Jul 12, 2010
July 12, 2011, Washington, D.C. -- In triumphant testimony
before a joint committee of Congress in which he was greeted on both
sides of the aisle as a conquering hero, Gen. David Petraeus announced
the withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from
Afghanistan. "This is the beginning of the pledge the president made
to the American people to draw down the surge troops sent in since
2009," he said, adding, "and yet let me emphasize, as I did when I took
this job, that our commitment to the Afghan government and people is an enduringone."
Last July, when Gen. Petraeus replaced the discredited Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an "American hero" by Senator John McCain, as "the most talented officer of his generation" by the New Yorker's George Packer, and as "the nation's premier warrior-diplomat" by Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington
Post -- typical of the comments of both Republicans and Democrats,
liberals and conservatives at the time. Petraeus then promised that the
United States was in Afghanistan "to win."
In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and "a tipping point has been reached," says
a senior U.S. military official with the International Security
Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition
of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization. By every
available measure -- IEDs or roadside bombs, suicide attacks, Taliban
assassinations of local officials, allied casualties, and Afghan
civilian casualties -- the intensity of the insurgency has weakened
significantly. The Afghan military and police, though not capable of
taking the lead in the fighting in their own country, have been
noticeably strengthened by American and NATO training missions.
President Hamid Karzai's government, still considered weak and corrupt,
has succeeded in putting an Afghan face on the war.
Democratic critics of Gen. Petraeus, and of President Obama's
surge strategy, were notably quiet this week as the general toured the
capital's power hotspots from John Podesta's Center for American
Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential presidential candidatein
2016. As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W. Bush's
surge in Iraq after the critics said it couldn't be done, the
impressive charts the general brought to his congressional testimony
once again vividly indicated otherwise. The situation in Afghanistan
has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir of July 2010 when
critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old war was
foundering, the counterinsurgency strategy failing, and polling in the U.S. highlighted the war's increasing unpopularity.
"What a difference a year makes," said a jubilant senior
official at the Pentagon. In just 12 months, as Gen. Petraeus likes to
describe it, he managed to synchronizethe
Afghan and Washington "clocks" and, in the process, as he had done in
Iraq, took the news out of the war and the war out of the news. The
latest Gallup poll indicates that up to 63% of Americans are now
"supportive" of the general's approach to the Afghan War...
What Success Would Mean in Afghanistan
Okay, it hasn't happened yet -- and the odds are it never will. But
for a moment, just imagine stories like that leading the news
nationwide as our most political general in generations comes home to a
accounts, the Afghan War could hardly be going worse today.
Counterinsurgency, the strategy promoted by General McChrystal but
conceived by General Petraeus, is seemingly in a ditch, while the Taliban are the ones surging. Around that reality has arisen a chorus of criticism and complaint, left, right, and center.
Failure breeds critics, you might say, the way dead bodies breed
flies. Or put another way, it's easy enough to criticize a failing
American project, but what about a successful one? What if Petraeus
really turns out to be the miracle general of twenty-first century
American war-making -- which, by the way, only means that he needs to
"blunt" the Taliban surge (the modern definition of "winning," now that
victory is no longer a part of the U.S. war-making lexicon)?
Today, the increasingly self-evident failure of American policy in
Afghanistan is bringing enough calls for firm drawdown or withdrawal
dates (or, from the Republicans, bitter complaints about the same) to exasperate
President Obama. Under the circumstances, no one evidently wonders
what success would really mean. We've been down so long, it seems,
that few bother to consider what being up might involve.
Too bad. It's worth a thought. Let's say that Petraeus does return
to Washington in what, these days, passes for triumph. The question
is: So what? Or rather, could success in Afghanistan prove worse for
Americans than failure?
imagine that, in July 2011, the U.S. military has tenuous control over
key parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second largest
city. It still has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway. Similarly, the "civilian" surge, which tripled the State Department's personnel there, remains in place, as does the CIA surge that went with it -- and the contractor and base-building surges that went with them. In fact, the CIA drone war
in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have only escalated
further by July 2011. Experts expect the counterinsurgency campaign to continue
for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading for the
exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being
thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan's Pashtun minority, simply
cannot in any normal sense be defeated.
This, then, would be "success" 10 years into America's Afghan war.
Given the logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops,
intelligence agents, civilian officials, and private contractors in the
country, the approximately $7 billion a month now being spent there
will undoubtedly be the price Americans are to pay for a long time to
come (and that's surely a significant undercount, if you consider
long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of future
care for those badly wounded in body or mind).
The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo
continual training and, in a country with next to no government funds
and (unlike Iraq) no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate
horizon, they, too, will have to be paid for and supplied by
Washington. And keep in mind that the U.S. Air Force will, for the
foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force. In other words, success
means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to come.
So what would we actually have to show for all this expenditure of money, effort, and lives?
We would be in minimalist possession of a fractious, ruined land, at
war for three decades, and about as alien to, and far from, the United
States as it's possible to be on this planet. We would be in
minimalist possession of the world's fifth poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's secondmost corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's foremost narco-state,
the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In
terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a
country that the director of the CIA now believes
to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives ("maybe less") -- for whom parts
of the country might still be a "safe haven." And for this, and
everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a
On the basis of our stated war objective -- "[W]e cannot allow Al
Qaeda or other transnational extremists to once again establish
sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on
our allies," as General Petraeus put it
in his confirmation hearing at the end of June 2010 -- success in
Afghanistan means increasingly little. For al-Qaeda, Afghanistan was
never significant in itself. It was always a place of (relative)
convenience. If the U.S. were to bar access to it, there are so many
other countries to choose from.
After all, what's left of the original al-Qaeda -- estimated by U.S. intelligence experts at perhaps 300
leaders and operatives -- seems to have established itself in the
Pakistani tribal borderlands, a place that the U.S. military could
hardly occupy, no matter how many CIA drone attacks were sent against
it. Moreover, U.S. intelligence experts increasingly suggest that al-Qaeda is in the process of fusing with local jihadist groups
in those borderlands, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and elsewhere; that
it is increasingly an amorphous "dispersed network," or even simply an
idea or crude ideology, existing as much online as anywhere in
particular on the ground.
In this sense -- and this is the only reason now offered for the
American presence in Afghanistan -- a counterinsurgency "success" there
would be meaningless unless, based on the same strategic thinking, the
U.S. then secured Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and a potential host of
other places. In other words, the U.S. military would have to do one
thing the Bush years definitively proved it couldn't do: impose a Pax Americana on planet Earth.
Of course, the Bush administration might have offered other
explanations for the ongoing Afghan War, including the need to garrison
what it called "the arc of instability" stretching from North Africa to
the Chinese border (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet), roll
back Russia from its former Soviet "backyard" in Central Asia, and guarantee the flow of Caspian Sea oil westward. More recently, with the revelation that a trillion or more
dollars worth of natural resources lie under Afghan soil, securing that
country's raw materials for western mining companies might have been
added to that list. The Obama administration, however, offers no such
explanations and, being managerial rather than visionary in nature when
it comes to U.S. foreign policy, might not even have them.
In any case, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be telling a
rather different story. The singular thing the Iraq War seems to have
done politically is promote Iranian influence in that country. Economically, it's made Iraq a safer place for the state-owned or state-controlled
oil companies of China, Russia, and a number of other non-western
nations. In Afghanistan, in terms of those future natural resources,
we seem to be fighting to make that country safeforChinese investment (just as the recently heightened U.S. sanctions against Iran are helping make that country safe for Chinese energy dominance).
The Question Mark over Afghanistan
All of this leaves the massive American investment of its most
precious resources, including lives, in Afghanistan an ongoing mystery
that is never addressed. Somewhere in that country's vast stretches of
poppy fields or in the halls of Washington's national security
bureaucracy, in other words, lurks a great unasked question. It's a
question asked almost half a century ago of Vietnam, the lost war to
which David Petraeus turned in 2006 to produce the Army counterinsurgency manual which is the basis for the present surge.
The question was: Why are we in Vietnam? (It even became the title
of a Norman Mailer novel.) In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's
administration produced a government propaganda film solely in response
to that question, which was already threatening to drive down his
polling figures and upend his Great Society at home. The film was
called Why Viet-Nam.
While it had no question mark after the title, the question of whether
to add one was actually argued out in the most literal way inside the
The film began with the president quoting a letter he had received
from a mother "in the Midwest" whose son was stationed in Vietnam. You
hear the president, in his homey twang, pick up that woman's question,
as if it were his own. "Why Vietnam?" he repeats three times as the
title appears on the screen, after which, official or not, a question
mark seems to hover over every scene, as it did over the war itself.
In a sense, the same question mark appeared both before and after
the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it has never been associated with
Afghanistan. Because of 9/11, Afghanistan remained for years the
(relatively) good (and largely forgotten) war, until visible failure
visibly tarnished it.
It's now past time to ask that question, even as the Obama
administration repeats the al-Qaeda mantra of the Bush years almost
word for word and lets any explanation go at that.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is our treasure being wasted there when it's needed here?
It's clear enough that a failed counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan
will be an unaffordably expensive catastrophe. Let's not wait a year
to discover that there's an even worse fate ahead, a "success" that
leaves us mired there for years to come as our troubles at home only
grow. With everything else Americans have to deal with, who needs a
future Petraeus Syndrome?
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