Can we answer SecDef Gates’ question about NATO and the Af-Pak War?

Robert Gates — Secretary of Defense in the New Obama Administration (also the SecDef in the old Bush Administration; change you should not have believed in) — has asked a question.  It’s an opportunity for participatory democracy!  Can we help him out by answering the question.

Gates asked this question during an interview with Katie Couric on CBS’ 60 Minutes, broadcast 17 May 2009:

The U.S. will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan when the surge is completed this fall. NATO will have less than half as many, which makes no sense to Gates because terrorist plots spawned in the region are aimed at Europe as well as the U.S.

“I’ve been disappointed with NATO’s response to this ever since I got this job,” Gates told Couric. “NATO as an alliance, if you exclude the United States, has almost two million men under arms. Why they can’t get more than 32,000 to Afghanistan has always been a puzzle to me.

“A puzzle, but it must be maddening as well,” Couric remarked.

“Frustrating,” Gates said.

How might the leaders of our NATO allies answer, after we injected them with truth serum?

(1)  There is no point to this occupation of Afghanistan.  They will find their own destiny, and our armies can do little to influence this.  Neither can our flocks of airborne killers, nor our legions of special ops assassins.

(2)  Afghanistan poses no concievable threat to us — nor to you, and probably none to Pakistan.  The Tailiban’s support for al Qaeda’s attack on the US (to the extent that they did support or facilitate it) was a one-off event, for which they paid dearly.  There is no evidence or logic to suggest they found the experience so enjoyable that they will repeat it.

(3)  As a suggestion, perhaps America might wonder why it alone among the world’s nations burns with fear of attack by weapons of mass destruction.  Everyone else seems to be sleeping well at night.  Perhaps we conduct our foreign affairs in a more rational manner, rather than challenging the world to fight us.

SecDef Gate would probably reject these answers as folly.  What could America learn from our allies, or anyone?  We are exceptional!

Other posts about SecDef Gates

  1. Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
  2. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008 — A sarcastic title.
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Does Secretary of Defense Gates have cojones grande?, 8 April 2009


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).  Posts over 250 words will have a fold inserted (putting a “more” button in the comment), so make the opening text an interesting summary of your comment.

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009

26 thoughts on “Can we answer SecDef Gates’ question about NATO and the Af-Pak War?”

  1. I believe the answer to your point (3), above – why we in the U.S. of A., more than any other country, fear an attack by WMD, is found in the psychoanalytic sense of the word “projection.” Keep in mind that, for over sixty years, with who knows how many thousands of atomic and hydrogen bombs having been manufactured, NO country with nuclear weapons has ever used them against populated cities. No country except one, that is; and it did so twice.

  2. Using the two nuclear weapons saved a lot of Japanese and American lives. A terrible, terrible blessing. But they won’t be the last use. Soon, somewhere in South or Southwest Asia.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps you should add NYC to the list. We are not immune from other people striking back. And the terrible casual attitude of some Americans to killing folks in other nations makes this more likely as time goes on. For example, look at the comments in James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy.

  3. I would suggest that Tel Aviv, Tehran, Islamabad or New Dehli would be ahead in that que. A dysphorian vision none the less.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Those are all states engaged in long-term conflicts with their neighbors. Consider the vastly longer list of cities not on that list, whose people do not worry about being nuked by terrorists living thousands of miles away. In that sense NYC is an anomaly. Perhaps we should consider why we are on the first list and not the second.

  4. NATO is something of a fictional entity now, lacking a credible threat, and lacking important commonality of members’ interests. Its extension into Eastern Europe was motivated by economic more than military reasons. The attempt to extend NATO’s mandate to the the Middle East and Central Asia really stretches its raison d’etre, and exposes the divergence of interests of its members

    The US would like to have NATO as an umbrella of legitimacy for its own ventures abroad, but from Bush Jr’s “coalition of the willing”, it’s been clear that its major NATO partners are less and less willing in fact. Gates’ complaint is like the old maid’s lament that her former beaux aren’t calling anymore.

  5. NATO was really and truly meant to defend only the “North Atlantic”. There was a SEATO etc. for other world areas. Hence the dragging of feet.

    To take counterinsurgency(“eating soup with knives”) for a strategy is lethal. It is in best case tactics. This the error permitting to win every battle and loose the war. The Taliban unfortunately have a clear strategy, the fact that Pakistan comes into play is rather accidental, but they grabbed the opportunity to take over. *We* have set up Pakistan for them in twenty years hard work.

    I read the stories about Aurelian and Palmyra. Palmyra is Pakistan. Perfect parallel.

  6. Everyone everywhere should be worried about being nuked. And biologic toxins. It’s a nasty world out there and we aren’t the worst of the players. The dice will be rolled again. It is a condition of man.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence of this? It sounds like paranoia to me. Also — just a guess, but I suspect the Euro-folk and Japanese are better judges of their risks than you or I.

  7. Quite obviously the Bush administration’s conduct of the So-Called War on Terror has alienated many people, who have concluded that the United States needs to be taught a lesson and knocked down more than a few pegs.

  8. Bush myopia goggles will infuscate a person’s vision and can be damaging to wear in the long term. The United States has alienated many peoplet and it didn’t start with President W. Look further. I would suggest starting with freedom of/from religion. But that would only suffice for Southwest Asia. There are others if one even bothers more than a cursory glance…

  9. “As a suggestion, perhaps America might wonder why it alone among the world’s nations burns with fear of attack by weapons of mass destruction.”

    I doubt they would bother with that line. Hardly any one buys into that rationale – including the ones who sold it. This thread doesn’t cover the reasons why we are there, nor does it have to; but without some discussion of them the lead question is moot.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No one post (or article) covers everything. See the list of articles at the end (under For more information) for links to discussions of why we are in Afghanistan.

  10. a good piece analysing probable causes/motives of US over there from last week: “Balochistan is the ultimate prize” by Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, 9 May 2009 — part of his unfolding ‘Pipelineistan’ series. concluding paragraph:

    “So what’s gonna be the future of “Dubai” Gwadar? IPI or TAPI? The die is cast. Under the radar of the Obama/Karzai/Zardari photo-op in Washington, all’s still to play in this crucial front in the New Great Game in Eurasia.”

    Fabius Maximus replies: Escobar’s pipeline-stan theories are “good” only in the sense of meaning “mostly speculation, citing no supporting sources.” Until somebody provides evidence, I consider this an urban legend.

    Joshua Foust posted a scathing but brief critique at (“All Central Asia, all the time”).

    For a serious look at these issues — with evidence — I recommend reading “Baloch Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Energy Resources: the Changing Context of Separatism in Pakistan“, Robert G. Wirsing, Strategic Studies Institute, April 2008 (63 pages).

  11. Captain Ramen

    I made this point in the James Bond thread but it bears repeating: We only stayed in Afghanistan after routing the Taliban because that’s what the Europeans wanted. GWB ran on no nation building. But after 9/11, the only way to keep the Europeans on board (they love nation building but are unwilling to pay for it) was for him to reverse that pledge. I think we remain there today to avoid losing face – which is also strange, considering that saving face has never been important to westerners.

    Russia now has Europe by the economic short and curlies. In light of this NATO makes no sense, other than as an incentive for Eastern Europe to buy lots of expensive equipment from American defense contractors.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence for this theory? I cannot recall anything which supports it.

  12. Gates needs to withdraw US troops and allow Europe to take care of its own backyard. Europe does not fear attack because the US has shielded Europe from attack for several decades. It is time for that to end. Europe must step back into the flow of time, and face its own destiny without protectors.

  13. We’ve lost 132 troops , plus lotta arms , legs ,minds, £££ , etc ,apparently for nothing . Can we bring our troops home please ?If Mr Gates is short of the people he needs , could he not ask a few thousand of the Afghans we have here in UK , to give him a hand ?

  14. The ‘scathing’ critique drips with sarcasm but without making a single, substantive point. You don’t bolster your objection to Pepe with such shallow rubbish, frankly. Thanks for the link to the long one. But it IS long!

    Pepe’s sources – like many at ATOL – are usually not revealed. He does, however, travel in the areas he reports on, often extensively. He might be quite wrong about the Pipelineistan notion but his articles often have quite a lot of information in them that you rarely find in the news. How often have we heard mention of the geostrategic importance of Balochistan? It doesn’t come up much in discussing strategy in Afghanistan etc.

    For example, the only previous mention on your blog is this:

    *The Jundallah-based in Sunni Muslim Balochistan. They are supported by extreme conservative Salafi groups in Saudi Arabia. The Salafi movement also forms the religious philosophy of the Taliban of Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda. Claims of U.S. support for Jundallah are now several years old. In April 2007 Brian Ross and Christopher Isham of ABC News reported that the United States had been aiding Jundallah to attack Iranian targets. Jundallah’s leader, Abdul Malik Rigi, appeared on the Iranian service of the Voice of America, where he was identified as “the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement.” More disturbing are Jundallah’s wider connections. As Seymour Hersh points out: “Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.”

    It’s all about terror networks, religious links etc. No overall strategic context. Now here’s some of the intro in Pepe’s maligned piece:

    “Balochistan is totally under the radar of Western corporate media. But not the Pentagon’s. An immense desert comprising almost 48% of Pakistan’s area, rich in uranium and copper, potentially very rich in oil, and producing more than one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas, it accounts for less than 4% of Pakistan’s 173 million citizens. Balochs are the majority, followed by Pashtuns. Quetta, the provincial capital, is considered Taliban Central by the Pentagon, which for all its high-tech wizardry mysteriously has not been able to locate Quetta resident “The Shadow”, historic Taliban emir Mullah Omar himself. Strategically, Balochistan is mouth-watering: east of Iran, south of Afghanistan, and boasting three Arabian sea ports, including Gwadar, practically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. Gwadar – a port built by China – is the absolute key. It is the essential node in the crucial, ongoing, and still virtual Pipelineistan war between IPI and TAPI. IPI is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the “peace pipeline”, which is planned to cross from Iranian to Pakistani Balochistan – an anathema to Washington. TAPI is the perennially troubled, US-backed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is planned to cross western Afghanistan via Herat and branch out to Kandahar and Gwadar. “

    Apart from the word ‘mouth-watering’, the voiced opinion that it seems under the radar and a judgment about the Pentagon’s ability to get one of the bad guys, the rest is information. I am sorry you regard it as a silly contribution. I found it quite informative. But maybe that’s because I don’t read 60 page reports on such things all that much!
    Fabius Maximus replies: The reply was not “silly”, but rather “mostly speculation, citing no supporting sources”. Which it was. His material from the almanac or whatever about the geography of the area provides no support for this theories. Anyone could take the same few facts a spin a dozen other stories.

    I don’t understand the point of your quote from my September 2008 post, which was part of an excerpt from “Will the U.S. Support Terrorists to Destabilize Iran?“, William O. Beeman (Professor and Chair of the Dept of Anthropology, U Minnesota), New America Media, 7 July 2008. Beeman was not writing a backgrounder about Balochistan.

  15. Comment # 12: “Gates needs to withdraw US troops and allow Europe to take care of its own backyard.”

    Strange, I was under the impression that Asia Minor/Anatolia and half of the Iranian Plateau seperated the European backyard from Afghanistan. I must have missed something in my geography lessons.

  16. The comments on this thread could be neatly divided in two on the question of whether the US has any right or reason to be fighting in Afghanistan (or Pakistan or Iraq)? The wall between these two positions is pretty high, and very little communication passes between them. This division is more psychological than political these days, since Democrats and Republicans are generally on the same, pro-imperial side. It (the division) seems to come down to whether you believe the world is a dangerous place, and the best way to deal with that is with force. This division reflects mainly the popular mind; the ruling elites are not troubled with such questions, and see the world simply as a playing field on which they compete to see who wins the most.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed, although there is an objective case made for out involvement in Afghanistan, concerning the need to prevent the Tailiban from…
    (1) Allowing al Qaeda to build camps from which to launch more 9-11 attacks against us, and
    (2) Take and rule Pakistan, and its nukes.

    The first is nonsense, to be discussed in a future post. As for the second, every expert I found considers this (at most) unlikely — as described in Why are we fighting in Pakistan?. I have asked several knowledgable supporters of the Af-Pak war for names of area experts (not generalists, COIN experts, or geopolitical gurus) supporting #2. So far, nothing.

  17. The point of my including the earlier reference was to show that, despite many articles on the subject, Balochistan had not come up in any geostrategic context. Pepe’s article places it as an important consideration geopolitically. I offered it as an example of material that attempts to discuss some of what might be the real ‘whys’ of why we are over there. The response was an ad hominem of the writer.

    So now we have in the last exchange:

    “to prevent the Taliban from (1) Allowing al Qaeda to build camps from which to launch more 9-11 attacks against us, and
    (2) Take and rule Pakistan, and its nukes.

    The first is nonsense, to be discussed in a future post. As for the second, every expert I found considers this (at most) unlikely..”

    I look forward to the future post though as you might recall I supplied the Cockburn piece from years ago plucking the feathers from that canard.

    2) is also a non-starter unless things have altered significantly thanks to our military operations there and made the Taliban into much more than a regional force soon capable of taking and holding the main nexi of Pakistan power, including its elites and of course, overthrowing their creators the ISI. Unlikely.

    Which leaves us with 3). Unless you think that America’s leaders – or at least the ones calling the shots – actually believe 1 or 2 (unlikely but possible I suppose), why are we over there?

    It is helpful to debunk the shallow morality play narratives force-fed to the public through mainstream organs, but even more helpful, not to mention interesting, to probe into what’s really going on.

    I have read part of the Beeman study (which thus far is remarkably similar to Pepe’s far briefer and more wide-ranging quickie) and from that a glimmer of a dynamic is emerging:

    There are two levels (at least). The indigenes in Balochistan have, like most of their ilk throughout history when they are being exploited by far larger and more powerful neighbouring populations, been exploited and abused and have, in response, mounted resistance which includes the use of force and actions like blowing up gas lines etc. So on the one hand you have a ‘central power’ (Pakistan) pursuing a national policy which include stiffing the natives in a sub-region, and on the other hand the locals up in arms defend against what they see as rape. The same dynamic seems to be the case in the Gwadar development, mainly sponsored by the Chinese it seems, wherein the locals are being displaced even though a potential new and prosperous city is emerging to service international trade developments (in the energy sector).

    This dynamic of central power versus locals is popping up all over the place. Then you have the upper level of various different powers jostling for influence/control over various aspects of everything: regional hegemony, pipe lines, water, trying to bring potential rivals down before they get strong enough to expand etc. etc.

    So on the upper level you have heavyweight bouts going on between rival powers regionally and internationally and on the lower level you have various nests of local hornets who, although small in numbers and often discounted in the central planning departments, have the ability to totally cock up the well laid plans of either side.

    I continue to suspect that this same sort of local versus central fault line will be emerging and playing out in the US soon for essentially similar reasons.

  18. Roberto Buffagni

    Dear Mr. Secretary Gates,
    unfortunately you cannot have more than 32.000 NATO troops in Afghanistan because the European ruling classes, while being mostly eager to be good boys and to please in every conceivable and inconceivable way you and your government, could not justify to their peoples – who may be indifferent and stupid, but are not yet completely comatose – a substantially increased participation in a war which
    a) is doomed from the very beginning (nobody ever won a war against the Afghan tribes, not even Alexander the Great)
    b) has no link whatsoever with any European State’s national interest
    c) is part of the strategy of encircling Russia (Mr. Brzezinski’s “Operation Anaconda”) while good relations with Russia are vital to any project intending to transform UE into a viable political body, or at least to let UE survive in its present, squalid form for some years.
    d) is ridiculously justified with the project of metamorphosing the Afghan society in a place out from an American TV serial like “Desperate housewives”.

    Here we will not take into consideration other aspects of the said war, as it being fought in the most cowardly and militarily deshonouring way seen since XIX and XX colonial wars, because such moralistic rantings lack the proper political weight, for you and for the European politicians alike.

    So, if you desire more European troops for your Afghan enterprise, we humbly suggest that you

    1) deftly organize some artful civilians massacre on European soil, expertly blaming the Talibans
    2) stop destabilizing European economy with the collateral damages of your economic crisis, and launch a new & improved Marshall plan, whose slogan could be “A MILLION $ IN EVERY PURSE”
    3)tell Hollywood to shoot some colossal movie about the Talibans’ conspiracy for kidnapping the Pope, and secretly substituting him with an evil Muslim clone.

    Meanwhile, please remember that our soldiers are doing their best in those faraway and wild lands. For example, our Italian soldiers, following your inspiring leadership and cultural model, recently have (unintentionally, of course) killed a 13 years old Afghan girl at a roadblock.
    Yours sincerely, etc.

  19. Roberto: you should comment here more often! You got to the heart of the matter, with humor, too! I particularly like your point C) — that Europe needs good relations with Russia, and can’t afford to replay Cold War cliches. Gabriel Kolko, a Canadian Marxist historian, forecast years ago that Europe would eventually move away from its alliance with the US to a more natural one with Russia.

  20. Roberto Buffagni

    for “senecal”, and begging our guest’s pardon:
    Thank you very much for your kind words. I do not post more often because I had some little quarrels with our guest about USA, and its relations with Europe (I do not like their present condition), and I think this kind of tit for tat is pointless and bad mannered. In this case, knowing that Fabius does not like the Afghan adventure, I thought the posting could be risk-free.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are more than welcome to comment on anything here. The topics discussed here are on the edge of the known, where we can have opinions but not certainty. Hence the intense debate. Most of the comments disagree with the posts, which is fine. In my opinion, truth only becomes visible through the clash of opinions.

    From the About page:

    We live in exciting times, when many things that have long remain fixed become unstuck. America is changing. The post-WWII geopolitical and financial regimes are ending. The era of cheap energy is ending. And none can foretell what comes next. … Here we seek a perspective from which to better see events and trends — things on the edge of our available information, on the edge of known theory.

  21. “truth only becomes visible through the clash of opinions.”

    Is that Milton, or JS Mill?

    It’s noble of you to cling to that belief, in an age where thought and language have been so debased.

  22. The trouble with crazy people is that you have to treat them like they’re crazy. This means being careful what you say around them, lest they act up even more than usual. We are being treated like crazy people by Europe. Even if you’re sure you’re not crazy, it’s worrisome when other people treat you like you are. You know, it kind of makes you think about how you appear to them, and why.

  23. Roberto Buffagni

    I never thought that Americans are crazy – or at least, crazier than us Europeans.
    Speaking about our guest Fabius, I think him to be very clever, and very sensible too (that’s why I follow his blog).
    I refrained to post here just because I do not like losing time nor being rough, and quarrels in a couple hundred words about matters like USA imperialism and Europe are, in my opinion, a) time lost b) bad manners, because harshly criticizing one’s guest country in his own home are very bad manners.

    By the way, I lived and worked in the U.S of A., and I think I know well enough its culture and its daily life, being fond of both, too (for example, I was the first to translate and stage in Italy David Mamet’s and Sam Shepard’s plays; two plays of mine were staged in America, in Huston and New York; Peter Bogdanovich is a friend of mine, and I have translated in Italian three books of his).

    In a nutshell, I think that American “craziness” consists in two attitudes, one universal, one peculiar to your country.

    The first, is the intoxication of power (hybris), which reached a red-alarm level with URSS’s collapse. The second is American exceptionalism, with its “City on the Hill”, its Puritan origins, and its psychological effects, the most fearful of which, for a European mind, is the American impossibility of coming to terms with guilt.

    Like a good, bright, well meaning and lucky golden boy, America cannot believe, and of course accept, to be guilty of anything; and in order to deny her guilt, America is ready to destroy everything and everybody (herself included).

    So shining was the city on the hill, so wonderful the American dream, so unforgettably beautiful that eternally young and vibrant face which America has seen, once upon a time, while looking herself in the mirror, that she is determined to do everything in order that nothing can tarnish it: everything, even blinding herself, or the whole world. (America is a Power of Sea and Sky, always following an unattainable horizon: Europe is – or has been – a Power of Land, always following visible borders, which you can enlarge but never make disappear).

    Politically speaking, my simple opinion is that Europe will be spiritually dead and culturally void until it gains back its independence, which means that Europe’s main enemy is America. (“Main enemy” meaning, of course, not “morally or politically worse”, but “main obstacle to reaching one’s own political end, according one’s own long term interest”)

  24. Roberto, I have long felt that the biggest international ‘switcheroo’ would be for Europe, Russia and China to unify the ‘Central Island’ of the world, which would of course thereby include the Middle East and India. Perhaps one of the main reasons the US is fighting so hard to interdict easy supplies of energy from ME and Russia to Europe is precisely to avoid this long overdue rapprochement.

  25. Roberto, you add a lot to this blog. I hope you post again, and thank you in advance for doing so.

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