The war in Afghanistan tragically feels like the movie Groundhog Day: reliving and retelling the same stories repeatedly, but with the situation worse than it was the previous time. The United States is perpetually stuck in a repetitive series of setbacks and scandals that damage the mission. It cannot escape the shadow that ruinous events cast over the prospect of defeating the Taliban.
Today, the Los Angeles Times published photos of U.S. soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of alleged insurgents. This latest grisly and embarrassing episode, much like the incidental burning of Qurans, the murder of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Sgt., and the U.S. kill team that collected the fingers and teeth of Afghan corpses as trophies, is yet another scandal that damages what America stands for. Certainly, war breeds hatred for one’s enemies. But perhaps even more troubling is that over a decade of fighting has—as military expert Carl Prine and others have observed—led to a serious breakdown in military discipline, leadership, and chain of command.
These photos also come after a series of coordinated assaults rocked Kabul and three provincial capitals this past weekend. The Taliban’s annual spring offensive has commenced. These attacks do not bode well for America’s plan to transition to Afghan forces, or for the 2001 Bonn Agreement proclamations of bringing about “national reconciliation” and “lasting peace.” Of the many interpretations that one can glean about the significance of these recent the attacks in the heart of the capital city, three stand out.
First, they show that despite coalition night raids and drones strikes that have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators the insurgents still have the upper hand in terms of local knowledge and connections with the Afghan people—including high-level officials. As a classified NATO report from January stated, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact,” and, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”
Second, these attacks send the unequivocal message to the Afghan people that their government is vulnerable and thus unable to protect them. While some commentators have pointed to the performance of the Afghan security forces, the attacks, if anything, underscore the fragility of a Kabul-centric government reliant on an endless stream of foreign-aid dollars. After all, in addition to these attacks, there was the coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September, and the growing number of top Afghan leaders who have been assassinated one-by-one. These include Jan Mohhammed Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan province; Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother; General Daud Daud, the governor of Takhar province; Khan Mohammed Mujahed, the police chief of Kandahar; and others I neglected to mention.
Third, as one astute observer has noted, the mainstream media has reported on the attacks in Kabul, Pol-e-Alam (Logar), Gardez (Paktia), and Jalalabad (Nangarhar), but overlooked the attempted attack in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. This would have undercut the conventional narrative that the anti-Afghan government insurgency remains where the Obama administration’s “surge” was most focused: in the south. But rather than remaining in one pocket of the country, the complex blend of factions that include the Hezb-i-Islami militia, the Haqqani network, and other loosely affiliated groups that have spread to the north as well. Paradoxically, much of the international community’s development aid and military resources have gone to some of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces. As Oxfam International’s former head of policy in Afghanistan Matt Waldman writes, if Helmand province were a state, it would be “the world’s fifth largest recipient of funds” from USAID.
As usual, political leaders and military commanders have downplayed these latest attacks as yet another “one-off” incident. Americans know better. To them, these attacks—and the photos—will serve as yet another stunning reminder of how poorly things are going, and why we need to leave.
Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
The United States will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan this July. The White House is desperately trying to seize the narrative of the withdrawal claiming that the cuts will be “real” even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is arguing for the opposite.
This week, the New York Times revealed that some in President Obama’s national security team are seeking steeper reductions, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden and the increasing costs of the war.
Steeper reductions are certainly warranted. A limited counterrorism mission must be on the table.
The president will try to claim credit for keeping his pledge to reduce the U.S. troop presence, but when we consider that there are three times as many troops in Afghanistan today compared to when Obama took office, a reduction of 3,000-5,000 (out of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops there) won’t mean much.
Another fold in the Times story is that Secretary Gates and top military commanders in the field are arguing for gradual cuts—not steep reductions. Let’s remember last summer's Rolling Stone article that profiled the now retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He was asked to leave because he made comments that undermined civilian control of the military. Today, albeit in a far less severe manner, military commanders are walking the line of advocating a direction in policy that is at odds with civilians officials.
This underscores a far deeper problem with military policymaking: who controls what exactly?
What Obama decides on for reduction in groundtroops—a token withdrawal or steeper cuts—will partly reflect how confused the Constitutional roles and chain of command has become in the conduct of war.
Cross-posted from The National Interest.