t is of little consolation that the last time the military officer in charge of Afghanistan spoke in public about the country he fainted. Of even less consolation is that General David Petraeus’ last two predecessors were unceremoniously fired, which perhaps explains his bout of light-headedness. Job insecurity can do that.
Speaking of antecedents, long before the present Commander in Chief inherited the “bleeding ulcer” that is Afghanistan, to paraphrase the latest savior-turned-sacked general, his processor rejected quixotic schemes to remake the world in America’s image. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what is called ‘nation-building,’” George W. Bush said in the 2000 election campaign before committing them for that very purpose as president.
But who openly advocates nation-building anyway?
Nation-building went out of vogue following Vietnam. You could not do for a people what they did not want for themselves, and certainly not by “destroying the village in order to save it.” Painful lesson learned—and forgotten. The first Iraq war exorcised the ghost of Vietnam, the elder Bush proudly announced. Imperial hubris has a way of making great powers forget the limits of power.
President Obama, like his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessors, does not believe in nation-building. He said that such grandiose ambitions in Afghanistan “are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” What are those interests? Keeping from power the Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates. But how can this be done without nation building, whatever its cost? For the US to stand down, Afghanistan must stand up, a tall order for what is, in the words of British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, “a broken 13th-century country.” The former UN chief in Afghanistan is similarly blunt. “Some of the greatest requirements for success are simply not there,” he said, stating the obvious.
War-torn Afghanistan needs functioning institutions, starting with an army. But nine in ten Afghani soldiers are illiterate, immeasurably complicating their training. It also needs effective leadership. Yet President Karzai, in the words of the most senior US diplomat in Kabul, “is not an adequate strategic partner.” That is diplo-speak for “corrupt lout.” Thus, the US depends on a partner whose very mendacity fuels the insurgency.
What can we conclude?
The US is supposedly not nation-building in Afghanistan. It is there to secure its interests. But ensuring security requires nation-building. In order for nation-building to succeed, the US needs a viable partner in Kabul. America’s partner in Kabul is not viable, consequently nation-building cannot succeed and US national security cannot be ensured. However, as long as Afghanistan is not secure, a US (NATO?) presence will be required. Such is the logic of a quagmire approaching its ninth year.
In dismissing General Stanley McChrystal, Obama said, “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy.” So it is. Continuing a failed policy is far easier than accepting the political repercussions from discontinuing one. In that vein, McChrystal got out while the getting was relatively good. Better to go down for being indiscreet than for losing a war. The Commander in Chief does not have that luxury.
Solving the Afghan riddle will require that Obama accept the limits of US power. In other words, preserving American strength will depend, to some degree, on acknowledging its lack of it. Such is the paradox of power. This is no great revelation. All signs point in that direction.
“Sir,” a soldier reportedly told McChrystal during a visit to a forward base in Afghanistan, “some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir.” At least some of the rank and file gets it. The war is lost. The only question is how much more we lose before our leaders acknowledge as much.
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