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2-2-2010

An Interview with Andrew Bacevich                                                                          

By Peter Dolan, Daily Times Correspondent


Dr. Andrew Bacevich is a Professor of International Relations at Boston University. A West Point graduate, Bacevich served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, and held a post in the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War, before retiring from the Army as a full Colonel in the early 90’s. He earned a Ph.D. from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at BU.  Dr. Bacevich is the author of several books, and his opinion pieces have been published in The Washington Post, New York Times and Boston Globe.  On  May 13, 2007, Bacevich's son,  First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, 3rd Battalion, 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment,  27,  was killed in action in Samarra, Iraq. Dr. Bacevich recently spoke with the Daily Times.


Daily Times:  Retired General Barry McCaffrey recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. In his subsequent report he stated that there is no way Afghanistan will be a viable state within eighteen months, that it will instead take three to ten years, and that a so-called ‘civilian surge’ won’t happen because it is too dangerous. These statements contradict President Obama’s Afghanistan agenda. Who is correct?


Dr. Bacevich: I agree with General McCaffrey, and I would lean toward the high end of his estimate: ten years.  And you cannot have a civilian surge without security. There is an important issue here; when the President spoke at West Point to announce that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he said a withdrawal would begin in eighteen months. I believe there is serious disagreement between the administration and the senior military officials.


Daily Times:  In September, Matthew Hoh, the most senior State Department official in Zabul Province, resigned and went public with his concerns. He stated that Afghanistan was engaged in a 35 year old civil war, voiced his doubt of our overall strategy there, and said that no imaginable outcome could justify the cost of American lives and dollars.


Dr. Bacevich: His resignation was a very courageous act, and I agree with his assessment. We are on a fool’s errand in Afghanistan, and doing so at a time when we have trillion dollar deficits. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary. If we could wave a wand and instantly turn Afghanistan into a liberal democracy, would we have reduced the threat posed by jihadists? The answer is no. Just look at the Christmas Day incident. You have a Nigerian, educated in London, radicalized in Yemen, boarded a plane in the Netherlands. So why lose potentially thousands of American lives and spend hundreds of billions of dollars. It is unaffordable and unnecessary.


Daily Times:  General Stanley McChrystal, the leader of American forces in Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus, the leader of Centcom, have both recently suggested peace with the Taliban could be achieved within one year. General McChrystal stated that, by then, military pressure will likely have brought them to the table, and General Petraeus pointed to recent signs of Taliban defection.


Dr. Bacevich:  I have serious doubt that we can apply enough force to achieve that. However, military pressure could be used as part of an overall strategy. Over the last couple of days Stan McChrystal has indicated that reconciliation with the less hard core Taliban could be viable. I think they will make a serious effort to peel off some of the Taliban fighters.


Daily Times:  Defense Secretary Gates has stated that there will be no deal with Taliban leaders, but President Karzai  just asked the United Nations to remove the names of several Taliban leaders from the U.N. “black list”, and has purportedly floated the idea of including Mullah Omar himself in a future Afghanistan government.


Dr. Bacevich: Right, and I think the United States would find that totally unacceptable, but our interest is in helping the Afghans establish a sovereign government that makes its own decisions.


Daily Times:   Mullah Omar recently stated that the Taliban are no threat to the West. Should that be interpreted as a willingness of theirs to truly break from Al Qaeda?


Dr. Bacevich:  There is no way to know, but it should be tested. There is no holy writ that dictates that the Taliban must support Al Qaeda. Now, we shouldn’t take them at their word but we should test that proposition.


Daily Times:  Since arriving in southern Afghanistan last summer, the Marines have pushed the Taliban out of several strongholds without serious resistance. However, the Taliban appear to have drawn a line in the sand in Marjah, a city of 50,000 and a key center of their opium business, where they have consolidated their forces. The Marines have acknowledged that they had lacked the manpower to take the city, but no longer do and now intend to take it (announcing that intention to the press recently, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson repeated a William Tecumseh Sherman line when he said, “We intend to put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma .”)  What effect would heavy casualties have on public opinion of the war?


Dr. Bacevich:  The mood of the United States public is fickle, very changeable, so it would depend on how sustained they were. Right now people are fixated on domestic issues, particularly the economy. When the President gave his speech at West Point there was an uptick in public interest, but it quickly waned.    

                              

Daily Times:  Will we have a permanent presence in Afghanistan, acting as a hedge against Pakistan’s tribal-area terror groups and against future Taliban revolution inside Afghanistan?   


Dr. Bacevich:  It is a question of whether a United States presence is helpful, or whether it confirms the charge against us;  that infidels are occupying a land of Islam. I can’t imagine why we would want a long term presence in Afghanistan.


Daily Times: World War II ended sixty-five years ago. Why, particularly in light of the current budget deficits and long term federal debt, do we continue to maintain standing Armies in Germany and Japan, at enormous annual cost to the American taxpayer?


Dr. Bacevich: I think the answer is inertia. In the wake of World War II, the United States of America set out to establish a global network of military bases, and the American people adopted a way of thinking that that was just how we did things. The assumption was formed that somehow our global presence is useful. We should see where it makes sense to have them and where it does not. Germany is at the top of the list of where it does not. In Asia you could make a case that we provide a stabilizing effect. If we left, an arms race could begin between China, Japan and North Korea and we have a strong interest in avoiding that scenario.


Daily Times:  In September, Bob Woodward wrote a column in the Washington Post that included the non-public fact that the Generals were looking for an additional 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. Then in November, a memo from retired General and current Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, arguing against any troop increase, was similarly leaked, again to the Washington Post. 


Dr. Bacevich:  I think  most observers would say this kind of leaking has become standard politics. The big questions is, who is doing the leaking? General McChrystal, in London, said the same thing during a Q&A session with the press. That is a policy decision he was discussing, and he shouldn’t have. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen pushed back immediately and called his comments inappropriate.  We Americans take for granted that we have a civilian controlled military. That’s an assumption that is unwarranted. At the very top it’s a contentious relationship, and as citizens we must be watchful and wary that civilians remain in control. We should be insistent that that principle remains sacrosanct. 


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