DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Afghan success could be worse than failure
By Tom Engelhardt
July 12, 2011, Washington, DC - In triumphant testimony before a joint
committee of the United States Congress in which he was greeted on both sides
of the aisle as a conquering hero, General David Petraeus announced the
withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from Afghanistan.
"This is the beginning of the pledge the president made to the American people
to draw down the surge troops sent in since 2009," he said, adding, "and yet
let me emphasize, as I did when I took this job, that our commitment to the
Afghan government and people is an enduring one."
Last July, when Petraeus replaced the discredited General Stanley McChrystal as
Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an "American hero" by Senator John
McCain, as "the most talented officer of his generation" by the New Yorker's
George Packer, and as "the nation's premier warrior-diplomat" by Karen
DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post - typical of the comments of
both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, at the time.
Petraeus then promised that the United States was in Afghanistan "to win".
In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and "a tipping point
has been reached", says a senior US military official with the International
Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition
of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization.
By every available measure - improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs,
suicide attacks, Taliban assassinations of local officials, allied casualties
and Afghan civilian casualties - the intensity of the insurgency has weakened
The Afghan military and police, though not capable of taking the lead in the
fighting in their own country, have been noticeably strengthened by American
and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training missions. President
Hamid Karzai's government, still considered weak and corrupt, has succeeded in
putting an Afghan face on the war.
Democratic critics of Petraeus, and of President Barack Obama's surge strategy,
were notably quiet this week as the general toured the capital's power hotspots
from John Podesta's Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise
Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential
presidential candidate in 2016.
As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W Bush's "surge" in Iraq
after the critics said it couldn't be done, the impressive charts the general
brought to his congressional testimony once again vividly indicated otherwise.
The situation in Afghanistan has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir
of July 2010 when critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old
war was foundering, the counter-insurgency strategy failing, and polling in the
US highlighted the war's increasing unpopularity.
"What a difference a year makes," said a jubilant senior official at the
Pentagon. In just 12 months, as Petraeus likes to describe it, he managed to
synchronize the Afghan and Washington "clocks" and, in the process, as he had
done in Iraq, took the news out of the war and the war out of the news. The
latest Gallup poll indicates that up to 63% of Americans are now "supportive"
of the general's approach to the Afghan war ...
What success would mean in Afghanistan
Okay, it hasn't happened yet - and the odds are it never will. But for a
moment, just imagine stories like that leading the news nationwide as our most
political general in generations comes home to a grateful Washington.
By all accounts, the Afghan war could hardly be going worse today.
Counter-insurgency, the strategy promoted by McChrystal but conceived by
Petraeus, is seemingly in a ditch, while the Taliban are the ones surging.
Around that reality has arisen a chorus of criticism and complaint, left, right
Failure breeds critics, you might say, the way dead bodies breed flies. Or put
another way, it's easy enough to criticize a failing American project, but what
about a successful one? What if Petraeus really turns out to be the miracle
general of 21st century American war-making - which, by the way, only means
that he needs to “blunt” the Taliban surge (the modern definition of "winning",
now that victory is no longer a part of the US's war-making lexicon)?
Today, the increasingly self-evident failure of American policy in Afghanistan
is bringing enough calls for firm drawdown or withdrawal dates (or, from the
Republicans, bitter complaints about the same) to exasperate Obama. Under the
circumstances, no one evidently wonders what success would really mean. We've
been down so long, it seems, that few bother to consider what being up might
Too bad. It's worth a thought. Let's say that Petraeus does return to
Washington in what, these days, passes for triumph. The question is: So what?
Or rather, could success in Afghanistan prove worse for Americans than failure?
Let's imagine that, in July 2011, the US military has tenuous control over key
parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second-largest city. It still
has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private
contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops
the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway.
Similarly, the "civilian" surge, which tripled the State Department's personnel
there, remains in place, as does the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) surge
that went with it - and the contractor and base-building surges that went with
In fact, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have
only escalated further by July 2011. Experts expect the counter-insurgency
campaign to continue for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading
for the exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being
thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes, simply cannot in any
normal sense be defeated.
This, then, would be "success" 10 years into America's Afghan war. Given the
logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops, intelligence agents, civilian
officials and private contractors in the country, the approximately US$7
billion a month now being spent there will undoubtedly be the price Americans
are to pay for a long time to come (and that's surely a significant undercount,
if you consider long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of
future care for those badly wounded in body or mind).
The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo continual
training and, in a country with next to no government funds and (unlike Iraq)
no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate horizon, they, too, will
have to be paid for and supplied by Washington. And keep in mind that the US
Air Force will, for the foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force. In other
words, success means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to
So what would we actually have to show for all this expenditure of money,
effort, and lives?
We would be in minimalist possession of a fractious, ruined land, at war for
three decades, and about as alien to, and far from, the United States as it's
possible to be on this planet. We would be in minimalist possession of the
world's fifth-poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's
second-most corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's
foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug
In terms of the global "war on terror", we would be in possession of a country
that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives
("maybe less") - for whom parts of the country might still be a "safe haven".
And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84
billion a year.
On the basis of our stated war objective - “[W]e cannot allow al-Qaeda or other
transnational extremists to once again establish sanctuaries from which they
can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies," as Petraeus put it in his
confirmation hearing at the end of June 2010 - success in Afghanistan means
increasingly little. For al-Qaeda, Afghanistan was never significant in itself.
It was always a place of (relative) convenience. If the US were to bar access
to it, there are so many other countries to choose from.
After all, what's left of the original al-Qaeda - estimated by US intelligence
experts at perhaps 300 leaders and operatives - seems to have established
itself in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a place that the US military could
hardly occupy, no matter how many CIA drone attacks were sent against it.
Moreover, US intelligence experts increasingly suggest that al-Qaeda is in the
process of fusing with local jihadi groups in those borderlands, Yemen,
Somalia, North Africa and elsewhere; that it is increasingly an amorphous
"dispersed network", or even simply an idea or crude ideology, existing as much
online as anywhere in particular on the ground.
In this sense - and this is the only reason now offered for the American
presence in Afghanistan - a counter-insurgency "success" there would be
meaningless unless, based on the same strategic thinking, the US then secured
Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and a potential host of other places. In other words,
the US military would have to do one thing the George W Bush years definitively
proved it couldn't do: impose a Pax Americana on planet Earth.
The Bush administration might have offered other explanations for the ongoing
Afghan war, including the need to garrison what it called "the arc of
instability" stretching from North Africa to the Chinese border (essentially
the oil heartlands of the planet), roll back Russia from its former Soviet
"backyard" in Central Asia, and guarantee the flow of Caspian Sea oil westward.
More recently, with the revelation that a trillion or more dollars worth of
natural resources lie under Afghan soil, securing that country's raw materials
for Western mining companies might have been added to that list. The Obama
administration, however, offers no such explanations.
In any case, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be telling a rather
different story. The singular thing the Iraq War seems to have done politically
is promote Iranian influence in that country. Economically, it's made Iraq a
safer place for the state-owned or state-controlled oil companies of China,
Russia and a number of other non-Western nations.
In Afghanistan, in terms of those future natural resources, we seem to be
fighting to make that country safe for Chinese investment (just as the recently
heightened US sanctions against Iran are helping make that country safe for
Chinese energy dominance).
The question mark over Afghanistan
All of this leaves the massive American investment of its most precious
resources, including lives, in Afghanistan an ongoing mystery that is never
Somewhere in that country's vast stretches of poppy fields or in the halls of
Washington's national security bureaucracy, lurks a great unasked question.
It's a question asked almost half a century ago of Vietnam, the lost war to
which Petraeus turned in 2006 to produce the army's counter-insurgency manual
that is the basis for the present surge.
The question was: Why are we in Vietnam? (It even became the title of a Norman
Mailer novel.) In 1965, president Lyndon Johnson's administration produced a
government propaganda film solely in response to that question, which was
already threatening to drive down his polling figures and upend his Great
Society at home. The film was called Why Vietnam. While it had no
question mark after the title, the question of whether to add one was actually
argued out in the most literal way inside the administration.
The film began with the president quoting a letter he had received from a
mother "in the Midwest" whose son was stationed in Vietnam. You hear the
president, in his homey twang, pick up that woman's question, as if it were his
own. "Why Vietnam?" he repeats three times as the title appears on the screen,
after which, official or not, a question mark seems to hover over every scene,
as it did over the war itself.
In a sense, the same question mark appeared both before and after the 2003
invasion of Iraq, but it has never been associated with Afghanistan. Because of
9/11, Afghanistan remained for years the (relatively) good (and largely
forgotten) war, until visible failure visibly tarnished it.
It's now past time to ask that question, even as the Obama administration
repeats the al-Qaeda mantra of the Bush years almost word-for-word and lets any
explanation go at that.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is our treasure being wasted there when it's
It's clear enough that a failed counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan will be
an unaffordably expensive catastrophe. Let's not wait a year to discover that
there's an even worse fate ahead, a "success" that leaves us mired there for
years to come as our troubles at home only grow. With everything else Americans
have to deal with, who needs a future Petraeus Syndrome?
(Note on sources: I'm eternally thankful for the existence of Antiwar.com
(including Jason Ditz's daily updates), Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog (the
quality of which is eternally startling), and Paul Woodward's The War
in Context. Along with Katherine Tiedemann's AfPak Channel Daily Brief and Noah
Shachtman's Danger Room blog (a must for all things strange and military), they
help ensure that not much news coming out of Afghanistan and environs gets by