War Without Purpose

Al-Qaida could not care less what we do in
Afghanistan. We can bomb Afghan villages, hunt the Taliban in Helmand
province, build a 100,000-strong client Afghan army, stand by passively
as Afghan warlords execute hundreds, maybe thousands, of Taliban
prisoners, build huge, elaborate military bases and send drones to drop
bombs on Pakistan. It will make no difference. The war will not halt
the attacks of Islamic radicals. Terrorist and insurgent groups are
not conventional forces.

Al-Qaida could not care less what we do in
Afghanistan. We can bomb Afghan villages, hunt the Taliban in Helmand
province, build a 100,000-strong client Afghan army, stand by passively
as Afghan warlords execute hundreds, maybe thousands, of Taliban
prisoners, build huge, elaborate military bases and send drones to drop
bombs on Pakistan. It will make no difference. The war will not halt
the attacks of Islamic radicals. Terrorist and insurgent groups are
not conventional forces. They do not play by the rules of warfare our
commanders have drilled into them in war colleges and service
academies. And these underground groups are protean, changing shape and
color as they drift from one failed state to the next, plan a terrorist
attack and then fade back into the shadows. We are fighting with the
wrong tools. We are fighting the wrong people. We are on the wrong side
of history. And we will be defeated in Afghanistan as we will be in
Iraq.

The cost of the Afghanistan war is rising.
Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded. July
has been the deadliest month in the war for NATO combatants, with at
least 50 troops, including 26 Americans, killed. Roadside bomb attacks
on coalition forces are swelling the number of wounded and killed. In
June, the tally of incidents involving roadside bombs, also called
improvised explosive devices (IEDs), hit 736,
a record for the fourth straight month; the number had risen from 361
in March to 407 in April and to 465 in May. The decision by President
Barack Obama to send 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan has
increased our presence to 57,000 American troops. The total is expected
to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009. It will only mean more
death, expanded fighting and greater futility.

We have stumbled into a confusing mix of
armed groups that include criminal gangs, drug traffickers, Pashtun and
Tajik militias, kidnapping rings, death squads and mercenaries. We are
embroiled in a civil war. The Pashtuns, who make up most of the Taliban and are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, are battling the Tajiks and Uzbeks,
who make up the Northern Alliance, which, with foreign help, won the
civil war in 2001. The old Northern Alliance now dominates the corrupt
and incompetent government. It is deeply hated. And it will fall with
us.

We are losing the war in Afghanistan. When
we invaded the country eight years ago the Taliban controlled about 75
percent of Afghanistan. Today its reach has crept back to about half
the country. The Taliban runs the poppy trade, which brings in an
annual income of about $300 million a year. It brazenly carries out
attacks in Kabul, the capital, and foreigners, fearing kidnapping,
rarely walk the streets of most Afghan cities. It is life-threatening
to go into the countryside, where 80 percent of all Afghanis live,
unless escorted by NATO troops. And intrepid reporters can interview
Taliban officials in downtown coffee shops in Kabul. Osama bin Laden
has, to the amusement of much of the rest of the world, become the
Where's Waldo of the Middle East. Take away the bullets and the bombs
and you have a Gilbert and Sullivan farce.

No one seems to be able to articulate why
we are in Afghanistan. Is it to hunt down bin Laden and al-Qaida? Is it
to consolidate progress? Have we declared war on the Taliban? Are we
building democracy? Are we fighting terrorists there so we do not have
to fight them here? Are we "liberating" the women of Afghanistan? The
absurdity of the questions, used as thought-terminating cliches,
exposes the absurdity of the war. The confusion of purpose mirrors the
confusion on the ground. We don't know what we are doing.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, announced recently
that coalition forces must make a "cultural shift" in Afghanistan. He
said they should move away from their normal combat orientation and
toward protecting civilians. He understands that airstrikes, which have
killed hundreds of civilians, are a potent recruiting tool for the
Taliban. The goal is lofty but the reality of war defies its
implementation. NATO forces will always call in close air support when
they are under attack. This is what troops under fire do. They do not
have the luxury of canvassing the local population first. They ask
questions later. The May 4 aerial attack on Farah province, which
killed dozens of civilians, violated standing orders about airstrikes. So did the air assault in Kandahar
province last week in which four civilians were killed and 13 were
wounded. The NATO strike targeted a village in the Shawalikot district.
Wounded villagers at a hospital in the provincial capital told AP that
attack helicopters started bombarding their homes at about 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday. One man said his 3-year-old granddaughter was killed. Combat
creates its own rules, and civilians are almost always the losers.

The offensive by NATO forces in Helmand
province will follow the usual scenario laid out by military
commanders, who know much about weapons systems and conventional armies
and little about the nuances of irregular warfare. The Taliban will
withdraw, probably to sanctuaries in Pakistan. We will declare the
operation a success. Our force presence will be reduced. And the
Taliban will creep back into the zones we will have "cleansed." The
roadside bombs will continue to exact their deadly toll. Soldiers and
Marines, frustrated at trying to fight an elusive and often invisible
enemy, will lash out with greater fury at phantoms and continue to
increase the numbers of civilian dead. It is a game as old as
insurgency itself, and yet each generation of warriors thinks it has
finally found the magic key to victory.

We have ensured that Iraq and Afghanistan
are failed states. Next on our list appears to be Pakistan. Pakistan,
like Iraq and Afghanistan, is also a bizarre construct of Western
powers that drew arbitrary and artificial borders, ones the clans and
ethnic groups divided by these lines ignore. As Pakistan has unraveled,
its army has sought legitimacy in militant Islam. It was the Pakistani
military that created the Taliban. The Pakistanis determined how the
billions in U.S. aid to the resistance during the war against the
Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was allocated. And nearly all of it
went to the most extremist wings of the Afghan resistance movement. The
Taliban, in Pakistan's eyes, is not only an effective weapon to defeat
foreign invaders, whether Russian or American, but is a bulwark against
India. Muslim radicals in Kabul are never going to build an alliance
with India against Pakistan. And India, not Afghanistan, is Pakistan's
primary concern. Pakistan, no matter how many billions we give to it,
will always nurture and protect the Taliban, which it knows is going to
inherit Afghanistan. And the government's well-publicized battle
with the Taliban in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, rather than a new
beginning, is part of a choreographed charade that does nothing to
break the unholy alliance.

The only way to defeat terrorist groups is
to isolate them within their own societies. This requires wooing the
population away from radicals. It is a political, economic and cultural
war. The terrible algebra of military occupation and violence is always
counterproductive to this kind of battle. It always creates more
insurgents than it kills. It always legitimizes terrorism. And while we
squander resources and lives, the real enemy, al-Qaida, has moved on to
build networks in Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Morocco and
depressed Muslim communities such as those in France's Lyon and
London's Brixton area. There is no shortage of backwaters and broken
patches of the Earth where al-Qaida can hide and operate. It does not
need Afghanistan, and neither do we.

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