When eight British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan the second week of July, bringing the total lost to 184, the country’s media exploded in debate. The deaths meant that Britain had lost more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq. And from the front pages - where the soldiers’ public funerals were prominently covered - to deep inside, the Independent, the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and other newspapers took a serious look at the policy of Gordon Brown’s government in Afghanistan. Television programs were likewise engaged. As well as the parliamentary opposition.
One complaint provoking widespread ire was something familiar to Americans, a lack of adequate equipment for those sent into harm’s way. In this case, it was not having enough helicopters used to extract soldiers in tight spots. But, in spite of the government’s inadequate reply, that wasn’t the primary issue explored in the media page after page, day after day. What underpinned all of the tens of thousands of words devoted to the subject boiled down to why are we there? and when are we coming home?
|Ian, Nigel and Donald, soldiers of the First Battalion of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment, just returned from Kosovo, stand in front of the York Minster on July 21. Asked if they expected to go to Afghanistan, Nigel said, "I hope not." Donald interjected, "We go where we’re sent." [Photo by MB]
As of today, 206 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, and the debate has intensified. Not least because General Sir David Richards, who takes over Friday as the Chief of the General Staff, said of Afghanistan in an interview August 8: "This is nation-building — not the starry-eyed type, but nation-building none the less. It is not just reconstruction; jobs and simple governance ... The army’s role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 or 40 years."
That statement brought on fresh media outbursts. And while other British generals say the mission requires more troops, however long it lasts, there was also buzz over Brown apparently seeking to bring home as many as 1500 of Britain’s troops by the end of the year.
In the United States, however, there has been comparatively little coverage of Afghanistan, a bare whisper of debate. Funerals of the scores of Americans killed in the Afghan surge have not made it to the front page. Worse, most of the left blogosphere, once alive with fierce daily discussion of war, has had only brief flurries of commentary and analysis on Afghanistan since President Obama’s speech about his new policy in March to "dismantle, disrupt, and defeat" al-Qaida. It’s become the invisible war. That’s in spite of the fact that far more Americans are now dying there than in Iraq, and this year the Pentagon is slated to spend $65 billion there, as opposed to $61 billion in Iraq.
Part of this inattention may be chalked up to the on-going fight over health care, a subject which has, quite understandably, sucked most of the oxygen out of the room as activists try to salvage a reform that has been sabotaged by dilution, capitulation to insurance interests, poor messaging and officious sneering at the people who have objected to all three. Nonetheless, with a couple of weeks or so remaining before the commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, publicly delivers his strategic assessment of the situation, the silence is, as the cliché has it, deafening. McChrystal's assessment will not specifically ask for more troops, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. But shortly after it’s released we can almost certainly expect the general to request thousands more soldiers and billions more dollars.
Under the circumstances, the near silence from progressives is deplorable. A good leader, as our new President said during the campaign, must multitask. Nothing gives us immunity from that admonition. Given that 70% of Democrats polled now say the war isn’t worth fighting, and a plurality of 45% of Americans say the number of troops should be reduced, while only 24% say they should be increased, what's stopped our tongues?
Surely it isn’t because we’re afraid of an argument among ourselves. Or with President Obama. Those have never been obstacles before. Is it because so many progressives are internally conflicted about this war? Is it because so many believe it is a righteous war, a just and legitimate war botched and left unfinished by the Cheney-Bush cabal and amenable to corrective action? Is it the belief that we broke it so we must fix it? That we must catch or kill Osama bin Laden? Is it because we fear calling it a dumb war? Of giving the brigades of armchair warriors and McCarthyists an excuse for once again calling us weak on defense? Of leaving the women of Afghanistan to their fate under fundamentalists even though we haven’t invaded Saudi Arabia to liberate them there? Of leaving Pakistan’s nukes to their fate under the same fundamentalists? Is it because we think the U.S. can make life better for Afghans and safer for Americans? Or that fraudulent elections run by a corrupt president who calls warlord war criminals such as Rashid Dostum back into the country to help deliver votes will actually work to bring peace? Does the departure of Dick Cheney from the main stage make us shy away from the word empire?
What about any of this makes us jabbermouths on so many profoundly divisive issues so hesitant to speak on this one?
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said Sunday that the situation is not good in Afghanistan and that it must improve in the next 12 to 18 months or there will be congressional and popular pressure against the policy. But what would mark improvement? Fewer killings? Better delivery of services? A smaller poppy crop? Improved infrastructure? Even the Bush administration conceded rhetorically that there was no wholly military solution in Afghanistan. The Obama White House has taken that idea a good deal more seriously. "Civilian surge" and "it’s not about how many enemies we kill; it’s about how many civilians we protect" have now become the mantra.
But as all good reporters have been told since the dawn of investigative reporting: follow the money. At the city council level or in Washington, policy follows budget. If you want something to work, you spend dollars on it. The Pentagon budget for Afghanistan this year is $65 billion. The USAID budget of civilian aid for winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Pakistan is $4.4 billion. The words deliver one message, the dollars another. It’s not that the administration doesn’t have worthwhile ideas about how to improve life for the average Afghan – electricity and clean water and a $12,000 school would make the typical rural village a far better place. It’s the implementation that isn’t happening. While 17,000 more troops have been making their way to Afghanistan, only 92 of the State Department’s promised 313 new civilians have been hired.
Many of those civilians are doing terrific humanitarian work. But most of the billions they are supposed to be sinking into worthwhile projects are being sucked away by corruption long before it reaches the locales where it is supposed to be spent. This, accompanied with the slowness with which the civilian end of things has been delivered since the Bush administration, is cause for much understandable grumbling by the Afghan people.
Meanwhile, apparently without the slightest backward glance, the Pentagon is considering putting private security companies on the front lines in Afghanistan with even broader authority than they had in Iraq where mercenaries killed unarmed civilians with impunity.
The assault on the drug lords in areas of Afghanistan held by that loose confederation of insurgents inaccurately called "the Taliban" conveniently leaves alone the drug lords of the old Northern Alliance associated with or supportive of the Karzai government. Assuming that the massive training of tens of thousands of Afghan police and troops actually succeeds, nobody has yet determined where the money will come from to fund an army that will cost more to operate than Afghanistan’s total government revenue. Atop everything else, there is no exit plan and, of course, not even a hint of an exit date. Is Sir Richard right? Are we talking not years, but decades?
Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason write in Foreign Policy:
"For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here's a reality check: It's not taking things far enough. From the origins of these North-South conflicts to the role of insurgents and the pointlessness of this week's Afghan presidential elections, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between these wars. The places and faces may have changed but the enemy is old and familiar. The sooner the United States recognises this, the sooner it can stop making the same mistakes in Afghanistan.
"Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the US engagement there) had surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it, where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified US advantages in ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 per cent of the population of both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 per cent.
"In both countries, the United States sought to create an indigenous army modeled in its own image, based on US army organisation charts. With the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] in South Vietnam and the ANA [Afghan National Army] in today's Afghanistan, assignment of personnel as combat advisors and mentors was the absolute lowest priority. And in both wars, the US military grossly misled the American people about the size of the indigenous force over a protracted period. In Afghanistan, for example, the US military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as 'trained and equipped,' knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty.
"The United States consistently and profoundly misunderstood the nature of the enemy it was fighting in each circumstance. In Vietnam, the United States insisted on fighting a war against communism, while the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In Afghanistan, the United States still insists on fighting a secular counterinsurgency, while the enemy is fighting a jihad."
Peter Baker looks at the Vietnam scenario in a slightly different way.
Recently, director Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films has been putting together a documentary on Afghanistan. It’s now in six parts that you can view on-line for free. It’s not the be-all, end-all of the Afghanistan story. There are contrary voices. But it provides an excellent place to begin what should be an everyday discussion.
Here is part 6. You can see the other parts here.