“Man, those dudes are in La La Land,” a young intern said to me on the way out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan on June 14, his eyes rolling. “You can’t win in Afghanistan. Don’t they read history?”
It had been hard to sit through hours of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s storytelling about some far-off land he called Afghanistan. In his Afghanistan, there were new gains in agriculture and a reduction on poppy production for opium. We were empowering women and rebuilding everything from the rule of law to the electrical grid. President Karzai was really intent on tackling corruption. There was an exciting soon-to-be-unveiled program to integrate the lower-level Taliban. We were making significant gains in training the Afghan security forces, and we had real commitments from the Pakistani government to crush Al Qaeda.
We’ve heard this tall tale for the past eight years, which made some of the Senators a bit skeptical—although not skeptical enough to stop funding the war.
The most skeptical were the Republicans, who also happen to be the most anxious to keep fighting there, indefinitely. Senator Bob Corker said that despite more than an hour of testimony by Holbrooke, "I have heard nothing, nothing" about how progress will be measured. "I have no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front.”
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar was also confused about our objectives. Sometimes, he said, it seems that we are trying to “remake Afghan economic, political and security culture”, which is “beyond our resources and powers.” Other times it seems the goal is simply to prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for terrorists. Either way, Lugar didn’t think we could accomplish the President’s desire to begin withdrawal by July 2011.
Holbrooke, while trying to support the President, admitted that he was leery of setting a date certain for leaving. This is, after all, “not where you would choose to defend the American homeland…It’s the most remote and logistically difficult place the U.S. has ever fought in our history,” Holbrooke said, adding that “Fate and destiny have put us there.”
Senator John Kerry, the Committee chair, showed his imperial stripes when he complained that the Afghans weren’t stepping up to the plate. "The problem is that the key element of this strategy is the one over which we have the least control, and that is the willingness and ability of Afghans to assume ownership of the efforts," Kerry lamented. All the billions and our best efforts are irrelevant, he said, if the Afghans continue to be bystanders in what they perceive as a fight between the West and Al Qaeda.
Holbrooke chided his predecessors who had trained Afghan security forces for years, at enormous costs, without realizing that we had to also teach them to read and write. Literacy, he assured the senators, is now part of our training. No one asked why the Taliban fighters, who are also illiterate, were outmaneuvering both the Afghan security forces and U.S. military.
Referring to the pending U.S. offensive in Kandahar, Kerry admitted that the presence of the U.S. military whips up the insurgency. "Prior to American troops announcing they were going to go in (to Kandahar), there were not assassinations. There was not a level of violence," Kerry said. "The mere announcement has now brought on the process of assassination and intimidation, and I doubt that we are going to have enough troops to be able to pacify the city."
Several times during the hearing Holbrooke insisted that Afghanistan was not the unwinnable war of Vietnam, and that we had real security issues in Afghanistan. Ironically, on the very same day of the hearing, Senator Kerry released—for the first time ever—some 1,200 pages of transcripts from private meetings 40 years ago of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the Vietnam War. They showed the Senators expressing the same concerns about not having a reliable partner, getting overly-rosy reports from the administration, wondering how much the war would cost in lives and dollars, and having hard time picturing what victory might look like.
“Some of the parallels are almost eerie,'' Kerry said, insisting the lawmakers should learn from the past. But that learning has escaped Kerry himself, who continues to support what has now become Obama’s Vietnam and America’s longest war.
The most concrete rationale for staying in Afghanistan emerged when the senators asked about recent reports of enormous mineral wealth such as copper and lithium. Holbrooke said the mineral wealth not a new discovery, but there were now modern techniques that now allowed the minerals to be more easily mined. Holbrooke assured the senators that we are helping Afghans develop their resources and strengthen their economy. Oh yes, he added, we want to make sure that the U.S. has “a level playing field” in getting access to those minerals.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Afghanistan, young soldiers are assuring that “level playing field” with their lives. On the day of the hearing, eight soldiers were killed, bringing to 33 the number of American troops killed this month amid the worst bloodshed of the nine-year conflict.
The young intern who spoke to me about La La Land has more sense than Obama, Holbrooke or the Congress that continues to fund this disaster. Or maybe he is just less jaded than politicians like Senator Lugar who supports the war but remarked, during the hearing, that the U.S. had become stuck in a “slow-motion caravan to ultimate failure.” La La Land, it seems, is not poor Afghanistan, but Washington DC, where politicians send our youth off to fight and die in an endless war they themselves don't believe in.