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The Shame and Folly of Obama's Afghan War
Originally published in This Can't Be Happening earlier today, 7 December 2009
Whatever he may say, the current Christmas ramp-up in the war announced by Obama has nothing to do with 9-11, nothing to do with combating terrorism, and nothing to do with protecting American security.
There are so many things wrong with Obama’s “New and Improved” Afghanistan War that it’s hard to know where to begin, but I guess the place to start is with his premise.
If America needs to be fighting in Afghanistan because Al Qaeda planned and launched the 9-11 attacks from there back in 2001, as the president claimed in his lackluster address to the cadets at West Point last week, then we would have to assume either that Al Qaeda is still there, or that if we were not there fighting, that Al Qaeda would be back to plan more attacks.
Well, we know Al Qaeda is not there, because US intelligence reports that there are “fewer than 100” Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan at most at this point, and probably a good deal fewer. Maybe even zero. Al Qaeda has long since moved on to Pakistan and thence to other countries far removed from Afghanistan (even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, after speculating that Osama bin Laden “might be” hopping back and forth across the border with Pakistan like a kid doing a double-dare game, concedes that in truth no one in the US has any idea where bin Laden is, or whether he is even in South Asia). But would Al Qaeda come back if the Taliban, ousted back in 2001 by US Special Forces, were to return to power in Kabul? Not likely. As the New York Times reported in last Sunday’s paper, the Afghan Taliban have convincingly broken with Al Qaeda, because of the latter organization’s targeting of the Pakistani government, which has long had a supportive relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Besides, the Taliban in Afghanistan have a clear goal of ruling Afghanistan, and the US has already demonstrated both that it can live and work with a Taliban government, as it was doing before the 9-11 attacks, and that it will punish the Taliban if they allow Al Qaeda a free hand inside their country. So the odds of a re-established Taliban regime in Afghanistan inviting Al Qaeda to move back in and set up shop are somewhere around zero.
Ergo, whatever he may say, the current Christmas ramp-up in the war announced by Obama has nothing to do with 9-11, nothing to do with combating terrorism, and nothing to do with protecting American security.
What about the bogie-man of a so-called “failed state”? Obama said a failed state in Afghanistan could mean a return of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.
The problem with this second argument is that Afghanistan already is a failed state, if the definition of a failed state is one in which there is no effective central government. For that matter, Afghanistan has been a failed state since the overthrow of Mohammed Najibullah, the Communist leader who had the country largely unified and who was instituting reforms like protecting the rights of women, building roads, etc. (the very things the US says it wants to do), until he was driven out of power and ultimately hung by forces, including the Taliban) organized and armed by the CIA. Actually, the truth is that Afghanistan has always been something less than a real nation, with different ethic groups occupying different regions of the country largely operating like autonomous little countries. To expect such a situation to somehow coalesce into something resembling a European nation-state is simply ludicrous. In fact, the only commonality uniting the various ethnic groups within Afghanistan actually is religion—they’re nearly all Islamic—which suggests that the Taliban, for all their medieval fundamentalism, may have a significant edge in the nation-building game.
Moving on to strategy, Obama talks about effectively doubling the number of US and NATO forces fighting in the country (the term “fighting” is used loosely because many of the European forces are barred by their governments from actually engaging in combat), with the goal being, reportedly, to protect the cities from Taliban attacks (and good luck with that!) and giving the current government in Kabul time to build up a 400,000-man army that supposedly would take over the job of security.
Hmmmm. If you protect the cities, by definition you leave the countryside around the cities unprotected, right? But you cannot do that in a country that is largely rural, so the US will inevitably resort to search-and-destroy run-outs into the countryside, and of course air attacks by bombers and remote-controlled drones, in a doomed effort to keep the Taliban at bay. But such actions, as America leaned when it tried the same policy in Vietnam, inevitably mean massive and disproportionate civilian casualties—the so-called “collateral damage” of war. And civilian casualties are not the way an army wins “hearts and minds.” In fact, a high rate of civilian casualties means the destroying of hearts, minds, limbs, families, houses, etc., and the concomitant creation of blood enemies. So we start out by making more enemies outside the city gates.
Meanwhile, we are unlikely to make the cities safe either because it’s damnably easy for bombers to slip in and pop one off in a crowded bazaar or school or office building, as the Taliban have already repeatedly demonstrated.
But even assuming the best of luck with protecting a handful of Afghan cities, the idea of creating a functioning army of 400,000, as Obama and his generals have called for, and upon which Obama bases his promise to “start bringing home” troops in July 2011, is surely a pipe-dream (literally really, given that the current army is already awash in opium addicts). The Afghan Army at present numbers 90,000, but it is rife with corruption and, moreover, is largely composed of Tajiks, the dominant ethnic group in northern Afghanistan, who are widely despised by the Pashtun, who are concentrated in the south and east of the country, and other minority groups. The idea that a Tajik or Tajik-led army could succeed in the south and east, where the Taliban are strongest, is fanciful at best and tragic at worst. Furthermore, most of those in the current military, if they aren’t drug addicts, are either corrupt, or just temporary workers, staying in as long as there is a paycheck and no fighting, but quick to go AWOL when they have enough cash, or when a mission is ordered that involves real fighting. There is close to no chance that a true national army capable of securing most of the sprawling land of Afghanistan under central government control could be created. As hard as it’s been for the US military occupation force in Iraq to train and field an Iraqi army, at least the US there has been working with a trained officer corps inherited from Saddam Hussein, and with a core of soldiers who had already served, and with new recruits who are literate, and who have a some desire to rebuild a national government. Afghanistan has none of those things.
And about that July 2011 “deadline” for starting to bring home US troops from Afghanistan. This was nothing but a PR feint for Obama’s liberal supporters—a fig leaf to get them on board his war express. In fact, by late last week, White House and Pentagon officials were all back-pedaling and explaining that July 2011 was just the date that the first handful of US troops would “start coming home.” In fact, if that even really does happen, it turns out that under Obama’s new war plan for Afghanistan, US troops will be deep in the swamp of Afghan battle for years after 2011—a clear acknowledgement that the plan for training an Afghan army to take over from the US is also just so much talk.
One can speculate about why Obama is so clearly sabotaging his presidency with this doomed crusade in Afghanistan. Some speculate that he was sandbagged by his generals, and certainly Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed the line into improper politicking and insubordination to his commander-in-chief when he went public to lobby for the addition of more than 40,000 additional troops. But Obama could have survived that treachery had he wanted to, by playing Harry Truman and sacking McChrystal for insubordination. There are those who say it is all about wanting to build a pipeline for transporting oil to the Indian Ocean and bypassing Russia. But that begs the question of how such a pipeline, if it were built, could ever be kept secure from sabotage, running as it would have to, through both Afghanistan and Pakistan (besides, back in 2001 the US was once negotiating with the Taliban government to get permission for Unocal to build such a line, which would have made some sense if there was no war going on). It could also be that this war is all about providing an argument for ever higher spending on the military at a time when there is really no good justification for it in a nation that already spends more on arms and troops than all the rest of the world combined. But really, the military has demonstrated its ability to keep on winning increased appropriations even when wars are winding down and threat levels are reduced. That, after all, is what the fake “war on terror” has been all about—keeping the American public frightened and willing to keep throwing money at the Pentagon. No, to me the best argument for this new war campaign may be simply that, like presidents Johnson and Nixon before him, Obama doesn’t want to be tagged as the president who lost a war.
And for that, we can expect to see thousands of young Americans die, and tens or hundreds of thousands of Afghanis die.
To make matters worse, once more Americans start coming home in a parade of flag-draped coffins, the war for Obama, and for whoever succeeds him after his own failed tenure as president, will be self-promoting and effectively permanent. As we saw in the case of the Indochina War, those dead soldiers and Marines will become a fearsome impediment to any effort to end this longest of wars, and a grisly justification for continuing to send more young people after them to be chewed up and killed. For what president, beginning with Obama, will have the political and personal courage to say that those who died in Afghanistan died in vain?
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on December 7, 2009.