President Obama is in Lisbon today for the NATO Summit on Afghanistan where political spinmeisters will be earning every dollar in their paycheck. Things are bad and getting worse there, notwithstanding the new and improved strategy announced a year ago complete with a commitment of 30,000 more US troops. Majorities of the citizens of the participating NATO countries have turned decidedly against the war, including the United States. Under pressure to show tangible results on meeting military "metrics" at the Lisbon summit and the administration's December review, General Petraeus has decided to throw caution to the wind and greatly expand US firepower and its military imprint in Afghanistan.
Which has created what we knew in the Vietnam era as a classic "Catch-22". Expanding the use of US/NATO firepower and its footprint in Afghanistan is collapsing prospects for ultimate success.
Afghanistan President Karzai made a dramatic public appeal to the US political elite when he told the Washington Post last week that the stepped up use of nighttime military raids by NATO forces in Afghanistan is unacceptable to the Afghan people and must stop. The nighttime raids have more than tripled since July. He went on to say: "The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan."
Apparently private appeals were not doing the trick. General Petraeus, who is running the show in Afghanistan, was furious with President Karzai's public appeals and canceled a long scheduled meeting to show just how he felt about the President's position and his much publicized remarks. To drive home the point, the Pentagon told the Post yesterday that Petraeus has authorized the deployment of heavily armored battle tanks to Afghanistan for the first time in the war. These tanks are a huge 68 tons and are propelled by jet engines. Their use in Afghanistan had been previously rejected for fear that they would remind Afghans of their last military occupiers, the Soviets. The nighttime raids, huge tanks and increase in firepower has become a cornerstone of Petraeus' military strategy and an absolute necessity for success, according to the Pentagon. They are also angering and alienating the Afghan people and reinforcing the Taliban narrative that the nation is under military occupation by western military powers. That narrative has been extremely effective in driving Afghans who are famous for being allergic to occupying foreign armies, into their ranks.
In short, the United States finds itself in a classic "Catch-22": The strategy that the military has determined is critical for its success is the very strategy that is rapidly eroding the chances for success. Everyone seems to agree, including General Petraeus, that a military victory in Afghanistan is not possible. Reconciliation of the warring parties and a political deal is the only way out, including at least elements of the Taliban. The difference lies in how to create the conditions to make political compromise and reconciliation possible. From a military prism, that means inflicting so much pain on the enemy that he believes his only option is to come to the negotiating table. Seen through a wider prism, it becomes clear that while you might succeed with every military tactic, including the use of massive firepower, you simultaneously move further away from any hope of success by alienating the very Afghan people on whose support success depends. President Karzai felt he had no option but to speak out against the expanding raids and growing US military footprint in his country not only because they are counterproductive but because they make him even more of a US/NATO puppet to Afghans than what he now appears to be.
According to the Times: "Many Afghans see the raids as a flagrant, even humiliating symbol of American power, especially when women and children are rousted in the middle of the night. And protests have increased this year as the tempo has increased." The Washington Post reported this morning on a plea made by an Afghan farmer in the Arghandab district of a NATO general at a recent community meeting: "Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" Good question.
These points, of course, are obscure at best when you are looking through a military lens. When you are a hammer everything looks like a nail. General Petraeus and the US military is calling the shots of US Afghanistan policy. If you have any doubts about that, read Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars". Seen through the military prism, a larger US military footprint and greater use of force can actually be helping to bring unity among the Afghan people and their government. I am not making this up. According to the Washington Post, a senior US military officer explained: "By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, 'in effect, you're connecting the government to the people'.
Perhaps the December report on progress in Afghanistan will be called "Winning Hearts and Minds Through US Firepower" . Hopefully there will be at least some members of Congress who will call it what it is: "Catch-22".