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Is Afghanistan Just a New War of Attrition?

December 24th, 2009, 10:12 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and 1969 West Point graduate who served in Vietnam and in the Persian Gulf, is now a professor of international relations at Boston University. A sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where his son, a first lieutenant, was killed by an improvised explosive device two and a half years ago, his most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Bacevich is no DFH, or even moderate progressive, but rather a small “c” conservative. He critiques today’s American foreign policy through the prism of empire. That overly militarized, interventionist policy is bipartisan, he says, not merely the fruit of a single administration but one whose seeds were planted by Woodrow Wilson and cultivated by Democrats and Republicans alike throughout most of the 20th Century with no end in sight as we enter the second decade of the 21st.

Tuesday in the New York Daily News, he wrote:

On the march to Baghdad, back when America’s war on terror was young, a rising star in the United States military lobbed this enigmatic bon mot to an accommodating reporter: “Tell me how this ends.” Thus did then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus in 2003 neatly frame the issue that still today haunts the U.S.-led effort to defeat violent anti-Western jihadism.

To know how something ends implies knowing where it’s going. Yet eight years after it began, the war on terror is headed back to where it started. The prequel is the sequel, Afghanistan replacing Iraq as the once and now once again central front.

So are we making progress? Even as President Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan, that question hangs in the air, ignored by all. Rather than explaining how the struggle will end, the President merely affirms that it must continue, his eye fixed on pacifying a country of which his own secretary of state recently remarked “We have no long-term stake there.” …

The revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, celebrated as evidence of enlightened military practice, commits America to a postmodern version of attrition. Rather than wearing the enemy down, we’ll build contested countries up, while expending hundreds of billions of dollars (borrowed from abroad) and hundreds of soldiers’ lives (sent from home).

How does this end? The verdict is already written: The Long War ends not in victory but in exhaustion and insolvency, when the United States runs out of troops and out of money.

Advocates of the administration’s escalation policy in Afghanistan often ask in a tone of gotcha: What is your alternative? Bacevich is not shy about offering one.

It consists not of increasing a strong state presence backed by a big army and police force – which, as even President Hamid Karzai has pointed out, Afghanistan can’t make payroll for until sometime after 2024. Rather Bacevich recommends reducing the clout of the power-brokers in Kabul and putting more decisions at the provincial and local level. He calls for a new policy that focuses not on demonizing Karzai but rather giving him incentives to cut his ties with the corrupt and murderous warlords that the Cheney-Bush administration helped bring to power. The United States should concentrate on nudging Karzai to make a partnership not with the warlords but with the Afghan people.

Such a policy, Bacevich explains, would persistently seek a dialogue with the parliament, civil society organizations, and the armed opposition. “A lasting peace will require reconciliation among Afghanistan’s warring factions: the government; former jihadi leaders; and the many insurgent groups, particularly the Taliban.”

While the current administration and its predecessor have each declared that no military solution exists in Afghanistan, that is not how they have behaved. In March, for instance, President Obama spoke of a civilian surge to accompany what turned out to be the deployment of 34,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. That civilian surge has yet to fully deploy. Another civilian surge is supposed to take place as 30,000 troops arrive.  

But the reality of the situation is amply displayed in spending. Policy follows budget. The 2010 military budget for Afghanistan is $65 billion. Added to that will be $30 billion, the administration has said. So far, however, the cost of deploying a single soldier to Afghanistan has clocked in at $1.1 million. So the cost of those 30,000 extra troops would actually be $33 billion a year. But even before the President gave his speech on Afghanistan earlier this month, the Pentagon was making noises about needing as much as an extra $50 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, at the very least, one can expect the cost of the war there to run $100 billion over the next year.

And civilian spending? Development assistance for Afghanistan in 2010 is set at $2.611 billion. The military to civilian ratio: 38:1. How does that imbalance embrace the concept that there is no military solution in Afghanistan?

Bacevich writes in the Boston Review:

In the wake of 9/11, a with-us-or-against-us mentality once again swept Washington. “Terrorism” assumed the place of communism as the great evil that the United States was called upon to extirpate. This effort triggered a revival of interventionism, pursued heedless of cost and regardless of consequences, whether practical or moral.

In the Pentagon, they call this the Long War. With his decision to escalate the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama—effectively abandoning his promise to “change the way Washington works”—has signaled his administration’s commitment to the Long War.

Yet, as with the Cold War, the Long War rests on a false premise. To divide the world into two camps today makes no more sense than it did in Dulles’s time. Rather than creating clarity, indulging in this sort of oversimplification sows confusion and encourages miscalculation. It allows Americans to avert their eyes from the gathering forces—largely beyond the control of the United States—that are actually reshaping the international order. Sending U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan sustains the pretense that we ourselves, exercising the prerogatives of global leadership, are somehow shaping that order.

We’re told that the escalation in Afghanistan will start being reversed just 18 months from now, a date already slipping given that the full complement of additional troops won’t be deployed by next July, as originally declared, but rather by next November. It stretches credulity to believe they will start coming home nine months later. The idea that the Long War will be shortened bears no relationship to the reality of what the struggle in Afghanistan – and, increasingly, in neighboring Pakistan – is all about. Nor does it mesh with the reality of more than a century of U.S. foreign policy.


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