Afghanistan for Dummies

“Know It When You See It”

The Supreme Court test involving “know it when you see it” refers to a phrase used by former Justice Potter Stewart 45 years ago. Frustrated at not being able to define pornography in an obscenity case, he gave up and fell back on the “know it when you see it” formulation.

The same phrase was used by a similarly frustrated official, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in December 2002, just three months before the U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq. Unable to come up with any specific evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but determined to rebut Saddam Hussein’s claims that he had none, Wolfowitz quipped, “It’s like the judge said about pornography. I can’t define it, but I will know it when I see it.”

How is it that we let people get away with that kind of rubbish when it means people – Iraqis, Afghanis, as well as Americans – are going to get killed and maimed?

But Holbrooke’s “we’ll know-it-when-we-see-it” measure of success is just the latest sign that the Obama administration has been playing the Af-Pak strategy by ear. The President himself seems generally aware of this, given his readiness to give wide latitude, not clear instructions, to Holbrooke and the generals.

An early hint of the disarray came on March 27, a little more than two months into his presidency, when Obama showed up a half-hour late to the press conference at which he announced a “comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

No explanation was given for his lateness, which required TV talking heads to reach new heights of vapidity for a full 30 minutes. I ventured a guess at the time that his instincts were telling him he was about to do something he would regret.

It soon became apparent that Obama’s 60-day Afghan policy review lacked specificity on strategy. The President tried to make up for that with lofty rhetoric – kudos to the alliterative speechwriter who coined the catchy phrase “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda.”

More important, the President also took pains to assure us that: “Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course.” Rather, he promised there will be “metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.”

(Yet the key “metric” appears to be what Holbrooke blurted out on Aug. 12, “we’ll know it when we see it.”)

The Wrong Man

In Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have picked a loser. It is bad enough that he does not seem to have a clue about how to measure success toward U.S. objectives – or, at least, cannot articulate them, even before a friendly audience.

Perhaps Secretary Clinton and President Obama were also unaware of his well-deserved reputation for logical inconsistencies, not to mention the delight he takes in bullying foreign officials – the more senior the person, the better.

A former Foreign Service officer who worked on the Balkans confided that he believes Holbrooke actually prolonged the Yugoslav civil war for several years by pushing a policy of covert military support for the Muslim side.

It should come as no surprise, then, if Holbrooke ends up playing a role in deepening the Af-Pak quagmire, if only by adopting a belligerent attitude towards the Pashtuns and also the Pakistani government – not to mention rival U.S. officials.

In sum, Holbrooke will probably prove more hindrance than help in working out a sensible U.S. strategy and objectives. Worse, he is not likely to serve as a much needed counterweight to the generals, who may well succeed in persuading Obama to give them still more troops for an unwinnable war.

George Will Favors Pullout

Surprisingly, one of the new voices urging a troop drawdown in Afghanistan is conservative columnist George Will, who showed his human side in an op-ed appearing Tuesday in the Washington Post, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.”

Will starts and ends the piece with references to a young Marine who had just lost two buddies. To his credit, Will avoids the customary quote from the poet Horace – “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”) or anything like it.

Will says, in effect, that syrupy sentiments and faux appeals to patriotism do not apply in present circumstances. He would probably be the last to draw this connection, but he has begun to sound like Cindy Sheehan, who has been trying for over four years to get George Bush to explain to her the “noble cause” for which her son Casey died in Iraq.

Will ends his article with a heartfelt appeal for substantial troop reductions now, “before more American valor…is squandered.”

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