This month marks the tenth anniversary of America’s attack upon united Taliban-factions and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Last year, many in the media mistakenly reported that the war in Afghanistan was the longest war in US history. This is an anniversary almost no one wants to recognize. The triumphant energy that inspired the endeavor initially in retaliation for the al Qaeda attacks upon symbolic targets in the United States has given way to the usual disillusionment and conflicted emotions and rationale that accompanies any seemingly endless war.
We Americans like our wars fast and decisive. Historically, the majority of Americans will tolerate a war for 3-4 years but anything after that leads to a growth of anti-war sentiment. Consider the Vietnam War, a comparison I will use in some fashion throughout this post. The involvement of "regular" US ground infantry started in 1965. By 1968, there were large riots in streets.
As of today, there are no anti-war protests worthy of note. Some feel this is because the protesters don't want to appear critical of President Obama. But, I think this is primarily because there is no draft. Therefore, the vast majority of American families are not directly affected by the military efforts in Afghanistan (or in Iraq beforehand for that matter). You need most of the middle class to be invested with the dead and wounded for there to be a genuine groundswell of anti-war sentiment.
Anyway, on this tenth anniversary it is clear that the majority of (largely unaffected) Americans are opposed to a continuation of operations in Afghanistan. President Obama is under a great deal of pressure to draw-down the number of US troops. It is a time to try to untangle the complicated mess of the war.
About 1,650 Americans have died in Afghanistan. Has it been worth it? That’s sort of a trick question. It certainly calls for something more than a simple yes/no response. There is nothing simple about Afghanistan. You have to really break the war down into its military, diplomatic, cultural, and economic aspects.
Long-time readers know that I have been a supporter of the war in Afghanistan. I thought the Iraqi War (in which Obama promises the US to be out by the end of this year) was unnecessary and a distraction to our efforts in Afghanistan. To split our focus and to shift emphasis from one country to the other to such a degree that the Afghanistan effort was neglected for years was a major failing of the Bush Administration’s overly-aggressive foreign policy. It violated some basic military principles.
But, Iraq is largely out of the picture now. Obama can say he got us out by Christmas in his 2012 campaign for re-election. What’s done is done. Let’s make the best of it. And that seems to be the story here. Let’s make the best of all the mistakes we’ve made with Afghanistan. The Iraq War being only one of them.
According to former General Stanley McChrystal, once in command in the Afghanistan (and someone I supported), we did not know enough when we went into the region. We still do not know enough and according to McChrystal, our mission there is only half-way accomplished. But, there we are so let’s make the best of it. Then, we dismissed McChrystal, which was a mistake in my mind even though his replacement, General David Petraeus, in route to becoming chief of the CIA, was more than capable in his own right.
Most people don’t understand the fundamental shift in American operations that occurred as a result of the McChrystal-Petraeus transition. Both commanders supported special ops as the key to victory in Afghanistan. But, McChrystal put more emphasis on the Afghan population component of operations. The rules of engagement under his tenor were very strict, particularly with respect to artillery and airpower support, in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties. This resulted, however, in a morale issue with American forces as they felt they were being inadequately supported in firefights with the enemy.
Upon taking over, Petraeus loosened the rules of engagement so that our ground forces could call in air strikes under a broader range of circumstances. This came at a cost of increasing deaths among the Afghan population due to “friendly-fire”. This strengthened our military punch at the expense of somewhat alienating the local Afghan people. Which approach is preferred is an evaluation that goes beyond the periphery of this post.
Still, Petraeus made only minor adjustments to our overall approach. McChrystal’s special ops against the al Qaeda and the Taliban, known as “Kill-Capture,” (originally developed under McChrystal for Petraeus when the latter was in command in Iraq), was actually expanded by Petraeus three-fold. To date, Kill-Capture has netted hundreds of insurgents killed and more than 12,000 captured. It really took the wind out of the capacity of the Taliban to recover and make meaningful counter-operations so far in 2011.
It was a Kill-Capture mission that killed Osama bin Laden. For many Americans, that marked the perfect time to start withdrawing from the country. After all, the whole reason for operations in Afghanistan to begin with was due to the organization that bin Laden put in place there. This "eye-for-an-eye" approach to defining the parameters of the war is understandable. But, though bin Laden’s death was certainly a major blow to al Qaeda, it was not a "death blow", so to speak. The organization is far too decentralized to disintegrate at the death of its moral leader.
Though there have been numerous minor incidents throughout the country, some more deadly than others, signs of still haunting instability and uncertainty, signs that the Afghan Forces are not sufficiently trained to keep the Taliban from taking the country back, the major fighting so far in 2011 has been where it was expected to be – in and around Kandahar. That particular Taliban offensive failed but both sides have recently claimed the other is losing the war.
It is interesting to note that the nature of the war in recent months has changed radically from what it was a few years ago. As recently as 2009, for example, bands of Taliban roamed at will through the countryside and some cities wrecking havoc, harassing civilians and attacking military personnel. At one point during the Iraq War the Taliban had, in fact, won control of most of Afghanistan. Since the Battle of Kandahar ended in May 2011 the Taliban and al Qaeda have been unable to sustain any kind military or covert operation.
If you scan for news you will find the usual assorted accounts of a bombing here or an incident there but you will find nothing closely approaching the type of activity common to the Taliban a few years ago. Clearly, the Taliban have been severely disrupted and can only resort to guerrilla tactics. Take away the bombings, take away the killing and maiming of largely innocent people, and the Taliban would not be mentioned in the media at all. While the number of suicide bombings has steadily increased in the region since 9/11, the conflict in Afghanistan has been reduced to just that, the traditional, pathetic al Qaeda “I-blow-me-up” strategy.
This is the clearest possible indication that the efforts of the US-led coalition are working. We might not be winning the war but neither are we losing. To compare a collection of region-wide suicide bombings with the mayhem that existed in 2007 while we were more focused on the war in Iraq is to give the Taliban far too much credit. Their ability to control large regions of the country does not exist anymore.
This is the critical point most Americans don’t understand. Yes, there is instability. That is the dirty nature of the war. While large areas of the country remain insecure from a terror tactics perspective, the ability of bands of terrorists to extract ransom and control local village leaders in their once typical strong-arm, mafia style is gone.
It seems to me that while we probably can never eliminate the threat of radical elements in this part of the world, we have successfully forced them to disband into cells of activity as opposed to a somewhat unified military force. It isn’t quite a victory but we are hardly defeated either. A stalemate has ensued in which the al Qaeda has been marginalized, the Taliban forced out of country, and the US-led coalition is forced to maintain a fragile security.
Is our experience in Afghanistan going to turn out the way our Vietnam experience did? Is the slow progress in developing the Afghan forces necessary to maintain security in the country an indication of ultimate failure on the magnitude of the ill-fated South Vietnamese Army?
More to the point, are we any closer to winning the war or, at least, bringing it to a successful conclusion? Opinions differ. It all depends on how you define “victory” or even if you want to achieve victory. Many would prefer just to have an honorable exit strategy and leave all notions of victory to the historians. President Nixon called this “Peace with Honor.”
It is beginning to feel more and more like we are in a stalemate situation. General McChrystal is right. We are ten years in and the war is probably only “halfway over”. Does America have what it takes to see the war through to completion? What?! Another ten years in Afghanistan? You gotta be kidding me. There’s no way America has that much resolve.
Or do we? With the success of our special ops perhaps we can protect Afghan operations even as our traditional forces are withdrawn. Afghanistan might become the proving ground for a small number of US troops for many years to come.
I have often considered whether or not Pakistan is Obama’s Cambodia. In the Vietnam War, Cambodia was a vast sanctuary for recovery and resupply of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail snaked through Laos and Cambodia and essentially meant that forces opposed to the United States and South Vietnam could attack whenever and wherever they wanted, then run away to safety when the US choppered in reinforcements.
Pakistan today has many similarities to Cambodia back then. The Taliban and al Qaeda retreated into that region when coalition forces got appropriately aggressive with them. Of course, Osama bin Laden was killed just a few miles from Islamabad. It is out of Pakistan that the Taliban emerged this spring to attack Kandahar. Lately, we have determined that Pakistan, through its ISI and perhaps other organizations, has been connected with Taliban activity.
Naturally diplomatic relations with Pakistan are tense. We are constantly invading their air space with a highly effective Drone War strategy and committing tactical incursions (such as the bin Laden raid) in what is supposed to be their sovereign territory. I applaud our boldness to disregard Pakistan’s sovereignty and attack targets as necessary. There is bountiful evidence that artillery attacks are taking place from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Again, it is becoming increasingly obvious that elements in Pakistan are supporting the Taliban terror operations in Afghanistan. We have plenty of justification to “violate” their international rights.
Perhaps there is no better example of the complexity of our military operations in the region than in the US-led coalition attacks on the so-called Haqqani Network, operating on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Haqqani are Afghani in origin but were forced across the border into Pakistan a couple of years ago by US operations against them. Since, the beginning of the Drone Wars and the US covert ops into the Pakistan side of the border, the Haqqani now claim to feel safer in Afghanistan.
But, recent ops such as Operation Knife Edge would indicate that the Haqqani are still seeking sanctuary in Pakistan and that the Pakistani military is in some ways cooperating with Coalition forces on “limited incursions” into Pakistan. These operations are apparently having effect. Though the Haqqani continue to harass civilian and military targets in Afghanistan, they are off-balance due to the persistent counter-harassment tactics of US-led forces.
Clearly, we have what it takes to assault the adversarial forces (Taliban, Haqqani, al Qaeda) seeking safe haven in Pakistan. War is about killing the enemy, particularly when that enemy has a region of sanctuary. Take the war to them. That is what we have been doing – to greater success than the "We-Are-Losing" crowd wants to admit. Of course, our diplomatic initiatives might mean a halt to future incursions. But, not until Pakistan begins to deal directly with the Afghani Taliban inside its borders. The covert nature of our approach mirrors the covert nature of the Taliban’s approach with the suicide bombings.
This is one instance when our operational resolve matches the threat presented by the opposing forces. This is rare in military history, particularly where guerrilla tactics are concerned, dating back to Napoleon’s Peninsula War in Spain. Conventional warfare tactics employed against irregular forces often ends up a mismatch, as Napoleon discovered in 1808 and as the US learned in Vietnam. There are few, if any, historical precedents where regular combat tactics work effectively against guerrillas. To that end, we have attained in Afghanistan what I would term a symmetical approach to the operations of the adversary. If not a sign of victory, this is at least a sign of appropriate commitment of assets. A historic rarity.
There are diplomatic signs, however, that Pakistan fears not only our continued violation of their sovereign space but also close ties being facilitated by the US between the Afghan government and India, Pakistan’s long-time adversary in the area. So, as you shift away from the military to the diplomatic perspective you can see the war in a larger, regional context.
Our diplomatic strategy against Pakistan seems to be highly effective. If Islamabad wants to avoid possibly being sandwiched between India and an India-allied Afghanistan, then it needs to cooperate more with coalition forces (primarily the US). On the other hand, if we continue to attack targets inside Pakistan with our bold, non-Cambodian-like strategy of taking the war to the Taliban, we risk further alienation with a nuclear power, an Islamic democracy where the vast majority hates the United States. Moreover, the Karzai government in Afghanistan has attempted to align itself with Pakistan in any future conflict that might result from the US continuing to disregard Pakistani sovereignty.
Can things be any more complicated? As with the military effort, diplomacy seems to be another stalemate at this point. We are not winning. We are not losing. And the road ahead seems to stretch on toward another decade of commitment that American is losing the willpower to make. Apparently, nothing saps American resolve faster than a confused and unclear situation.
It is interesting how so often in war the government and the people of the land where most of the fighting takes place tend to take a back seat. Any assessment of America’s Longest War needs to remember the Afghanis themselves. The Karzai government is not the most stable and reliable entity with which to form a partnership. Again, this begs the comparison between the Afghan government today and the South Vietnamese government we attempted to prop up several decades ago.
An excellent article in the latest issue of The Atlantic gives an instructive example of the quandary the US often faces with the very people it is trying to secure and stabilize. The Afghanis are a complex mix of people, including many “friendly” Taliban tribes. Historically, those who have attained power in Afghanistan have done so through brutality and vice. Not exactly cultural traits that inspire our own internal mythology of “bringing democracy to the oppressed peoples of the world.”
Then there is the simple economic weight of the war. Can we afford Afghanistan? The answer to that from an economic perspective is "no." The war costs certainly seem exorbitant when we are wrestling with our current debt situation. It seems excessive to spend money in a land fighting people that no longer directly threaten the United States protecting people who don't want our protection.
The bottom line is that, all things considered, we can win this war in Afghanistan from a military perspective. The elements are all in place to not repeat another Vietnam. But, the central questions are always more cultural and political than military. The willpower of the American people doesn’t shine so bright as the days grow long. We have cultural ADD and, for all our boasting, our motivational strength diminishes quickly in our consumer, creature-comfort frame of time. By contrast, the Taliban are very patient.
The most recent issue of Time Magazine calls it "The Unwinnable War." Maybe it is. The odds of the US truly stablizing Afghanistan after centuries of strive and decades of civil war are really a long shot. Afghanistan will never be politically stable enough for democracy to thrive there. There has never been a succesful "shotgun democracy" that I know of in history.
Winning, losing, stalemate. Willpower, covert ops, suicide bombings. Government corruption, a violent culture, no human rights. We got to this stage because of the national trauma of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The symbolic castration of American power. But, we've stayed so long now we can't remember what we are in it for anymore.
Still, you cannot dismiss into the thin air the fact we are in a war, a difficult but winnable war, as long as winning doesn't mean everything has to be stablized. The Taliban are a complex collection of tribes and only a large minority of those tribes actually ruled Afghanistan and actually protected al Qaeda back in 2001. There are Taliban we can negotiate with, though many consider this a myth. Maybe the brother of our enemies can talk them into letting us go, letting the election process decide who rules, not the gun, not the beatings, not the fear they master so well to make the people cower before them.
It might be too much to ask. Why should a people, a violent tribal culture, leave matters of power to the chance of democracy? This is a cultural question that I cannot answer, though there is some answer, some obscure way the Taliban see their methods as being sound and reasonable in their native land.
With all these different levels of this conflict swimming round and round in my head I am reminded of the closing scene in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket where Private Joker says: "I'm in a world of shit, yes. But, I am alive and I am not afraid." Yes, Afghanistan is a world of shit. But, that is precisely where we are. We can adandon the country as quickly as possible or we can be more fearless in our approach. If we choose to leave, then what's done is done. If we choose to stay, then we must be willing to co-exist with all the massive uncertainty.
There is nothing clear here, other than the fact that (mostly likely) our original job in Afghanistan is only half-finished and the other half of the journey already feels like it will take forever.