Thursday, March 15, 2012

Graveyard of Empires

The War in Afghanistan is now the second longest single conflict in American history, right after Vietnam.  And for roughly half the war's running time, we've been losing.  Barrack Obama, fulfilling one of his main campaign promises - "to end the pointless War in Iraq and focus on the real threat in Afghanistan" - massively upped the tempo of combat, increased troop strength, and aggressively fought the Taliban and Al Qaeada insurgencies in Afghanistan and their main base in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, this aggressive stance, though successful in killing Osama Bin Ladin, has succeeded in just about only that one thing.  Pakistan, who was always something of a false friend, seemingly playing the United States and the Jihadist against each other while not really committing to either, has fully dropped support for the United States.  And now after a series of disastrous incidents, most notably a horrifying massacre of Afghanis by a crazed American soldier who was supposed to be protecting them*, we might have lost all alliances with the main Afghani government.  Worse, we're no where closer to defeating the terrorists.  Somehow or another in the Central Asian region, the United States and the rest of NATO has turned into the main villain.

What the heck are we supposed to do now?  Obama's main strategy for the last couple of years was to bring the Taliban to the peace tables, but offering very little to persuade them.  I'm going to get critical on the President now, his handling of this war leaves a lot to desire.  In fact, he probably lost it for us.  Yes, Obama refocused the mission to Afghanistan, but clearly he never brought enough force to frighten these guys into capitulating.  Obama's decision to put a 2014 timetable for withdrawal of US forces from the region completely undermined whatever effect the surge in troops could have had.  Its even math for the Jihadists:  just wait the Americans out.  And unfortunately, the Afghani government isn't all that much better.  Hamad Karzai is... well, a dictator, let's not joke around there.  So now the Afghanis have a choice:  either the corrupt Karzai dictatorship, the drug-dealing warlords, or the Jihadists that promise Islamic Empire.

Karzai, wisely noting that his own political fortunes might leave with the Americans, has now positioned himself against us, demanding that NATO scale-back and withdraw much faster.  Obama has so far refused, planning to stay the course he has already laid out.  But should he have taken that offer?

Now, obviously our entire geopolitical strategy in the War on Terror should not be dropped because of one incident, no matter how terrible.  But this incident illuminates just how bad out situation is in Afghanistan.  Quite simply, we're losing this war.  The facts of that are pretty plain.  Its so plain, that even Newt Gingrich, a lifelong Neoconservative, one of those guys who was slamming his sword against his shield for war against Iran, has turned Dove on Afghanistan.  The current strategy is not working.  And that recent massacre is going to be an awful shame on the United States for all of its history.  Right now you should be thinking of an apology for our future generations for that incident.

I know I'm not the only one thinking about Vietnam right now, am I?

The massacre was the best thing for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who for years have wanted to portray the United States as a conquering Empire out to make free Afghanistan into our next dominion.  Its a public relations nightmare, and I don't think any number of apologies are going to get us out of that.  Obama's poll numbers have dropped considerably too.  Last week I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had November's Presidential election won.  Now instead of a mere formality of procedure, Obama might actually lose to Romney, and Afghanistan is going to be the grave they bury him in.

Let's be clear right now:  the American people want out of Afghanistan, the sooner the better.  There's a reason this war isn't getting the news coverage it should.  Its fucking depressing!  Nobody wants to hear about it anymore.  The stupid Republican primaries dominate the news, because Americans like political theatre.  We don't want to be reminded every day that we've created a second Vietnam War.

Already there is a pretty strong chorus asking Obama to end the war, to bring the troops home, and essentially retreat.  They're of the opinion "we've already lost this, we gotta go".  I'd like to evaluate that claim right now.  Before you cut and run, one has to remember why we're in Afghanistan in the first place.  Here's the checklist so far, and it isn't pretty:
  1. Kill Osama bin Laden.  Check.
  2. Defeat Al Qaeda.  Check.  Al Qaeda as a threatening group has nowhere near its original strength as a terrorist organization, which was never that much to being with, honestly.  With Osama himself dead, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 can be claimed to no longer functionally exist, and instead its name has been taken up by Jihadist rebels worldwide to sound threatening.  Its a Stand Alone Complex.  The threat these guys represented was always over-represented, 9/11 was their one big move, and they will never be able to repeat that feat.  Al Qaeda will always exist as long as the name "Al Qaeda" can bring fear to the hearts of the Western world.  I'd call this one a victory, since Al Qaeda has done nothing of significance in years.  And without the personality of bin Laden at the end, what once was a phantom organization is now a true ghost.
  3. Defeat the Taliban.  Failure.  The Taliban simply fled into Pakistan along with Osama, and launched a guerrilla war there.  By the middle of George W. Bush's presidency, our minimalist presence in Afghanistan and focus on Iraq allowed them to sweep right back in the southern parts of the Afghanistan.  The Pakistan-Afghani border is now their homeland, and we've totally failed to defeat them in any way.  Their leader, Muhammad Omar was never caught, and might still be out there leading this group.  We've driven them out of Afghanistan, but there's still a good chance they could retake the country if we were to leave.
  4. Set up a modern democratic state in Afghanistan.  Failure.  The democracy in Afghanistan is meaningless.  The places that are controlled by Karzai are at best poorly democratic, at worst its a full blown dictatorship.  Afghanistan is one of the most chaotic countries on Earth, even ten years later.  With a possible rival in Somalia and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan is the most dangerous place on Earth.  We've totally failed to build infrastructure, opium is now the main cash crop of much of the country, and the weak government is massively corrupt.  There have been some feminist steps, but even these have been attacked endlessly by insurgents, and if Karzai were to try to appease the Taliban rebels this would be the first reform to go.  Most importantly, nobody is sure that Karzai's government will stand if the US were to leave.  Either the country will fall to pieces, or the Taliban will retake control of the southern core.
  5. Stabilize the Middle East.   Total failure.  I'd be laughing now if the results weren't so catastrophic.
Our current course does not seem to actually benefit our long-term aims in Afghanistan.  The cost-benefit analysis doesn't get much better, because it appears this war is so nasty that its driving our soldiers insane, thus the shooting spree that began all this discussion in the first place.

The current strategy at this point is mainly to build up the Afghani army to the point where the state can hold its own, much like Iraq which has stood strong since American withdrawal.  But unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is much more backwards country, which hasn't seen any kind of stability since the 1970s, when the Communist revolution first launched Afghanistan into chaos.  Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam, their defeat there helped the United States win the Cold War.  The Communists were defeated by Jihadists, back by us, who set up the Taliban in the first place.  The 90s were filled with bloodshed as the Taliban fought tribal leaders.  And then the Americans stepped in.  Our own state-building efforts have been complete failures, Karzai is a testament to that.  Karzai is a puppet we put in place, he's our creature, and even he knows that standing with the United States is a losing strategy.  But could a better democracy ever have been built?  We may never know.

Here's where I'm going to start making recommendations for the President.  I know I'm just some nobody history education major in the middle of New Jersey, but this is a serious problem.  Everybody with an idea should give their idea, even if the idea of any of my foreign-policy recommendations being actually worked upon is ridiculous.  I can't know that this is going to work since I can't know every detail of this massive quagmire we're in, but I can know this is a much better option than what we're doing now:

Leaving Afghanistan right now is essentially leaving that country to fall to chaos.  Nobody believes Afghanistan can stand alone without the US as Iraq has done.  However, nobody wants us over there, even if they do need us.  I'd say the United States' best option right now is to actually pull back, to stop major combat operations.  Just stop.  Maybe even pull a large number of troops.  If Karzai thinks he doesn't need us, let him stand alone for a time.  This should help us regain some measure of support from the Afghani people, at least let us step aside while the bad blood from the massacre blows over.  And it would regain our legitimacy, showing that the United States actually is listening to the people we're supposed to be helping.  Finally, it would move American soldiers out of combat for a time, give them the rest that they clearly need.  America doesn't want to fight forever in this war, let us have a break to recharge our strength.

(Also, we could potentially send those extra forces into Syria, where I think military pressure actually could do great good to protect the rebels.)

Now this would result in one of two things.  There might be some kind of miracle and Afghanistan stands on its own and is able to fight off the Taliban on its own.  In which case, congratulations, job well done, the war was a success.   Obama gets reelected by a landslide, everybody can be happy.  *Phew*

The other option is that things get bad, that the Taliban surges forward.  This is why we shouldn't fully withdraw, leave enough power on the ground for us to launch an offensive if needed.  Let the Afghani people and their government remember who the real enemy is, and how much worse they are off without us to protect them.  We then resume full combat operations, maybe even at a greater tempo then ever before.  That's when the war is worth fighting, when we've been asked to return and fight.  There is a chance that many Afghanis will be killed, that real misery and sorrow will come following our withdrawal.  But there's little hope that 2015, the year after we've left for good, is going to be any better than a half-withdrawal in 2012.

And in terms of raw strategy, this might actually be brilliant.  The Taliban so far has been impossible to kill because they're too scattered and too decentralized to ever take on directly.  If we let them gain a base in a part of Afghanistan, if they feel secure enough to try to take control, we can surround the forces they let out of hiding and destroy them all.  Then we can properly build in Afghanistan, then we can finally make a real state, or at least something functional enough that Afghanistan can join the community of nations and survive into the future.

I'm not going to say that winning the war is impossible, I don't believe that.  But I know for a fact that way Obama is doing it now is going to make us lose.  This time table for withdrawal is completely unrealistic, its clearly proving that we're not willing to fight to win, so why even bother with these extra two years of misery anyway?  Everybody wants us to step back, so let's do that.  But do it in a smart way, a flexible way.  Don't completely cut and run, pull back just enough so that we can either completely pull out if that's the best option, or come right back and keep fighting if that's what's needed.

Afghanistan is the Graveyard of Empires, but does the United States need to occupy the next tombstone next to the USSR?  No.  If we really are the best and strongest Empire in history, then we can make the smartest move for ourselves and the Afghani people.

* That unknown soldier has been flown out of Afghanistan in secret, nobody knows who is he or what is going to happen to him.  I suppose his family can be glad he's going to be tried by military justice instead of Afghani courts that would without a doubt execute him, but that isn't helping our diplomatic situation either.


  1. You're already almost at 200,000 pageviews?! Holy crap! o_O

    1. Now it's time for your 200,000 pageview post. Kinda. I dunno.

  2. Very well put. It just sucks the situation Obama was put into when he first took office. George W. Bush had really screwed us during his presidency. Now I'm not saying we never should have gone to war. We absolutely needed to after being attacked on 9/11 to bring those responsible to justice, which is what we were doing by attacking the Taliban government of Afghanistan. But everything then went to hell the second Bush decided to attack Iraq. Whatever Bush's true reason for the Iraq War, whether it was for oil, revenge for the assassination attempt of his father, just plain wanting to finish his father's job from the Gulf War, etc., we just had no reason to be there, and instead of focusing our efforts where it belonged, in Afghanistan, we kept merely a token force there and put most effort into Iraq. I certainly did not envy Obama by inheriting this mess. Could he have done things better than he has so far, probably, but hindsight is always 20/20. Your idea sounds quite logical to me, but when you have idiots in Washington, not pointing any specific fingers here, who are only interested in making sure they get re-elected, or doing what their political party wants them to do, rather than what's in the best interests of the country, good and logical ideas are the first to go. This is why George Washington cautioned against the formation of political parties, but enough of that tangent.

  3. Blue you just jammed it into a nutshell.