us, too. We really are "Facing a Greater Depression." And, as even President-elect Obama now openly discusses it, things are going to get much worse before they get better.

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