Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings—yes, that Michael Hastings—has written another investigative article on U.S. operations in Afghanistan, centered again on a general in the theatre. The revelations are perhaps more shocking than those that resulted in General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal last summer.
His newest bombshell alleges that the U.S Army illegally engaged in “psychological operations” with the aim of manipulating various high-level U.S. government officials into believing that the war was progressing in order to gain their continued support. The list of targets includes members of Congress, diplomats, think tank analysts, and even Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff. Over at The Skeptics, I attempt to put this in context:
While American soldiers and Afghan civilians continue to kill and be killed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon seeks to provide the illusion of progress, systematically misrepresenting realities on the ground to bide more time, gain more troops, and acquire more funding. It’s bad enough that the American media uncritically relays statements from U.S. officials portraying “success” on the ground. Now the Pentagon is using its massive propaganda budget to blur the line between informing the public and spinning it to death. In fact, several years ago the Associated Press found that the Pentagon had spent $4.7 billion on public relations in 2009 alone, and employs 27,000 people for recruitment, advertising and public relations, nearly as many as the 30,000-person State Department. Essentially the Pentagon is trying to influence public policy and lobby civilian officials to shift policies toward their own ends while dispersing the costs onto the American taxpayer.
Luckily, it appears that Americans have come to learn that despite the media’s frequent adulation of their uniformed military, the Pentagon operates just like every other bureaucracy in the federal government. According to a poll released earlier this month by Gallup, 72 percent of Americans want Congress to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Much like the McChrystal flap from last summer, there is a very fine line between military officials offering their honest opinion and threatening civilian control of the war.
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On June 13, the New York Times reported that America "just discovered" a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).
Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan's "large quantities of iron and copper" since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, "identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites" as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, "Gemstones in Afghanistan," published in 1996.)
Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called "a bleeding ulcer," this new "discovery" could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new "discovery" as yet another "decisive moment" or "corner turned" in the Afghan campaign.
In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, "There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant."
Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders' allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies--like much of the international community's investment does now.
Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country's mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.
This "discovery" may force more people in the region to ask: what are America's real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?
This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.
According to CBS News, President Barack Obama will send most, if not all, of the 40,000 additional troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested and reportedly plans to keep those troops in Afghanistan for the long-term.
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If the CBS report turns out to be true—the White House has backed away, and other news outlets are leaving the story alone for the moment—the president’s decision is disappointing, but expected. Last month, the administration ruled out the notion of a near-term U.S. exit from Afghanistan, arguing that the Taliban and al Qaeda would perceive an early pullout as a victory over the United States. But if avoiding a perception of weakness is the rationale that the administration is operating under then we have already lost by allowing our enemies to dictate the terms of the war.
Gen. McChrystal’s ambitious strategy hopes to integrate U.S. troops into the Afghan population. These additional troops might reduce violence in the short- to medium-term. But this strategy rests on the presumption that Afghans in heavily contested areas want the protection of foreign troops. The reality might be very different; western forces might instead be perceived as a magnet for violence.
McChrystal’s strategy also presumes that an additional 40,000 troops will be enough. But proponents of an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy need to come clean on the total bill that would be required. For a country the size of Afghanistan, with roughly 31 million people, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine advises between 620,000 to 775,000 counterinsurgents—whether native or foreign. Furthermore, typical counterinsurgency missions require such concentrations of forces for a decade or more. Given these realities, we could soon hear cries of “surge,” “if only,” and “not enough.”
Even if the United States and its allies committed themselves to decades of armed nation building, success against al Qaeda would hardly be guaranteed. After all, in the unlikely event that we forged a stable Afghanistan, al Qaeda would simply reposition its presence into other regions of the world.
It is well past time for the United States to adapt means to ends. The choice for President Obama is not between counterterrorism or counterinsurgency; but between counterterrorism and counterterrorism combined with counterinsurgency. Protecting the United States from terrorism does not require U.S. troops to police Afghan villages. Where terrorists do appear, we hardly need to tinker with their communal identities. We can target our enemies with allies on the ground or, if that fails, by relying on timely intelligence for use in targeted airstrikes or small-unit raids.
President Obama’s decision on Afghanistan could define his presidency. If an escalating military strategy leads only to thousands of more deaths, and at a cost of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, then that is a bitter legacy indeed.