Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Common sense about Afghanistan: there is no there there for US

As President Obama gears up, again, to determine what he is trying to do about (or with?) the Afghanistan war, what's needed is not some deep analysis of complex options, but simply the application of some down-home common sense. The essential questions that have not been answered since the Bushies let Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora are still the real questions:
  • What is the U.S. trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?
  • How many Afghans, U.S. soldiers and allied troops are we willing to kill to do whatever it is?
  • Are the U.S. people willing to continue throwing men and money into a faraway place where we've already been at war for eight years for no discernible purpose?
All this is pretty obvious.

I just want to highlight perspectives from a couple of knowledgeable people who've shared some home truths about the mess. Patricia Lee Sharpe is a retired foreign service officer who has worked in Pakistan. She pleads with the President to withdraw now.

I urge you, Mr. President, not to increase our troop strength in Afghanistan. ...

We have, in Afghanistan, thrust ourselves into the middle of a religious war we tragically helped to ignite. Now, however, this struggle is in no way ours to win or lose. That's up to those who have a direct interest in its outcome, the Afghan people. Arguments about how properly to fight a war against insurgency, debates about how many troops are needed, advisories about how those troops should behave vis-à-vis the local population -- irrelevant! It's not our war–and we can't oh-so-nobly win it for the Afghan people either.

If, after eight years of outside intervention, competent or not, the fractious non-Taliban leaders of Afghanistan have been unable to unite around the task of fielding enough tough-minded, battle-savvy men to defeat the resurgent Taliban, there's got to be a serious lack of something like will, motivation or interest or sense or urgency. Look at it this way: if the Taliban can fight modern troops to a standstill, then five times as many (an arbitrary but not impossible figure if all non-Taliban sheiks, chiefs, warlords and mullahs would work together) non-Taliban fighters, no better equipped but equally determined, could surely push them back, Afghan-style. It's clear that fearful village fence-sitters would back a credible non-Taliban alternative. Memories (and current experience) of Taliban rule are not pleasant.

As it is, we pour money into Afghanistan, it seeps into the ground like rain after drought, and still the ground is infertile (except for poppy). There's a message here. We are fools and we are being milked. I imagine lots of laughter at our expense when the Afghan maliks settle down on their carpets, lounge back on their pillows and sip green tea together after a day of smiling and saying yes, yes, yes, to the Americans.

She goes on to point out that the Pakistani army has proved it can and will control the Taliban -- when Pakistanis support that effort and this proud army is not seen as acting as a U.S. stand-in. Moreover she points to polls showing the declining approval for aggressive Islamists throughout the Muslim world. Her entire argument is well worth reading.

Ann Jones recently observed U.S. soldiers "training" Afghan army recruits and she too thinks she is seeing a charade, just self-deceiving foolery. Here's an excerpt:

American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love the military. My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I've spent in that country, is this: It's a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) -- and that doesn't include democracy or glory. ...

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. ...

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40 percent of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

Go read all of Jones' article.

It's not only crazy that Washington policy makers are engaging in this charade, but it verges on criminal to send troops to get killed for something so essentially fraudulent.

President Obama, you can still begin to get out of this insanity. This month is the time to start. Just say no to ambitious generals and neocon armchair "strategists" who never saw a war for empire they didn't want someone else to fight.

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