July 12, 2011, Washington, D.C. -- In triumphant testimony before a joint committee of Congress in which he was greeted on both sides of the aisle as a conquering hero, Gen. David Petraeus announced the withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from Afghanistan.
"This is the beginning of the pledge the president made to the American people to draw down the surge troops sent in since 2009," he said, adding, "and yet let me emphasize, as I did when I took this job, that our commitment to the Afghan government and people is an enduring one."
Last July, when Gen. Petraeus replaced the discredited Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an "American hero" by Senator John McCain, as "the most talented officer of his generation" by the New Yorker's George Packer, and as "the nation's premier warrior-diplomat" by Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post -- typical of the comments of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives at the time. Petraeus then promised that the United States was in Afghanistan "to win."
In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and "a tipping point has been reached," says a senior U.S. military official with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization. By every available measure -- IEDs or roadside bombs, suicide attacks, Taliban assassinations of local officials, allied casualties, and Afghan civilian casualties -- the intensity of the insurgency has weakened significantly. The Afghan military and police, though not capable of taking the lead in the fighting in their own country, have been noticeably strengthened by American and NATO training missions. President Hamid Karzai's government, still considered weak and corrupt, has succeeded in putting an Afghan face on the war.
Democratic critics of Gen. Petraeus, and of President Obama's surge strategy, were notably quiet this week as the general toured the capital's power hotspots from John Podesta's Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential presidential candidatein 2016. As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W. Bush's surge in Iraq after the critics said it couldn't be done, the impressive charts the general brought to his congressional testimony once again vividly indicated otherwise. The situation in Afghanistan has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir of July 2010 when critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old war was foundering, the counterinsurgency strategy failing, and polling in the U.S. highlighted the war's increasing unpopularity.
"What a difference a year makes," said a jubilant senior official at the Pentagon. In just 12 months, as Gen. Petraeus likes to describe it, he managed to synchronizethe Afghan and Washington "clocks" and, in the process, as he had done in Iraq, took the news out of the war and the war out of the news. The latest Gallup poll indicates that up to 63% of Americans are now "supportive" of the general's approach to the Afghan War...
What Success Would Mean in Afghanistan
Okay, it hasn't happened yet -- and the odds are it never will. But for a moment, just imagine stories like that leading the news nationwide as our most political general in generations comes home to a grateful Washington.
By all accounts, the Afghan War could hardly be going worse today. Counterinsurgency, the strategy promoted by General McChrystal but conceived by General Petraeus, is seemingly in a ditch, while the Taliban are the ones surging. Around that reality has arisen a chorus of criticism and complaint, left, right, and center.
Failure breeds critics, you might say, the way dead bodies breed flies. Or put another way, it's easy enough to criticize a failing American project, but what about a successful one? What if Petraeus really turns out to be the miracle general of twenty-first century American war-making -- which, by the way, only means that he needs to "blunt" the Taliban surge (the modern definition of "winning," now that victory is no longer a part of the U.S. war-making lexicon)?
Today, the increasingly self-evident failure of American policy in Afghanistan is bringing enough calls for firm drawdown or withdrawal dates (or, from the Republicans, bitter complaints about the same) to exasperate President Obama. Under the circumstances, no one evidently wonders what success would really mean. We've been down so long, it seems, that few bother to consider what being up might involve.
Too bad. It's worth a thought. Let's say that Petraeus does return to Washington in what, these days, passes for triumph. The question is: So what? Or rather, could success in Afghanistan prove worse for Americans than failure?
Let's imagine that, in July 2011, the U.S. military has tenuous control over key parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second largest city. It still has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway.
Similarly, the "civilian" surge, which tripled the State Department's personnel there, remains in place, as does the CIA surge that went with it -- and the contractor and base-building surges that went with them. In fact, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have only escalated further by July 2011.
Experts expect the counterinsurgency campaign to continue for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading for the exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan's Pashtun minority, simply cannot in any normal sense be defeated.
This, then, would be "success" 10 years into America's Afghan war. Given the logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops, intelligence agents, civilian officials, and private contractors in the country, the approximately $7 billion a month now being spent there will undoubtedly be the price Americans are to pay for a long time to come (and that's surely a significant undercount, if you consider long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of future care for those badly wounded in body or mind).
The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo continual training and, in a country with next to no government funds and (unlike Iraq) no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate horizon, they, too, will have to be paid for and supplied by Washington. And keep in mind that the U.S. Air Force will, for the foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force. In other words, success means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to come.
So what would we actually have to show for all this expenditure of money, effort, and lives?
We would be in minimalist possession of a fractious, ruined land, at war for three decades, and about as alien to, and far from, the United States as it's possible to be on this planet. We would be in minimalist possession of the world's fifth poorest country.
We would be in minimal possession of the world's second most corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives ("maybe less") -- for whom parts of the country might still be a "safe haven." And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year.
On the basis of our stated war objective -- "[W]e cannot allow Al Qaeda or other transnational extremists to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies," as General Petraeus put it in his confirmation hearing at the end of June 2010 -- success in Afghanistan means increasingly little.
For al-Qaeda, Afghanistan was never significant in itself. It was always a place of (relative) convenience. If the U.S. were to bar access to it, there are so many other countries to choose from.
After all, what's left of the original al-Qaeda -- estimated by U.S. intelligence experts at perhaps 300 leaders and operatives -- seems to have established itself in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a place that the U.S. military could hardly occupy, no matter how many CIA drone attacks were sent against it. Moreover, U.S. intelligence experts increasingly suggest that al-Qaeda is in the process of fusing with local jihadist groups in those borderlands, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and elsewhere; that it is increasingly an amorphous "dispersed network," or even simply an idea or crude ideology, existing as much online as anywhere in particular on the ground.
In this sense -- and this is the only reason now offered for the American presence in Afghanistan -- a counterinsurgency "success" there would be meaningless unless, based on the same strategic thinking, the U.S. then secured Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and a potential host of other places. In other words, the U.S. military would have to do one thing the Bush years definitively proved it couldn't do: impose a Pax Americana on planet Earth.
Of course, the Bush administration might have offered other explanations for the ongoing Afghan War, including the need to garrison what it called "the arc of instability" stretching from North Africa to the Chinese border (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet), roll back Russia from its former Soviet "backyard" in Central Asia, and guarantee the flow of Caspian Sea oil westward. More recently, with the revelation that a trillion or more dollars worth of natural resources lie under Afghan soil, securing that country's raw materials for western mining companies might have been added to that list. The Obama administration, however, offers no such explanations and, being managerial rather than visionary in nature when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, might not even have them.
In any case, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be telling a rather different story. The singular thing the Iraq War seems to have done politically is promote Iranian influence in that country. Economically, it's made Iraq a safer place for the state-owned or state-controlled oil companies of China, Russia, and a number of other non-western nations. In Afghanistan, in terms of those future natural resources, we seem to be fighting to make that country safe for Chinese investment (just as the recently heightened U.S. sanctions against Iran are helping make that country safe for Chinese energy dominance).
The Question Mark over Afghanistan
All of this leaves the massive American investment of its most precious resources, including lives, in Afghanistan an ongoing mystery that is never addressed. Somewhere in that country's vast stretches of poppy fields or in the halls of Washington's national security bureaucracy, in other words, lurks a great unasked question. It's a question asked almost half a century ago of Vietnam, the lost war to which David Petraeus turned in 2006 to produce the Army counterinsurgency manual which is the basis for the present surge.
The question was: Why are we in Vietnam? (It even became the title of a Norman Mailer novel.) In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's administration produced a government propaganda film solely in response to that question, which was already threatening to drive down his polling figures and upend his Great Society at home. The film was called Why Viet-Nam.
While it had no question mark after the title, the question of whether to add one was actually argued out in the most literal way inside the administration.
The film began with the president quoting a letter he had received from a mother "in the Midwest" whose son was stationed in Vietnam. You hear the president, in his homey twang, pick up that woman's question, as if it were his own. "Why Vietnam?" he repeats three times as the title appears on the screen, after which, official or not, a question mark seems to hover over every scene, as it did over the war itself.
In a sense, the same question mark appeared both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it has never been associated with Afghanistan. Because of 9/11, Afghanistan remained for years the (relatively) good (and largely forgotten) war, until visible failure visibly tarnished it.
It's now past time to ask that question, even as the Obama administration repeats the al-Qaeda mantra of the Bush years almost word for word and lets any explanation go at that.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is our treasure being wasted there when it's needed here?
It's clear enough that a failed counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan will be an unaffordably expensive catastrophe. Let's not wait a year to discover that there's an even worse fate ahead, a "success" that leaves us mired there for years to come as our troubles at home only grow. With everything else Americans have to deal with, who needs a future Petraeus Syndrome?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.