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What are We Fighting for in Afghanistan?

It was the opportunity for the president of the United States to deliver his most important address yet. America was entering a new era after failing to defeat an implacable foe in a far off and forbidding land. His speech was filled with Sturm und Drang, delivered to the finest young men and women the country had to offer and the highest defense and intelligence officials in the land at the world’s most prestigious military academy. It should have been a sacred moment in American history.

For months the world had waited with great anticipation for the president to weigh in on America’s involvement in Afghanistan amidst a bitter debate over the respective consequences of investing more troops and further billions, and the very likely possibility that the United States could lose the war and be subjected to more merciless attacks by Al Qaeda. A varied mix of solutions were offered up, which included negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, and, ultimately, withdrawing current troops.

Had the president leveled with the American people and talked about ethnic cleansing of Pashtun and Baluch tribal areas by Predator Drones, of Blackwater crimes and targeted assassinations, some might have breathed a sigh of relief. Instead the president weighed in with a well worn mantra by offering as his primary justification for sending more troops that “We did not ask for this fight.”

We did not ask for this fight?

For 60 years the United States played both Pakistan and Afghanistan against each other in a Manichean, dualist game of superpower politics with little regard for the consequences. But like the Soviet Union before it, the cold war assumptions of military power that the United States carried with it into Afghanistan have been rendered useless by the ethnic, political and military complexities of the Afghan/Pakistan region.

Before the United States can hope to win anything in Afghanistan it has to decide what it is fighting for. Is it oil, geostrategic positioning, against terror or just to save face. In the last few years U.S. strategy has broken down to a confused mix, dominated by those wishing to withdraw troops and limit the American commitment to containing Al Qaeda and those favoring a robust counterinsurgency campaign requiring a permanent political and military commitment that would last for decades.

General Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s new commander in Afghanistan, is well aware that nothing can be accomplished without a change in the psychology of the American approach, stating in his August 30 report, “Many describe the conflict in Afghanistan as a war of ideas,.. However, this is a ‘deeds-based’ information environment where perceptions derive from actions, such as how we interact with the population and how quickly things move. The key to changing perceptions lies in changing the underlying truths.”

McChrystal realizes that “changing the underlying truths” requires a change in the operational culture to “interact more closely with the population, and focus on operations that bring stability, while shielding them from insurgent violence, corruption, and coercion.”

But whether the very nature of America’s military/industrial/media/academic complex can be moved off its primary directive in order to accommodate McChrystal’s request, remains highly doubtful. The decentralized nature of the opposition in Afghanistan and Pakistan defies the very culture of the Pentagon’s thinking. Like Vietnam, a decentralized enemy is anathema to the rigid, high technology and high-cost Command, Control and Communications approach developed throughout the cold war to decapitate the centralized Soviet bureaucracy. But the Pentagon continues to insist on applying its expensive tools, regardless of its persistent failure to eliminate, let alone define its enemy.

General McChrystal will get 30,000 troops and 18 months to prove his counterinsurgency plan can work. The cost to the United States will be immense, especially to an economy already bled dry by 60 years of cold war and its attendant thinking. If it can establish security for both the Afghan and Pakistani people, somehow spare innocent civilians and roll back extremist terror, it might work. If it doesn’t, no troop escalation or elaborate counterinsurgency doctrine can save Washington’s political class from the fight it went out of its way to ask for.

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” published by City Lights. They can be reached at  www.invisiblehistory.com

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” published by City Lights. They can be reached at  www.invisiblehistory.com

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