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.
In today’s Cato Daily podcast, I talk with Caleb Brown about the fallout from the Quran burning incident in Afghanistan. I also wrote about the situation here. Nevertheless, there is one point I missed in the podcast that I want to address.
One narrative emerging from this whole fiasco is that some Afghan prisoners had defaced the Qurans before their incineration; they were allegedly using the holy books to distribute radical messages. The evidence on this remains fragmentary at best; however, even if Islamic scholars argue that burning is the proper way to dispose a defaced Quran, one would expect that after more than a decade at war, the coalition would have a less incendiary protocol to handle such a situation: hire an Afghan, not a Christian foreigner, to burn the Qurans.
According to this handy informational guide put together by Colonel Chet Lanious, a chaplain at and the director of the Center for World Religions at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, if one decides to dispose of “unwanted religious and Islamic literature,” one either casts it “into a flowing river” or buries it. Alternatively, one can burn it, but “only after erasing the names of Allah, His Angels and His Messengers.” I would assume that NATO did not do that. I’m also prepared to believe that some Afghans would protest regardless of whether NATO followed that protocol.
I’m not a scholar on Islam. So leaving standard operating procedure aside, the fact that the Qurans were defaced would imply that NATO had a motive for having them deliberately destroyed, which would contradict the established narrative that the incineration was a mistake. More to come...
The mayhem unleashed after the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base outside of Kabul—intentional or not—has likely irreparably damaged the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban—a major policy shift for the insurgent movement—could be off the table, too. This is just the latest incident in the downward spiral of U.S.-Afghan relations. Washington’s policy must now shift dramatically toward an expedited withdrawal. The “hearts and minds” campaign was never likely to succeed in a country that views the United States as guests who have overstayed their welcome.
Some political leaders and military commanders will argue that cooler heads must prevail and that a long-term strategy demands America’s indefinite presence in Afghanistan. They will argue that any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. But conditions on the ground do not warrant staying the course, only for narrowing our mission and avoiding further tragedies.
Former 4-star General Jack Keane, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times within the past 18 months, says of the outrage and rioting that America in fact has a good relationship with the Afghan people. “We’ve forged an unusually strong relationship with those people. We’ve done it based on the values of the American people and our sensitivities to their culture. That’s what is so frustrating about this.” With all due respect, General Keane and other like-minded observers are wrong. The mission is a waste of money, effort, and, most importantly, lives.
The former heads of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal (retired) and General David Petraeus, both emphasized the importance of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. They believed the most helpful indicator of progress on the ground and the integration of political and military strategy is the protection of Afghan civilians.
But according to a recent report by U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Of course, last year insurgents were responsible for 77 percent of Afghan civilian deaths. Despite this fact, after tripling the number of U.S. troops in that country—far fewer than the Pentagon asked for—President Obama made it America’s mission to protect the Afghan people.
A decade into the conflict the Afghan government still remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted, and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The roughly 180,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing sub-national interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy, and rapaciousness. On top of limited and potentially unsustainable security improvements, the spiraling violence does not instill confidence in our victory.
Too many U.S. government planners forget that for Afghans we are their guests, and it is their country. We forget when back in 2010, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai imposed a crackdown on alcohol consumption and closed a number of expat bars around Kabul because they were deemed offensive to Islam. The Afghan general who carried out the alcohol raids told the Los Angeles Times it was done for “Allah’s sake.” After that, violent demonstrations and inter-cultural hostility increased after Florida pastor Terry Jones promised to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Quran. The recent incident of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses was yet another provocative episode in the erosion of American-Afghan relations.
As I argued months ago, “Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning ‘hearts and minds,’ America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.”
Many Afghans see outsiders constantly changing their mayors, their governors, and their customs. They are told how to dress their women, what is culturally acceptable, and what is culturally repugnant. Americans are infuriated when their politicians redistribute their taxes, yet they ignore how intrusive their own military and civilian planners have become to foreign peoples.
It’s no surprise that a report published last May by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concluded that negative sentiments about democracy emerge from “the stated distaste among respondents for ‘Western culture’ and the potential threat it poses to ‘Afghan culture,’ traditional norms or values, and an Islamic identity.”
None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent people was justified. But the fact remains that America is widely scorned throughout the region—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to a poll from last summer by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal from Afghanistan immediately—not two years from now, not six months from now. Immediately. Americans may finally be realizing what George Mason University’s Christopher Coyne has argued, which is that the historical record indicates “that attempts to spread liberal democracy via military occupation will fail more often than they will work.”
More money, more time, and more resources will not change these underlying realities. To continue to train and assist the Afghan national army and police when distrust remains this high risks more violent incidents like this, and this, and this. Rather than become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch, Washington must cut its losses. The war is fiscally irresponsible and wasteful of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, no more American or Afghan lives should be lost in pursuit of a strategy that is not in America’s national interest.
Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
General David Petraeus, the head of American forces in Afghanistan, has emphasized the importance of winning the "hearts and minds" of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. Pentagon officials may want to reexamine that assumption, but not for the reason you might think.
Evangelical pastor Terry Jones, author of the book Islam Is of the Devil and head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, two weeks ago carried through on his promise to "stand up" to Islam and burn a Quran. In response, crowds demonstrated in cities across Afghanistan, with a mob in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif storming a United Nations compound, killing eight non-American aid workers and beheading two of them.
The message from the protests is clear: this is war. Nevertheless, moral ambiguities emerge. When backed by over 130,000 International Security Assistance Force troops and close to 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces operating under foreign command, how are civilian aid workers being perceived by local Afghans? In the minds of the protesters, what crimes were they committing if they genuinely believed that they were defending their religious traditions and customs from infidels occupying their country? None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent aid workers was justified. If anything, they epitomize the war in Afghanistan's two major problems.
First, they illustrate the discrepancy between the war of perceptions being waged abroad and the fearsome "Islamic menace" that our elected leaders continue to exploit back at home. Second, and perhaps more important, these incidents demonstrate the danger of America trying to forcibly export its liberal values onto illiberal societies.
U.S. policymakers have long believed that people around the world both want to adopt America's liberal values, institutions, and practices, and that they should embrace them because those values embody the most enlightened and most civilized way of thinking. This universalist belief was aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: "Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place…When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations."
This way of thinking is profoundly flawed. The notion that moral truths should be singularly interpreted implicitly denies the differences between cultures. As prominent political science scholar Kenneth Waltz writes: "The powerful state may, and the United States does, think of itself as acting for the sake of peace, justice, and well-being in the world. But these terms will be defined to the liking of the powerful, which may conflict with the preferences and the interests of others."
To argue that moral truths and values are the same in every culture allows policymakers to avoid serious questions about the consequences of intervention, including the inherent constraints of operating within a foreign culture. Even simple issues like the burqa—a billowy garment that covers a woman from head to toe—are still misunderstood in America. Whatever one thinks about the burqa (a symbol of oppression, institutionalized intolerance, etc.), it is more than a mere item of clothing; it reflects the ultra-conservative societal norms in which Afghan women live, many of whom do not have the freedom to look and act however they want.
Many well-meaning Americans believe that the United States, with its commitment to individual rights, political and religious freedom, and the rule of law, has a unique role to play in advancing Afghan human rights But the freedom Americans champion also entails one’s freedom to dissent. Does the West have the moral authority to punish Afghan traditionalists who reject our imposition of social transformation? What happens when attempts to reshape Afghan customs and belief systems incite violent rebellions, as they recently did in Mazar?
Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning “hearts and minds,” America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.