Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The reality of Afghanistan

I've written many times before on this blog about the situation in which the USA finds itself in Afghanistan. In June I pointed out that the dilemma remains: no military solution is possible in that country. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Ain't gonna happen. For the best part of three millennia, invaders have tried to subdue Afghanistan and the North-West Province of Pakistan. None have succeeded, from Alexander the Great to the British Raj (and, most recently, the Soviet Union in its full Cold War might, followed by ourselves in a post-9/11 flush of enthusiasm and righteous fury). In all that time, no-one's ever been able to subdue and hold that territory. We're no closer to doing so than any of our predecessors.

The question must therefore be asked: Why are we still in Afghanistan? If we can't win, why do we continue to pour American blood and hardware and treasure into a bottomless pit?

I'd like to give my readers some useful background information that will help in understanding the difficulties we face in Afghanistan. First, STRATFOR recently published a very interesting article, "Pakistan and the U.S. Exit From Afghanistan". Part of it is republished below with permission from STRATFOR.

Nietzsche wrote that, “The most fundamental form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to do in the first place.” The stated U.S. goal in Afghanistan was the destruction of al Qaeda. While al Qaeda as it existed in 2001 has certainly been disrupted and degraded, al Qaeda’s evolution and migration means that disrupting and degrading it — to say nothing of destroying it — can no longer be achieved by waging a war in Afghanistan. The guerrilla does not rely on a single piece of real estate (in this case Afghanistan) but rather on his ability to move seamlessly across terrain to evade decisive combat in any specific location. Islamist-fueled transnational terrorism is not centered on Afghanistan and does not need Afghanistan, so no matter how successful that war might be, it would make little difference in the larger fight against transnational jihadism.

Thus far, the United States has chosen to carry on fighting the war in Afghanistan. As al Qaeda has fled Afghanistan, the overall political goal for the United States in the country has evolved to include the creation of a democratic and uncorrupt Afghanistan. It is not clear that anyone knows how to do this, particularly given that most Afghans consider the ruling government of President Hamid Karzai — with which the United States is allied — as the heart of the corruption problem, and beyond Kabul most Afghans do not regard their way of making political and social arrangements to be corrupt.

Simply withdrawing from Afghanistan carries its own strategic and political costs, however. The strategic problem is that simply terminating the war after nine years would destabilize the Islamic world. The United States has managed to block al Qaeda’s goal of triggering a series of uprisings against existing regimes and replacing them with jihadist regimes. It did this by displaying a willingness to intervene where necessary. Of course, the idea that U.S. intervention destabilized the region raises the question of what regional stability would look like had it not intervened. The danger of withdrawal is that the network of relationships the United States created and imposed at the regime level could unravel if it withdrew. America would be seen as having lost the war, the prestige of radical Islamists and thereby the foundation of the ideology that underpins their movement would surge, and this could destabilize regimes and undermine American interests.

The political problem is domestic. Obama’s approval rating now stands at 42 percent. This is not unprecedented, but it means he is politically weak. One of the charges against him, fair or not, is that he is inherently anti-war by background and so not fully committed to the war effort. Where a Republican would face charges of being a warmonger, which would make withdrawal easier, Obama faces charges of being too soft. Since a president must maintain political support to be effective, withdrawal becomes even harder. Therefore, strategic analysis aside, the president is not going to order a complete withdrawal of all combat forces any time soon — the national (and international) political alignment won’t support such a step. At the same time, remaining in Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve any goal and leaves potential rivals like China and Russia freer rein.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

Apart from the political situation in the region, there's also the reality 'on the ground'. David Axe, a very well-known war reporter and blogger, has produced four short video reports for World Politics Review on what he found in that country during a visit earlier this year. He titled the series "Losing Afghanistan". The four videos may be found here, and are very highly recommended viewing.

Finally, there's the conflict in Washington between political and military imperatives. Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars", has some very interesting information on this aspect of the conflict. An article in the Washington Post summarized some of what he learned.

President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

Frustrated with his military commanders for consistently offering only options that required significantly more troops, Obama finally crafted his own strategy, dictating a classified six-page "terms sheet" that sought to limit U.S. involvement.

. . .

"This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. "Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."

Obama rejected the military's request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. "I'm not doing 10 years," he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

. . .

... most of the book centers on the strategy review, and the dissension, distrust and infighting that consumed Obama's national security team as it was locked in a fierce and emotional struggle over the direction, goals, timetable, troop levels and the chances of success for a war that is almost certain to be one of the defining events of this presidency.

Obama is shown at odds with his uniformed military commanders, particularly Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command during the 2009 strategy review and now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Woodward reveals their conflicts through detailed accounts of two dozen closed-door secret strategy sessions and nearly 40 private conversations between Obama and Cabinet officers, key aides and intelligence officials.

Tensions often turned personal. National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama's political aides as "the water bugs," the "Politburo," the "Mafia," or the "campaign set." Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president's senior adviser David Axelrod to be "a complete spin doctor."

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy." Gates was tempted to walk out of an Oval Office meeting after being offended by comments made by deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon about a general not named in the book.

. . .

By the end of the 2009 strategy review, Woodward reports, Obama concluded that no mission in Afghanistan could be successful without attacking the al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens operating with impunity in Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

"We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan," Obama is quoted as saying at an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009. Creating a more secure Afghanistan is imperative, the president said, "so the cancer doesn't spread" there.

. . .

Obama kept asking for "an exit plan" to go along with any further troop commitment, and is shown growing increasingly frustrated with the military hierarchy for not providing one. At one strategy session, the president waved a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, which put a price tag of $889 billion over 10 years on the military's open-ended approach.

In the end, Obama essentially designed his own strategy for the 30,000 troops, which some aides considered a compromise between the military command's request for 40,000 and Biden's relentless efforts to limit the escalation to 20,000 as part of a "hybrid option" that he had developed with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a dramatic scene at the White House on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009, Obama summoned the national security team to outline his decision and distribute his six-page terms sheet. He went around the room, one by one, asking each participant whether he or she had any objections - to "say so now," Woodward reports.

The document - a copy of which is reprinted in the book - took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do. The president went into detail, according to Woodward, to make sure that the military wouldn't attempt to expand the mission.

After Obama informed the military of his decision, Woodward writes, the Pentagon kept trying to reopen the decision, peppering the White House with new questions. Obama, in exasperation, reacted by asking, "Why do we keep having these meetings?"

Along with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, they kept pushing for their 40,000-troop option as part of a broad counterinsurgency plan along the lines of what Petraeus had developed for Iraq.

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] . . . unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011."

Petraeus took Obama's decision as a personal repudiation, Woodward writes. Petraeus continued to believe that a "protect-the-Afghan-people" counterinsurgency was the best plan. When the president tapped Petraeus this year to replace McChrystal as the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus found himself in charge of making Obama's more limited strategy a success.

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, "You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

Again, there's more at the link.

I'm hardly a political supporter of President Obama, but he has my deepest sympathy for the dilemma he confronts in Afghanistan. The war there is not winnable by military means. The very best result that can be achieved, militarily speaking, is a stalemate: the Taliban and its allies can't take over the country, but the nation can't be secured against ongoing infiltration, instability and terrorism. Such a stalemate is unsustainable over the long term . . . but the only alternative is to ensure political, social and regional stability, which is - at least at present - only a pipe-dream.

We're stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan. Let's pray that our leaders can find a way out, with as much honor as possible, and as much security as possible for the innocent people of the region, before the drain on American lives and resources becomes insupportable.



LL said...

Your posting was balanced, accurate and well thought-out.

Joe in PNG said...

"When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier."

from "The Young British Soldier", by Rudyard Kipling

Anonymous said...

I would tend to severely discount anything Bob Woodward writes after his interviews with a comatose Bob Casey.