News of Haiti, the Massachusetts special election, the fate of health insurance reform and of Tiger Woods checking into a rehab clinic for his sex addition is drowning out the latest developments in our war Afghanistan and Pakistan, AKA "Af-Pak," AKA "Operation Enduring Blunder."
In October 2001, U.S. Marines and other forces, who terrorism guru Richard Clarke has described as fewer in number than "cops in New York City," drove the Taliban from Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. Shortly afterward, an interim Afghan government was set up under Hamid Karzai. The Taliban still controlled most of the country. Karzai’s influence was limited to the capital, a development that led to him being dubbed "The Mayor of Kabul."
Today, Karzai, whose government is rated as the second most corrupt regime in the world by Transparency International, doesn’t even control Kabul. He may as well be Mayor of the North Pole. President Obama, at the prodding of General Stanley McChrystal and the rest of the Long War cabal, has signed on to a major escalation and a long-term commitment to this woebegone war, a war that’s turning into a goat rope more tangled than the Mesopotamia Mistake.
We presently have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan and 30,000 more are on the way. We have significantly beefed up our presence in that country, yet we can no longer even protect Karzai in his capital city. Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reports that on January 18 a team of seven (that’s right, seven) Taliban militants managed to detonate suicide bombs in Kabul’s Pashtunistan Square a mere 50 yards from the presidential palace. The attackers battled it out with not seven nor dozens nor scores but hundreds of Afghan soldiers, police officers and commandos, some of whom were part of "specially formed antiterrorism squads." Filkins says that "Even guards assigned to Mr. Karzai came to join the fighting; it was that close" (italics mine). Five hours after the fight began, "gunfire was still echoing through the downtown." Three soldiers and two civilians were killed, and at least 71 people were wounded, Filkins tells us.
Not all seven of the attackers were slugging it out with the commandos and specially formed antiterrorism squads. It only took five of them to hold out against hundreds of Afghan troops for hours. These would be the same sort of Afghan troops General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, wants to train up 400,000 of for the purpose of conducting counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban. One has to wonder if 400,000 will be enough.
The battle was "notable for the absence of United States soldiers," Filkins notes. One has to wonder where those 70,000 troops of ours were.
After all, at his Senate confirmation hearing in June 2009, McChrystal made a big point of saying that "protecting the people" was central to his counterinsurgency effort, and that "the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."
Afghan Fire Drill
Ironically, once in place as commander in Afghanistan last summer, McChrystal ordered an offensive aimed at killing the enemy in their safe havens in the southern province of Helmand. And come January 18, none of his 70,000 American troops were protecting many civilians in Afghanistan’s capital.
The "overwhelming majority" of U.S. troops, Filkins tells us, "are deployed in small outposts in the countryside." Apparently McChrystal trusts Afghan troops to protect the capital but not the countryside. A lot of the U.S. troops were too busy to protect the population in Kabul because they were busy trying to finish up the offensive in Helmand Province that McChrystal began last summer. Marine Major General Richard Mills told USA Today that our troops have "taken on the Taliban, the insurgency, right in the heartland and they’ve defeated them." That probably means the Taliban refused to fight a set piece battle with a superior force and went elsewhere to attack undefended areas like they did when McChrystal started the Helmand offensive last summer.
If McChrystal’s penchant for saying one thing and doing another makes you wonder if maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re not alone. As journalist Gareth Porter has pointed out, the Pentagon sold McChrystal to the Senate as a counterinsurgency expert when in fact he was nothing of the sort. McChrystal made his bones in "King David" Petraeus’s mafia as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive commando outfit that Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker identified as an "executive assassination ring" that answered directly to Dick Cheney’s office.
At his Senate hearing, McChrystal expressed skepticism that the Taliban could be coaxed into breaking its ties with al-Qaeda, even though the Taliban announced it had broken ties with al-Qaeda the previous October. McChrystal needs to catch up. He could probably use more sleep and food, too. Defense secretary Robert Gates, a bureaucratic twit who only thinks what his generals tell him to think, also thinks reconciliation with the Taliban is unlikely. Gates thinks this despite the fact that Karzai has made repeated offers to talk directly to Taliban leader Muhammad Omar, and that Afghan leaders are considering removing Omar’s name from the UN’s list of terrorists.
Meanwhile, plans continue to reconcile with the Taliban by integrating its fighters into Karzai’s security forces. The Taliban converts will probably have to swear an oath of allegiance to Karzai, who just stole two elections to stay in power (if you can call his tenuous control of his capital city "power") and who is less legitimate as head of the Afghanistan state (if you can call Afghanistan a "state") than Omar was before we kicked him off the throne and plopped Karzai on it.
The only rationale for being in Afghanistan at all is to deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary and the only rationale for fighting the Taliban is that they’ll give al-Qaeda a sanctuary. But in early December 2009, the Taliban offered to give "legal guarantees" that that it will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a sanctuary for attacks on other countries. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have, so far, blown them off. That’s because in return for not letting al-Qaeda or anyone else launch attacks on other countries from Afghanistan, the Taliban want foreign occupation forces to leave. Imagine them not wanting to be occupied by foreign forces. The effrontery!
General Stanley McChrystal and rest of our military and civilian leaders in charge of the Chinese fire drill in Afghanistan are determined to continue a conflict that can’t be won in order to support a despot who can’t be reformed in order to guarantee we have a Long War that can’t be ended. We’re being led over a cliff by a hatch load of certifiable boobies, and the men in white coats with butterfly nets are nowhere in sight.