It is difficult to define the conflict in Afghanistan as “war,” since nations wage war determined to win. Because the Obama administration has never clearly explained its view of victory in Afghanistan, military activity there is best described as a “situation.” And the bad situation there is as good as we are going to get.
When he fired General Stanley McChrystal for published remarks that illuminated a chasm between frontline military leaders and their civilian masters, President Obama had a perfect opportunity to describe the “win” he desired in Afghanistan. It is not surprising he did not do that. After all, neither the president nor anyone else in the White House has any relevant military experience or training in formulation of strategy. That includes National Security Advisor James L. Jones, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, who was described in the infamous Rolling Stone article as a “clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.”
In a ten-minute speech marking his taking the place of General McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus took a stab at defining a win. He insisted that progress has been made toward victory and pointed to 7 million Afghan children in schools, child immunization rates of 70%, new roads, and the widespread introduction of cell phones as examples of success. It seems we are to believe that though American soldiers are killed every week, the general’s metrics show we must be winning.
The fact is, General Petraeus knows that in Afghanistan we are not winning anything by any measure, and he must therefore take great care to protect his reputation. Even when he was in Iraq, using the Army’s bible on counterinsurgency warfare (COIN) that he co-authored in 2006, he was not sure we could win. So he hedged his bets so as not to be tagged with responsibility if the surge and his COIN tactics did not work. Soon after he arrived in Iraq he told his staff he would give it six months—if the COIN tactics were unsuccessful he would recommend getting out. But because the battlefield had stabilized before the surge, he lucked out and “General Betray Us” became a hero. Petraeus approaches his command in Afghanistan with the same caution, and he is just as determined not to be tarred with a loser’s brush. He intends to avoid the snare set for him by President Obama and remain a potential presidential candidate, if not in 2012, then in 2016.
But even allowing for good luck or bad, why cannot “Petraeus of Iraq” become “Petraeus of Afghanistan?” Because the two places bear absolutely no resemblance to each other. Iraq is a nation of literate people with a long history of national government. The rock pile called Afghanistan is a hodgepodge of illiterate tribes and provincial rivalries that perpetually oppose any notion of a governing central capital. And the idea that an Afghan national army and police force can be stood up in a year to take the place of American soldiers is ludicrous, and Petraeus knows that, too. Perhaps even the president knows it. In any event, it is becoming clear that both the White House and Petraeus foresee a power-sharing settlement with the Taliban, and Islamabad sees it too.
Besides the forbidding nature of a country that neither Alexander the Great, nor the Soviets, nor the British Empire could pacify, there are two factors that ensure the end of the American adventure in Afghanistan: money and Pakistan.
Americans do not like nation-building, especially long and expensive forays into primitive and deadly places. Except for Vietnam, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, and except for World War II, it is also the most expensive. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments tells us the average cost (FY 05-10) of keeping one soldier in Afghanistan for one year is $1,124,576. Over a million dollars every year for each American soldier! In WW II, with 16.3 million U.S. troops fighting around the globe for four years, the annual cost per soldier was less than $100,000 (in 2007 dollars). Some estimates indicate that the total direct and indirect cost of the Afghan war will reach $3 trillion. When jobless American voters learn these numbers, and when the double-dip recession of 2011 arrives, those dreaded anti-war demonstrators will again appear in front of the White House.
Then there is Pakistan, our supposed ally. Straws in the wind foretell a deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban, brokered by Islamabad. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, plus the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (the three main insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan) are all safely based in Pakistan. Over American objections they have been successfully supported by the ISI, Islamabad’s powerful military intelligence organization, and Karzai is sending his military officers to Pakistan for training to show his confidence in Islamabad’s maneuvering. Secretary Hillary Clinton has publicly complained, but Pakistan has a tin ear. General Petraeus is more diplomatic, approving Pakistan’s “constructive involvement in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban to encourage reconciliation on the basis of its past ties to the militants.” The general calculates that when a desperate White House ultimately approves the Karzai-Taliban merger, he will be able to declare himself victorious, go home, retire, and start campaigning.
It took Islamabad nine long years of clever double-dealing to get where they are now: leading a process that will create a “stable, peaceful, and friendly” Afghanistan. “Friendly” is the operative word, because Pakistan fears India might join with Afghan Pashtuns like Karzai and support their claims on Pashtun areas just inside the porous and indefensible Pakistan border. Nothing, not even billions of dollars of American aid, will override Islamabad’s paranoia that Hindu India intends to crush Moslem Pakistan with coordinated attacks across two borders.
As White House spending grew and the national debt grew with it, a poll in May showed 52% of Americans (up 8% in five months) do not believe the war is worth fighting and 65% want a withdrawal starting in July 2011. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says he has “reticence on the probability of success.” A former aide to General McChrystal said, “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.” For his part, General Petraeus is counting vaccinations and cell phones. It is time to stop wasting our treasure and spilling our blood in an attempt to drag murderous opium poppy farmers into the 18th century. It is time to bring home that final flag-draped coffin.
The fourth Afghan war is over. Pakistan won.