President Barack Obama’s new man in charge in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, is already casting doubt on the president’s announced plans for a July 2011 beginning of an end to the U.S. occupation. If Petraeus' ill-fated predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, got ankled for casting caustic doubt on the efficacy of his civilian leaders by being too loose-lipped around a reporter from that longhair rag Rolling Stone, will Petraeus be capped for speaking another obvious truth Obama doesn’t want broadcast? With things getting worse on so many metrics, a dogged insistence on actually “accomplishing the mission” in Afghanistan—beyond the one we long ago accomplished; namely, driving out the government that coddled the 9/11 planners and scattering them from their Afghan stronghold—means that we aren’t leaving in 2011.
Many respectable voices beyond Petraeus' agree that we shouldn’t. Following the script laid out by a March CIA memo published by Wikileaks on how to get our European allies more closely involved in the war (by getting their public upset about women's rights violations by the enemy), Time magazine’s recent cover story on the war tried to gin up sympathy for its continuance at a time when American public support for the war is as low as it has ever been.
The most delicious part of that CIA memo is its discussion about how to manipulate public opinion when “counting on apathy might not be enough” to sustain support for the war. Alas, public apathy usually is quite sufficient to allow American politicians to do whatever they want when it comes to foreign policy. But still, when contemplating the public here or over there, the military isn’t counting on it. The Pentagon had been profiling and monitoring the press in order to make decisions about how to handle press embed decisions (surprise, McChrystal-slayer Michael Hastings no longer qualifies), a policy that one soldier told Stars and Stripes strikes him as showing “utter contempt for the Constitution, which we in the service pledge our lives to defend.”
Time’s cover picture of an Afghan woman with her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban could with equal truth and accuracy—though an undeniably different spin—have been one of a civilian corpse blown to bits by a U.S. missile. Indeed, 24 percent of 2009’s over 2000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan were caused by our army or our allies. Time marked their image boldly and with no qualification: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” Of course, that happened while we were in Afghanistan—and worse happens with the enthusiastic support of many hundreds, at the very least, of the people whose right to democratic self-governance the U.S. is killing its troops and spending its absent treasure to secure. Not that anyone believes the parliamentary elections planned for next month will be any more fair and honest than the one that placed our current reluctant satrap Hamid Karzai in power.
We’re not going to succeed in building a reasonably unified nation—which is not to say Afghanistan can never again be a reasonable and unified nation, though some area analysts not beholden to upholding the U.S. mission have their doubts. But adding our continuing share to the nearly constant past 30 years of chaos and warfare that turned what was once at least a somewhat modern place into what it is today isn’t helping. The necessary social and cultural changes toward a modern role for women will undoubtedly come slowly, as they did for the West, and not at the hands of an invading army of another culture, as they did not for the West.
We aren’t, for example, going to forcefully craft a modern nation without attachment to certain ugly aspects of traditional Islam—as The New York Times' recent account of a Taliban-sponsored stoning of a pair of young adulterers makes clear:
Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz Province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case.
And less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council brought together 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who issued a joint statement Aug. 10 calling for more punishment under Shariah, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.
Failure to implement such “Islamic provisions,” the council statement said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.
With the maddening sniff of the master let down by his truculent slave, Leon Wieseltier in an August 12 New Republic cover package dedicated to different ideas about the Afghanistan war (all of which, with sighs of varying strength, admit that staying is what's going to happen, to whatever uncertain end, even though they also all pretty much acknowledged that nothing was working), wrote, “I am losing faith in the war in Afghanistan because I am losing faith in Afghanistan.” That is, his faith in the Afghan people’s ability to be the nation our goals require it to be. If that’s the best reason that American liberals can gin up for abandoning the war—notwithstanding all the killing and exploding and disrupting of an already far-too-battered nation and people—then so be it.
Whether one agrees with Wieseltier or not that the real problem is that the Afghan people aren’t good enough to deserve our war, when one contemplates the cases of Afghan police helping the murder of aid workers, the continued incompetence of the Afghan armed forces, the country's forced dependence on U.S. troops, and how the very existence of the war we are waging prevents a usable civil society from forming (bribery alone eats up nearly 20 percent of their GDP), it’s pretty clear the war isn’t creating the Afghanistan the U.S. claims it is fighting for.
The Brookings Institution, whose lead Asian war man Michael O’Hanlon thinks we’re doing pretty much fine over there, nonetheless gathers, mostly from U.S. government sources, the best extant macro data on the Afghan situation. From its most recent iteration we learn that civilian deaths in the war haven’t been below 100 a month since May 2009 (though they were rarely above that before then); that the war has created 55,000 new displaced people in the half year from October 2009 through March 2010; that the percentage of the population sympathetic to the insurgents is up 14 percent in “key districts” since last year, that the number of districts now considered “dangerous environments” is up 8 percent, and that about 10 percent of the Afghan armed forces are deserters. And what about the number of al Qaeda leaders and fighters—remember 9/11!—believed to be in the country? Between 50 and 100. The number of U.S. troops? Roughly 87,000 now, expected to be over 100,000 by next year.
Those troops aren’t doing what we claim to want in terms of building a stable Afghanistan, and they aren’t needed for any actual national security goal. As Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College summed up well, in a lawyerly “even if…” demolition of every argument about why our continued military presence is vital for national security, al Qaeda or any successor group does not need a national haven such as Afghanistan to operate. Moveover, there is good reason to believe the Afghan people will not willingly allow another complete Taliban takeover after their experience with the last one, and there is no reason to believe that if they did, they’d continue to provide the old level of support and protection for terrorists acting against the U.S. Finally, even if they did provide such support, that’s a problem that could be taken care of quicker and easier via intelligence and targeted attacks than by stationing tens of thousands of troops.
Undoubtedly, Time is right: Ugly things will happen in Afghanistan if the U.S. leaves. Ugly things are happening there right now, both despite and because of our military presence. If we don’t want to bear responsibility toward horrible outcomes, we shouldn’t wage wars or launch invasions beyond utter necessity. It’s too late for everything to be fine. But letting go of the notion that a million-a-year-per-troop military effort in Afghanistan is the beholden and just duty of the government of the United States is an important step toward a government that is not an active agent of murder and destruction, not to mention an agent of its own bankruptcy. (Do you believe that just half the troops in Afghanistan are doing as much to ensure domestic security as the entire Department of Homeland Security? The U.S. government acts as if it does, if national defense is meant to be the actual purpose of the Afghan occupation.)
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Foreign Policy that if the current strategy still seems to not be working by next year, then by God, they’ll have to try something else. But not leave. Our man Karzai recklessly announced this week that in a country where little else provides actual security, he intends to dismantle all non-governmental security forces. The lauded Marja offensive didn’t do what it promised and the expected Kandahar one isn’t even happening. The war is immensely unpopular domestically and the people in charge of waging it see no end in sight. Its original goals were long met, and any further ones don’t seem possible. Naturally, our “serious” political class wants to keep the machine of wealth and life destruction running full bore.