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Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by M K Bhadrakumar, was published in the Asia Times, November 9, 2009
Afghans do not like Britain's tutorial - not only on good governance but on any topic under the sun.
For a fleeting hour or two, a question hung in the rapidly chilling autumn air in the Hindu Kush: did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speak last weekend at the behest of United States President Barack Obama or did he speak out of turn, as even experienced politicians are wont to? Then it went away. It really does not matter either way.
The damage has been done. Brown's speech on Afghanistan at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London on Friday was appalling in its content, timing and context. Perhaps, the indiscretion was deliberate. Politicians all over need to ventilate frustrations once in a while. Whenever cornered, they instinctively look for a scapegoat.
Things are not going well for the British troops deployed in Afghanistan. Ninety-three men have been killed this year - and, as Brown poignantly said, "That 93 is not just a number. Ninety-three families whose lives will never be the same again; 93 families without a dad, or a husband, a brother or son; 93 families this Christmas with a place at their table no one else will ever be able to fill."
A truly tragic situation, indeed. This tragedy was brought down on the British people by Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, who should not have so enthusiastically volunteered for the war in 2001 when the George W Bush administration was contemplating the invasion of Afghanistan as one of the options to mitigate the anguish and anger the American people felt after the September 11 attacks. Of all countries in Europe, Britain knows Afghanistan best, after all. It is not the Falklands.
The British government is under pressure to explain the meaning of this war to a baffled public opinion. At the same time, paradoxically, the British establishment is keeping its fingers crossed and hoping against hope that Obama doesn't waffle.
Hanging onto the American coat-tails and keeping an open-ended presence in the heart of Asia bordering Iran, Central Asia, Xinjiang and Kashmir is critically important for Britain strategically to sustain its residual standing as a "global power" at the present transformational period in the world order, when the US is increasingly turning its attention to the East.
However, all this play still does not justify Brown's speech. Simply put, Afghans do not like Britain's tutorial - not only on good governance but on any topic under the sun. There is a long history behind contemporary Anglo-Afghan relations, which Afghans haven't forgotten. Two, Brown could have avoided the use of undiplomatic language - "Cronies and warlords should have no place in the future of a democratic Afghanistan." That's old-fashioned imperial language.
Three, Brown went far too "personal" - finger-pointing at President Hamid Karzai repeatedly by name. You don't finger-point at the president of a sovereign country. Four, Brown butted into a "no-go" zone - Karzai's appointments of cabinet ministers and provincial governors in his new government, having been re-elected for a second five-year term.
These appointments are central to the political contract in Kabul and it is extremely doubtful if Karzai is in a position to oblige Britain or any foreign power. At any rate, it is a bad idea for outside powers to arbitrate between Afghan groups and personalities during a cabinet formation.
The efficiency bar is never applied to power brokers in this part of the world. Look at India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the three biggest "democracies" in South Asia. Few technocrats or professionals hold ministerial posts in the governments in Delhi, Dhaka or Islamabad. There is a cultural context that cannot be overlooked. Ministerial positions are considered as sinecure positions in these countries. Often there is a need to ensure equilibrium between different interest groups by accommodating them in cabinet positions.
In this part of the world, no one asks uncomfortable questions as to whether the politicians holding ministerial posts are indeed worthy of their exalted status - whether they have had formal education or are intellectually endowed and can think through problems and issues or are professionally competent. It is simply assumed that they are where they are because of what they are as politicians.
Besides, according to the Afghan constitution, Karzai has to go to parliament and seek endorsements for his cabinet appointments - a criteria that is lacking in India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. There is a power calculus at work in Kabul, one that cannot be micromanaged by Karzai.
Therefore, what Karzai can be expected to do is to appoint efficient civil servants to assist the political figures - "cronies and warlords" - who sit in his cabinet. On the contrary, what Western countries are trying to do is to impose on Karzai an English-speaking cabinet. Such an approach can only have one outcome, that is, a government that pulls in a dozen or more directions with no one in charge. That will be a sure recipe for greater inefficiency and corruption.
Therefore, Britain seems to be needlessly muddying the waters in the Afghan leader's difficult equations with the West, and this right on the eve of Obama's announcement of his new war strategy. What the calculation behind this could be is hard to tell. If any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country is singularly responsible for the deterioration of Karzai's equations with the West, it is Britain. And it all began as a scuffle over the appointment of provincial governors in Helmand and over the creation of the post of a viceroy for Lord Paddy Ashdown to browbeat Karzai, and it progressively widened into a rift that inveigled third parties.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry didn't even take a full day to rebuff the British leader's "instructions on the composition of Afghan governmental organs and the political policy of Afghanistan".
Now, what does London do? Is the British contingent in Helmand going to be withdrawn, which was precisely what Brown threatened he would do? Clearly, Karzai should be allowed to have a team of his choice in Kabul. He is entitled to it, just as is any occupant of No 10 Downing Street in London.
For argument's sake, what are Britain's choices today? If Karzai chooses his ways and policies and doesn't follow London's guidelines, will Britain remove him from power? Even assuming that Britain had such profound influence or clout, who would replace him? The three Afghan leaders in the succession chain would be Karzai's first and second vice presidents and the speaker of parliament. From the current lineup, Britain will have to settle for Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili or Younus Qanooni.
Thereby hangs a tale. It is yet to sink in that Karzai's victory signifies a turning point in Afghan politics. He rubbished the shenanigans in the Western political armory. Karzai's appearance on the victory rostrum in front of the Western media, flanked by Fahim and Khalili, said it all. If the West has not grasped the meaning of it, then it has lost its way completely.
Secondly, a splendid occasion is at hand to gracefully "legitimize" Karzai II, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested last week in an interview with the New York Times. Kouchner pointed out that Western political experts who knew nothing about Afghanistan detected fraud by sampling ballots. "This is science. But politics is not science. It's the common touch," he said.
Kouchner obviously desires a good working relationship with Karzai's government. France has deployed a 3,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan. That is a sensible approach. Of all Western statesmen today who articulate on Afghanistan, Kouchner has a special claim to offer advice. He knows Afghanistan. He was a participant in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, living and working inside Afghanistan as a young doctor assisting the mujahideen.
Equally, Kouchner underlined that NATO is in a virtual quagmire in Afghanistan. He asked with biting sarcasm, "What is the goal? What is the road? And in the name of what? Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem. We [NATO] need to talk to one another as allies."
The West should propose to Karzai to seek help from all available quarters, especially from regional powers and other regional security bodies that are wiling to cooperate. At the present stage, as a reconciliation process with the Taliban is about to commence, the attempt should be to lend credence to Karzai's standing as far as possible, but at any rate not to discredit it for whatever reason. Karzai is not the enemy. He still prefers to be on the side of the Western alliance. Allow him to continue to the extent he can while navigating his way in a political arena of immense complexity.
It is not in the interests of Afghanistan's stabilization that a cabal of foreign countries - the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - continues to hold the strings of conflict-resolution. Clearly, this is not the time for Britain's "great game" maneuverings in pursuit of its lost glory as a world power. The best bet for NATO is to get behind Karzai as quickly as possible.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
The following report, by Christian Amanpour, was posted to cnn.com, October 30, 2009
Talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his election opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, have broken down, a Western source close to the Afghan leadership told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Friday.
According to the source, Abdullah will likely announce this weekend that he will boycott the runoff presidential election slated for November 7, a runoff that had been scheduled after intense diplomatic arm twisting by the United States.
In a Thursday interview with Amanpour, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had predicted that the country would soon be governed under a power-sharing deal.
"I think there will be power-sharing," Khalilzad said. "Both want power-sharing. The difference is that Karzai wanted to be first declared the winner or win the election and then offer something from a position of strength, while Abdullah Abdullah wanted to go to a second round but have a power-sharing agreement without the vote."
But Khalilzad also said Abdullah "may not stay in the race."
"First, he doesn't have much money left," he said. "Second, I think that he thinks that, given the situation, he's likely to lose, and maybe he'll get less votes than he did in the first round, so that would be embarrassing."
In the United States, President Obama is considering whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency there, as requested by the commander of troops there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, or adopt some other strategy in the troubled nation.
Khalilzad said the outcome of the Afghan election negotiations is crucial to whatever decision the U.S. president takes.
"There are very few very capable Afghans, and they need to come together in a power-sharing arrangement," he said, "because whatever the decision is here in the United States, this will be one last chance to push for success in Afghanistan. And that cannot happen without the Afghan leaders doing their part."
This article, by Greg Grant, was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
It was all things Afghanistan and Pakistan at the House Armed Services Committee with lawmakers weighing the viability of a counterterrorism approach versus population centric counterinsurgency and Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy. An interesting aspect of this debate is the level of knowledge shown by some members of Congress on everything from the proper troop to civilian ratio called for in classic counterinsurgency doctrine to the intricacies of the Tajik versus Pashtun balance in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has taken some serious heat in recent days for what former Vice President Dick Cheney called "dithering" over the decision to escalate in Afghanistan or not. The reliably hawkish Tom Donnelly of AEI, part of the escalate often and everywhere crowd, even provided an exhaustive timeline of the Obama administration’s "long road to indecision" that can be found here.
Two prominent retired generals Barry McCaffrey and David Barno, testifying before the HASC Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday, both said it was important the administration take some time on this one. McCaffrey pointed to what he called one of the most "shameful" episodes in recent history when former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld claimed he was never asked for his viewpoint on invading Iraq before the war. It is important that the senior Obama administration officials take their time and think through the various options because once they decide, "they will own the decision."
While urging full deliberation, both generals were pretty clear how they want that decision to ultimately turn out. For his part, McCaffrey favors escalation and called the over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach a "silly option." He suggests sending 100,000 more troops, not just the 40,000 reportedly wanted by McChrystal. Promises have been made, he said, and not just at the national level when the Bush administration said the U.S. would lead an effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Young American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, waging a war for the will of the Afghan people, make promises every day that the U.S. will be there for them and protect them if they take sides against the Taliban.
McCaffrey said a tribal and ethnic war is underway for control of both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the security implications of Islamic extremists seizing power in either location are too serious not to escalate the U.S. military commitment to the region. Because of the inability of non-governmental and aid organizations to function in Afghanistan due to the security concerns, he recommended sending at least two engineering brigades and a slew of Army Corps of Engineer folks to work on large development projects.
If the military effort stumbles in Afghanistan and the U.S. were to seriously draw down there, it would likely spell the end of NATO as a military alliance, said Barno. To declare success and pull out now, would simply mean the U.S. military would be forced to re-invade the country at some future date when Islamic radicals take power in Kabul and re-establish a terrorist sanctuary there. Barno also favors an escalation of the troop commitment in Afghanistan along the lines of McChrystal’s rumored 40,000 troop request.
Many Afghans have been forced to choose a side in this war, and they have sided with the U.S. and NATO against the Taliban, said Beth Ellen Cole, of the United States Institute of Peace. A Taliban takeover could condemn many of them to a very bleak future, she said, "we have a lot of exposed people on the ground right now." She pointed to efforts at reconstruction and peacekeeping in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone as examples that the international community can in fact improve the lot of war torn countries.
This article, by Jonathan Adams, was published by The Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 2009
The two helicopter crashes in Afghanistan, which officials do not think were from enemy fire, come as the US mulls its Afghan war strategy.
Fourteen Americans were killed and more injured in two separate incidents of helicopter crashes Monday in Afghanistan, underscoring the risks of the increasingly controversial US-led war.
Neither incident involved hostile fire, according to statements from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The latest casualties come as Afghanistan prepares for a Nov. 7 runoff vote for the presidency, and as President Obama is believed to be near the conclusion of an intensive, month-long review of the US-led coalition's Afghanistan strategy.
CNN reported that the first incident occurred in western Afghanistan. "Seven U.S. service members and three U.S. civilians were killed," an ISAF statement said. "Those injured include 14 Afghan service members, 11 U.S. service members and one U.S. civilian."
The other incident occurred when two helicopters crashed into each other in mid-air over southern Afghanistan, killing four Americans, the New York Times reported. Both incidences are being investigated.
"These separate tragedies today underscore the risks our forces and our partners face every day," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. "Each and every death is a tremendous loss for the family and friends of each service member and civilian. Our grief is compounded when we have such a significant loss on one day.
"I can never truly express in mere words our condolences for the families for their loss and sacrifice."
The Associated Press reported Sunday that the total number of US military personnel killed since the US invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago was at least 807, with 624 dying by hostile fire. Four CIA officers have also been killed.
Monday's accidents bring that number to 821.
Separate statistics compiled by icasualties.org show that 2009 has been the most deadly year so far for coalition forces overall, with a total of 435 coalition military fatalities. (The site lists 1,480 total coalition military fatalities since the invasion in 2001.)
The surge in casualties ups the pressure on Mr. Obama, who is still mulling his overall Afghanistan strategy and has not decided whether to move ahead on a request from the top commander in Afghanistan for 40,000 more troops, the Agence France-Presse reported.
Some of his closest aides, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, have said it would be irresponsible to take a decision before a scheduled run-off election between [Afghan President Hamid Karzai] and his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah on November 7 which follows a first round tainted by fraud.
According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon ran secret war games this month to test what are believed to be the two main options under debate by Obama's national security staff since late September. In the first, the US would send 44,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in a massive effort to stabilize the country and roll back the Taliban insurgency.
In the second, much more limited option, dubbed "counter-terrorism plus," only 10,000 to 15,000 more soldier and Marines would be sent, and would focus on al Qaeda, rather than the Taliban insurgents.
The Pentagon war game did not formally endorse either course; rather, it tried to gauge how Taliban fighters, the Afghan and Pakistani governments and NATO allies might react to either of the scenarios. Mullen [Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], a key player in the game, has discussed its conclusions with senior White House officials involved in the discussions over the new strategy.
The last of five review sessions on Afghanistan strategy, running altogether 15 hours, was held last week in the Situation Room, the Washington Post reported.
This article, by Gareth Porter, was posted to ipsnews.net, October 15, 2009
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (IPS) - A veteran Army officer who has served in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars warns in an analysis now circulating in Washington that the counterinsurgency strategy urged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is likely to strengthen the Afghan insurgency, and calls for withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. combat forces from the country over 18 months.
In a 63-page paper representing his personal views, but reflecting conversations with other officers who have served in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis argues that it is already too late for U.S. forces to defeat the insurgency.
"Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation which should be opposed and resisted," writes Davis.
Providing the additional 40,000 troops that Gen. McChrystal has reportedly requested "is almost certain to further exacerbate" that problem, he warns.
Davis was a liaison officer between the Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan (CFC-A) and the Central Command in 2005, just as the Afghan insurgency was becoming a significant problem for the U.S. military. In that assignment he both consulted with the top U.S. officers and staff of the CFC-A and traveled widely throughout Afghanistan visiting U.S. and NATO combat units.
He also commanded a U.S. military transition team on the Iraqi border with Iran in 2008-09.
In the paper, Davis suggests what he calls a "Go Deep" strategy as an alternative to the recommendation from McChrystal for a larger counterinsurgency effort, which he calls "Go Big".
The "Go Deep" strategy proposed by Davis would establish an 18-month time frame during which the bulk of U.S. and NATO combat forces would be withdrawn from the country. It would leave U.S. Special Forces and their supporting units, and enough conventional forces in Kabul to train Afghan troops and police and provide protection for U.S. personnel.
The forces that continue to operate in insurgent-dominated areas would wage "an aggressive counterterrorism effort" aimed in part at identifying Taliban and al Qaeda operatives. The strategy would also provide support for improved Afghan governance and training for security forces.
Davis argues that a large and growing U.S. military presence would make it more difficult to achieve this counterterrorism objective. By withdrawing conventional forces from the countryside, he suggests, U.S. strategy would deprive the insurgents of "easily identifiable and lucrative targets against which to launch attacks".
Typically insurgents attack U.S. positions not for any tactical military objective, Davis writes, but to gain a propaganda victory.
The "Go Deep" strategy outlined in the paper appears to parallel the shift in strategy from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism being proposed by some officials in discussions in the White House in recent weeks.
After reading Davis's paper, Col. Patrick Lang, formerly the defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, told IPS he regards the "Go Deep" strategy as "a fair representation of the alternative to the one option in General McChrystal's assessment".
Lang said he doubts that those advising Obama to shift to a counterterrorism strategy are calling specifically for the withdrawal of most combat troops, but he believes such a withdrawal "is certainly implicit in the argument".
Davis told IPS he was surprised to hear from one official in a high position in Washington whose reaction to his paper was that what he is proposing in place of the "Go Big" option is still "too big".
Davis said his views on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have been shaped both by his personal experiences traveling throughout Afghanistan during his 2005 tour of duty and by conversations with U.S. military officers who have recently returned from Afghanistan.
"Mostly it was guys who've been out there in the field," said Davis. "They have a different view from those who work in the headquarters."
"I think there's a whole lot of folks out there who agree with this," he said.
He was flown out of Iraq for medical treatment in early June after suffering a partial loss of vision, and has been temporarily reassigned to the Defence Intelligence Agency. However, Davis said he was not assigned to work on Afghanistan and did the work on his Afghanistan strategy paper entirely on his own.
Davis said he had received permission from his immediate supervisor at DIA to circulate his personal analysis and recommendations on Afghanistan on the condition that he used only unclassified, open source information.
In the paper, Davis argues that the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by McChrystal would actually require a far larger U.S. force than is now being proposed. Citing figures given by Marine Corps Col. Julian Dale Alford at a conference last month, Davis writes that training 400,000 Afghan army and police alone would take 18 brigades of U.S. troops – as many as 100,000 U.S. troops when the necessary support troops are added.
The objective of expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000, as declared in McChrystal's "initial assessment", poses other major problems as well, according to Davis.
He observes that the costs of such an expansion have been estimated at three to four times more than Afghanistan's entire Gross Domestic Product. Davis asks what would happen if the economies of the states which have pledged to support those Afghan personnel come under severe pressures and do not continue the support indefinitely.
"It would be irresponsible to increase the size of the military to that level," he writes, "convincing hundreds of thousands of additional Afghan men to join, giving them field training and weapons, and then at some point suddenly cease funding, throwing tens of thousands out of work."
The result, he suggests, would be similar to what followed the U.S. failure to reassemble the Iraqi Army after the invasion of March 2003.
Davis also cites "growing anecdotal evidence" that popular anger at the abuses of power by the Afghan National Police has increased support for the insurgency.
He calls for scaling back the increase in Afghan security forces to the original targets of 134,000 Army troops and 80,000 national police. The crucial factor in determining the future of the country, he argues, is not the numbers of security personnel but whether they continue to abuse the population.
If that pattern of behaviour were to change dramatically, Davis says, "the number of Taliban fighters will dwindle to manageable numbers as those presently filling their ranks will no longer be motivated to fight".
Davis challenges two arguments now being made in support of the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan based on the Iraq experience: that a troop surge would help establish security and that the U.S. military can reduce insurgency by replicating the "Sons of Iraq" programme of bringing insurgents into militias that oppose their former allies.
The "surge" in Iraq was successful for a variety of reasons peculiar to Iraq and not duplicated in Afghanistan, Davis argues. And the "Sons of Iraq" was primarily the result of the alienation of the Sunni population by al Qaeda, which trumped Sunni opposition to the U.S. presence.
"[T]here is little to suggest," he writes in reference to the areas where the Taliban has gained power, "that the population as a whole has reached a tipping point whereby they are ready to support the coalition against the Taliban."
Challenging the argument of supporters of a larger war effort that it is necessary to avoid an increased risk of new terrorist attacks, Davis argues that being "myopically focused" on Afghanistan "at the expense of the rest of the world" increases the likelihood of an attack.
The present level of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he writes, will "make it more likely that terrorist organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to plan and train elsewhere for the next big attack."
This article, by Larry Ray, was published by the Rag Blog, October 4, 2009
Forty three years ago as a young civilian correspondent and documentary filmmaker, I stepped off the plane in Saigon knowing nothing about the history of that country or its people, and little or nothing about why Americans were fighting and dying there. I had come to see the war of my time.
As a U.S. Navy veteran and young news anchor for a South Texas regional TV station it seemed a given that we were there to fight godless communism and that we were the good guys.
It was 1966 and WWII had been over for 21 years and hostilities in Korea had ceased in 1953. But Americans still saw our military and patriotism as Johnny marching home again to ticker tape parades. We had whipped the Nazis and the Japs, and fought the North Koreans and commie Chinese to a draw. Clearly American might was not to be messed with.
But by 1966 America's claim of winning an honorable peace in South Vietnam was being seriously challenged by seasoned journalists in both Saigon and Washington D.C.. About the time I arrived, Morley Safer filed his story showing our Marines using a zippo lighter to set fire to thatch roofed homes in a rural village on a "search and destroy" mission. His was perhaps the first story that Americans saw that suggested America was facing bleak prospects of victory. We damn sure were not winning hearts and minds.
After a few months of sitting through bogus U.S. military press briefings which we called the "five o'clock follies," and working with seasoned reporters from around the world, my Boy Scout naiveté disappeared. After a year of the outright lies and misrepresentations in Pentagon and White House press releases about things I had seen with my own eyes, my naiveté turned to a frustrated, simmering anger. An anger that was ultimately taken to the streets across America just a few years later.
Since the Vietnam War, accredited correspondents have no longer been allowed to freely move about and report on our wars. Reporters are now "embedded" within military units under their control and influence.
The parallels between America's disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia and our costly and ill-advised involvement in the Middle East have fired up that frustration and anger anew. This time opposition by the average American to requests for more troops in Afghanistan is getting louder before the new call for 40,000 more troops has even been approved.
Our involvement in Vietnam started in 1950. General Eisenhower's decision to send military advisers to help the South Vietnamese army was the start of a massive buildup of American troop strength which reached a high of 543,482 in 1969. In the early years in Vietnam the Pentagon was still using a set-piece, WWII battle mentality, and Communism was our new political devil. And this was a hot, sweaty jungle war with no front lines.
Very few Americans spoke or understood the sing-songy monosyllabic Vietnamese language. The history and dynamics of a very old country that had been at war in some form or another for more than a thousand years was lost on those tasked with guiding America's efforts there.
The fiercest battles were being secretly waged between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of State. The State Department's political and diplomatic findings were muzzled and marginalized. We bombed Hanoi while increasing numbers of young draftees and regular American troops were being slaughtered as they fought fiercely in unforgiving conditions for a cause they did not understand. Almost twice as many Vietnamese, insurgents as well as civilians, died from our bombs and bullets.
America's strong belief in the efficacy of power reasoned that if bombing our way to peace was not working, there was no need to consider diplomacy or a new approach. Clearly we only needed to drop more bombs, send in more troops and the enemy would finally give up. And that is just what we did. The generals called for increasing the enemy body count to achieve peace and allow us to return home with honor. And our politicians went right along with that reasoning.
We failed to appreciate that we were in the middle of a very old private fight between North and South. Intelligence showed early on that a majority in the South was ready for peace, even a communist style of peace, and most of all wanted the "long noses" who they saw as raining destruction down upon them to be driven out of their country. In Vietnam there ultimately was no victory and no honor for America. Today Vietnam is peaceful and prosperous and an important trading partner with the USA, just like our top trading partner, communist China.
The military might mentality was challenged early on by president John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 bucked extreme pressure from the Pentagon and within his own White House, and refused to order combat troops into Vietnam, limiting our presence there to military advisers. JFK listened not only to his top military brass, but also to his State Department, particularly undersecretary George Ball who predicted pretty much what eventually happened, except reality was worse than what he envisioned. After JFK's death his order halting combat troops was reversed by President Johnson, driven more by domestic politics than military necessity.
In Vietnam 58,000 American troops were killed, 155,192 were wounded or missing. The touted "domino effect" where all Southeast Asia would topple country after country to communism if we didn't win in Vietnam now is easy to see as so much expedient political hysteria.
The story is, of course, much more complex than this, but the bare bones are that politicians and military leaders refused to listen to the State Department and other foreign service experts who laid bare the corrupt leadership of South Vietnam, and pointed out that this was a long simmering internal war of insurgency with strong nationalistic roots. The actual communist Chinese or Soviet Russian interest in and backing of the war was extremely limited.
Our desire to strike back after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, combined the totally inept leadership of the George W. Bush administration with, once again, expedient political hysteria. First we launched an inadequately planned and then insufficiently supported attack upon al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda top officials escaped to protective sheltering by tribal supporters who had seen their country invaded by the British, the Soviet union, and now American and NATO troops.
Then, with political misinformation, outright lies, a cowed press and a Congress that asked few questions, our government launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9-11 attacks on the USA. This mad neo-conservative misadventure has had a massively destabilizing effect upon the Middle East and has bred more hatred for the USA and our military in the Arab world.
It has also unnecessarily stressed our military's ready troop strength and equipment readiness with 4,300 U.S. troops killed and more than 30,000 wounded and injured as of September 2009. Cost of the Iraq war is expected to surpass the $686 billion present day dollar value cost of the Vietnam war by year's end.
One of President Obama's first actions after taking office was to make good on his promise to get us out of Iraq, and that is now underway. Though the dynamics, politics, religion and leadership are totally different from Vietnam, Iraq, like Vietnam, will ultimately reach its own destiny without the forceful imposition of American ideas and politics upon its ancient culture. We eliminated its despotic leader, but its people still must sort through complex religious and ideological differences on its own and they may or may not decide to remain some sort of democracy.
Afghanistan is an even older and thornier problem. And one that cannot be bombed into submission. Afghanistan was first invaded by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The tribal warlords have never been successfully subdued. No "surge" of military troops will somehow completely overpower the zealotry of religious belief. Imagine foreign troops invading America trying to subdue and forcibly control ultra-orthodox elements of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church, because they saw them as bad for the American people.
Afghanistan has never had organized, cohesive governance and is today just a fragile step away from becoming a failed state like Somalia. That is why it was an ideal location for Bin Laden to train his al Qaeda fighters. The American figurehead Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has become a real problem for the U.S. as well as NATO. We had hoped, with our backing, he could somehow unify the disparate tribes flung through the mountains and badlands into a proud democracy.
But such dreams have been jarred by the reality of a Karzai-rigged national election with rampant vote tampering and voter intimidation. Karzai is no better than the warlords we want him to pull together. Karzai has now distanced himself from his American minders and has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
Now we want to send in a massive number of new troops and equipment to somehow again "win hearts and minds" and drive out the Taliban with brute force.
While the Taliban have no designs upon terror against America or any of the other NATO nations now with troops in the country, they operate as brutal criminals in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. An increased armed American presence there is a daily irritant to Afghans, as well as neighboring rogue areas of Pakistan caught between foreign troops who often cannot tell the difference between peaceful civilians and the Taliban.
Once more we are fighting a war where troops do not speak the language or understand the people and are tasked with fighting often in 130º heat. The goal of preventing Afghanistan from again becoming an al Qaeda terrorist training ground cannot be accomplished by bombing the country into submission. This is a complicated political, diplomatic and sociological challenge.
President Obama, in office less than a year, just like JFK, must soon make a decision regarding the politically charged prospect of approving or disapproving more troops being called for by a top military general. I hope he is aware of the assessment of others who have tried to subdue this ragged country:
“Afghanistan taught us an invaluable lesson . . . It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force. We should have helped the people of Afghanistan in improving their life, but it was a gross mistake to send troops into the country.”– Retired Red Army General Boris Gromov
This article, by Pascal Zachary, was posted to In These Times, October 9. 2009.
For all the talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics, what’s remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic economics and military affairs.
Economically, Obama has continued the bailout of Wall Street, maintained Bush-era tax cuts, pursued “stimulus” through large deficit spending and re-appointed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who was a Bush favorite.
In defense, Obama has broken with Bush on a few critical matters, notably by canceling expensive weapons systems and dropping (in September) an aggressive plan to impose a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe that Russia intensely opposed. Yet Obama has carried over Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates; essentially stuck with Bush timetables on Iraq; and maintained historically record levels of Pentagon spending. The president has continued the war in Afghanistan, raising the number of American combat troops. In a speech on August 17, Obama even tried to construct a moral basis for the war, described it as “not a war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.” And as a necessary war, “a war worth fighting,” Obama has declared that only through the democratization of Afghanistan can the terrorist threat to the United States—in the form of al Qaeda—be eliminated from the country.
Further escalation of the war in Afghanistan is no sure thing, however. Having voiced support for increasing combat troops earlier in his presidency, in September Obama seemed torn between three possibilities: escalation, muddling through with the current military footprint or shifting to a greatly “limited” combat mission that would concentrate on countering terrorists targeting the United States, rather than fighting the insurgent Taliban.
Obama’s decision is complicated by his earlier decision to ask his top Afghan military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to make the case for escalation. McChrystal is reportedly prepared to ask for an additional 40,000 U.S. troops—beyond the 68,000 American soldiers already approved to fight in Afghanistan.
While the question of whether or not the United States sends more troops to Afghanistan defines the current debate over the war, respected Democratic voices, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Vice President Joseph Biden, are quietly stumping for a third way: limited war in Afghan, which would concentrate on countering terrorists and depend on a relatively small number of conventional combat troops. The “limited” advocates, who Obama seemingly ignored until recently, are offering the president a stark choice between escalating—and creating a new Vietnam-style quagmire—and a sharp reduction of ground troops, which would likely reduce both American deaths and the cost of the war. Supporters of this approach include conservative columnist George Will, who in a September column nicely summarized the “limited” war approach. “Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy,” Will wrote. “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
A third way
That escalation in Afghanistan is no longer viewed as inevitable is welcome. Yet missing from the debate is any serious consideration of complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. No single voice in the foreign policy establishment supports the speedy exit of combat forces, though even McChrystal concedes that the United States might soon experience involuntary withdrawal—in total defeat. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he wrote in his confidential assessment of the war, leaked to the Washington Post.
To be sure, the United States has already lost the war in meaningful ways. The month of October marks eight years of U.S. combat in Afghanistan. More than 800 American soldiers have died—and alarmingly more than one quarter of that total died in the past three months alone. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the war began. The Afghan government this summer presided over a fraudulent national election. Illegal opium production has exploded since 2001; for 2008, the United Nations valued Afghan drug exports at $3 billion. Polls show less than 40 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, the lowest level of support since the start of the war.
Calling for complete withdrawal, phased or immediate, remains a lonely position, endorsed by such independent foreign policy experts as Andrew J. Bacevich, of Boston University, and Robert Naiman, coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, an activist group. Democratic Party leaders, while fretting over parallels between an Afghan quagmire and the Vietnam War that doomed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the ’60s, are objecting to escalation. Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) opposition to sending more troops, while trying to put limits on U.S. costs in the war, still holds fast to the notion that Afghan institutions, including the army, can be sufficiently strengthened to hold off the Taliban. Even many progressive advocacy groups, such as MoveOn, haven’t made rapid withdrawal form Afghanistan a high priority, perhaps fearing that by breaking with the president on war, they will weaken his ability to push through progressive domestic legislation like healthcare reform. But Code Pink, an influential peace group, has been calling on the president to “focus on negotiations and bringing our troops home.”
Getting the mission right
Yet the case for withdrawing from Afghanistan makes tactical, strategic and moral sense, chiefly because legitimate U.S. security needs can be achieved more effectively through other means. As Bacevich has written, “In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong mission.”
If there is a “right” mission in Afghanistan, it can only be to deny al-Qaeda and its friends the opportunity to attack Americans at home and abroad. After eight years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops (aided by much smaller forces from Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and other “allied” countries) haven’t accomplished this. Yet targeted attacks by U.S. and allied forces are killing terrorists, highlighting an alternative to ground troops and an Afghan quagmire.
In September, U.S. military forces in Somalia killed Saleh Nabhan, the man believed to be responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. Predator drones, “robot” aircraft controlled from a distance by U.S. technicians, have killed al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
The use of assassination squads and remote-controlled killer planes present their own practical and moral problems. The wrong people can be killed, for instance. And such attacks require detailed knowledge of the movements of the targets. Some of the declared “enemies,” meanwhile, such as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban government shattered by U.S. air strikes beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, might be worth negotiating with instead of killing. Omar remains head of the insurgency, a popular hero and important to any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. troops would be linked to progress in peace negotiation—and an acceptance that the Taliban, in some form, will play some role, if not a decisive role, in a new Afghan government.
An end to war in Afghanistan—and increased stability as a consequence of peaceful co-existence with the Taliban—would benefit Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be living in a remote city. Secular political forces in Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, are battling to keep the country out of the hands of religious fundamentalists who already exert profound influence. Anti-American feeling is extraordinarily high in Pakistan; even secular elites blame Americans for inflaming and exaggerating their domestic problems. The U.S. government, which is currently debating how much to increase financial assistance to Pakistan, would provide more effective help without troops in Afghanistan.
A comprehensive strategy
Defenders of escalation say that Afghanistan needs to be reformed and that the aim of U.S. intervention is to create a democratic society, where Afghanis are safe and free. The premise of a democratic Afghanistan informs McChrystal’s view of war aims; the commander’s edifice of escalation depends, he writes (weirdly echoing Hegel), on identifying “the objective will of the [Afghan] people.” In March, Obama gave powerful expression to this position when he announced his “comprehensive” strategy for Afghanistan. While his highest goal was to stop the use of the country as a terrorist staging ground, his next two were classic nation-building goals: to promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan and a national army that can ultimately take over “counter-insurgency” efforts from Americans.
In the arena of democratization, the American effort was marred by last month’s flawed elections, which saw President Hamid Karzai steal enough votes to claim victory (there’s a recount now underway). The election fiasco pushed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an influential Democrat, to predict Afghanistan “will remain [a] tribal entity.” Such a place would require a strong U.S. military presence to hold together and (perhaps) the emergence of a homegrown dictator ruling the country with a “strong hand.”
Yet the very presence of American troops inflames ethnic differences.
Afghans view Americans as invaders and occupiers, and their very presence galvanizes opponents, creating more resistance. As Afghan army spokesman Zahir Azimi has said, “Where [American] forces are fighting, people think it is incumbent on them to resist the occupiers and infidels.” The self-perpetuating nature of the conflict explains the profound pessimism expressed by some with deep experience in the region. British Gen. David Richards, who served in Afghanistan, said in August that stabilizing the country could take 40 years. While such predictions are dismissed as hysterical, they are simply the logical extension of Levin’s insistence that the United States “increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation.” These efforts at self-reliance inevitably involve a significant American presence on the ground, which in turn fuels the very cycle that Levin insists he wants to avoid: a costly quagmire.
The alternative to a McChrystal escalation or a Levin quagmire requires no leap into the unknown but rather recognition of limits of American power and the legacy of Afghan history. The script for withdrawal is essentially already written—in Iraq, of all places. For the sake of temporary peace, Iraq has essentially been partitioned into three “sub-countries,” two of which are essentially ethnic enclaves. The same could be done in Afghanistan—though the number of sub-divisions could be larger, and acceptance of Taliban rule over some of them would be required. In this scenario, a phased pullout of U.S. forces could accompany the negotiated “government of national unity,” which—like in Iraq—would preserve the “notional” nation of Afghanistan while effectively deconstructing the territory into more manageable pieces.
The United States once blithely dealt with the Taliban (Dick Cheney, after all, famously met with the Taliban prior to bin Laden’s attacks). While retaining the right to attack al Qaeda on Afghan soil, the Obama administration could tolerate Taliban rule if the result of a stable Afghanistan was to free more resources and attention to Pakistan’s urgent security issues. The embrace of realism could well co-evolve with the re-emergence of a moral center to American foreign policy.
Under this scenario, withdrawal of American troops would not mean the end of military actions on Afghan soil. As advocates of “limited” war argue, attacks could still be made from Predator drones based elsewhere. But air strikes and attacks by U.S. “special forces” on Afghan soil risk undermining any government of national unity and the pretense that the United States has halted its war on the Taliban.
For President Obama, the stakes are high. His young presidency is on the line. Perhaps because his secretary of defense, Gates, is a Republican, Obama has personalized the decision on Afghan strategy to a dangerous degree. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. By deciding to reduce, if not altogether remove, U.S. combat troops from the country, the president will take a step towards the moral high ground that he so often desperately seeks to inhabit.
Morality must return to the center of America’s relations with the world. Afghanistan could become, as Obama likes to say, “a teaching moment,” for this president and his wider constituency, the citizens of the planet. The Bush presidency damaged both the image of the United States as a role model for promoters of democratization around the world, and further entrenched a darker counter-view of America as a reactionary force in world affairs. The Obama presidency creates an opening to restore the brighter side. In continuing the war in Afghanistan, Obama risks destroying his chances to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world. By ending the Afghan war, quickly and decisively, the president will match his rhetoric of hope with reality. He will also save U.S. lives and create new openings for negotiation, diplomacy and regional solutions to problems in distant lands.
This article, by Heidi Vogt, was distributed by the Asspciated Press, October 17, 2009.
KABUL – Afghanistan's election crisis deepened Saturday as President Hamid Karzai resisted international pressure to accept fraud rulings that could force him into a runoff with his main challenger.
Three more American service members were reported killed in separate bombings as the U.S. and its international partners sought a way out of Afghanistan's political impasse, a crisis that threatens the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the future of the U.S.-led military mission.
A U.N.-backed panel had been expected to release findings Saturday from its investigation into allegations of widespread fraud — most of it favoring Karzai — in the Aug. 20 election. Preliminary figures showed Karzai won with more than 54 percent of the vote.
Still, Karzai could face a runoff with his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, if the complaints panel invalidates enough ballots to push the incumbent's total below 50 percent.
Announcement of the commission's findings was delayed as commission members spent Saturday in meetings with Afghan election officials and double-checking calculations, according to people familiar with the talks.
Karzai has refused to commit to accepting the panel's findings before they're released, even though his campaign staff has expressed confidence that the president will remain above 50 percent, eliminating the need for a runoff.
Karzai's stand has raised concern that he may challenge the findings, further delaying proclamation of a winner or the scheduling a runoff.
Afghan law declares the U.N.-dominated Electoral Complaints Commission the final arbiter on fraud allegations. However, Karzai supporters on the separate Independent Election Commission, which must order a runoff, have argued that the partial recount is beyond the normal complaint process and that the U.N.-backed panel does not have the final say.
A second round balloting must be held before the coming of winter, which traditionally begins in mid-November. Once heavy snows fall in the mountain passes, a runoff would have to wait until spring, leaving the country in political limbo for months as the Taliban gains strength.
Fearing the political crisis will worsen, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have telephoned both Karzai and Abdullah in recent days to express concern over the impasse.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, U.S. Democratic Sen. John Kerry and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were all in Kabul on Saturday for talks with Afghan leaders.
Kerry's trip was planned before the electoral crisis, but he told the candidates "about the need for a legitimate outcome," according to a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A statement by the French Foreign Ministry said Kouchner traveled to Kabul "in the context of tension" brought on by the disputed election and urged all parties "to respect" the review process in the interest of the country.
At the same time, envoys were urging both candidates to strike a power-sharing deal to avoid a potentially divisive and costly second vote.
Officials familiar with the talks say the two sides are far apart on details, and it was unclear whether a power-sharing deal would be constitutional. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
"They want us to establish a strong government, a coalition government," said Mohamed Mohin Murstal, a member of parliament and a Karzai supporter. "Karzai has agreed that after the announcement of the results, he will give the opportunity for all political personalities to be involved in government — but not before."
Karzai's campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president is "not going to compromise the results of the elections into any sort of political deal."
Abdullah's campaign manager, Satar Murad, said his team was focused on finalizing the election and "we're not going to respond until we have that."
The political crisis coincides with a sharp rise in fighting.
A NATO statement said two U.S. troops died Friday in a bombing in eastern Afghanistan. A third U.S. service member died the same day in a bombing in the south.
Their deaths bring to 28 the number of American service members killed in Afghanistan this month, according to an Associated Press count.
This article, by Martin Fletcher, was published iun the London Times, October 9, 2009
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
Many feel that they are risking their lives -- and that colleagues have died -- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.
"The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families," said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division's 2-87 Infantry Battalion.
"They feel they are risking their lives for progress that's hard to discern," said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division's 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. "They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through." The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.
The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops do not share the chaplains' assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.
"We're lost -- that's how I feel. I'm not exactly sure why we're here," said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. "I need a clear-cut purpose if I'm going to get hurt out here or if I'm going to die."
Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he replied: "If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don't."
The only soldiers who thought it was going well "work in an office, not on the ground." In his opinion "the whole country is going to s***."
The battalion's 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people's allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taliban.
They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been knocked out of action.
Living conditions are good -- abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot water, free internet -- but most of the men are on their second, third or fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne's mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state -- especially those in scattered outposts -- and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "They're tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go," she said.
Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87's Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.
A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night and cried, or played war games on his laptop. "It's a release. It's a method of coping." He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between two parked cars.
The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers. "Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere -- in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail," said Captain Rico. Even "hard men" were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.
The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. "The soldiers' biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taliban, because that almost seems impossible. It's hard to catch someone you can't see," said Specialist Mercer.
"It's a very frustrating mission," said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. "The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it's for something [worthwhile], but it's not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There's no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It's hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here."
Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: "We want to believe in a cause but we don't know what that cause is."
The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. "You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they're still going to lie to you. They'll tell you there's no Taliban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again," said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.
Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague's charred corpse from a bombed vehicle.
The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their backs. "They're a joke," said one. "You get shot at but can do nothing about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It's not enough to know which house the shooting's coming from."
The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International Security Assistance Force but "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Support Afghan Farmers."
To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. "That's very demoralising," said Captain Masengale.
The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the soldiers' private lives. "They're killing families," he said. "Divorces are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of their lives."
The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help Afghanistan. "All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving," said Captain Masengale.
"If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is successful," Sergeant Hughes said.
"You carry on for the guys to your left or right," added Specialist Mercer.
The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. "We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No one comes in and says, 'I've had a great day on a mission'. It's all pain," said Captain Masengale. "The only way we've been able to make it is having each other."
Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87's commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the enemy was the best form of defence.
He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency -- winning the allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development and good governance -- was a long and laborious process that could not be completed in a year. "These 12 months have been, for me, laying the groundwork for future success," he said.
At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.
Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
This article, by Fred Branfman, was published by Truthdig, October 9, 2009
[Under Vice President Joe] Biden’s approach … American forces would concentrate on eliminating the Qaeda leadership, primarily in Pakistan, using Special Operations forces, Predator missile strikes and other surgical tactics. — The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2009
Biden has argued against increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. …— The Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2009
Statesmen must be judged by the consequences of their actions. Whatever Nixon and Kissinger intended for Cambodia, their efforts created catastrophe. — William Shawcross, “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia” (2002)
“I think you’re closer to the World War II generals than you are to the Vietnam ones.” Dwight Eisenhower was the obvious model. “You may not realize it, but you have more influence than any other military leader in this country right now. More than the Joint Chiefs. You can make a case for you not staying, because there’s no job after this that will compare to it.” The implied suggestion was politics. — Bob Woodward quoting Gen. Jack Keane mentoring his protégé, Gen. David Petraeus, in “The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008” (2009)
The Oct. 7 Wall Street Journal reports that President Barack Obama is reading Gordon Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam,” a warning against heeding inevitable military requests for more troops. But however valuable Goldstein’s book might be, William Shawcross’ book “Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia” is far more relevant and significant. For no matter how much Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other hawks disagree with the Biden doves on troop increases, both sides reportedly concur on the importance of going after Taliban and al-Qaida “sanctuaries” in Pakistan, a policy eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s disastrous decision to widen the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1969. The Obama administration has already begun to escalate the fighting in Pakistan, a policy that could make even the Nixon-Kissinger destruction of Cambodia seem like a pleasant memory.
If U.S. military leaders are right that they cannot prevail in Afghanistan without escalating into Pakistan, this is the strongest possible argument for withdrawing from Afghanistan. For nothing, not even Taliban rule in Kabul, could justify allowing the tiny Afghan tail to wag a giant, nuclear-armed Pakistani dog whose stability is clearly America’s very top priority in the region. Further instability in Pakistan would only benefit al-Qaida, which has already made deep inroads into Pakistan and is unlikely to return to Afghanistan even if the U.S. withdraws from there. Former N.Y. Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer is right: “It should be engraved on the minds of every American diplomat: Do nothing that will further destabilize Pakistan” (from the “Rethink Afghanistan” video).
Irving Kristol’s recent death reminded us of his phrase “the law of unintended consequences,” referring to neoconservative attacks on well-meaning liberal domestic policies. Both neo- and garden-variety conservatives, however, have never been willing to apply this same “law” to their far greater international disasters. There is no record, for example, of Kristol’s son Bill or his fellow conservatives acknowledging the blow to U.S. interests and the enormous human suffering—including over 1 million Iraqis dead, wounded or made homeless—caused by the neoconservative-engineered invasion of Iraq.
As indifferent to non-American human suffering as have been conservatives, neoconservatives and neo-Stalinists like Dick Cheney, however, they presumably did not intend to see their invasion of Iraq destroy the Bush presidency, bring to power Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, strengthen anti-American terrorist forces around the globe, and vastly increase worldwide hatred for America due to the Bush administration’s making torture an official state policy for the first time in American history.
Given the U.S. history of unintended consequences in Cambodia and Iraq, not to mention Iran and dozens of other instances, it seems at first glance incredible that so-called Obama doves are seriously calling for increasing drone strikes and clandestine U.S. ground incursions into Pakistan, while pressuring the Pakistani army to expand fighting even though its campaign into the Swat Valley has already produced Pakistan’s greatest humanitarian disaster since 1947. The most likely explanation for this irrationality is at least partly that they see escalation in Pakistan as a necessary political counterweight to the Petraeus-McChrystal push for a troop buildup in Afghanistan, which they oppose.
Their concern is understandable. Bob Woodward has reported how Petraeus mentor Gen. Jack Keane has already begun prepping Petraeus for a run for president. A Republican Party desperate for leaders other than Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee will probably draft him as a presidential candidate if he can continue to avoid blame for his disastrous mismanagement of the Af-Pak theater. Petraeus protégé McChrystal’s disloyal and unprecedented public pressure on Obama for a troop buildup has clearly functioned as an attempt to blame Obama for the inevitable Afghan disasters to come even if Petraeus does not run for president. Obama’s aides are undoubtedly desperate to find a credible alternative to a growing U.S. troop buildup and skyrocketing American casualties in Afghanistan.
Though understandable, however, escalating in Pakistan would be dangerously and foolishly myopic, risking “unintended consequences” far exceeding even the disasters of Indochina and Iraq, and crippling the Obama presidency even more than if it were to withdraw from an Afghanistan where al-Qaida is no longer present and to which it is unlikely to return.
Petraeus, as the military chief of the Af-Pak theater enjoying even greater “influence” than the Joint Chiefs, has already seen his forays into Pakistan drive the Taliban and al-Qaida eastward, vastly increase both their strength and that of homegrown terrorists, create a vast upsurge in popular anti-American feeling, divide the Pakistani military, and destabilize an already unpopular and corrupt Pakistani government. Further destabilizing a nuclear-armed Pakistan already engaged in a cold and sometimes hot war with India could lead to a U.S. foreign policy crisis dwarfing Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
Shawcross’ “Sideshow” provides a cautionary tale of the kind of unintended consequences that going after enemy “sanctuaries” can lead to. President Nixon, after taking office in January 1969, and Henry Kissinger, who directed U.S. policy and bombing in Cambodia, decided to go after North Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in the sparsely populated northeast regions of an otherwise neutral and peaceful Cambodia. They began by unilaterally conducting secret and massive B-52 bombing raids, violating both the U.S. Constitution and the Nuremberg principles. When the bombing raids did not succeed, they invaded Cambodia with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. When that failed they escalated their bombing, using B-52s against civilian targets in one of the most savage bombing campaigns of civilians in history. They also created and propped up the corrupt and totally incompetent regime of Gen. Lon Nol, who had overthrown Prince Sihanouk, until Nol’s loss to the murderous Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The “unintended consequences” of the Nixon-Kissinger attempt to destroy North Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in Cambodia included:
Driving the North Vietnamese westward into Cambodia, weakening and destabilizing the Lon Nol government.
Transforming the Khmer Rouge from a small and ineffectual force numbering no more than a few hundred into a large army capable of defeating the combined forces of U.S. airpower and the Lon Nol army. Had Nixon and Kissinger respected Sihanouk and not bombed and invaded Cambodia, there is little reason to believe that the Khmer Rouge would have taken power.
Fostering widespread pogroms and massacres of Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia, poisoning Vietnamese-Cambodian relations even further.
Murdering, maiming, impoverishing and starving countless Cambodians, even before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
And this occurred in a nation of only 7 million that posed little threat to anyone beyond Vietnam. The Pakistan issue, of course, is far, far more serious.
Interestingly enough, Kissinger—like so many others, including his protégé Richard Holbrooke—appears to have learned nothing from his destruction of Cambodia. Writing in Newsweek on Oct. 3, Kissinger opined that “a sudden reversal of American policy would fundamentally affect domestic stability in Pakistan by freeing the Qaeda forces along the Afghan border for even deeper incursions into Pakistan, threatening domestic chaos.” Of course, the opposite is true in reality. It is the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan that has driven “the Qaeda forces”—and the Taliban—further east into Pakistan, threatening the same kind of “domestic chaos” that Kissinger produced 40 years ago when his bombing drove the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge further west into Cambodia.
But Kissinger’s remark about what al-Qaida might do in the event of a U.S. withdrawal is more to the point. He is fatuous in suggesting that an American withdrawal from Pakistan would “free” al-Qaida to move more deeply into Pakistan. Al-Qaida is already making deep inroads into Pakistan beyond the Northwest Frontier Territories and is likely to continue to do so whatever happens in Afghanistan. But if so, this raises a basic question: Why are we fighting in Afghanistan if “Qaeda forces” are unlikely to return there even if the Taliban wins?
It is impossible at this point to predict the precise “unintended consequences” of further U.S. escalation in Pakistan. Experts worry that dissident elements in the Pakistani military might supply one or more of Pakistan’s dozens of nuclear weapons to terrorists; that anti-American terrorist forces could increase as unexpectedly as did the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; that a further strengthening of al-Qaida could lead to new 9/11s; that the Pakistani government could be weakened from within; and that tensions between Pakistan and India could reach unprecedentedly dangerous level.
Two things are certain at this point, however.
First, the U.S. has even less control over events in Pakistan than it does in Afghanistan. It is the height of hubris, the arrogance of power and sheer folly to continue unleashing forces there which it cannot control.
Second, despite the horror of the Nixon-Kissinger destruction of Cambodia, it did indeed remain a “sideshow.” Today, it is Afghanistan which is the sideshow. Allowing Pakistan to become the main event would constitute the greatest U.S foreign policy error of the post-World War II era, destroy the Obama presidency and lead to the election of an authoritarian Republican president in 2012 who could make us yearn for the days of George W. Bush.