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Afghan Bangs and Whimpers

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

— T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone.

— Barack Obama, May 21, 2012

The war in Afghanistan is going badly for everyone. The ordinary people of that chaotic country, who are the most important element in the whole horrible shambles, are suffering enormously, and the vast quantities of money poured into their country by US and other taxpayers have not benefited them in any way whatever.  But these oceans of cash have certainly benefited several thousand not-so-ordinary Afghans who have siphoned off countless millions of dollars into bank accounts in Dubai and elsewhere. One of these loyal citizens was the country’s former vice-president, Zia Masood, who on arrival in Dubai was found to be carrying $52 million (according to a Wikileaked US Embassy cable), but was allowed to go laughing to the bank without any action being taken.  The US Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction reported last year that “As much as $10 million a day in cash is being smuggled through Kabul airport,”  and in March the deputy governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank told Reuters that his countrymen “have been moving up to $8 billion in cash in suitcases and carry-on bags from Afghanistan’s airports every year.” But it seems there is nothing that the US or anyone else can do about it.  This is the totally corrupt country that is expected by Obama to “stand up” within the next year or so, and be left to look after its own domestic security in 30 months’ time. This is the country in which this week five US soldiers were shot by an Afghan soldier.

In 2009 Obama declared that “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards.”  Three years later, during his seven hour presidential electioneering visit to the country, during which he did not dare to travel anywhere, he declared “we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly.”  But there was no talk of moving backwards or forwards because the place has stayed the same as it was in 2009 when he was casting round for solutions, none of which has produced proposals that will result in anything but continuing bedlam.  Nobody knows how wars can be ended “responsibly”, unless you figure in the re-election factor, when responsibility is confined to getting votes at any cost — which price includes the lives of American and other foreign soldiers.

It’s cliché time when you refer to statements by Senator John Kerry, but he did make one original and mind-stopping declaration about the Vietnam war, way back in April 1971.  (And there is no doubt, no matter the malicious campaign against him, that Kerry was a brave man.  He’d probably have been a lousy president,  but the hell with his spiteful tiny-minded critics, because he deserved every medal he wears.)  All these years ago Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which continues to have more than its share of self-righteous pompous ignorant self-important asses,  just “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

And we should echo this, because how is President Obama going to ask one of his soldiers to be the last man to die in Afghanistan?  It might be a Brit, of course (three more of them died last week); or an Australian (one killed Sunday); or an Italian (one the previous week); or a soldier of any country, in fact, of the forty plus which have soldiers being killed and maimed for nothing.

Obama has declared — no doubt to the delight of the murderous Taliban and all the other insurgents (because there are many different sorts) — that there will be no US combat troops in Afghanistan in eighteen months’ time. So all the militant opposition groups have to do is hunker down and choose their opportunities to strike. What a gift to give an enemy.  And think what the Afghan army feels about this. Its soldiers are poorly led, ill-equipped, badly-paid, and from a multitude of mutually-hostile regions and tribes. Most are illiterate and incapable of operating technically demanding equipment — which, these days, is most equipment. And according to US spokesman LtCol Timothy Stauffer, “There is an awful lot of equipment purchased and sitting in warehouses until we get the logistics fixed and get the ANA trained to request the equipment and get it issued.”

This statement by LtCol Stauffer about equipment management might seem a bit of a throwaway line and of little importance, but in fact it summarizes very well the entire support, assistance and organizational debacle in Afghanistan.  Bear in mind that foreign troops have been in the country for ten years. Their deep involvement began in 2005. So they’ve had over six years to devise and implement a workable equipment management system for the Afghan military.  This isn’t brain surgery or nuclear science:  in every country with an army worthy of the name there is a well-tried, proven and effective system of equipment control.  (Sure, the pointy-headed bureaucrats in the British Ministry of Defense have managed to totally louse up almost every aspect of defense procurement and budget management; but there are exceptions to every rule.)  It is verging on the unbelievable that in six long years the massive amounts of money plowed into Afghanistan have not produced a workable military logistics system. And this is but a tiny example of the shambles.

Foreign troop contingents are well aware that their governments have decided to withdraw them from combat by the end of next year, and that they are to leave entirely by the end of 2014, irrespective of whether the Afghan Army can “stand up” (to use the Obama phrase) or not.  So what will the Commander-in-Chief tell the families of those who are killed in his final desperate hours before his troop withdrawal from combat takes place?  And what will he tell all the soldiers who are maimed and mentally shattered in the last days of his war?  There will be the usual platitudes, by all these politicians who have never heard bullets and look on warfare, in the words of Clausewitz, as being “the continuation of Politik by other means.” But in Afghanistan, this won’t wash.  The US is up to its neck in an unwinnable war.

Rarely has there been such total incompetence in the direction of a war. The foreign soldiers in Afghanistan try to do their military duty, but essentially they are the patsies of the politicians. They die and suffer mutilation and disfigurement while the focus of the White House and the heaven-help-us-alternative Romney is on winning power at any price. They die while US Navy ships are shouldering each other out of the water in the Persian Gulf, where their menacing belligerence against Iran, a country that presents not a shred of threat to the United States, is being strangled by governments who leap to obey the diktats of western oil companies. The next war looms, even before this one collapses.

The site icasualties.com can be relied upon to report foreign deaths and injuries in the Afghan War, about which little appears in western mainstream media. It records that 39 foreign soldiers were killed last month, and 224 so far this year. What did they die for?  And what will the last soldier die for?  This war will end with both bangs and whimpers. And the main victims will be the people of Afghanistan, because their corrupt and ineffective government is incapable of ‘standing up’ when the foreigners leave. It’s a whimpering dream world.  With stand-alone bangs.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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