Re-Appraising The War

On Sunday, the New York Times published its first reports from an archive of 92,000 documents which chronicle the last six years of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Last month, Stanley McChrystal resigned as head of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. These two events captured national attention and brought the war back into the American consciousness for the first time this year. As the conflict enters its ninth full year, the time has come to ask: what are we still doing there?

President Obama will tell you that we’re there to fight Al-Qaeda and to keep the Taliban from regaining control of Afghanistan. The Taliban ruled that country from 1996-2001. During that period, they offered Islamic terrorists safe-haven which was used to prepare the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Obama will tell you that the U.S. lost focus on this war after kicking the Taliban out of power.

President Bush shifted his war on terror to Iraq and made Afghanistan the secondary war. From 2003-2009, the U.S. neglected it. The Taliban regrouped during these years and they gained various strongholds in the country’s mountainous regions. This development gave Al-Qaeda safe-haven along the Pakistani border. The insurgents also gained strength in Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. By the time Mr. Bush left office, the Taliban threatened to overthrow the government and retake control of the country.

These developments were unacceptable to the new commander-in-chief. Last December, Mr. Obama hit the re-set button on the war in Afghanistan. He spent the first year of his administration appraising the war effort there and laid out his new strategy at West Point. This plan added 30,000 additional troops to roll back the Taliban’s momentum and to help secure the Kabul government.

This escalation policy was in line with what Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request. The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan needed these additional troops to implement his COIN (counter-insurgency strategy). This plan requires increased ground troops to fight and defeat the enemy. It also forces these soldiers to live with the Afghan population and to help their government rebuild the country. This COIN strategy is nation-building.

American leaders want to use COIN to prop up the Afghan government against the Taliban insurgency. COIN’s success depends on a stable, credible government The U.S. needs a legitimate partner to work with. This plan requires a partner who can begin taking control of the country and be in the position to govern once U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan. There’s just one problem: the Afghan government is inherently corrupt.

Hamid Karzai “won” the presidential election last year. He has led the country since the Taliban fell in November 2001. Reports of wide-scale corruption have haunted him for years. Last fall, he faced a tough re-election campaign against challenger Abdullah Abdullah. The U.S. sent election monitors to ensure that the process was done properly. Former President Jimmy Carter led the American delegation. After the voting took place, Carter blasted the result (which gave Karzai victory) as “despicable” and claimed it was a stolen election.

Karzai has another problem. Reports indicate he is disengaged from the American war effort in his country. During a recent visit to Washington, the Afghan president visited Walter Reed hospital. There he interacted with American soldiers wounded in Uruzgan province. As he left the wounded, he remarked: “I didn’t even know we were fighting in Uruzgan.”

This is the man Americans must partner with. Is it any wonder that public support for the war has eroded?

Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001. Nearly nine years later, American forces remain. The purpose of this drawn-out war has changed. The U.S. invaded the country to kick out the Taliban and deny Al-Qaeda safe-haven. This was accomplished within months. Yet we are still there. American leaders claim there is more work to do. Their COIN strategy will take more time as the military rebuilds Afghanistan

But American forces could stay in Afghanistan for a hundred years. The country will still be a backwater. Occupying the country,  helping it stave off the Taliban threat, and building infrastructure will cost billions of dollars. Thousands of Americans will die in the process. This is the price America will pay if it pursues the COIN strategy.

The public has heard enough. They have an acute understanding of what the administration hasn’t said: this is a quixotic quest.

President Obama has big dreams and bold rhetoric. But even he couldn’t muster a “Yes We Can” slogan that offered assurance that the U.S. would win the war in Afghanistan. In fact, he didn’t utter the word “victory” in his Afghanistan address. Maybe the president has doubts. Like Lyndon Johnson, he inherited a conflict that is impossible to navigate. Like Johnson, he has vowed to see the war through. Like Johnson, he refuses to pull out of this no-win situation.

The president is in a bind. He campaigned on Afghanistan. He said this was the good war—as opposed to the bad war in Iraq. Democrats used the Afghan conflict as a way to obfuscate the reality: they are the peace party. The Democrats control Congress. Now their House leaders want out of Afghanistan. They will oppose future Afghan appropriations (expenditures).

The Wiki Leaks documents, those 92,000 memos released to the press, only added fuel to the fire. The memos offer a grim picture of the war effort. The Taliban is in its strongest position since U.S. forces toppled their government in 2001. After nine years of fighting and $300 billion spent on the war effort, American troops still cannot defeat the Taliban insurgency.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill have had enough. Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) said he will oppose the war-funding measure while Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) offered the liberals’ complaint: “we need nation-building at home,” rather than in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reports this morning that over half of the caucus (130 of the 255 House Dems) will oppose the measure. This is stiff resistance to their party leader, President Obama. He still insists that Afghanistan is the place America must win. This place is vital to our national security.

Is it?

This is where America should focus? When Iran gets closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb every day and when North Korea threatens war with Seoul.  Americans should rebuild Afghanistan when our own infrastructure needs a face-lift and we’re running a record 1.47 trillion dollar deficit.

Afghanistan is a mess. It always has been. Afghanistan is not a country, it is a geographic expression. People there place their loyalty to those that offer security. They look to their tribal leader, not some “national” president in Kabul, for their marching orders. They live in a primitive society that has lacked central control for hundreds of years.

America has staked its honor in this place. Once again, the U.S. has fought a war in the least desirable terrain on the planet. Like Vietnam, this will only end in one way. It will end with disappointment.

COIN is a farce. Mr. Obama should bring the troops home as quickly as possible.

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