March 14, 2012

The Folly of Afghanistan

It has been rather an eventful week in Afghanistan. The senseless massacre of villagers perpetrated by a U.S. serviceman. The security incident that occurred near Leon Panetta's plane. The skittish spectacle of having U.S. troops disarm before hearing their own Defense Secretary speak. All this on the heels of the Koran-burning debacle, among many other such troublesome episodes. The confluence of these events is richly symbolic, if we needed any reminding, of an increasingly futile and failed war effort (I say futile as why have 100,000 men in theater to engage in a fantastically unrealistic nation-building effort amidst a Pashtun population who largely detest our presence, simply to ferret out perhaps 50-100 residual al-Qaeda operatives, and with their leader already felled long ago in Abbottabad?).

Meantime, our 'exit strategy' is to negotiate with those we initially pledged to decimate (that is, if they accept our entreaties to do so). To provide 'Government in a Box' to desperately backwards hamlets (many of whose inhabitants have never even heard of 9/11 and have little to no understanding why the U.S. is there). To train and equip an Afghan Army to supposedly restore order to precincts where, more often than not, said Army would risk being largely distrusted, loathed even. To play COIN (another tiresome Washington cottage industry where one regales about the Brits in Old Malaya), while the sitting Government in Kabul wants us to retrench from close-in villages to remote, larger bases. To sing the praises of 'hearts and minds', while gunning down young girls and burning Korans (we will likely see more such episodes given the epidemic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as this piece helps elucidate, and given the repeated churning of troops chattel-like for serial tours). To speak unconvincingly of better aligning interests with Pakistan when Islamabad views Afghanistan--as it perenially has--as a vital, 'rear theater' in its power struggle with India, so that it will to varying degrees always allow for sanctuaries for Taliban and/or related interests. All this while we bankroll a massively corrupted client in a country mired in nepotism, narcotics and virtually never-ending conflict well before we arrived on the scene, and with approximately 2,000 U.S. soldiers dead, thousands more injured, $500 billion squandered, not to speak of allied losses and the devastasting Afghan toll.

As George Will noted a while back, at the time of the McChrystal going-ons:

It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux [emphasis added].

Visting this year's Armory Show on a recent weekend here in New York, I stumbled on the below embedded photograph (taken in Afghanistan by the talented photographer Tim Hetherington, who subsequently died in Libya during a mortar attack in Misrata). The photograph apparently captures more the aftermath of a 'birthday hazing', as this site explains, rather than depicting the direct result of combat trauma or such. Yet it still powerfully evokes the lunacy of this conflict.


© Tim Hetherington, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

With Osama bin Laden dead, it is high time to declare victory and come home. Anthony Cordesman has recently written that we could accomplish this by an "exit by denial", an "honest exit", or what he describes as the biggest challenge, a "real transition plan", that could last until 2020. A 20 year war! Mr. Cordesman follows these matters far more closely than me, and I well respect his opinions, but I sense deep down he doesn't believe such a plan truly realizable. This seems to suggest the more honorable, realistic option is the so-called 'honest exit', I would argue. As Cordesman describes it:

We deal with the human consequences of these actions and ensure that those Afghans who worked with us are safe. We provide at least enough money and support so that, if there is a chance that the Afghan government and forces can survive with a far lower level of resources, they have at least that much support. We try to work with Pakistan, China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and even Iran to do as much as possible to limit the role of the Taliban and other insurgents, protect the non-Pashtun areas in the north and the large numbers of urban and other northern Pashtuns, and give Kabul a meaningful role. These efforts may well fail, but they at least offer the Afghans some chance.

After ten plus long years, it is clear that is about the best we are going to achieve, so let us get on with it. A smidgen of honest self-reckoning demands it, if only we can manage to cease deluding ourselves. But to admit we have been essentially dishonest about Afghanistan these many years given the near zero prospects of success--whether as result of the accumulated, mammoth delusions or the steady aggregation of more deliberate lies--would appear too exuberant an act of unvarnished honesty than we have seemed capable of late. Nor does a policy-making apparatus ridden by stop-gap measures, self-delusion, cynical detachment, or worse, help. Alas, we are instead likely to trundle along for a couple more years (and this only if Obama is re-elected, as the Republican alternatives are even worse), as more innocent lives are shattered, more billions squandered, all the while as our elites mostly disinterestingly shrug, and the mass public similarly issues a collective yawn. Perhaps this is the kind of society Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he said: "Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy." After all, policy choices this stupendously poor, with so little care for the collosal carnage, epic waste, lives torn asunder, strategic incoherence and fundamental futility of the mission--all the while as the war drums keep bleating on beckoning towards new theaters, and amidst a backdrop of abhorrent indifference by far too many of us--collectively reveal a society scandalously flawed.

UPDATE: Related to above, this article is well worth reading too.

Posted by Gregory at March 14, 2012 10:33 PM | TrackBack (0)
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About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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