By Paolo von Schirach
February 4, 2012
WASHINGTON – What a mess in Afghanistan. Given the high cost of what very charitably could be called an expensive and inconclusive stalemate, it is really surprising that president Obama has not been damaged politically by a war effort with no focus and no end game, except for a politically driven withdrawal schedule, (now moved up), that may have very little to do with conditions on the ground.
No political damage from Afghanistan
May be Obama is relatively unscathed because the US is not suffering the heavy casualties that killed political support for George Bush’s war in Iraq. Besides, unlike the Democrats regarding Iraq, the Republicans in general support the war in Afghanistan. And so this conflict, unlike domestic issues, has not been politicized. Even right, now, as the Republican primaries progress, no one has openly attacked Obama on Afghanistan, except for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose isolationism while popular among Libertarians is certainly not main stream among Republicans.
Huntsman: Us focus should be on counter terrorism
There was of course former Utah Governor and former US Envoy to Beijing Jon Huntsman. He did say that we had precisely the wrong strategy in Afghanistan. He did argue that our large and expensive deployments have very little to do with our primary objective of degrading international terrorism capabilities. But, of course, Huntsman candidacy for the GOP nomination went nowhere and he is now a distant memory.
Surge, McChrystal, Petraeus
So, what is the stay of play in Afghanistan? Just a few facts. Obama ordered a surge of about 30,000 US troops at the end of 2009 to turn things around and crush the reborn Taliban insurgency. Pentagon chief Bob Gates fired the previous Commander and sent in General Stanley McChrystal to lead the effort. But then Obama had to fire McChrystal because of very inappropriate and offensive remarks made by the General about administration policy-makers in the course of interviews that ended up in a Rolling Stone article in June 2010.
So, out goes McChrystal and in come Petraeus, the anointed hero of the Iraq surge. And what did Petraeus accomplish? Not much. And now Petraeus is gone. He retired and left the Army. He went on to be CIA Director when Leon Panetta conveniently vacated the post to go run the Pentagon after Robert Gates left the job.
SecDef Panetta: withdrawing combat troops sooner?
And now it comes out that Panetta, in a sort of “by the way” fashion, semi-announced that the US heavy military involvement in Afghanistan may end in 2013 and not in 2014, as officially stated. And this is because…? Because we are winning? Not by a long shot. Because the European Allies will be doing more? Not even the slightest chance. The French just got 4 unexpected casualties and used this bad news to announce that they may leave early. (Yes, you read that right. It is 4 French soldiers killed. Tragic as this is, it is not 400. And not even 40. These days 4 dead soldiers can force governments to rethink security policies. Think of that. )
Special Ops will take over?
So, what is America’s new approach to the war? Anonymous Pentagon sources fed stories whereby conventional US forces would leave Afghanistan earlier than planned, while Special Forces, perhaps beefed up some, will carry on with search and destroy missions against the Taliban, while training the Afghan Army. Interesting. Isn’t this what Huntsman had recommended? Well, close. The difference is that Huntsman was talking about policy clarity, the Pentagon seems to be acting under political pressure.
Is this about the presidential elections?
This is largely guess work. But it may very well be that Obama would like to go into the November 2012 general election with a cooked up plan for early withdrawal from Afghanistan. So, just like he did regarding the US leaving Iraq, he will be able to claim that it is good news that US forces leave distant lands, so that we can get on with “nation-building” here at home. On the campaign trail, this may have a good ring. But it really makes one wonder as to what these people have been doing all this time regarding this most critical war and with what ends in mind. (For whatever it may worth, please remember that then candidate Obama in 2008 chastised George Bush for the Iraq war, a costly distraction that made the US lose sight of Afghanistan, where, according to Obama, we had a real strategic interest).
US should have had a counter terror goal from day one
I have said this before. A large US involvement in Afghanistan is a losing proposition on any good day. The country is too poor, too rugged, and to large. Afghanistan cannot “be fixed”, and it cannot even be managed, short of a massive occupation force and a a grand plan to redo the whole country over decades. The US never had the resources or the stamina to do any of this. The US key national security objective should be to make sure that Afghanistan will not be used again as a terrorists sanctuary and as a staging ground for terrorist operations against the US homeland and/or against key strategic targets around the world.
In an ideal world it would be nice to place counter terror operations within a broader, comprehensive approach aimed at reforming and modernizing Afghanistan. But the fact is that this way too complicated, given the country’s extreme backwardness.
Rationale behind the policy shift?
So, now it seems as if the Pentagon may finally pursue a more targeted campaign, based on Special Operations forces. But one wonders how they got to this point, and why it took so long. Has there been serious rethinking about tools available and objectives? Or is it that, after all these years, it is..well, you know…just time to go?
Do we go to war, (with all the immense costs associated with such an undertaking), to accomplish anything, or is it just a mindless undertaking that at some point ends because we lost interest, or because the president does not how to explain our goals to a worried public? Is this confused reshuffling about a 10 year war the best that the country that spends more than any other than in the world on national security can produce?