Perhaps the nation will debate forever what George Bush did – he involved us in two protracted land wars in Asia. The one in Afghanistan seemed like a good idea at the time – get rid of that Taliban government that had provided safe haven for the bad guys who attacked us. And we did that, and then we stayed, to make sure the new government, run by that odd and vain and manic-depressive fellow Karzai, held together and the Taliban didn’t return. It wasn’t a set-it-and-forget-it sort of thing, as much as the American public seemed to think that’s how things work. A nation whose view of causation is formed by infomercials tends to think you fix something and it stays fixed. And yes, there are few al-Qaeda in Afghanistan now – eighty or a hundred of the nastiest people imaginable – but we cannot leave. In statistics they call it reversion to the norm. We can’t allow things to revert to the norm. So we stay.
The Iraq business was done with less justification – there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no means to create them, and Saddam was not behind the attacks of 2001, and not in league with al-Qaeda – they thought he was a Sunni fool, an secular apostate, and he thought they were fanatic upstarts out to get him. And they were out to get him. Of course he was a nasty piece of work, as were his sons – and he did fund Palestinian terrorists out to destroy Israel and all the rest. It’s not bad that he’s gone. It’s just that we broke the country, and our thought, that we would install Ahmed Chalabi to run the place and get our guys out fast, just didn’t work out. We couldn’t set it and forget it. Chalabi turned out to be real trouble, and it’s been eight years and the locals haven’t come up a workable government yet. The Shiites who finally returned to power have excluded any Sunnis from being part of things, and the Sunnis are still setting off car bombs, daily, killing a whole lot of Shiites, because they hate the idea of a strictly Shiite government – more and more aligned with Iran, while they have no power at all – while the Kurds in the north would just as soon be done with the whole Iraq thing and have their own country. So we stay while they work things out, things that will never be worked out. We are drawing down there. But we aren’t leaving.
It all seemed like a good idea at the time, in spite of all those who said don’t get involved in this sort of thing – a protracted land war in Asia, where you’re the distrusted occupier and everyone is shooting at you, and where those you’ve helped put in power lie to you and jerk you around. All this does is drain your resources – decades longs wars halfway around the world can bankrupt you, and kill the best of your young men, and generate enough resentment that the bad guys find willing angry people to join them and continue on, protracting things further. And it can frustrate folks back home – where the economy is falling to pieces, along with the roads and bridges, and more and more voters wonder what could possibly be the point of all this. There are those who had recommend diplomacy, backed by something like police action – treat al-Qaeda like the mafia, a crime operation, and root them out. Two major wars, involving decades-long armed occupation fighting an entrenched and motivated and growing resistance, was simply using the wrong tool.
And there were warnings. Read the 1920 letter from Baghdad that T. E. Lawrence wrote:
We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labor supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?
That’s just part of it. The Brits had good intentions. They drove out the bad guys – the Turks at the time – but they became the hated occupiers and finally failed at their set-it-and-forget-it adventure. Things just don’t work that way. And of course Afghanistan has long been called the Graveyard of Empires. Go there to straighten things out – go there with your massive and modern army – and you’ll find yourself there for a long time, a very long time, and you’ll be drained and bankrupt and that will be the end of your empire. The Brits found that out. The odd symbol of that in the Sherlock Holmes stories – Doctor Watson, fragile and cashiered on half-pay after he was wounded in Afghanistan, and having no idea what to do with his life, to save pennies, goes half on the cost of an apartment on Baker Street with an odd fellow he’d never met before, Sherlock Holmes. It’s all about a fellow with post-traumatic shock syndrome making do as best he can in the twilight of an empire. There’s an underlying dislocation and sadness there. And of course Afghanistan broke the Soviet Union – the place drained them dry. It wasn’t Ronald Reagan ripping off his shirt and rippling his muscles and tearing down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands. Afghanistan had busted the Soviet Union. Like they say in street basketball – they couldn’t bring their game. Reagan just happened to be there at the time.
So it’s little wonder in the recent midterm election no candidate of any party – Democrat, Republican, Tea, Libertarian, Green, Wiccan or whatever – brought up the wars. What is there to say? We can’t leave and we shouldn’t stay – these wars will ruin us, or already have ruined us. And we have no options. And of course that puts Obama in an untenable position. But it’s not him. Bush put his successor – whoever it was going to be – in an untenable position.
Consider Rajiv Chandrasekaran and his book Imperial Life in the Emerald City – we got rid of Saddam Hussein and made a mess of our occupation that followed. As noted from the New Yorker:
This revealing account of the postwar administration of Iraq, by a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, focuses on life in the Green Zone, the American enclave in central Baghdad. There the Halliburton-run (and Muslim-staffed) cafeteria served pork at every meal – a cultural misstep typical of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which had sidelined old Arab hands in favor of Bush loyalists. Not only did many of them have no previous exposure to the Middle East; more than half had never before applied for a passport. While Baghdad burned, American officials revamped the Iraqi tax code and mounted an anti-smoking campaign. Chandrasekaran’s portrait of blinkered idealism is evenhanded, chronicling the disillusionment of conservatives who were sent to a war zone without the resources to achieve lasting change.
We need to figure out what to do. And Rajiv Chandrasekaran is still reporting:
The U.S. military is sending a contingent of heavily armored battle tanks to Afghanistan for the first time in the nine-year war, defense officials said, a shift that signals a further escalation in the aggressive tactics that have been employed by American forces this fall to attack the Taliban.
The deployment of a company of M1 Abrams tanks, which will be fielded by the Marines in the country’s southwest, will allow ground forces to target insurgents from a greater distance – and with more of a lethal punch – than is possible from any other U.S. military vehicle. The 68-ton tanks are propelled by a jet engine and equipped with a 120mm main gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away.
It seems we are changing tactics:
Despite an overall counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes the use of troops to protect Afghan civilians from insurgents, statistics released by the NATO military command in Kabul and interviews with several senior commanders indicate that U.S. troop operations over the past two months have been more intense and have had a harder edge than at any point since the initial 2001 drive to oust the Taliban government.
The pace of Special Operations missions to kill or capture Taliban leaders has more than tripled over the past three months. U.S. and NATO aircraft unleashed more bombs and missiles in October – 1,000 total – than in any single month since 2001. In the districts around the southern city of Kandahar, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division have demolished dozens of homes that were thought to be booby-trapped, and they have used scores of high-explosive line charges – a weapon that had been used only sparingly in the past – to blast through minefields.
It sounds very Russian. The Soviets tried this. Or it’s a Donald Rumsfeld thing:
“The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower,” the officer said. “It’s pretty significant.”
And there is this curious rationale for blowing things up:
“Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?” a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.
Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor’s office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said.
And Spencer Ackerman adds that General David Petraeus seems to endorse some odd ideas about his own powers:
Chandrasekaran reports that Petraeus feels his reputation as a counterinsurgency guru can overcome the optics of a heavily armored force rolling through Afghanistan’s south, reminiscent of the Soviet occupation. But any reporter who spends time in Afghanistan will hear stories from surprised U.S. officers about how many Afghans don’t know the Soviets ever actually left. And chances are the Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual isn’t required reading in Kandahar or Marja.
Afghans don’t know the Soviets ever actually left? No wonder – and Matthew Yglesias adds this:
It continually seems to me that the biggest problem with our strategy in Afghanistan is that, to much too great an extent, it’s really a problem about internal conflicts within the military whose real targets are in Washington DC. The counterinsurgency faction badly wants something called a “win” achieved through something called “counterinsurgency” and I think is losing sight of the real interests of the people in America and Afghanistan alike.
Who knows what those are any longer. And Ackerman does explain the oddity here:
Behold the U.S.’s new counterinsurgency tool in Afghanistan: the M1 Abrams tank, your ultimate in 30-year old precision firepower.
Increasingly distant are the days when Defense Secretary Robert Gates worried aloud about replicating the Soviet Union’s failed heavy footprint in Afghanistan. Under the command of General David Petraeus, the military’s leading advocate of counterinsurgency, an unconventional war is looking surprisingly conventional.
NATO planes are dropping more bombs than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Special Forces have been operating on a tear since the summer, to the point where Afghanistan’s president is saying enough is enough. The coalition is using massive surface-to-surface missiles to clear the Taliban out of Kandahar. And now the tanks are rolling in. …
U.S. military officials brag that they’ve “taken the gloves off” in Afghanistan, just as they’re sending 16 lumbering Abrams tanks into Helmand Province. That’s pretty much the opposite of Petraeus’ famous “Get Out and Walk” guidance for troops in Iraq.
And Ackerman points out other issues:
What’s far more noticeable to Afghans is NATO blowing up at least 174 booby-trapped homes around Kandahar since September. Commanders may have cover from local government officials to do that, as NATO officials tell Chandrasekaran. But if the point of the Kandahar campaign is to get the locals to support that government instead of the Taliban, presuming that the officials are a proxy for local support is a dicey proposition.
In April 2009, Gates cautioned in a CNN interview, “The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn’t care about civilian casualties. And they couldn’t win.” Sixteen tanks do not remotely approach what the Soviets sent to occupy Afghanistan. And the proportion of civilians killed by the Taliban vastly dwarf those killed by NATO forces.
But now NATO, all combined, has 130,000 troops in Afghanistan. The numbers of civilians killed in the war is at an all-time high, despite a U.S. strategy predicated on protecting Afghans from violence. And starting today in Lisbon, NATO will endorse a strategy that will keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, even while it holds 2014 out as the new date for foreign forces to cease combat.
And Ackerman’s dismal conclusion:
If the purpose of repurposing tanks, missiles and air strikes for unconventional conflict is to pummel the Taliban into suing for peace with the Afghan government, Mullah Omar still rejects any negotiations with President Karzai. From his safe haven in Pakistan, can he really be “awed and shocked” into changing his mind? It’s almost as if a different superpower has tried this before.
Perhaps the nation will debate forever what George Bush did – he involved us in two protracted land wars in Asia. And a different superpower has tried this before. And the Brits tried it.
He should have known better. But it’s too late now. There’s no exit. And now there are tanks. Is there anything Holmes can say to cheer up Watson?