Michael H. Hunt: Afghanistan and an unkind God

The recent news on Afghanistan calls to mind the troubled musings of an American officer on the chances of success in an earlier, misbegotten war (quoted in Arc of Empire). “If there is a God, and he is very kind to us, and given a million men and five years and a miracle in making the South Vietnamese people like us, we stand an outside chance of a stalemate.” The Johnson and Nixon administrations by contrast professed publicly to see nothing but light at the end of the tunnel. One rosy scenario followed another.

Afghanistan has replicated the Vietnam-era pattern of high-level denial by the White House and its political generals even as the accumulating evidence suggests that either there is no God or the deity is unkind. U.S. and allied troops are on their way out with the Taliban very much in tact and still determined to take power and with our Afghan allies ready to accommodate their nominal enemy while taking occasional potshots at their nominal allies.

Some recent reminders of the unreality surrounding the Afghan project:

  • A pair of intelligence reports in December stressed that Pakistan, although a nominal ally, remained a Taliban sanctuary and thus a serious obstacle to the conduct of U.S. operations. This bit of unwelcome news arrived just as President Obama prepared to report on success. Not to worry, Pentagon spinmeisters told us. The pessimistic reports were based on dated information and the analysts did not have a good feel for the on-the-ground conditions.

  • Interrogations of captured Taliban revealed that the insurgents were not “degraded” (to use military jargon with wonderfully Biblical overtones). Despite the U.S. surge, the Taliban seemed to be having no difficulty with recruits, donations, or confidence. So much for counter-insurgency. The captured Taliban painted a picture of the Kabul government that was reminiscent of the charges directed against a Saigon regime that failed to govern and fell prey to corruption. So much for nation building. A Pentagon flak would of course have none of it, assuring us that prisoners were not reliable sources (even though some of the most revealing pictures of the enemy during the Vietnam conflict came from prisoners). Trust me, he in effect said; things are going well.
  • Just in the last few days, a U.S. Army officer, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, has stuck his professional neck out and challenged his superiors to do a reality check. With the experience of two tours of duty in Afghanistan (preceded by two in Iraq) behind him, he had some street cred. He charged the brass (including specifically David Petraeus, that very model of a modern political general) with persisting in a war marred by “the absence of success on virtually every level.” The Afghan government had failed, its army had failed, and the cause U.S. soldiers had fought for was lost. The initial response to Davis by a Pentagon press handler was vacuous: “We are a values-based organization, and the integrity of what we publish and what we say is something we take very seriously.” A bit more robust rejoinder came from the number two in the U.S. command in Afghanistan. He cautioned that the Colonel’s critical view was necessarily partial. He insisted that the Taliban was hurting because its “tempo” was down exactly 9 percent (not 8 or 10) from the previous year. And he promised that the Afghan government forces are “going to be good enough as we build them to secure their country and to counter the insurgency.” Again, trust me.
  • A New York Times reporter has now joined the chorus after seven weeks with Marines in Helmand province. The distinct impression he conveys is that the military optimists are subsisting on fumes. Their plan was as simple as it was delusional: “First, leave behind a proficient [Afghan] national security force. And second, win them as much breathing room as time allows.” And perhaps hope that God is kind? The actual position of the Marines that emerges from this eye-witness account repeated the old Vietnam story: rounds of dangerous but pointless patrolling in search of an elusive enemy, a steady loss of men, a fraught relationship with local civilians, and a justified frustration with the Afghan army. Despite all this, the U.S. general in command in Helmand insisted that everything was going swimmingly. There was only the small matter, he did concede, of the Afghan army’s uncertain will to fight.

With 100,000 U.S. troops now bogged down longer than the Soviets had been, the only people who seem to believe even a stalemate is a real possibility are the politicians that control the levers of war. Both the ones in uniform and the ones in the White House manage to maintain happy faces no matter how dire the prospects.

It’s easy to understand why.

There is no public clamor for an end to the war, thanks in part to success of the military in insulating most Americans from military service after the Vietnam debacle. The all-volunteer army makes it easier to get into wars and easier to stay the course but also hard to extricate from wars gone bad. There is no aroused electorate as there was during the Vietnam conflict clamoring to get out.

A macho political culture makes confronting a debilitating truth worse than cultivating manly illusions. Obama the presidential candidate made the Afghan war his to demonstrate he was tough (though Afghanistan made no more sense than the Iraq invasion that he opposed). Now he’s stuck. He can’t admit defeat, especially in an election year. The Republicans would pummel him to the enthusiastic applause of all but the Ron Paul faction of the party.

The military leadership can’t admit defeat without violating their “can-do” ethos—and raising pointed questions about the utility of all that money that goes into making the mightiest force on the face of the earth.

Turning our backs on the grim prospects for Afghanistan is part of a long tradition. We drew a veil over the struggle against insurgents in the Philippines. A combination of amnesia and speculative might-have-beens disposed of the Korean stalemate and the Vietnam defeat, and it seems likely the Iraq invasion and occupation will suffer the same fate.

The only problem is that if we can’t deal with reality, then we not only prolong the agony of this war but also lose the chance to grapple with serious issues critical to the future of U.S. policy.

What is the purpose of the U.S. military and what levels of spending are realistically needed to serve those purposes? Is it to provide total security to the American homeland? To reshape whatever region attracts the attention of any hyperactive policymaker? To defend every one of the many regimes with which we have developed a relationship since World War II?

What are the likely costs and benefits of continued involvement in the Middle East? What do we gain by confronting Iran even as our hold on Iraq slips, as the negotiations over Palestine moves from deadlock to dead, and as the great political wave that George W. Bush dreamed about carries Islamists forward?

What exactly is to be gained by empty talk of pivoting toward Asia (and against a regionally dominant China)? Conditions are less auspicious for a pivot toward that part of the world today than when we pivoted away under Nixon some four decades ago.

Has the militarization of U.S. policy gone so far that our main international preoccupation and leading occasion for exercising global leadership involve the overawing or invading of other countries? Do we really need to make our top international priority subduing Iran, containing China, straightening out Somalia, defending Israel, inhibiting North Korea, and encircling the globe with bases to hunt down terrorists?

Perhaps just by posing these questions we supply the most compelling reason for ignoring developments in Afghanistan. These pointed questions taken seriously have the potential to unravel the very fabric of a long-standing (if badly tattered) foreign policy consensus—with no guarantee Americans could reach agreement on a new course or that it would be an improvement on the current one. Perhaps we do need divine intervention!

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Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book, co-authored with Steven I. Levine, is Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (forthcoming March 2012). His ten previous books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.