The graveyard of empires, that is. The Obama administration’s recent review of the Afghan war amounts essentially to little more than that. The bizarre aim of the war, formulated by Obama in 2009, is repeated: dismantling al-Qaeda! This weirdness permeates the whole report. It mentions, almost in passing, the two main pre-requisites for success (eradicating insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, and establishing half-decent governance in Afghanistan) and then, without coming to grips with them, hurries on to claim all-round “progress” in the war. While this published overview is obviously a (rather futile) PR exercise, there is no evidence that the full review was any more realistic.
The US has now been fighting this war for nine years, and is prepared to continue it for another four; it presently has some 100,000 US soldiers fighting there at an annual cost of some 100 billion dollars. All in order to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda? Al-Qaeda? In Afghanistan and Pakistan? The ridiculousness of this proposition compelled Joe Biden a few days later to publicly clarify that he, at least, knows that, whatever the danger from AQ, it doesn’t come from this region.
Whatever the real aim, achieving some kind of military victory in Afghanistan requires, as an essential prerequisite, the suppression of insurgent bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan. This has to be done by Pakistan, since it will not allow the US to do it. The review indicates that the US proposes to continue its past policies to get Pakistan to do this, namely, the carrot of aid and engagement, and the stick of pressure and threats. The administration has obviously not accepted the reality that these will never work, as so clearly enunciated in September 2009 by then US Ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson. The reality is that this Pakistani policy is based on its national security needs, and it will not be bribed or bullied into abandoning it.
The review appears to similarly gloss over the real problem the US faces in Afghanistan, namely, that of governance (or lack thereof). To be able to hand over responsibility for security to Afghans at some stage there has to be a reasonably credible government in place, a government that the bulk of the population accepts. The present government of Hamid Karzai does not meet this test, and there are no grounds for believing that it ever will. The review bypasses this issue by focussing instead on plans for establishing a large Afghan military and police structure. Even if the wishful thinking underlying these expectations were to be largely realised (which is quite doubtful), such a security establishment cannot make up for the lack of effective governance.
The review speaks of “progress” and “notable operational gains” in the war. These obviously refer to the operations being conducted in the south of the country by the additional troops that Obama sent in. Not surprising: if you flood an area with heavily armed, well-supported troops, the insurgents will melt away. The problem is that to hold on to these gains these troop levels have to be maintained, but the American soldiers can’t stay forever, and there is no evidence that Afghan security forces will be able to effectively replace them. Meanwhile, a serious problem is being created by the destructive manner in which US forces have conducted their takeover (mainly in order to minimize their own casualties); this has caused widespread anger among the local population against both the foreign troops and their Afghan sponsors. Securing ground temporarily but losing hearts and minds is not “progress” against an insurgency.
The gap between the Obama administration’s review of the war and the reality on the ground does not matter all that much because the fictions it contains are no bigger than the fiction that the administration controls the war. It provides the resources for it, it enables the war, but it does not control it. That control is in the hands of those powerful groups whose personal and policy interests are served by keeping the United States in a permanent state of war (hot or cold). It is these Perpetual Warriors who will decide when and how to end it. Even the actual conduct of the war is not determined by the administration; the Pentagon and the generals decide that.
So, the Afghan war will go on pretty much as it has so far. With his additional troops Gen Petraeus will secure some parts of the south, but the insurgents will shift to other areas. Pakistan will continue to prevaricate about the sanctuaries (the fact is, even if they wished to root them out, they couldn’t do it, given the practical limitations imposed by their situation). The Afghan army will become bigger; some of its units will become quite good; but it will have no real allegiance to a feckless, corrupt government, which is unlikely to change its ways. Afghans ‒ insurgents, collaborators, and the unfortunates caught in-between ‒ will wait for this empire, too, to weary of this fruitless enterprise, and depart.
One day the Perpetual Warriors will decide that this war no longer pays dividends (perhaps another war offers better returns, or the economy can’t support it any longer), and they will pull the plug on it.
Welcome to the real world, President Obama. Happy New Year!