Between the press, politicians, and people, 2008’s “necessary war” in Afghanistan looks anything but today. Recent articles in the New York Times and LA Times detail the malaise and karmic disappointment, respectively, of US soldiers fighting in Central Asia. In the highlands of Eastern Afghanistan, an American unit is given a motivational speech by a Lt. Colonel that amounts to “let’s get out of this place alive… and should we help someone that would be good too.” While talk of ineffectual campaigns are common back home (and amongst enlisted men), it’s chilling to hear a field commander explicitly state that the traditional definition of victory won’t apply. But frankly, who can blame an officer choosing between gung-ho propaganda and brutal honesty? Some of that brutal honesty was well-rendered by the LA Times last weekend. The article describes the plight of a US soldier accused of illegally killing an Afghan civilian (a female doctor, no less) during or in the aftermath of a bloody roadside ambush in July 2011. A few days after the event, the soldier himself was seriously wounded by an IED.
Who really backs the war now? Essentially nobody. Criticism rests with the president setting a public timetable for withdrawal rather than getting all combat troops out of the country in 2014; the real disagreement focuses on implementation of the grand idea rather than whether the war should be prolonged to ensure defeat of the Taliban. Mullah Omar’s boys represent an archaic perspective, but that’s part of Afghanistan. If they enter the government without supporting international terrorists, so be it. The administration’s essential rendering of the war is correct: we can’t/won’t use the resources to remake Afghan society into one that won’t support the Taliban, we cannot blow all the Talibs up, our local ally is pathetic, and the cost of not defeating the enemy—particularly with the plethora of standoff weapons at our disposal and their lack of incentive to re-admit to Al-Qaeda—should be fairly low. Plus, the Afghan government could very well survive. The US will supply them for years.
The 2008 presidential campaign call for a “victory” might have been a cynical political tool (and an effective one), but that is beside the point. President Obama decided shortly after his inauguration, with the help of former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, that international terrorism from and destabilization in Pakistan are the real threats whilst problems emanating from Afghanistan could be bottled up. So, the US is trying to stand up a “good enough” Afghanistan (their words). Hence we get articles like this from the Economist: US troops make shorter and shorter stops throughout the country trying to build security and acquaint the people with the new Afghan army while acknowledging that force’s systemic flaws. With this reality and the leak-filled media, it should be no surprise the aforementioned Lt. Colonel speaks so frankly to his men. The US strategy is a risk, but no more of one than continuing a difficult war.
On a strategic level, what the administration needs to speak more frankly about is how it intends to execute the other part of its plan. Relations with Pakistan, whose government cannot provide for its people or protect its territory, remain poor. US policies toward the country are unpopular with the electorate, much as Pakistani policies ring hollow in Washington. Questions swirl around whether or not former Ambassador Haqqani (who basically sought asylum in the US) feared a military coup after the bin Laden raid. And senators rail about the internment of an American informant on trumped-up charges. Meanwhile, insurgencies on either sign of the Durand line fester (possibly with Islamabad’s help). For a country that seems so important to fighting international terrorism 1, this is a diplomatic nightmare. One half of the new US strategy makes sense given the goals. The other looks like a mess.
If one can believe The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh anymore, the US had plans to seize as many Pakistani nukes as possible in the event of an Islamist coup. ↩