The contents of General McCrystal’s top-down review of Afghanistan ordered by President Obama found its way into the front pages of the NY Times and Washington Post today. As expected, it paints a grim picture and calls for more of everything– more troops, more money, more nation building– on top of the $ 4 billion a month we’re already spending there.
And a promise that unless Obama goes all in (a prospect that the military-industrial-congressional-complex savors), defeat is inevitable. And even if he does, there’s no guarantee of victory. Talk about your proverbial shit sandwich.
During the presidential campaign, I never understood Obama’s Afghanistan policy. I assumed it was largely a political device to overcome the (media fed) public perception that Democrats were weak on defense; that Obama knew a “good war” (Afghanistan) from a “bad war” (Iraq); that it highlighted the macho Bush Administration‘s promise and failure to bring bin Laden to justice; that Obama had the chops to deal with terrorism, etc., etc.
Obama has articulated the same basic strategic goals of the Bushies– preventing al-Qaeda from re-constituting its bases in Afghanistan to plan future attacks on the U.S., and to create a self-sufficient Afghan government capable of providing its own security while keeping the Taliban at bay, which currently controls 40% of the country and is actively contesting in another 20%.
First of all, al -Qaeda, or what’s left of it (there’s no hard evidence that Usama bin Laden is even among the living since he was cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora in late ’01), doesn’t need Afghanistan to plan future attacks on America. An apartment in Hamburg, Germany, such as the one used to plan 9/11, will do just fine. By that strategic logic, we should be prepared to invade and occupy Germany immediately.
(I’m still waiting for John “I know how to do it” McCain to reveal his secret plan for capturing bin Laden that he promoted during his doomed run for the presidency. Hopefully, he at least whispered it into the ear of his vice-presidential candidate before he forgets what it was.)
As far as living space goes, ‘the Qaedas” (as W liked to call them) don’t need much. And there are any number of countries where they can plant themselves– Pakistan, Yemen, and the country formerly known as Somalia come to mind.
As for the goal of creating a centralized democratic government capable of running a feudalistic, tribal society that’s never known one, surely you jest. Afghanistan is one of, if not the most corrupt and ineffectual governments on the planet. Obama’s decision to send an additional 21,000 troops to insure this summer’s elections did little more than insure the corrupt Karzai Government will continue to make the country safe for war lords and major opium dealers like his brother. As for Afghanistan’s major economic export, did I mention opium and the heroin trade?
The main function of government is to provide physical security to its citizens– in this case, security from themselves; i.e. the Taliban. Here again we see that Obama and McCrystal share the same delusions as the Bushies that if we only train and arm local Afghanis to provide for their own security, we can leave their country and everybody will live happily ever after. But it’s fair to ask exactly what spending $10 billion plus over eight years has produced in terms of creating a viable Afghan army and police.
Ann Jones asks a rather obvious question in her post today at Huffpo [emphasis mine]:
American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to “operate independently,” but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they??
My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of “Basic Warrior Training” 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.
Or, some of them are simply Taliban agents to begin with, paid by Americans to learn our tactics in order to more effectively kill us.
Ann makes some pertinent observations about the physical and cultural differences between Afghans and Americans:
Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.
The attempt to turn young Afghani men into Mini-Me Marines is perhaps an inevitable result of American Exceptionalism. A belief in Manifest Destiny apparently gives its adherents the right to re-create the world in its own image and likeness. But the delusion of the Chosen People Syndrome is getting its karmic comeuppance in the rugged mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.
As for the domestic political ramifications, LBJ isn’t remembered so much for signing landmark bills on civil rights and Medicare, but for the quagmire he allowed to develop in Vietnam, which became so all-consuming that he chose not to seek re-election. It remains to be seen whether Obama and David Axlerod take his experience to heart.
Afghanistan is for good reason called The Graveyard of Empires. Says Ann:
Afghans are Afghans. They have their own history, their own culture, their own habitual ways of thinking and behaving, all complicated by a modern experience of decades of war, displacement, abject poverty, and incessant meddling by foreign governments near and far — of which the United States has been the most powerful and persistent. Afghans do not think or act like Americans. Yet Americans in power refuse to grasp that inconvenient point….no amount of American training, mentoring, or cash will determine who or what Afghans will fight for, if indeed they fight at all.