Testing Assumptions

Testing Assumptions
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, October 13, 2009

Since the publication of the request by General Stanley McChrystal for a large-scale buildup of troops in Afghanistan, President Obama and his advisors have been debating how they will respond. News media have reported on a series of meetings between the President and his generals, chief advisors, historians and members of Congress. We are told that these meetings include vigorous debate and a willingness to test underlying assumptions.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Navy veteran of Vietnam who once led opposition to that war, praised Obama’s deliberative pace. “All the president is saying is that he wants to take the time to make sure this decision is not done like the Gulf of Tonkin” resolution, where “underlying assumptions aren’t questioned,” said Kerry. The 1964 joint congressional resolution, based on false information about North Vietnamese actions and adopted amid an anti-communist frenzy, authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force in Southeast Asia.

In many ways President Obama is doing exactly what many of us hoped he would do. Unlike former President Bush, who seemed never to discuss the realities of the wars over which he presided, President Obama has insisted on reassessing commitments in light of changing circumstances. He has provided a realistic assessment of the conditions in Afghanistan, acknowledged the changes that have occurred over the last six months, reflected on the meaning of increasingly illegitimate elections, and, as both Al Qaeda and the Taliban ignore international borders, begun to link the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Out of this reassessment two directions have emerged. The first is that offered by General McChrystal and generally supported by the military. The core of McChyrstal’s strategy is to provide enough force to defeat the Taliban by concentrating on stabilizing major cities, training and developing Afghan forces, and integrating former enemies into the current government structure.

The second option, pushed by Vice President Joseph Biden, argues for a policy shift that would send few, if any new combat troops into the area. Instead it would focus on faster training of Afghan forces, continued assassinations of Al-Qaeda leaders, more drone attacks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and greater support for the governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the debate General McChrystal has continued to defend his assessment. Speaking last week in London at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he insisted that “We must show resolve” and warned that “uncertainty disheartens our allies and emboldens our foes.”

In response, Senator Kerry noted that “In Vietnam, we heard the commanding general on the ground saying we need more troops. We heard the president of the United States say if we just put in more troops, we’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And the fact is that they were wrong because they never examined the underlying assumptions on which our involvement was based.”

This raises a third option. The president could recognize that this is a fatally flawed war and that we should withdraw now. But on Monday White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said that walking away from the war is not being considered. “I don’t think we have the option to leave. That’s quite clear.”

But why not? This is the option that most Americans want. Equally important, a debate about the assumptions that we use to commit ourselves to polices that foster deaths by bombs and assassinations needs to be about more than strategic options in a particular war. Fundamentally, we need to reassess the dependency on military might that provides the framework for our relationships with other people around the globe. That is the only real testing of assumptions that matters.



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