Actually, we’re not leaving. That is confirmed by the news this week of Washington’s having reached agreement with President Hamid Karzai on the terms of a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA). With the last wrinkles ironed out, the legal basis is in place for American forces to stay at least through 2024 and perhaps indefinitely. That means retention of several army bases, airfields, communication hubs, and an outsized embassy cum pro-consular headquarters. Special Forces and the ultra secretive CIA led Units 120 will continue to search out and hope to destroy the Taliban and associated networks. Drones will continue to kill whomever the White House checks off on the presidential list of hostile persons. We will continue to train an Afghan army and police –as we have been doing for the past 12 years. The total of US forces will be between 8,000 and 15,000. Doubtless, they will be complemented by a large corps of the inescapable mercenaries.
But didn’t President Obama declare repeatedly in last year’s presidential campaign that that the United States would be quitting Afghanistan by the end of 2014? Hasn’t he repeatedly since said that active combat operations would end next year? Didn’t Vice-President Joe Biden unequivocally state in his debate with Paul Ryan, “But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.”1 Didn’t he explain that “The fact is, we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans, Al Qaida. We’ve decimated Al Qaida central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose.”
Yes, that is true. There was no reason to take these pledges at face value, though. For simultaneously other high officials were unequivocally explaining that it was Washington’s objective to retain the forces mentioned above to perform a range of combat missions. So declared Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, and CIA Director John Brennan. This aim was not concealed; indeed, the SOFA talks with Kabul and assessments of their progress were the subject of reports and commentary for the past eighteen months even as the “end of 2014” line was pervading the public discourse. This is not surprising. After all, deceit and dishonesty have been the hallmarks of our leaders’ communication with the American people since the Global War On Terror was launched in 2001. So it was on Iraq, on Yemen, on Somalia, on the magnitude of the al-Qaeda threat. So has it also been on Afghanistan where we never have received a crisp statement of our purposes and measures of success. They are as opaque as former Secretary Robert Gates’ lame testimony that “we’ll know success when we see it.”
These contradictions and this blatant dishonesty simply have been ignored or slighted by our corps of journalists and their editors. It was said about Napolean’s army that every soldier carried a marshal’s baton in his knapsack in the hope of rapid battle field promotion. Similarly, every journalist carries the outline of a Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech on his laptop. But checking and comparing quotations of leaders on sensitive issues of national consequence is too dicey a matter for the large majority of them. Wikipedia, evidently, is a click too far.
Obama habitually refers to the “mission” in Afghanistan. To accomplish what? At first it was to unseat the Taliban and expel/crush al-Qaeda – as Biden said. We succeeded. What is the justification, therefore, for a perpetuation of the occupation and military operations?
There is a strategic logic behind the American deployment – however primitive. At the outset, Washington sought not only to eliminate al-Qaeda but to ensure that Afghanistan never again could serve as a refuge or launching pad for terrorist attacks against the United States. That meant eliminating the Taliban as a major political force that might challenge a Washington friendly government in Kabul. That in turn meant strikes across the Durand Line into Pakistan – whatever the risk of destabilizing that country. With the al-Qaeda remnants numbering somewhere in the low double digits, with its leadership decimated and its organizing capacity minimal, crushing the Taliban became our sole raison d’etre for being there. A stable, pro-Western regime in Afghanistan that would foreclose any possibility, at any future time, of elements hostile to the United States regaining power, or even offering sympathetic sanctuary there, has been the objective for several years now. Indeed, it provided the strategic grounds for the Obama escalation decision taken in December 2009.
We obviously have failed to achieve that end. The Taliban are still a strong political and military presence and the government that we have fostered is fragile, corrupt and incompetent. So, what’s the point of the exercise today?
To deal with a recrudescent terrorist threat to the United States? There is no such threat in the offing. The Taliban never were interested in attacking us; they only kill Americans in Afghanistan. The ghosts of al-Qaida past haunting their old bases of operation? That danger is no greater there than in a dozen other places around the world. Moreover, we have the means to address that conjectured threat if and when it materializes. Al Qaeda as an organization has ceased to exist as little more than a brand name. Whatever offshoots (or similarly motivated groups) may attack American interests, they can do so far more easily from other locations. Besides, the Taliban leadership broke with Al Qaeda long ago (a political fact that it intentionally withholds to use as a bargaining chip with Washington) – nor does it have a reason to retie the knot. On the other side of the scale, we have motivated and provided training for thousands of potential militants thanks to our crude interventions in the region.
In truth, American security strategy remains on automatic pilot – oriented by the bearings set in 2001. We want to extirpate militant Islamic fundamentalism everywhere out of fear that it could morph into violent jihadism. On a broader plane, we want “full spectrum dominance” in every region of the world. That is why Washington was keen on bases in Iraq – a goal frustrated when al-Maliki closed the door behind us. We want to “contain” China by establishing a fixed presence all around Asia. What that means in practice is no clearer than the concept itself. Bases cannot prevent Beijing from extending its control over the rich carbon fuel deposits of Central Asia. There is no point in designing a plan to interrupt oil supplies for some conjectured Chinese panzer corps since blitzkrieg across the PRC’s borders is conceivable only in the minds of Pentagon planners whose minds are wandering the battle-scapes of WW II. We do have a compulsion to exploit our superior military strength because that is our strong suit; our diplomacy is episodic and maladroit, and we have no relevant economic assets to deploy. That compulsion should be restrained from shaping strategic thinking.
All of this does not add up to a convincing case for a substantial military role in Counter-insurgency depends on winning hearts and minds. At this point, we’ve pretty much lost them – at least to such a degree as to render unattainable our objectives – even if a complete Taliban comeback is equally improbable. We are aliens in a xenophobic society; we have killed too many civilians; we have not improved living conditions outside of Kabul; we are closely associated with local elites who have been shorn of credibility.
Then there is the much touted transfer of security responsibility to the locals. The Afghan National Army has a nominal manpower of 400,000 +. But the units judged capable of fighting effectively on their own in aggregate constitute only about 5% of that number. Moreover, there are tensions between the Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Hezere and Uzbeks who hold a dominant position in the military and security services that dates back to the 2001 American invasion. Intensified rivalry among ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups undermines the Army’s cohesion as a fighting force while making a settlement with the largely Pashtun Taliban more difficult. That means that when the likely civil war breaks out sooner or later, these factions simply will be better armed than they otherwise would be.
Afghanistan is – as it always has been – the world’s biggest, open-air puzzle palace. Washington – these days – is running it a close second.
The Evasion Instinct
Clearly, the strategic rationale for hanging on is unpersuasive. We must look at other, intangible factors to explain the commitment to persevering against all odds– to stay the course without knowing either the destination or the course for getting to it. There is an enormous political, intellectual and emotional inertia behind our dedication to accomplishing something in Afghanistan. For the White House, it is leaving with sufficient ambiguity as to be able to spin the indeterminate outcome. So President Obama will drag things out, come up with clever formulations, and hope that the glue holds until he leaves office. At that point, he will pass it on to his successor. To put it brutally, the Afghanistan chapter of his presidency thereby will have been sanitized for inclusion in his memoirs.
For the Pentagon and CIA, the stake is to perpetuate the world-wide “war on terror” as presently conducted, as well as to avoid being stigmatized for having failed yet again after the tragic disaster of Iraq. Beyond institutional pride and personal reputations, they want to keep the show going as justification for bloated organizational empires kept buoyant by stoking fear of terrorism in all its imagined manifestations. All else fades into insignificance – wasted resources, wasted lives, potentially lethal side effects from declaring an enemy anybody who does not do our bidding, the aggravation of civil strife in neighboring Pakistan, the further erosion in our precarious position in the Islamic world and globally.
As for the country’s political class generally, they have an emotional stake in the make-believe that we are masters of the planet – a presumption that is central to individual self-esteem and collective identity. Our country’s predicament is aggravated, and made irresoluble, by the inability to admit the grievous errors of judgment that led us into Iraq and that escalated the commitment in Afghanistan. We avoid it because the impulses that produced both tragedies stem from sources deep in the American psyche – embedded in our very sense of self and of our place in the world.
As Paul Krugman has written in different policy context:
“What is remarkable is the total absence of either self-reflection or accountability. When you get things this wrong, you’re supposed to ask yourself why, and whether your framework of analysis needs updating. And if you should happen to lack the capacity for self-reflection, there should be some external sanction too; people who get it wrong, keep getting it wrong, and show no sign of learning should pay a price in polite society. But this doesn’t seem to happen to those who got everything wrong.”
The harsh truth: on Afghanistan, as on Iraq, the United States has been misled and deceived by self-serving and shortsighted elites. Americans generally are paying the price for their distracted, studied indifference to what is done in their name; for succumbing to unnatural fears; for being gullible; for not meeting their end of the political contract as citizens to hold their leaders to account.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
1. Vice-Presidential Debate October 11, 2012 Danville, KY