Afghanistan: The Numbers Game

US President Barack Obama, we are told, is weighing four alternative plans for the future of America’s military adventure in Afghanistan, and will discuss those plans with his “war council” on Wednesday.

Not on the table: Bringing the US entanglement in Afghan affairs to an end. Au contraire — all four plans entail an increase in the number of US troops deployed to central Asia, and presumably all four plans call for throwing yet more good dollars into the swirling drain of “AfPak” after the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of bad dollars already down it.

The troop numbers Obama are considering range from a high end of 40,000 — that’s how many General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US operation in Afghanistan, has requested — to a low end of “as few as two or three brigades.” The latter option would increase US reliance on special operations troops and attacks with unmanned drone aircraft.

This obsession with numbers is symptomatic of the personal political dilemma which Obama got himself into when he sought and won election to the presidency. And that personal dilemma is itself symptomatic of another dilemma pertaining to the condition of the state itself.

Eight years after 9/11 gassed it up, the Jingo Jalopy is out of gas. There’s simply no substantial “national will” left to be fired up for the prospect of sending every available soldier — and making more available by hook, crook or conscription as necessary — to this or that foreign battlefield until the designated enemy’s guns fall silent. Matter of fact, if there’s any whiff of a detectible “national will” in the air at all, that will has the whiff of popular demand for a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But that won’t do, either, because America’s politicians don’t take their orders from the “national will” in any case. If they can harness that “national will” to whatever they’ve already decided to do, that’s all well and good, and if not then they’ll genuflect to it as much as absolutely necessary to avoid being run out of DC on rails. But when push comes to shove, it isn’t the “national will” that hooks them up with campaign funds while in office or with post-government-service lobbying sinecures, six-figure speaking fees and corporate directorships.

The people who bestow those blessings on America’s politicians understand only one word, or at least have only one word to say on the subject of military expenditures and the interventionist policies used to justify those expenditures. That word is “more.”

Obama’s dilemma, then, is this:

On the one hand, how many more troops can he send, and how many more dollars can he spend, without waking up a grumpy “national will” and having it get up on the wrong side of the bed on him?

On the other hand, how few additional troops can he propose to send, how few more dollars can he propose to spend, and still keep the military-industrial complex on his side, or at least on the fence and not quite ready to pull the plug on him?

The sound of adding machines chattering away in the Oval Office is the sound of empire in decline. The ship of the imperial state lacks fuel for its boiler and powder for its cannon … but its captain and crew dare not take it into port for maintenance. They’ve convinced themselves — and they may very well be right — that the barnacles infesting its hull are the only thing holding it together, and that it (and their jobs with it) will disintegrate if the fouling organisms are removed. And so they limp it along toward its next target, nursing as much mischief out of it as they can and hoping it holds together until they’re retired and it becomes someone else’s problem.

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