This War Can’t be Won, So We Must Fight On

The frog-throated ghost of America’s troubled past continues to haunt the troubled present by offering a full-throated defense of the war in Afghanistan.  A “precipitate withdrawal,” Henry Kissinger warns, is a “facile” answer to the conflict.  Columnist Ross Douthat is even gloomier.  Employing logic that would still have the US in Vietnam, he writes, “The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.” 

Things are indeed getting darker.  According to the Afghani interior minister, 30 percent of the country is at “high risk” of succumbing to the Taliban.  There have been 95 combat deaths in June, the highest month-tally since the war commenced in 2001, but General David Petraeus thinks fighting the “industrial strength insurgency” may well “get more intense” in the near future, ensuring that the US will be in Afghanistan “for quite some time.” 

It is a predicable mess.

Preventing the Taliban from returning to power is impossible to achieve when the enemies of America’s enemies in Afghanistan are not friends, but effective enemies, beginning with President Karzai.  Not officially, of course.  Karzai is feted by the Obama Administration, treated with kid gloves lest his fragile ego be bruised, causing him to muse darkly about joining the Taliban.  But there is no bigger impediment than Karzai and his corrupt regime.

The rot permeates to the core.  A recent UN report found that half of Afghanis sampled paid bribes at least once in the past year averaging a third of their income, often to public servants.  Meanwhile, Karzai and his retinue, including his crooked brother, are said to be squirreling away in foreign bank accounts a billion dollars a year, bearing out why the country ranks as the second-most corrupt in the world.  The massive graft undermines the government’s legitimacy and helps explain why it has proven to so difficult to build a national army.  Indeed, the US and its partners have spent $27 billion over eight years on the effort but to date not one Afghan unit can operate independently.

The malfeasance provides aid and comfort to the Taliban, which happily exploits popular discontent with Karzai.  Thus, the US is working at cross-purposes, at once deploying Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy that turns on winning over Afghani hearts and minds while also reluctantly embracing an illegitimate regime that wantonly alienates its own people.  The echoes of Vietnam are obvious.

The situation’s intractability has been clear for some time.  The US’ top diplomat in Afghanistan warned last fall that Karzai, who had just prevailed in a massively fraudulent election, was not a viable partner, and thus by implication the war was unwinnable.  But the president committed more troops to the country anyway.  In his maddeningly difference-splitting style, Obama, when announcing the surge, trotted out tired feet-to-the-fire tropes.  “The days of providing a blank check are over,” he promised, bringing to mind the adage about a small debt being the ower’s problem, but a large one being the creditor’s. 

Karzai believes the US’ enormous investment in Afghanistan innoculates him from US pressure lest that investment be jeopardized, and he is right.  No sanction has flowed from his misdeeds, however egregious.  His feet are just fine.  "You have the most corrupt government that we have ever dealt with from a conflict standpoint," observed conservative senator Saxby Chambliss.  A war critic?  Nope.  He supports it. 

 Then there is Pakistan, that failure of a country whose paranoia about phantom threats is proportional to its denial of real ones, like a cancer patient preoccupied with a hangnail.  Even though jihadist insurgents are at its gates, threatening to topple the government, Pakistan’s arbiters of power, its intelligence service, cannot confront the threat fulsomely because doing so would entail abandoning its pathological obsession with India.  Such folly is self-correcting.  It is called defeat.  Unfortunately, Pakistan is bringing down others with it.

The chosen tool of its demise is the Taliban.  By supporting these “assets,” Pakistan hopes to guarantee its strategic dominance in Afghanistan, thus marginalizing India.  It is a dangerous game given the close relationship between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban.  Pakistan is "part of the landscape of destruction in this country,” commented Amrullah Saleh, the former director of Afghanistan's intelligence service, following reports that Pakistani intelligence agents participate in the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's supreme leadership council based in Pakistan. 

With enemies for “friends” in Islamabad and Kabul, the US cannot prevail in Afghanistan.  But can the US afford to lose? 

The must-stay-or-else argument posits that the Taliban would promptly return to power in Afghanistan if the US decamps, with al-Qaeda to follow.  Perhaps.  But Afghanistan is not the only candidate for infiltration.  Yemen and Somalia already hosts jihadists, and the number of potential safehavens is sure to grow in a region with exploding populations, moribund economies, and dysfunctional governments.  In that vein, being bogged down in Afghanistan limits the US’ ability to operate elsewhere.  Moreover, withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would not mean disengagement if the Taliban returned to power.  Special forces operations and drone strikes might well continue.  It is hardly an ideal option, but foreign policy decisions are rarely binary choices between good versus bad options.  Oftentimes, there are only bad ones.

The ultimate withdrawal, whenever it happens, could not be characterized as “precipitate” for the longest war in US history.  But Kissinger does have a point.  Leaving would have to be done in a prudent way that best minimizes the chances of mayhem by working with regional powers with a stake in the outcome.  Yet leave we must, and soon.  To follow the Kissinger model—delaying the inevitable in hopes of reaching an “honorable” peace, causing the needless loss of thousands of lives in the process—would be criminally pointless.      The war’s cheerleaders will not be easily persuaded: the promise of victory, however illusory, is preferable to conceding defeat, if inevitable.  Yet few who champion patience and grit are willing to advocate for the resources to make a real go of it.  Not that Afghanistan is salvageable.  British MP and Middle East expert Rory Stewart recently called the war in Afghanistan "mission impossible," adding, “Even if you put 600,000 troops on the ground, I can't see a credible, legitimate Afghan government emerging."  But with too few US troops in the country to carry out an effective counterinsurgency campaign, and with those soldiers in the theater seriously fatigued from multiple deployments, might it not be sensible to increase the size of the overstretched army if this is indeed a battle of existential importance?

Not in an era of unshared sacrifice.  An “Army of One” in this day in age is just that.  Consequently, as noted professor Andrew Bacevich writes, “To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end.”  So the conflict labors on interminably even though, as Staff Sergeant Kennith Hicks told Rolling Stone, “We’re fucking losing this thing.”  He was, of course, referring to the war in Afghanistan, not our democracy, but one can be forgiven for the confusion. 

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