Myths of Iraq and Afghanistan

There is a term for a war that is always "succeeding" but never concluding: a failure.


When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the other day the U.S. war in Afghanistan is "succeeding" and "has turned an important corner," I could have sworn I had heard that before. Where could it have been?

Ah, now I remember. In 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boasted, "We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability. … The bulk of this country today is permissive, it's secure."

Four years later, he pronounced Afghanistan "a big success." In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured us the U.S. effort was "succeeding."

There is a term for a war that is always "succeeding" but never concluding: a failure. But Barack Obama has followed the custom of George W. Bush in pretending otherwise.

Our strategy has been to train and equip Afghan government forces to carry on the fight and preserve stability after we leave. But it's hard to fulfill that plan when our allies are indistinguishable from our enemies. This year, more than 50 U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed by members of the Afghan security forces.

Last month, the U.S. commander there suspended most training and joint operations. "We're to the point now where we can't trust these people," a senior military official told NBC News.

The New York Times reports that "the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year."

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., was one of several members of Congress who last month urged a speedy end to the war after 11 long years of waiting for the Afghans to take over. "You can train a monkey to ride a bicycle in that length of time," he said, in a statement that was grossly unfair to monkeys.

Yet Obama claims that events vindicate his surge and subsequent drawdown. Mitt Romney faults the president for setting a date to leave, but he won't commit to staying longer.

Last year, Romney said, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over … in a way that they're able to defend themselves"—which could mean he would withdraw more rapidly than Obama, less rapidly or at exactly the same pace.

Where the candidates concur is declining to admit that staying has served only to increase the butcher's bill in a war we can't win. Had we left years ago, the likely outcome would be no different—but hundreds of Americans would still be alive.

The presidential candidates also join together in refusing to confront our other failure, in Iraq. When the last American troops left, Obama called our venture "an extraordinary achievement." Romney insists that "abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence" has put our victory "at risk."

What victory? The primary reason for our invasion, Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be a myth. A war that was supposed to be a brief "cakewalk" turned into a long occupation that left more than 36,000 Americans dead or wounded.

Nor is everything copacetic today. Al-Qaida in Iraq has more than doubled in strength and carries out about 140 attacks a month, up from 75 a month earlier this year.

"The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water and decent health care," wrote Ned Parker, who spent years there as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, in Foreign Affairs magazine. "The country has become something close to a failed state."

Sectarian strife still grips the country, fueled partly by a death sentence imposed in absentia on the Sunni vice president, who blamed it on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Maliki is at odds with Washington for letting one of our enemies, Iran, use his airspace to send arms to another of our enemies, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, so he can crush his opponents. The real winner of the U.S. war in Iraq was the regime in Tehran, which replaced a strong, hostile regime with a weak, friendly one.

The fiction Obama and Romney uphold is that in these countries, we have accomplished great things that ought to be preserved. At best, Afghanistan and Iraq fit the phrase George W. Bush memorably applied to the latter: "catastrophic success." At worst, just catastrophic.