- Beginning early in the presidential election campaign
last year, both candidates asserted that they would increase the heat in
Afghanistan. Between 2001 and early 2009, military operation in that country,
which so far have accomplished nothing, occupied virtually the entire Bush
presidency and burned roughly $200 billion of the US treasury. So far over
500 Americans have been killed, along with 150 allies and thousands of
Afghani people. Wounded and traumatized military and civilian personnel
number in the tens of thousands. In the Pakistan phase of this campaign,
begun late in the Bush term and now started in the Obama term, the US has
conducted at least 38 mainly drone raids, killing more than 150 people,
few if any of whom are provably terrorists. With that the US is now courting
the enmity of 50 million Pushtun people who by agreement with Islamabad
rule that region of Pakistan.
- One would think that such a gruesome track record, coupled
with the fact that the only result to date is that the Karzai Government
controls the capital city of Kabul, while five or more heroin-financed
drug lords control the countryside, would raise at least a few questions
of utility. But no! Rising costs, declining prospects, and the fact that
no outsider has ever won a war in Afghanistan be damned, the war will go
on. Americans have a right to know why. Indeed, so does everybody else
on the planet.
- The truth is depressing. One of the earliest disfavors
George W. Bush did for Americans was to crudely define the purposes of
this war: He targeted his campaign on al Qaida, saying "We will fight
them over there so that we won't have to fight them over here." That
became the central Bush administration mantra of the War on Terrorism.
- The Bush strategy slowly morphed into selected drone
and manned flight bombings in northwestern Pakistan, the region known as
Waziristan. Although Bush claimed that Pakistan was an American ally, he
and his team apparently saw no inconsistency in claiming an alliance while
selectively killing the Pushtun people of Pakistan and other regional tribals
in the ally's backyard.
- Obama signed on to this strategy when he authorized a
drone attack in Waziristan earlier this week. But the campaign narrative
changed; all of a sudden the target was the Taliban, not al Qaida and Osama
- With that shift, the purposes of the war suddenly changed.
The US was no longer ostensibly fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Instead,
the Obama mission had become a fight against Islamic fundamentalism.
- Somehow, overnight, the US was thrust back to 2001. The
new game is not precisely to throw the Taliban out. It is to keep them
from coming back into power. Keeping them out of Afghanistan presumably
would also limit the power and freedom of action of al Qaida and Osama
- Just what is in this strategy for us? Let's look first
at what the Taliban had done to deserve this awkward distinction. When
the Soviet Union had enough of Afghanistan warfare and withdrew in defeat
in 1989, the country experienced about five years of factional in-fighting
and change, reasonably defined as political chaos. During that period the
Taliban emerged as a force, first by being hired by Pakistan to protect
or facilitate traffic through contentious regions like the Khyber Pass,
and second by being supported spiritually, politically and financially
by fundamentalist religious schools in Pakistan. The Taliban proved very
effective, better motivated, organized and supported than anybody else,
and they grew quickly as a power center in Afghanistan's fragmented political
environment. Then, in 1996, they took the country away from its US and
western supported, but weak, post-Soviet era government.
- The Taliban, under their traditionalist leader Muhammad
Omar, qualify as hard-core, strict constructionist Muslims. Among their
first actions they forbade any provision of education to women. They also
objected to opium and heroin production and shut down the industry throughout
Afghanistan. But from a US/western point of view, their main sin on taking
over the government in 1996 was to provide a safe-haven to Osama bin Laden.
- In August 1998, al Qaida affiliated terrorists carried
out brutal raids on US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In fact, bin Laden's power base was then split between Sudan and Afghanistan,
and that accounts for President Clinton's bold but largely ineffective
US missile strikes on reputed al-Qaida targets in those two countries.
The collateral damage, meaning the many civilian casualties, of the Clinton
attacks was largely ignored in the US. But it is not unlikely that those
two missile attacks were part of the motivation for the 9/11 events.
- For the past seven years the US has known loosely where
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida may be. So far, it has spent seven years,
nearly $200 billion, over 500 American lives. 150 allied lives, and a good
piece of its reputation on an as yet unsuccessful effort to bring them
- One of the most popular images of official incompetence
these days is that of the person who does the same thing over and over
again while each time expecting different results. President Barack Obama
seems to be trapped in this illusion. He is facing the most compelling
of political fears: If he were to stop the war in Afghanistan and a major
terrorist attack were to occur in the United States, his critics will be
quick to say it was his fault.
- As of now, for nearly three decades the US has been variously
devoted to bringing peace to Afghanistan. That has achieved little so far
beyond returning the Afghan countryside to its drug producing overlords
and permitting Afghanistan to supply 90% of the world's heroin. Yet it
appears that the safest domestic political course for any but the boldest
of American presidents is to continue this useless war.
- However, the consequences of this war are mounting as
the US shreds it alliance with Pakistan and goads the Pushtun people into
defending themselves. The US simply does not have the military resources
to deal with 50 million angry Pushtun people defending themselves at home
in one of the remotest places on earth. The correct appreciation is to
know not when we have lost but when we cannot win and back gracefully out
- _Late breaking development_: According to the TIMES ONLINE,
President Obama "has demanded that American defense chiefs review
their strategy in Afghanistan before going ahead with a troop surge."
In a recent meeting at the Pentagon he reportedly asked the Joint Chiefs
and other defense officials "what is the endgame", and he did
not like the answers he received. This question should have been asked
much earlier and it certainly deserved to be asked before the US increases
its already large human and financial investment in that campaign. It is
most disturbing that good answers were not immediately forthcoming, but
their absence is wholly in keeping with what many serious observers of
the Afghan scene believe is the reality of the situation. __
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India,
Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions
were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National
War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism
and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at