What’s going on with the failed war in Afghanistan? (Sept. 2010)
This piece was first published on September 26–27th, 2010 as a two-part column in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
It seems that the time when American leaders could arrogantly boast “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” has passed. Despite the commitment of additional troops in the past year, the war in Afghanistan appears all but lost for the United States/International Security Assistance Force to everyone except a few who must be so delusional that they’ve lost all reason.
Naturally, this would expectedly include some U.S. congressmen, five-star generals, and other nameless losers. Even though President Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq (the notion is a farce), and he promised to get troops out of Afghanistan as well, the wheels of war are still turning in some places. This demands a sharp assessment of the whole picture.
In August 2009, after being appointed U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal admitted that the Taliban was winning. He was retired within a year, supposedly because of an undermining Rolling Stone magazine interview. However, a month later, NBC reported on a “classified assessment” he authored, which estimated that a “successful counterinsurgency strategy would require 500,000 troops over five years.” This figure is far beyond current capabilities. Before his sudden retirement, McChrystal warned the administration about our impending and inevitable failure in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t a total surprise, because Defense Secretary Robert Gates already stated in October 2008 that, in Afghanistan, there had to be, “reconciliation as part of a political outcome.” His statement was political gibberish, but basically indicated that we would have to lie down and make peace with the Taliban. The endgame has been clear for some time. Peace efforts have been ongoing. The incompetent Afghan President, Hamid Karzai has reached out to the leaders of the Taliban. Karzai was once criticized by the U.S. and its allies for cooperating with the Taliban and Pakistan, but it turns out that he was on to something.
On the subject of peace and reconciliation efforts, it appears that our fortunes are really worse than some thought. When Karzai tried to hold talks earlier this year, the Taliban declined to participate, saying they would not negotiate so long as there were foreign troops on Afghanistan’s soil. The George W. Bush administration’s cowboy hubris and childish warmongering after the attacks of Sept. 11 proved to be ill-advised. They put this country in a pathetic geo-strategic position vis-à-vis the Middle East and Central Asia. The whole debacle added up to a matter of some $355 billion, which was picked up by the American taxpayers against an ailing economy and exploding deficit. Any West Point dropout could tell that the U.S. armed forces were understaffed, under-supplied and spread too thin from the very beginning. Many of our allies eventually saw fit to throw up the white flag and walk away. The best wisdom circulating post-9/11 among the anti-war left and true conservatives notes the prospect of a war of occupation against a powerful insurgency to be seriously undesirable — despite the exaggerated threat of al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. Once again, the representatives of the American people failed to listen. They gave Bush and his gang license to romp around the world for seven years, and leave this country in a sorry state in the aftermath. In some political circles, his administration is accused of war crimes. We succeeded only in making the Islamic world angrier at us, which is not a smart move considering America’s insatiable lust for oil.
Some observers, myself included, are forced to wonder whether we ever had a strategy to win at all. The real people who took down the World Trade Center in New York City were mostly from Saudi Arabia. It is suspected that their leader operated from caves and safe houses deep in the unruly Waziristan border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although Osama Bin Laden hadn’t been seen or heard from for years, we targeted his al-Qaeda underlings and Taliban protectors with cowardly unmanned aerial drone attacks that were supported by only a fraction of the local population. These attacks often resulted in “collateral damage.”
Furthermore, the generals embarrassingly failed to take into account the Afghanis’ religion in determining their attitude toward death. Tired of unauthorized incursions over its borders, Pakistan’s leaders announced that any U.S. forces on its soil would be shot, while members of its own Inter-Services Intelligence were documented collaborating with Taliban and Haqqani network insurgents behind our backs. The WikiLeaks stuff was ugly, and it showed conclusively how ordinary Afghan people were suffering in numerous ways under the weight of our misguided occupation and counter-insurgency.
Conditions on the ground are said to be hopeless. While U.S. television networks show hopeful videos of the training of Afghan soldiers, the real Afghan National Army deals with an absurd turnover rate, blanket illiteracy and rampant corruption and bribery. Civilians often want nothing to do with U.S. troops, and rarely want to be seen speaking to them — probably for fear of their lives. There is no more hope of a U.S.-friendly client state. In addition, opium production exceeds previous years’ yields, which is the most important factor in Afghanistan’s economy. Inside the country, soldiers are reportedly afraid to leave their bases in Helmand Province.
Taliban propaganda, which can be viewed on websites like YouTube.com and MEMRITV’s coverage of Al Jazeera, has proven effective. Taking cues from al-Qaeda’s American-born media advisor, Adam Gadahn, Taliban-produced videos are candid and sharply delineate ideological superiority. They also feature attacks on American targets and interviews with mujahedeen (Afghani rebels) whose morale could not be higher. They are fighting a war in ideal conditions; on their own turf, with the support of a majority Muslim population against a perceived occupier. The reels showed Taliban fighters taking cover from U.S. airplanes underneath the clouds that cover mountainous regions, declaring the utter defeat and failure of the North American Treaty Organization in all its military operations. They boast of cutting off supply routes to American bases, deflect charges of killing innocent civilians back on the enemy, and present the destruction of 70–80 trucks and cars in a NATO supply convoy.
Not many people paid attention to the headlines when at the beginning of 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency lost some of its most trusted assets in the War on Terror to a single Pakistani suicide bomber, including at least seven officers at Forward Operating Base Chapman. The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for a successful operation, which turned the agent double. While in America, the fallen were praised as patriots and honored for their invaluable work done close to the enemy. Unfortunately, there was a loss of high-value intelligence. This was a particularly embarrassing incidence of “blowback.” This is the same force that lays claim to the consensus that in the 1980s the CIA funded Osama Bin Laden and his training camp (originally called Maktab al-Khidamat) MAK recruited young Muslims to fight in the jihad against Soviet interests in Afghanistan. When Bin Laden turned against the U.S., there was a unit formed which tracked him for years. Clinton regretted not authorizing a chance to terminate him, which he admitted was within his scope. Compounded with suspicion that we had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the vast conspiracy theories surrounding that date, the given reasons for going to war were questionable in the first place.
Pentagon insiders will tell you that the war is “hard work,” and U.S. propaganda throughout the last decade has shown us hopeful images of soldiers extending help and necessities to cautious villagers. Yet not even Pakistan’s leaders are willing to take the political suicide that equals collaborating with the U.S. They’ve already incurred a heavy cost ($35 billion) with their own efforts in the War on Terror, which is resented by the populace. Moreover, Pakistan values the Taliban as a proxy against India, which it perceives as a stronger regional influence than the U.S.
One wonders why after decades of containment in the Cold War and failed misadventures like Mogadishu and Lebanon, how we still haven’t learned our lesson about being the world‘s policeman. Internationally, America’s diplomatic credibility, currency and relevance are on the decline. Countries like China, India and Japan are poised to challenge our geopolitical economic influence. You could say we got too full of ourselves with this noble yet insane notion of exporting freedom and democracy. I was once a believer in it myself, which was easy until I was shown where the moral high ground lay. Some spent the decade brooding on whether the West could coexist peacefully on Earth with Islam. With Afghanistan we will merely be taking our seat next to the Soviet Union in the graveyard of empires. It’s another nail in the coffin of the corpse of the American century and U.S. neo-imperial global influence.
My number one grievance is that the media failed to do its job to sway popular opinion against the war and represent the views of Americans to the politicians. Given our brutal reactionary need for retaliation, we bent over for the bureaucrats and war industries to take blood in the aftermath of 9/11. We invaded a sovereign country (albeit one with a poor reputation on human rights), without any understanding of warlords and tribal affiliations, literacy or local problems. It was foolish to go to war with an unstable country, with difficult terrain, little history of effective governance, and without a formal declaration. If you were against it at the time, you were called unpatriotic and publicly shamed. Now it is taken for granted that the cause is lost.
So what does it all mean for the threat of al-Qaeda, who is supposedly at war with us and could attack within the U.S. at any minute? Well, we wouldn’t have had that problem if not for various factors like: the presence of Western soldiers on the Muslim “holy lands” in the Gulf War, our massive military support of Israel and countless CIA-sponsored coups and dictatorship regimes, not to mention the very pro-Mujahedeen anti-Soviet intelligence operations that created Bin Laden. History isn’t just there people, it’s meant to be learned from.