What Price Afghanistan?

Has the U.S. lost the Afghan war, even before President Obama’s "surge" is plugged in and the "COIN" strategy is put in place?

"Clear, hold, and build": – that’s the "new" counterinsurgency doctrine [.pdf] being touted by the Center for a New American Strategy (CNAS), Obama’s favorite national security think-tank, as the salvation of our faltering Afghan campaign. The idea is to build "democratic" institutions and give the Afghans a stake in defending their government and society from the Taliban onslaught that is supposedly threatening them at every turn. Yet what if their democracy turns out to be not worth defending? What if their president, a preening fashion plate with ties to organized crime figures (including his brother), decided to steal an election, proclaim himself chief of state in spite of massive evidence of election fraud, and refused to even speak to his American sponsors, let alone go along with a U.S.-brokered compromise with his chief election rival?

Well, we don’t have to what-if, because all of the above – and worse – is exactly what’s happening. As predicted in this space, the Afghan election was a monumental fraud: about 15 percent of the polling stations supposed to be in operation never opened for business. All these – just coincidentally, you understand – registered an overwhelming margin of victory for President Hamid Karzai. As fast as the "Independent" Election Commission (IEC), consisting of Karzai’s sock-puppets, counts the ballots, the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission (ECC) throws them out as obviously fraudulent – a process that seems fated to end in a self-canceling conundrum for the administration, and a perfect vacuum the Taliban are ready to fill.

With the rug pulled out from under their precious COIN strategy, the Americans are faced with a problem: what to do with Karzai? They can’t just dump him. They have too much invested in him already. Yet they can’t let him get away with this outrageous fraud, either – not because the Afghan people wouldn’t put up with it (turnout was poor, apathy the real victor), but because it wouldn’t play in Washington, D.C., where the real decisions about Afghanistan’s future are being made.

A new election is out of the question: winter looms, and the logistics won’t allow for it. A coalition government might patch things up, except that neither Karzai – who expects to be vindicated – nor Abdullah, his chief rival, are about to agree to that. This leaves, as the Washington Post averred, a "nominal Karzai presidency with a strong team of foreign-backed aides," i.e., an Afghan government put on emergency life-support, with extra-generous infusions of bribes-cum-aid keeping the corpse just fresh enough to appear presentable.

For whose benefit would this zombie government be kept in operation? Surely not that of the Afghan people, who, after all, didn’t vote for it, don’t support it, and would just as soon see it wind up in the ash-heap of history, along with the Soviet-backed regime of Babrak Karmal and the British Raj. Yet this isn’t at all about Afghanistan, or the interests of its people. As is the general rule in foreign policy matters, it’s all about domestic American politics – which is why Obama is determined to wage war on the "Af-Pak" front to begin with.

With Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Russ Feingold already calling for an Afghan timetable for withdrawal and polls showing a significant slackening of support among the general public, the collapse of Afghanistan’s "democratic" experiment couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Obama administration.

The Taliban now control some 80 percent of the country, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates assures us, "I think some of the gloom and doom is somewhat overdrawn." This statement seems inexplicable, unless he was referring to the situation in Congress, where the majority Democrats (and most Republicans) support Obama’s war aims. The dissent of Levin, Nancy Pelosi, and others is over how to achieve those aims, not whether they are achievable or even worth achieving.

The "antiwar" faction wants to Afghanize the war effort and begin expanding the Afghan army by several degrees of magnitude, as was done in Iraq. This means more, not less, infusions of military and economic aid from the U.S., including tens of thousands of U.S. military "trainers" plunked down in the midst of the fighting, where they would be sitting ducks for the Taliban and the shifting allegiances of various Afghan warlords.

This is posed as an alternative to an Afghan "surge," in which even more troops would be added at the request of field commanders, but the reality is that this administration – cautious to a fault – will probably do both: that is, send more troops and try to Afghanize the war effort by pouring resources into the Afghan military and police. Of course, the Soviets tried this and succeeded only in exhausting themselves and creating a regime with a very narrow base of support, limited almost exclusively to its bought-and-paid-for military apparatus. The Afghan communist regime collapsed less than two years after the Soviet withdrawal. Karzai wouldn’t even last that long.

The Soviets, too, had problems with their satraps: they had to purge the hard-line Communist Khalq faction – and, according to Vasili Mitrokhin, they tried to poison Hafizullah Amin, the radical commie leader – before installing someone more amenable to the Kremlin’s diktats. And, in the end, even that didn’t work. They were forced out, and the forerunners of today’s Taliban fighters – our allies at the time, feted as "freedom fighters" in Reagan’s White House – took Kabul.

When you look at it, our war aims in Afghanistan are virtually identical to the Soviets’ – and one would think we’d learn some lessons from their utter failure (and subsequent rapid decline). Like the Kremlin, circa 1980, we are pledged to build a strong central Afghan government, one that has gained the allegiance –or, at least, the passive compliance – of the people. Our intent, like theirs, is to "reform," i.e., modernize Afghan society, at least to some extent, a goal that seems to elude us as much as it did the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and their Red Army allies. The Afghan people, it seems, want no part of modernity, either the Marxist version or its Euro-American doppelganger, and all attempts to impose it by force are doomed to fail spectacularly.

Recall Gen. Eric Shinseki’s much-cited dissent from the Bush administration’s Iraq war strategy. While the Rumsfeldians were insisting the country could be occupied with a relatively light force of under 100,000, Shinseki said it would take hundreds of thousands to keep order. The Democrats made a big deal out of Shinseki’s dissent as a prime example of the Bushies’ unrealism – and yet one wonders what Shinseki makes of Afghanistan. According to their own counterinsurgency doctrine, as promulgated by the Naglites over at Obama’s favorite national security think-tank, the total number of troops required for a successful operation is around 670,000 at a minimum. With projections of the new and supposedly improved Afghan army and police accounting for some 350,000, it would be up the Americans and their rapidly bailing allies to supply the rest. This means a hefty increase over and above the 20,000-plus reinforcements currently scheduled – by 250,000-plus troops!

There is no political support in Europe or the United States for such a commitment. One can only imagine how President Obama thinks he is going to be able to defy reality – and for how long.

It wasn’t long ago that the situation in Iraq was considered so dire that more than a few commentators contemplated the prospect of a helicopters-taking-off-from-the-rooftop-of-the-American-embassy retreat, as in Vietnam. This prospect was practically eliminated when the Iraqis themselves asked us to set a definite timetable for rapid withdrawal. However, the helicopter scenario seems a lot more likely in the context of the Afghan war, where our hold on the countryside is far more precarious and the enemy more confident and dug in at the grassroots.

The Obamaites no doubt know all this. While they aren’t as smart as they’d like us to believe, they aren’t exactly dullards, either. They know the best they can do is hold on by their fingernails. Above all, they must somehow prevent the complete collapse of the Karzai government and, with it, any semblance of a rationale for staying. As it is, the U.S. commander says he sees no sign of al-Qaeda anywhere in the country, so that excuse is gone, as well. All that remains is bureaucratic and mental inertia: so much of our rulers’ personal and political prestige – along with our money – has been invested in our Glorious Afghan Adventure that to pull out now would prove fatal to many careers. Aside from the institutional bias in favor of war and preparations for war that permeates the policymaking process, there is the Democrats’ ancient fear of being attacked as "soft" on security issues.

It is a fear based on myth, one faithfully promulgated by the neoconservatives over the years and extant to this day, when it is almost universally acknowledged by partisans on the Right as well as the Left that the war was a strategic disaster. The neocons, who left the Democrats in a huff when the party turned against the Vietnam War, have ever since then accused the party of "losing its nerve." For decades relentless chorus of shrikes has been singing the same old song, smearing anyone who resists their world-conquering schemes as being an America-hating, terrorist-sympathizing, commie "isolationist." Or worse. Why the Democrats are supposed to fear them and their tired mantra must remain a mystery, I’m afraid. The American people, for their part, oppose the Afghan war, as recent polls show. Why appease the carping chorus of conservative warmongers and their collaborators over at CNAS?

That’s a question for another day. Suffice to say here that the Afghan elections inaugurate the beginning of what promises to be a remarkably rapid and steep slide in our fortunes over there. How the Obamaites will handle this remains to be seen, but however they choose to react, of one thing we can be sure: it won’t be a reaction that has much to do with the military and political situation on the ground. The real battlefield is in Washington, D.C., the Imperial City, where the fate of nations – and of our own fighting men and women – is decided on the basis of pure politics.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].