The United States government is facing defeat in Afghanistan. But that is not a bad thing in comparison to the alternative: waging war for another decade.
There will be repercussions from the coming defeat. In Afghanistan, perhaps a renewed civil war. In the US and NATO, continued immunity for national-security elites from the consequences of their terrible judgments. A crippling political debate at home over “who lost Afghanistan?” And a cloud of confused depression for Americans who sent their sons and daughters into “the good war.”
An excellent account of the terminal crisis is a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins, the best American correspondent in Afghanistan for the past decade. As a journalist close to Afghanistan’s people, however, Filkins cannot bear the consequences of actually getting out. He is not alone. No one in the mainstream media ever has called for total withdrawal Afghanistan. And so there is a real danger, as there was in “South Vietnam,” of the US lingering until the crashing defeat of the whole operation can be blamed on those who wouldn’t “stay the course.” As a result of never being held accountable for Vietnam, the current official US Army-Marine war-fighting manual even revives the phoenix of Operation Phoenix itself, the 1960s counterinsurgency program that was terminated amidst accusations of torture and tiger cages. The basic objective of our government and military elites – not to mention Wall Street – seems to be to prove our predominance, and never to retreat.
That is why Filkins’ article is so sobering, perhaps a New Yorker version of Walter Cronkite’s 1968 televised pronouncement from Saigon that the American war was “unwinnable.” Hopefully, it won’t take another five bloody years and another Watergate crisis before Cronkite’s prophecy came true. But no one should get his or her hopes up.
In his article titled “After America,” Filkins states flatly that “the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensible, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded.” With 68,000 American troops there now, combat forces will be withdrawn by the end of 2014. There has been “no decision” by the US about how many American troops will be left behind. Filkins guesses, based on what he hears, that the number might be 10-15,000 US trainers, pilots, intel operatives and Special Forces, similar to the projected “residual force” in the 2007 Iraq Study Group recommendation that never materialized.
“The Taliban will not be defeated” by the time the US pulls back from combat, Filkins says. Talks with the Taliban may falter, leaving the US and NATO without an enforceable peace agreement or diplomatic cover. Large areas in the south and east of Afghanistan will be under Taliban control, a geographic partition. Or if talks with the Taliban make progress, he concludes, that will likely provoke a resumption of the civil war with the old Northern Alliance. The country will be subdivided into multiple warlord fiefdoms. According to one of Filkins’ key Afghan sources, “Everyone is [already] preparing for 2014.”
Given these realities, one can understand why it was politically necessary to set the US-NATO withdrawal date at a two-year interval after the November American elections. One can understand why the Pentagon is lobbying for as many “fighting seasons” as possible before pulling back, and why the escalation of drone attacks over Pakistan has been so severe: it’s due, first, to the desperate hope that the Taliban will cry “Uncle Sam” or second, the Taliban will be too damaged to lead a devastated country towards stability without consenting to a Western containment policy and making concessions to Western companies. Even the hint this week that Exxon Mobil might bid on Afghan oil was spun as a huge “sign of confidence” toward a “long-sought goal,” the plan of a Pentagon task force to open Afghanistan to become an oil and mineral bonanza. ( New York Times, July 6)
The US also hopes to contain, though not tame, the future Afghanistan by post-war economic assistance. That might have been easier a decade ago. At the moment, Afghanistan generates a national budget of something like four billion dollars per year, while the US contributes $11 billion annually. Rosy projections are being spun that NATO will contribute $4.1 annually for the next decade or more, with the US paying half. That, of course, depends on whether Western parliaments decide they want to fund an Afghan kleptocracy dominated by warlord fiefdoms.
As for women’s rights, there is little hope unless Hillary Clinton and others make the preservation of girl’s education and women’s representation the ultimate condition of total withdrawal of American troops and continued humanitarian assistance. How likely is that? The current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, propped up entirely by the US, signed a 2009 national law allowing marital rape in Shiite families. It is far from clear at this point where the US will stand on this issue by 2014. What is clear to all but the most delusional is that the US cannot secure rights for women across Afghanistan by more military force. That will depend on political and cultural debates and developments within Afghan society and the Islamic world, with figures like Clinton acting more as role models than imperial powers.
President Obama probably has suspected the coming defeat for several years. He probably figured that he could not be elected president by opposing both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Bob Woodward’s history, he found himself trapped by the Pentagon (and Hillary Clinton) in the first internal review, when he granted Gen. Petraeus 33,000 more American troops. Little-noted at the time, Obama drew a line against any more troop infusions in the future, and announced that he would begin a steady withdrawal after the surge strategy had run its course. He shut down Petraeus as a potential critic (or presidential candidate) by sending him to the CIA where he could wage secret counterterrorism operations quietly. (As a result of that madness-which-passes-as-logic, 74 percent of Pakistanis considered the United States to be their enemy, up from 64 percent when Petraeus took control of the secret war.) Obama placed the politically loyal Leon Panetta in charge of the long march to the exits, with credentials that were burnished by Panetta’s role in the killing of Osama bin Laden and an aide in bin Laden’s family compound. But Obama may have his greatest test in trying to organize a transition to a viable power-sharing arrangement as American power fades. While avoiding attacks by Republicans, Obama ironically may need understandings with not only Pakistan, but also Iran and China, to cover his diplomatic tracks.
The November choice between Obama and Romney is between the present strategy of phased but real withdrawal from Afghan combat (Obama), and a Romney presidency that would give the military, the neo-cons, and all the other diehards (the meaning is intended) to keep killing Afghans until there are no more to fight.
Thanks in small part to the anti-war movement – especially the legacy of the anti-Iraq movement – there is a great souring towards the Afghanistan war taking root amidst American public opinion. Some deride this as a new isolationism, others as crass indifference to Afghan suffering. Given the options, however, I believe this American mood should be supported and reinforced wherever possible. It is always possible for American public opinion to be manipulated and provoked into war fever again. Think Iran. Think Syria.
For those pursuing the thankless task of pressuring Congress, the message should be to cut all Afghan funding except for the cost of American withdrawal and investments in Afghan education and humanitarian assistance. The deficit hawks need to be warned that they cannot at the same time be military hawks. The anti-war voices are too few, unless they link with labor, environmentalists and progressive domestic constituencies (which Progressive Democrats of America and National Nurses United have tried with their “healthcare, not warfare” campaign).
For those who genuinely care about Afghanistan itself, especially in the NGO world, there will be a hard struggle to support continued humanitarian aid, conditioned on women’s rights, after the American war. And for American peace advocates in general, there will be an intellectual struggle to change the paradigm of the Long War – formerly known as “the global war on terrorism” – towards a paradigm rooted in development and co-existence. The Long War as a ground war strategy has been defeated. The Long War as a drone and CIA strategy goes on.
This debate will be particularly acute with the so-called “humanitarian hawks” that believe in the use of military force to bring greater democracy to the world, and often have allowed themselves to be used for the Pentagon’s purposes. Having helped push America into Afghanistan, not one of the humanitarian hawks has apologized and none may ever. Being in the establishment still means never having to say you are sorry. Not for Vietnam, not for El Salvador or Honduras or Nicaragua, certainly not for Libya, and not for Syria and Iran down the road. The only exception has been Hillary Clinton’s recent call to Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, to say she was sorry for the American killing of those 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. After months of impasse, Clinton finally was able to say sorry, but not “we apologize,” in exchange for getting the NATO supply routes opened again through Pakistan.
The sorrows of war are what America should be sorry about, of course, but while waiting for that blessed day, peace will come only step by step, grindingly, leaving a trail of blood, from those who never stop demanding nation-building in the United States.
For more information, please see also by Tom Hayden, "Going Through Withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq."