Too Big to Fail?

In the worst of times, my father always used to say, “A good gambler cuts his losses.” It’s a formulation imprinted on my brain forever. That no-nonsense piece of advice still seems reasonable to me, but it doesn’t apply to American war policy. Our leaders evidently never saw a war to which the word “more” didn’t apply. Hence the Afghan War, where impending disaster is just an invitation to fuel the flames of an already roaring fire.

Here’s a partial rundown of news from that devolving conflict: In the last week, Nuristan, a province on the Pakistani border, essentially fell to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrew its forces from four key bases. Similarly in Khost, another eastern province bordering Pakistan where U.S. forces once registered much-publicized gains (and which Richard Holbrooke, now President Obama’s special envoy to the region, termed “an American success story”), the Taliban is largely in control. It is, according to Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, now “one of the most dangerous provinces” in the country. Similarly, the Taliban insurgency, once largely restricted to the Pashtun south, has recently spread fiercely to the west and north. At the same time, neighboring Pakistan is an increasingly destabilized country amid war in its tribal borderlands, a terror campaign spreading throughout the country, escalating American drone attacks, and increasingly testy relations between American officials and the Pakistani government and military.

Meanwhile, the U.S. command in Afghanistan is considering a strategy that involves pulling back from the countryside and focusing on protecting more heavily populated areas (which might be called, with the first U.S. Afghan War of the 1980s in mind, the Soviet strategy). The underpopulated parts of the countryside would then undoubtedly be left to Hellfire missile-armed American drone aircraft. In the last week, three U.S. helicopters – the only practical way to get around a mountainous country with a crude, heavily mined system of roads – went down under questionable circumstances (another potential sign of an impending Soviet-style disaster). Across the country, Taliban attacks are up; deadly roadside bombs or IEDs are fast on the rise (a 350-percent jump since 2007); U.S. deaths are at a record high and the numbers of wounded are rising rapidly; European allies are ever less willing to send more troops; and Taliban raids in the capital, Kabul, are on the increase. All this despite a theoretical 12-1 edge U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have over the Taliban insurgents and their allies.

In addition, our nation-building “partner,” the hopeless Afghan President Hamid Karzai – known in better times as “the mayor of Kabul” for his government’s lack of reach – was the “winner” in an election in which, it seemed, more ballot boxes were stuffed than voters arrived at the polls. In its wake, and in the name of having an effective “democratic” partner in Afghanistan, the foreigners stepped in: Sen. John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and other envoys appeared in Kabul or made telephone calls to whisper sweet somethings in ears and twist arms. The result was a second round of voting slated for Nov. 7 and likely only to compound the initial injury. No matter the result – and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s opponent, has already withdrawn in protest from the runoff – the winner will, once again, be the Taliban. (And let’s not forget the recent New York Times revelation that the president’s alleged drug-kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whom American officials regularly and piously denounce, is, in fact, a long-term paid agent of the CIA and its literal landlord in the southern city of Kandahar. If you were a Taliban propagandist, you couldn’t make this stuff up.)

With the second round of elections already a preemptive disaster, and foreigners visibly involved in the process, all of this is a Taliban bonanza. The words “occupation,” “puppet government,” and the like undoubtedly ring ever truer in Afghan ears. You don’t have to be a propaganda genius to exploit this sort of thing.

In such a situation, even good imperial gamblers would normally cut their losses. Unfortunately, in Washington terms, what’s happened in Afghanistan is not the definition of failure. In the economic lingo of the moment, the war now falls into the category of “too big to fail,” which means upping the ante or doubling down the bet. Think of the Afghan War, in other words, as the AIG of American foreign policy.

Playing With Dominos, Then and Now

Have you noticed, by the way, that the worse Afghanistan gets, the more the pundits find themselves stumbling helplessly into Vietnam? Analogies to that old counterinsurgency catastrophe are now a dime a dozen. And no wonder. Even if it’s obvious that Vietnam and Afghanistan, as places and historical situations, have little in common, what they do have is Washington. Our leaders, that is, seem repetitiously intent on creating analogies between the two wars.

What is it about Washington and such wars? How is it that American wars conducted in places most Americans once couldn’t have located on a map, and gone disastrously wrong, somehow become too big to fail? Why is it that, facing such wars – whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican – Washington’s response is the bailout?

As things go from bad to worse and the odds grow grimmer, our leaders, like the worst of gamblers, wager ever more. Why is it that, in obscure lands under obscure circumstances, American administrations somehow become convinced that everything – the fate of our country, if not the planet itself – is at stake? In Vietnam, this was expressed in the absurd “domino theory”: if Vietnam fell, Thailand, Burma, India, and finally California would follow like so many toppling dominos.

Now, Afghanistan has become the First Domino of our era, and the rest of the falling dominos in the 21st century are, of course, the terrorist attacks to come, once an emboldened al-Qaeda has its “safe haven” and its triumph in the backlands of that country. In other words, first Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then a mushroom cloud over an American city. In both the Vietnam era and today, Washington has also been mesmerized by that supposedly key currency of international stature, “credibility.” To employ a strategy of “less,” to begin to cut our losses and pull out of Afghanistan would – they know with a certainty that passeth belief – simply embolden the terrorist (in the Vietnam era, communist) enemy. It would be a victory for al-Qaeda’s future Islamic caliphate (as it once would have been for communist global domination).

By now, the urge to bail out Afghanistan, instead of bailing out of the place, has visibly become a compulsion, even for a foreign policy team that should know better, a team that is actually reading a book about how the Vietnam disaster happened. Unfortunately, the citizenry can’t take the obvious first step and check that team, with all its attendant generals and plenipotentiaries, into some LBJ or George W. Bush Rehabilitation Center; nor is there a 12-step detox program to recommend to Washington’s war addicts. And the “just say no” approach, not exactly a career enhancer, has been used so far by but a single, upright foreign service officer, Matthew P. Hoh, who sent a resignation letter as senior civilian representative in Zabul province to the State Department in September. (“To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war. … The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.”)

More or Less More?

In this context, despite all the media drama – Is Obama “dithering” or not? Will he or won’t he follow the advice of his generals? – we already know one thing about the president’s upcoming Afghan War decision with a painful degree of certainty: it will involve more, not less. It will up the ante, not cut our losses. As the New York Times put it recently, “[T]he debate [within the administration] is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed.” In other words, we know that, in response to a war everyone on all sides of the Afghan debate in the U.S. now agrees is little short of disastrous, he will, in some fashion, feed the flames.

Admittedly, President Obama himself has offered few indications of what exactly he plans to do (if he even knows). It’s now being said, however, that, at the end of a highly publicized set of brainstorming sessions with his vice president, top advisors, generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, congressional representatives, and cabinet officers, he may (or may not) announce a decision before he sets out for Tokyo on Nov. 11.

Nonetheless, thanks to an endless series of high-level Washington leaks and whispers, beginning more than a month ago with the leaking to the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward of Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal’s report to the president, we do know this: Every option Obama is considering has the word “more” (as in the Vietnam-era term “escalation”) attached to it. There isn’t a “less” (a de-escalation) option in sight. Withdrawal of any sort has, so press reports tell us, been officially taken off the table.

The most publicity has gone, of course, to the “counterinsurgency” or COIN option put forward by Gen. McChrystal and clearly backed by George W. Bush’s favorite Iraqi “surge” general and present CENTCOM commander, David Petraeus. According to this option, the president would significantly increase the number of American boots on the ground to “protect” the Afghan people. The actual numbers of extra troops urged on Obama have undergone a strange process of growth-by-leak over the last weeks. Initially, as the New York Times reported, the general was supposedly recommending three possibilities: a low figure of 10,000-15,000 (“a high-risk option”), an in-between figure of 25,000 (“a medium-risk option”), and a top figure of 45,000 (“a low-risk option”). More recently, it’s been suggested that McChrystal’s three choices are: 10,000, 40,000, and 80,000 (or even possibly 44,000 and 85,000) – his preference, for now, reportedly being 40,000. These new American troops would, of course, be over and above the approximately 70,000 already slated to be in-country by the end of 2009, more than a doubling of the force in place when the Obama administration came into office. The striking increase to almost 70,000 has, so far, led to a more intense but less successful war effort.

In a recent grimly comic episode, a meeting of NATO defense ministers put its stamp of approval on Gen. McChrystal’s robust COIN option – despite the fact that their governments seem unwilling to offer any extra soldiers in support of such an American surge. (The only exception so far has been British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who agreed to send a paltry 500 more troops – with hedges and escape clauses at that.)

Beyond Gen. McChrystal’s ultimate “more” option, at least three other options are reportedly being considered, all representing “less”; think of these as “less more” options. They include:

*An option to significantly bulk up the training of the Afghan army and police force, so that we might hand our war off to them ASAP. This is, in reality, another “more” option, since thousands of new U.S. trainers and advisers would be needed. It has reportedly been favored by Sen. Carl Levin and other Democrats in Congress fearful of major Vietnam-style troop escalations and the ensuing fallout at home.

*An option to leave troops numbers in Afghanistan roughly at their present level and focus not on counterinsurgency, but on what’s being called “counterterrorism-plus.” This, in practical terms, means upping the use of U.S. drone aircraft and Special Forces teams, while focusing less on the Taliban in the Afghan countryside and more on taking out al-Qaeda and possibly Taliban operatives in the Pakistani tribal border regions. This option is said to be favored by Vice President Joe Biden, who also reportedly fears (perfectly reasonably) that a larger American “footprint” in Afghanistan might only turn Afghans even more strongly against a foreign occupation. This option is, in turn, often discussed by the U.S. media as if it were a de-escalatory approach and the next thing to an antiwar position. It, too, however, represents more.

*An option recently put forward by John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for what Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service has termed “counterinsurgency lite.” This would, according to the senator, involve more training of Afghan troops and the commitment of perhaps 10,000-15,000 additional American troops immediately. (In his typical way, however, Kerry managed to stop short of mentioning actual numbers.) Meanwhile, we would wait for other factors considered crucial for a successful counterinsurgency campaign to kick in: “enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops,” “local leaders we can partner with,” and “the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population.” Wielding a classic image of imperial control, the senator claims to want to put an “Afghan face” on the Afghan War – that is, though no one ever says this, an Afghan mask over the American war. (Since the crucial factors he lays out for a successful counterinsurgency campaign are never likely to come into being, his, too, is a “less more”-style option.)

Quagmires, Then and Now

It’s quite possible, of course, that the president will choose a “hybrid strategy,” mixing and matching from this list. He might, for instance, up drone attacks in Pakistan, raise troop levels “modestly” à la Kerry, and send in more U.S. trainers and advisers – a package that would surely be presented as part of a plan to pave the way for our future departure. All we do know, based on the last year, is that “more” in whatever form is likely to prove a nightmare, and yet anything less than escalation of some sort is not in the cards. No one in Washington is truly going to cut U.S. losses anytime soon.

In the Vietnam era, there was a shorthand word for this: “quagmire.” We were, as the antiwar song then went, “waist deep in the Big Muddy” and still wading in. If Vietnam was, in fact, a quagmire, however, it was so only because we made it so. Similarly, in changed circumstances, Afghanistan today has become the AIG of American foreign policy and Obama’s team so many foreign policy equivalents of Bush treasury secretary Hank Paulson. And as with the economy, so with the expanding Af/Pak war: at the end of the day, it’s the American taxpayer who will be left holding the bag.

Let’s think about what this means for a moment: According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the cost of keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan is $1.3 million per year. According to Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, it costs the Pentagon about $1 billion per year to station 1,000 U.S. troops in that country. It’s fair to assume that this estimate doesn’t include, among other things, long-term care for wounded soldiers or the cost of replacing destroyed or overused equipment. Nor do these figures include any civilian funds being spent on the war effort via the State Department, nor undoubtedly the funds being spent by the Pentagon to upgrade bases and facilities throughout the country. In other words, just about any decision by the president, including one simply focused on training Afghan soldiers and police, will involve an outlay of further multi-billions of dollars. Whatever choice the president makes, the U.S. will bleed money.

Let’s say that he makes the Kerry choice – “just” perhaps 15,000 troops. That means at least $15 billion for starters. And there’s no reason to believe that we’re only talking a year here. The counterinsurgency types are talking 5-10 years to “turn the tide” of the insurgency. Those who are actually training the Afghan military and police, when quoted, don’t believe they will be capable of taking what’s called “responsibility” in a major way for years to come, if ever.

Throw in domestic politics where a Democratic president invariably feels safer kicking the can down the road via escalation than being called “weak” – though Obama is already being blasted by the right for “dithering” – and you have about as toxic a brew as can be imagined.

If the Afghan War is already too big to fail, what in the world will it be after the escalations to come? As with Vietnam, so now with Afghanistan, the thick layers of mythology and fervent prediction and projection that pass for realism in Washington make clear thinking on the war impossible. They prevent the serious consideration of any options labeled “less” or “none.” They inflate projections of disaster based on withdrawal, even though similar lurid predictions during the Vietnam era proved hopelessly off-base.

The United States lived through all the phases of escalation, withdrawal, and defeat in Vietnam without suffering great postwar losses of any sort. This time we may not be so lucky. The United States is itself no longer too big to fail – and if we should do so, remind me: Who exactly will bail us out?

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from