As most readers know by now, President Obama has fired General Stanley McChrystal for insubordination and appointed Gen. David Petraeus to take his place as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The implications of this are, that nothing will change about our Afghanistan policy. We will continue to slog away at an endless counter-insurgency war there, without results.
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As the Rolling Stone article pointed out, McChrystal was a proponent of COIN, a counter-insurgency scheme for rebuilding the government of Afghanistan while removing the Taliban. Of course, to simply state this does not fully convey how hard (probably impossible) this is to do. You need a core Afghan government nucleus that will work with you to build government institutions from the ground up. And that core of people has to be capable of inspiring trust and cooperation in their own population.
The Afghan government we have to work with is that of Hamid Karzai, who is widely despised by his own people, due to the weakness and corruption of his government, which is shot through with his cronies and relatives. This government exerts virtually no control over the country beyond Kabul, and has members actively involved in the drug trade. Further, there is strong evidence that the recent elections in Afghanistan were a farce, that Karzai essentially stole the Presidency. As for the insurgency we want this government to fight, it is deeply embedded in the population--for all practical purposes, we are asking Afghans to fight their own friends and relatives. As you might expect, the prospects for long term success (success being defined as, we can go home with a friendly government securely in place) are not good.
General Petraeus was one of the originators of the COIN strategy and, as the Rolling Stone article pointed out, tried it out in Iraq. The results there have been touted as a success, as U.S. troops become less engaged in the conflict, and the Iraq war gradually slides away from the mainstream media's attention. The truth is a good deal more complicated--let's just say that the current Iraqi government barely functions, and insurgent attacks are a regular feature of Iraqi life. If this is a win, I would hate to see what failure would look like.
In any case, Gen. Petraeus is being called in to Afghanistan to continue the policy that McChrystal was supposed to implement--just do it better, while keeping his mouth shut to the press. Since the fundamental situation on the ground remains unchanged, it is unlikely that Petraeus will succeed any better.
This raises the question: why do we continue to pound our national head against this particular brick wall? Why not just declare victory and go home? Or, why not try something with some chance of success, like for example, taking Karzai up on his periodic threats to make a deal with the Taliban? Why not tell him, "go ahead, sounds like a good idea?" After all, why should we care who rules in Afghanistan?
Originally, we invaded Afghanistan to deal with the group of terrorists known as Al Qaeda, and their leader Osama Bin Laden. Included in this package was the overthrow of the Taliban government led by Mullah Omar. That government had offered to turn over Osama Bin Laden to a responsible third party, if we presented proof that he was behind the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration refused to present such proof and we invaded the country. The subsequent fate of Osama Bin Laden is controversial--we know he was not captured at Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border. Whether he died shortly afterwards, or whether he is still alive is a matter of dispute. What is not disputed is that the Taliban government was overthrown and replaced by the Karzai government, and that as of 2009, only about 100 Al Qaeda activists , if that many, were left in Afghanistan.
So, why are we there? We originally went in to get Al Qaeda. Mission accomplished it would appear. Certainly, what is left of them there would not require tens of thousands of troops to fight. We went in to overthrow a government we accused of being friendly to terrorists. Again, mission accomplished. Mullah Omar, last we heard, is somewhere in the Pakistani border regions, and Karzai rules in Kabul. So, who the hell are we fighting over there with all these thousands of troops? Who is conducting these attacks that kill our soldiers, virtually every day?
The truth is, we are in the middle of a civil war in Afghanistan. We are backing one side, represented by the Karzai government. The other side consists of a large portion of the Afghan people, who do not like the Karzai government. They regard him as our puppet, and us as foreign occupiers. A great deal of the aid that we give to Afghanistan ends up in the hands of this portion of the population, or in the hands of warlords, allied with whatever side is convenient.
As for why we persist in this insane venture, it cannot be for the reasons stated, "to prevent terrorists from coming back" or whatever. Given what the war does to the people of Afghanistan, it would be hard to imagine a better recruiting tool for terrorists than what we are doing now.
I think that there is a faction in this country--yes, here, in the U.S.A.--that thrives on perpetual war. Just look at the enormous expenditures we lavish on the military, even as our politicians argue over what social programs need to be cut at the national level, at the state level, at the city level, to keep our society from going bankrupt. Look at this "Great War On Terror", the ultimate shiny object, used to distract us from our real problems, such as the environmental toll that fossil fuel dependency is exacting on our planet, on the climate, on our economy, on our civil rights...
So, General Petraeus, the architect of "success" in Iraq, now leads the fight in Afghanistan. Yes, in firing General McChrystal, Obama was defending the principle of civilian control of the military. That is a good thing. But as far as the important matters of war and peace are concerned, nothing has changed. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain....
Note: I have to work at the moment, so I will not be available for comments until later this evening. I will check in then. Best regards to all.