Whistling Past

Whistling past the graveyard can mean one of two things – you know the situation, things are dire, and you’re trying to keep your spirits up, but you know you’re going to die. That’s why you’re whistling. Whistling keeps you from screaming. Alternatively, you’re whistling because you have no idea what’s really going on – you’re blissfully unaware of the situation and the consequences of decisions you’ve made. You’re whistling because life is good. What graveyard? And we’ve been in Afghanistan for fourteen years now. Why are we whistling?

Afghanistan is, of course, a graveyard, the “graveyard of empires” as they say, and there’s a reason for that. Consider all the invasions – from Alexander the Great to the Greeks to Genghis Khan to the British (twice) and then the Soviets, back when they were the Soviets, not the Russians. They each came, they each conquered, they each set up shop, and then… and then they were gone, having drained their treasures and lost armies, for nothing at all. Afghanistan was never folded into anyone’s empire. No one even gained an ally. The empires eventually folded, Afghanistan didn’t. Messing around in Afghanistan just weakened them. The Soviet Union found that out. Ten years in Afghanistan, some antiwar riots in the streets back in Moscow, and then the Soviet Union was no more. This wasn’t cause and effect, but Afghanistan had helped bury the former Soviet empire. It has always been a graveyard of that kind. Avoid it if possible.

We showed up in October 2001 – to get rid of the government there, controlled by the Taliban, and to get rid of the Talban itself, that had been hosting al-Qaeda there. We did that, but somehow that turned into Operation Enduring Freedom – we had to hang around to make sure the Taliban didn’t return, at least until there was an Afghan army that could do that, and a stable Afghan government to direct that army and get the place functioning again.

That didn’t work out, and now, after fourteen years, we’re back where we started:

A day after Afghan security officials described making major progress in retaking the northern city of Kunduz from Taliban forces, the insurgents on Tuesday once again seem to have seized the upper hand. The Taliban’s white flag was once again hanging on the flagpole over Chowk Square, and half of the city was reported to be under Taliban control.

The insurgents continued to fight pitched street battles against Afghan forces, according to residents and some security officials, and the Taliban were pressing into service armored Humvees and pickup trucks they had seized from the troops.

The reports from Kunduz contradicted testimony by the American military commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday. He told the panel that most of the city had been retaken from the Taliban, and that the continued fighting had been relegated to isolated pockets in the city as the insurgents “for the most part melted away, left the city.”

We may have been whistling past the graveyard:

Public assessments issued by Afghan leaders on Tuesday mostly lined up with General Campbell’s portrayal. “The enemy was pushed out of the city yesterday, the Afghan security forces, especially the Afghan National Army, recaptured the city yesterday,” said Lt. Gen. Afzal Aman, director of operations for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

But the accounts of many Kunduz residents on Tuesday greatly differed, as did details from senior Afghan military officers who spoke off the record because they did not want to publicly contradict government spokesmen who were also claiming improvement in the city.

A New York Times reporter returning to Kunduz on Tuesday morning saw a steady stream of Kunduz residents taking advantage of a relative lull in the fighting to flee along the highway to the south, many with their whole families and with cars, trucks and even motorized rickshaws stuffed with their furniture and belongings.

That director of operations for the Afghan Ministry of Defense was whistling past the graveyard too. Those senior Afghan military officers who spoke off the record knew that, but this time there was a new problem:

A senior Afghan military officer blamed a lack of American airstrikes over the past two days for the Taliban advance on Tuesday, in the wake of the American airstrike that destroyed the Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Saturday and killed 22 people, mostly hospital staff and patients.

“The U.S. airstrikes are halted since yesterday evening,” said the officer, who confirmed that the city remains divided between the insurgents and government forces, with some fighting on Tuesday even in the Sare Dawra neighborhood, close to the airport, where the Afghan Army and American Special Operations troops have headquarters. “Until the airstrikes resume, it will be hard to have any progress in the fighting against the Taliban,” he said.

The senior officer also blamed a lack of coordination among Afghan units. “There are 10 generals from different organs, and they aren’t under the command of one person who should lead the fighting,” the officer said. “This way, it is unlikely for the Afghan security forces to achieve anything so quickly. The fighting might last for months and Kunduz city may not be retaken.”

Okay, no one’s in charge and we’ve halted the airstrikes, but this time because we screwed up:

The American commander in Afghanistan now thinks that United States troops who called in an airstrike that decimated a Doctors without Borders hospital probably did not follow rules that allow for the use of air power only in dire situations, according to American officials with knowledge of the general’s thinking.

Under those rules, airstrikes can be used to kill terrorist suspects, to protect American troops and to answer requests for help from the Afghan Army in battles that could significantly alter the military landscape in Afghanistan – such as the recent Taliban takeover of Kunduz – but not necessarily smaller firefights. The idea behind the rules of engagement was to give American troops leeway but not see them dragged back into daily, open-ended combat.

In private discussions with officials in Washington, Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander, has expressed his belief that the decision by Special Operations Forces operating “in the vicinity” of the Afghan troops in Kunduz likely did not meet any of those criteria, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

It seems that General Campbell was having a bad day:

After days of shifting and at times ambiguous American statements about the airstrike, which Doctors Without Borders has likened to a war crime, the general was as direct on Tuesday as any official has been to date.

“A hospital was mistakenly struck,” he said.

Note the passive-voice construction. We didn’t strike a hospital. A hospital was struck. The “we” cannot be assigned yet:

The general said the military had received a request for air support from Afghan troops fighting to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. “Even though the Afghans request that support,” he said, “it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure.”

Yet General Campbell offered little clarity about how that procedure failed or what events led up to the strike.

And then there’s the obvious:

The bombing in Kunduz and the faltering attempt by Afghan forces to recapture the city have renewed questions about the shape and scope of the American mission in Afghanistan. Most of the roughly 10,000 troops now there are focused on training and advising Afghan troops, and the White House placed broad limits on when and where the United States could use force after the American combat mission ended last year.

At the same time, it has given General Campbell wide discretion to do what he deems necessary to aid Afghan troops. For the most part, that has meant using air power. But the fighting in Kunduz over the past 10 days has illustrated the limits of air power. It has also offered a reminder of the danger airstrikes pose to civilians, who have repeatedly been killed by American aerial bombardments since the outset of the war 14 years ago.

That is a problem. Fourteen years of bombs and drones killing lots of civilians does seem to upset the locals. They might want us to go home, not that we will, now that things there are as big a mess as ever:

The recent gains by the Taliban appear to have restarted a debate within the Obama administration about whether to move forward with plans to cut by about half the current American force. The Pentagon, along with some senior officials within the administration, is pushing to maintain as large a force in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that the Afghan Army and police are still in need of American assistance.

The Republicans on the committee left little doubt that they believe the administration’s withdrawal plan would leave the Afghans dangerously exposed to their enemies. General Campbell was clear that he, too, would prefer to keep as many troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible.

Why? Salon’s Ben Norton examines that:

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to ensure it “would never again be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other radical Islamist terrorists to attack us again,” John McCain said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday morning. And “that mission has been successful for 14 years.”

To say al-Qaeda has not again attacked Americans on U.S. soil is technically correct, but to call such a mission “successful” is mind-bogglingly myopic. No rational person can look at the situation throughout South Asia and the Middle East today and say U.S. military intervention has been a success. This would take either extreme blindness or sheer delusion.

McCain insisted “American troops and civilians have made steady progress in supporting our Afghan partners to secure their country and dealt severe blows to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.” Yet these claims blatantly defy the facts on the ground.

Yes, this can be said, one more time:

It was the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that in fact led to the growth of al-Qaeda throughout the world. Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion; the U.S. war, which pulverized the government, destroyed enormous amounts of infrastructure, and escalated sectarian tensions, is what brought al-Qaeda into the country. This eventually led to the rise of ISIS – whose predecessor was ISI (the Islamic State of Iraq) – which broke ties with al-Qaeda for not being extreme enough.

McCain failed to mention in the hearing that al-Qaeda has grown exponentially since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began. Now al-Qaeda is present in almost every country in the region. And ISIS, even more violent than al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has entered Afghanistan, while taking more and more territory in war-stricken Libya – where U.S. bombing once again destroyed the government and left the country in shambles – along with Yemen – where Washington is backing the Saudi-led coalition that is responsible for approximately two-thirds of the thousands of civilian casualties and has used banned U.S.-made cluster munitions to bomb civilian areas – and more.

Never mentioned by McCain, moreover, is that over 220,000 Afghans were killed in the U.S. war, according to a report conducted by Physicians for Social Responsibility. (At least another 1 million people were killed in the U.S. war in Iraq, the study indicates, noting that “this is only a conservative estimate.”)

Norton goes on, but you get the idea, and should remember how this all started:

Unmentioned by McCain was, too, any of the history surrounding the conflict in Afghanistan. In his desperate call for more war, McCain glossed over the fact that it was U.S. military intervention that was responsible for the rise of the Taliban in the first place. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the U.S. government supported the militant Islamist movement the Mujahedeen – the Taliban’s predecessor – as part of its larger Cold War strategy. President Reagan even met with the Mujahedeen, whom he dubbed “freedom fighters,” in the Oval Office.

And so on and so forth. There was a lot of whistling past the graveyard on this particular Tuesday in Washington, but it wasn’t just Afghanistan. There was Syria too:

Ratcheting up the confrontation over the Syria war, Russia said Monday that its “volunteer” ground forces would join the fight, and NATO warned the Kremlin after at least one Russian warplane trespassed into Turkey’s airspace.

The saber-rattling on both sides reflected a dangerous new big-power entanglement in the war, as longstanding differences between Russia and the United States over President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his opponents increasingly play out not only in the halls of the United Nations but on the battlefield in Syria.

Russia squared off with Turkey and its NATO allies, calling the air incursion on Saturday an innocent mistake because of foul weather – a claim that American officials rejected.

This is getting hot and could be another graveyard for us, or for Putin’s Russia, but Patrick Smith, Salon’s foreign affairs columnist, argues that Putin isn’t the one whistling here:

A lot of good people are asking a lot of good questions these days, and this is an excellent thing. On the foreign policy side, it happens the best of these questions are posed by non-Americans, for the simple reason most Americans are not ready to think clearly about our moment and how we have come to it. We do not ask because we cannot answer.

My three favorite questions of late, it also happens, have to do with Syria. And let there be no doubt: It is all over for the Obama administration, the Pentagon, the spooks and all others still pretending there is a “moderate opposition” that will carry the day in the many-sided Syrian conflict. Washington has slipped its grip. Others are in charge now, and as they pursue a solution to this crisis the only choice open to the U.S. is whether or not to join in the effort. It will be interesting to see which alternative the White House and the State Department choose.

And the questions are these:

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation; do you realize now what you’ve done?” This is the first good question.

Vladimir Putin posed it in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly 10 days ago. Sensibly, the Russian president added, “But I am afraid no one is going to answer that.” To offer modest assistance, Mr. Putin, the U.S. leadership knows exactly what it has done, and this is why you are correct: Your query will go without reply.

The second and third good questions came from Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. For my money Zarif is among the ablest diplomats now on the scene. He addressed the U.S. on the Syria crisis during a conference in New York on Monday, and he asked, “Why are you there? Who gave you the right to be there?”

Questions like that allow no cheerful whistling:

To ask why the U.S. is in Syria is to brush aside all the customary bunkum about Washington’s humane outrage over the Assad regime’s brutalities. Underneath we find an obsession with “regime change” in Damascus so as to convert Syria from outlier to another Middle Eastern client. Left to the U.S., Assad’s successor, as in the case of al-Sisi in Egypt, would be welcome to all the brutalities he may find necessary. Almost certainly he would enjoy an arms package similar to Egypt’s now-restored $5 billion annually – most of which is now deployed against Egyptians.

“Who gave you the right to be there?” What a simple, pithy question. I have not heard any American other than people such as Noam Chomsky ever consider such a thing. Throughout Washington’s long effort to arm anti-Assad militias on the ground and more recently to drop bombs on Syrian soil – roughly 4,000 sorties to date – the illegality of U.S. policy simply never comes up.

Zarif thus forces two bitter truths upon us. One, we have been breaking the law from the first. We may not have anything to say about this, as we have not to date, but the silence will be conspicuous from here on out, given that others are now prepared openly to challenge the U.S. on the point. Two, whatever one may think of the Assad government, those now committed to backing it as part of their strategy to defeat radical Islamists in Syria do so in accordance with international law. Like it or not, this counts.

And this counts too:

We are always encouraged to find anything Putin does devious and the outcome of hidden motives and some obscure agenda having to do with his pouting ambition to be seen as a first-rank world leader. From the government-supervised New York Times on down, this is what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio and television broadcasts. I urge readers to pay no attention to this stuff. It is all about Washington’s agenda to obscure.

Russia’s favored strategy in Syria has long been very clear. It is a question of distinguishing the primary and secondary contradictions, as the Marxists say. The Assad regime is to be kept in place so as to preserve those political institutions still functioning as the basis of a reconstructed national government. Once the threat of Islamic terror is defeated, a political transition into a post-Assad reconstruction can be negotiated.

For a time it appeared that Washington was prepared to buy into this set of expedients. This impression derived from the very frequent contacts between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom the American secretary of state has often worked closely.

Then Obama and Putin met at the UN and Smith’s sources tell a sad tale:

Putin made the case that the important first priority had to be to eliminate Daesh [the Islamic State] and that after more than a year of the U.S. campaign there has been no significant success. Indeed, the contrary is the case.

Putin’s point was that air power alone will not succeed, and that now the only real boots on the ground are the Kurds and the armies of Syria and its supporters – Hezbollah and some Iranians, but the Iranians troops involved in the struggle with Daesh are operating mostly in Iraq.

Putin proposed creating a coalition, the equivalent of the anti-Hitler alliance, to focus on Daesh, and then focusing in Round 2 on the transition of Syria into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions – Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and a few others – which all work together now.

Obama wouldn’t bite:

Putin had been led to believe through the Lavrov /Kerry channel… that there would be a broader agreement to work together. So he was surprised that Obama did not seize the opportunity to engage the battle in a coordinated way…. In the end they agreed only on coordination between the two militaries to avoid running into each other.

That’s it? That’s it:

Obama has got it radically wrong in Syria – and indeed across the Middle East – but not in the ways we are encouraged to think. …

The first and biggest of them is his willingness to inherit the vision bequeathed by 117 years of American ambition abroad. In the American imperium it is all about us, always. Syria is not Syria, a land of 23 million people (before the exodus we prompted) just as Egypt as it aspired to democracy during the Arab Spring was not Egypt. These are squares on the geopolitical game board. In the Syria case, Russia has a strategy that is prima facie rational and right, but we must object because it is Russia’s. Certainly we cannot join Moscow to make common cause.

Putin and Zarif and others now posing questions are telling Washington something it will have to hear if it is to get off the destructive course of American foreign policy: This is not about you, as many things in the world are not. This is about a political, social and cultural crisis that requires the disinterested attention of those capable of contributing to a solution.

Think about the united front Putin proposes and Obama declines to join. It is already in motion, in case you did not notice. Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus are all now committed to cooperating – not least by way of intelligence sharing, which is a big one – in the fight to subdue the Islamic State.

That’s what we want, but something else made that impossible:

Obama’s second big mistake has to do with his response to the problem of American exceptionalism. One had a sense late during his first term and into his second that he understood it was time to lance this boil on the American consciousness, but in the breach he seems to have demurred.

The result has been his commitment to keep American troops out of conflict zones but to maintain the posture by way of Air Force bombers and supposedly surgical drone attacks. He thus altered only method, not purpose, the desired outcome—as, again, he inherited it. Not only has it failed to achieve any result in Syria; the grotesque bombing of a Médicins sans Frontière hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last weekend reveals the strategy to be a bust on any kind of life-saving, humanitarian grounds, as well.

Perhaps we should stop whistling that “American Exceptionalism” tune as we walk past these graveyards in the Middle East:

In my read, Russia and Iran have just popped open the door to a solution in Syria. All the pieces are in place but one: Washington’s capacity to acknowledge the strategic failure now so evident and to see beyond the narrowest definition of where its interests lie.

This brings us to the paradox embedded in those questions Putin and Zarif and a few others now pose: American primacy is no longer in America’s interest. Get your mind around this and you have arrived in the 21st century.

That’s an option, but so is whistling because you have no idea what’s really going on – you’re blissfully unaware of the situation and the consequences of decisions you’ve made. You’re whistling because life is good. America is good. What graveyard?

Don’t ask.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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