Over two years ago, President Barack Obama, who had campaigned declaring that Iraq was an unnecessary war, doubled down on the war that he declared to be a vital interest, Afghanistan. Today, the United States is departing Iraq and Obama is acting like it is his decision to go, but it is only because the local government sealed the fate of Washington’s gross misadventure by refusing to grant some thousands of American military “trainers” immunity from prosecution for crimes they might commit locally, a move that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki knew would be a deal-breaker.
The United States military will beat a hasty retreat at the end of December, admittedly leaving behind a small army of 7,000 State Department security personnel to defend the mausoleum embassy in the Green Zone and at least a dozen other consular posts throughout the country, with a total U.S. diplomatic presence of 17,000. Why are they staying at all? To maintain [.pdf] “situational awareness around the country, manage political crises in potential hotspots such as Kirkuk, and provide a platform for delivering economic, development, and security assistance.” “Situational awareness” is one of the new buzz expressions used whenever a government spokesman has nothing relevant to say. You will be hearing it again and again.
Now that we are leaving, someone should tell former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that we taxpayers are still waiting for the war’s estimated $5 trillion costs to be repaid from Iraqi oil revenue. The 4,479 American dead won’t be coming back, unfortunately, nor will the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. The hundreds of children deformed from all the depleted uranium used in pounding Fallujah will probably have lives that are both short and tragic, as will the U.S. soldiers missing arms and legs. But it was a glorious adventure, wasn’t it? And the Iraqis will be so grateful someday.
So what is happening in Afghanistan, seat of the “real war that had to be fought”? Obama approved a surge in U.S. forces, raising the American total to 100,000 in addition to the 41,000 NATO and non-NATO forces organized as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). There is also an increasing number of poorly trained and motivated Afghan policemen and soldiers, many of whom desert after receiving their first paycheck. All this has been accomplished at great expense, one might note: the escapade currently costs $10 billion per month, the U.S. death toll is running above 1,800, and there are an estimated 20,000-40,000 dead Afghans with at least 250,000 more having fled their homes in just the past two years.
Some are arguing that the Afghan presence was necessitated by the proximity to America’s number one enemy, al-Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and in adjacent Pakistan. They would point to the number of al-Qaeda leaders killed, including the head of the organization, Osama bin Laden. However, that argument does not hold water, as the killing of al-Qaeda leaders, which has likely not been as effective as the CIA claims, has mostly taken place in Pakistan with drones and special operations launched from bases in that country. Afghanistan has had little to do with it, and it is fair to note that the collateral damage has been incredibly high. Pakistan now has a government noted primarily for corruption. It has largely lost control of its tribal regions adjacent to Afghanistan, and there are increasing concerns about the country’s nuclear arsenal. By some estimates, 10 civilians have been killed by drone for every militant, resulting in the United States being viewed unfavorably by nine out of 10 Pakistanis.
But the White House is preparing to proclaim victory, fold its tents, and go home. Or at least it might be, depending on whom one talks to. Obama, knowing that the war is unpopular and that it could be an albatross around his neck, has pledged to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of next year with a target for completion in 2014, a date that is conveniently after the presidential election in case he decides to change his mind. His official statement on the 10th anniversary of the war melded the usual jingoism with a little hope for a better tomorrow sprinkled in: “After a difficult decade, we are responsibly ending today’s wars from a position of strength. As the rest of our troops come home from Iraq this year, we have begun to draw down our forces in Afghanistan and transition security to the Afghan people, with whom we will forge an enduring partnership. Thanks to the extraordinary service of these Americans, our citizens are safer and our nation is more secure.” We are stronger, we are safer, we have friends everywhere, and we are acting responsibly. If it sounds like an election slogan, it should.
In the recent retirement ceremony for Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held on the day when the president succeeded in killing his first U.S. citizen by drone, Obama boasted, “[Rest] assured our military is stronger and our nation more secure because of the service you have rendered. Today, we have renewed American leadership in the world. Today, we see the remarkable achievements of our 9/11 generation of service members. They’ve given Iraqis a chance to determine their own future. They’ve pushed the Taliban out of their Afghan strongholds….” Obama reiterates that we are stronger and safer. We lead the world.
So the White House is officially upbeat about prospects in Afghanistan, and who can’t forgive a little bit of self-promotion that is at odds with the facts? The Taliban have been pushed out of some areas, to be sure, only to enter into provinces that were previously peaceful. That’s called guerrilla warfare, going where the more powerful enemy is weakest. A United Nations report issued in September stated that violence is 40 percent higher countrywide this year than last.
And there are others who are more knowledgeable of developments on the ground than the president who are also not so sure. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the champion of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan before he was fired for insubordination, has recently stated his belief that that only 50 percent of the military mission in Afghanistan has been successfully accomplished despite 10 years of effort. McChrystal notes correctly that the security problem is linked to the failure to establish a government in Kabul that is not corrupt and in bed with warlords and drug traffickers.
Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who heads that corrupt government, would probably agree with at least a part of McChrystal’s assessment. In an interview with the BBC, he said, “We’ve done terribly badly in providing security to the Afghan people, and this is the greatest shortcoming of our government and of our international partners. What we should do is provide better and a more predictable environment of security to the Afghan citizens, and in that the international community and the Afghan government definitely have failed.”
A senior British commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith of the UK’s 16th Air Assault Brigade, declared in October 2008 that the war is unwinnable, a view shared by fully 71 percent of the British people in a recent opinion poll. Fifty-seven percent of the British want their government to immediately withdraw from the conflict. Apparently Prime Minister David Cameron and his cabinet are also coming around to a negative assessment. A British government report warns that there are “significant risks” of civil war or a Taliban takeover of the south and east of the country after NATO withdraws the last of its combat troops at the end of 2014.
Germany’s now-retired most senior general has also offered a pessimistic view of the conflict. Harald Kujat believes that 10 years into the Afghanistan War the mission has clearly failed, saying that the Taliban will retake the country “within just a few months” after foreign soldiers depart. So it seems that both the British and the Germans agree that the outcome in Afghanistan will be bad, meaning that the entire venture was a terrible waste in lives and treasure, not to mention the ruin it brought down on the Afghan people.
And even the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan appears to disagree with what his commander in chief is stating publicly about an American withdrawal timetable, suggesting that the Pentagon knows that the situation is much more unstable than the White House is revealing. Gen. John Allen, in an interview with 60 Minutes, disavowed the 2014 Lisbon Conference date for ending the war, saying “we’re actually going to be here for a long time” and that the troop levels beyond 2014 have not been decided.
So who is conning whom? Obama, who has long since given up on any pretense of government for the good of the American people, desperately wants to spin all his wars to make them look like successes. He is claiming that he made the decision to leave Iraq even though he wanted to stay and it was actually the Iraqis who forced his hand. Libya is being touted as a bargain with replace-a-despot for only $1 billion. The spin on Afghanistan seeks to make it look like a mission of mercy that will be ending soon with victory hugs all around. Winning overseas means re-election for Obama in 2012 so he can finish bankrupting the country while destroying the Constitution. But apart from the president’s claque, no one else is seeing Afghanistan quite that way, it appears, and there might even be a longing in the country for a president who will speak frankly about how badly the war is going as a prelude to getting out of the quagmire. Will Obama be able to hold on with the plausible fiction that he is presenting, or will enough of the media and public finally see through the game that is being played and vote him out of office? Or will he only be able to survive because the Republican candidate, whoever that might be, is perceived as being even more dangerous than he is? That is the true dilemma of American politics: Bad is invariably succeeded by worse in a dizzying line-up of the ruthlessly ambitious but mentally and morally challenged who seek the highest office in the land.