Afghanistan: What Are These People Thinking?

One of
the oddest -- indeed, surreal -- encounters around the war in Afghanistan
has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line
was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History.
On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the
U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The
question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?

One of
the oddest -- indeed, surreal -- encounters around the war in Afghanistan
has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line
was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History.
On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the
U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The
question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?

Karnow did not divulge what he said to the two men, but he told Associated Press
that the "lesson" of Vietnam "was that we shouldn't have been there,"
and that, while "Obama and everybody else seems to want to be in
Afghanistan," he, Karnow, was opposed to the war.

It is hardly surprising that Washington should see parallels to the
Vietnam debacle. The enemy is elusive enemy. The local population is
neutral, if not hostile. And the governing regime is corrupt with
virtually no support outside of the nation's capital.

But in many ways Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam. So, it is
increasingly hard to fathom why a seemingly intelligent American
administration seems determined to hitch itself to this disaster in the
making. It is almost as if there is something about that hard-edged
Central Asian country that deranges its occupiers.

Delusion #1

In his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama characterized
Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" against international terrorism.
But the reality is that the Taliban is a polyglot collection of
conflicting political currents whose goals are local, not universal

"The insurgency is far from monolithic," says Anand Gopal, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor
based in Afghanistan. "There are shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and
head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite
university students, poor illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet
commanders. The movement is a melange of nationalists, Islamists, and
bandits...made up of competing commanders and differing ideologies and
strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the

Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi told Gopal, "We are fighting to free
our country from foreign domination," adding, "Even the Americans once
waged an insurgency to free their country."

Besides the Taliban, there are at least two other insurgent groups.
Hizb-I-Islam is led by former U.S. ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyer. The
Haqqani group, meanwhile, has close ties to al-Qaeda.

The White House's rationale of "international terrorism" parallels
the Southeast Asian tragedy. The U.S. characterized Vietnam as part of
an international Communist conspiracy, while the conflict was
essentially a homegrown war of national liberation.

Delusion #2

One casualty of Vietnam was the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the
theory that an asymmetrical war against guerrillas can be won by
capturing the "hearts and minds" of the people. Of course "hearts and
minds" was a pipe dream, obliterated by massive civilian casualties,
the widespread use of defoliants, and the creation of "strategic
hamlets" that had more in common with concentration camps than villages.

In Vietnam's aftermath, "counterinsurgency" fell out of favor, to be
replaced by the "Powell Doctrine" of relying on massive firepower to
win wars. With that strategy the United States crushed the Iraqi army
in the first Gulf War. Even though the doctrine was downsized for the
invasion of Iraq a decade later, it was still at the heart of the

However, within weeks of taking Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were besieged
by an insurgency that wasn't in the lesson plan. Ambushes and roadside
bombs took a steady toll on U.S. and British troops, and aggressive
countermeasures predictably turned the population against the

After four years of getting hammered by insurgents, the Pentagon
rediscovered counterinsurgency, and its prophet was General David
Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and
Central Asia. "Hearts and minds" was dusted off, and the watchwords
became "clear, hold, and build." Troops were to hang out with the
locals, dig wells, construct schools, and measure success not by body
counts of the enemy, but by the "security" of the civilian population.

This theory impelled the Obama administration to "surge" 21,000
troops into Afghanistan, and to consider adding another 20,000 in the
near future. The idea is that a surge will reduce the violence, as a
similar surge of 30,000 troops had done in Iraq.

Delusion #3

But as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent discovered, the surge didn't work in Iraq.

With the possible exception of Baghdad, it wasn't U.S. troops that
reduced the violence in Iraq, but the decision by Sunni insurgents that
they could no longer fight a two-front war against the Iraqi government
and the United States. The ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and Madhi Army
leader Muqtada al-Sadr also helped calm things down. In any case, as
recent events have demonstrated, the "peace" was largely illusory.

Not only is a similar "surge" in Afghanistan unlikely to be
successful, the formula behind counterinsurgency doctrine predicts that
the Obama administration is headed for a train wreck.

According to investigative journalist Jordan Michael Smith, the
"U.S/ Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual" -- co-authored
by Petraeus -- recommends
"a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan,
with its population estimated at 33 million, that would mean at least
660,000 troops." And this requires not just any soldiers, but soldiers
trained in counterinsurgency doctrine.

The numbers don't add up.

The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies currently have
about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that figure would rise to
almost 100,000 when the present surge is completed. Some 68,000 of
those will be American. There is also a possibility that Obama will add
another 20,000, bringing the total to 120,000, larger than the Soviet
Army that occupied Afghanistan. That's still only a fifth of what the
counterinsurgency manual recommends.

Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly disillusioned with the war. According to a recent CNN poll,
57% of Americans oppose the war, a jump of 9% since May. Among Obama
supporters the opposition is overwhelming: Nearly two-thirds of
"committed" Democrats feel "strongly" the war is not worth fighting.

Delusion #4

Afghanistan isn't like Iraq because NATO is behind us. Way behind us.

The British -- whose troops actually fight, as opposed to doing
"reconstruction" like most of the other 16 NATO nations -- have lost the
home crowd. Polls show deep opposition to the war, a sentiment that is echoed all over Europe. Indeed, the German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Jung has yet to use the word "war" in relation to Afghanistan.

That little piece of fiction went a-glimmering in June, when three
Bundeswehr soldiers were killed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
Indeed, as U.S. Marines go on the offensive in the country's south, the
Taliban are pulling up stakes and moving east and north to target the
Germans. The tactic is as old as guerrilla warfare: "Where the enemy is
strong, disperse. Where the enemy is weak, concentrate."

While Berlin's current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and
conservatives quietly back the war, the Free Democrats -- who are likely
to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government after the next election --
are calling for bringing Germany's 4,500 troops home.

The opposition Left Party has long opposed the war, and that opposition gave it a boost in recent state elections.

The United States and NATO can't -- or won't -- supply the necessary
troops, and the Afghan army is small, corrupt and incompetent. No
matter how one adds up the numbers, the task is impossible. So why is
the administration following an unsupportable course of action?

Why We Fight

There is that oil pipeline
from the Caspian that no one wants to talk about. Strategic control of
energy is certainly a major factor in Central Asia. Then, too, there is
the fear that a defeat for NATO in its first "out of area" war might
fatally damage the alliance.

But when all is said and done, there also seems to be is a certain
studied derangement about the whole matter, a derangement that was on
display July 12 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told
parliament that the war was showing "signs of success."

British forces had just suffered 15 deaths in a little more than a
week, eight of them in a 24-hour period. It has now lost more soldiers
that it did in Iraq. This is Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan.

The Karzai government has stolen the election. The war has spilled
over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The
American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July
was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama
administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.

What are these people thinking?

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