I received a sad missive from a friend who has been working in Kabul as a civilian teacher on behalf of the U.S aid effort on and off for the last 11 years. A staunch believer in the inevitable triumph of democracy over the Taliban and Afghanistan’s brutal warlordism, her hope, it would seem, is running out.
“I think we have got another 18 months here, maybe less before all hell breaks loose frankly,” she wrote. “And then if all of Kabul is blown up again in internecine conflict, what did we spend billions on?”
It’s a question that I think most people who spent the better part of the last decade thinking and talking and speculating about Afghanistan are clearly avoiding these days. It’s a practical question and it’s an existential one, too. It’s symbolic: after Iraq, Afghanistan was supposed to be the war in which America had a pure mission. Instead it is where America found its superpower status was a Potemkin Village.
The Washington think tank club has been pretty quiet. the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is like that one cheerleader who refuses to give up the spirit even when the team on the field is getting clobbered to death, recently released this report, aptly entitled “Toward a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan,” led by former commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen, Michele Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon, based on a recent fact finding mission. This likely means the report is how the military that courted these three Washington insiders inside the country wants us to think about Afghanistan: forever on the verge of democracy, and only if we hold out for longer, the 2014 elections go off right, women get integrated into the system, our European allies kick in more money and trainers, the Afghan military can perform without us, etc., will things go off as planned. Where they ever got that poll saying Hamid Karzai enjoys 60 to 70 percent approval ratings is beyond us.
Frankly, if what they say is true, that the Afghan Army is now leading 85 percent of its security missions and responsible for 87 percent of the population’s security — 312 out of 400 districts countrywide — then that is a good thing, at least American blood and treasure counts for something. But it would be good to get an independent assessment. After 11 years of the Pentagon spin machine at work, forgive us for wanting a second opinion. Plus, one of the key recommendations to jump out of the CNAS report is to leave behind a “bridging force” of “several thousand” beyond the already reported “enduring force” (estimated 8,000- to 12,000 NATO troops) for “two to three years after 2014… to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.” So what really goes on over there we can’t say with any conviction.
We do know, outside of the Beltway Bubble, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to smile at (even if, as CNAS suggests, the “good news” is not getting through the Western media). The headlines just aren’t good. I opened the paper yesterday to one blaring the worst of tragedies: “Suicide blast kills 10 Afghan children,” plus, the subhead noted, two NATO troops and an Afghan police officer. The children had just been dismissed from school for lunch and were in the way of an attack on a coalition convoy. At the same time, a land mine claimed the lives of seven Afghan civilians – four women, two children and their driver – after driving home from a day of collecting fire wood in the Hills.
This week, the Red Cross was forced to scale back its own operations after a brazen attack in which a staffer was killed, as well two other people and an Afghan guard, at their headquarters in Jalalabad. Other international staff members had to be rescued as the attackers went on a rampage, according to reports.
Meanwhile, the Army announced Tuesday that two U.S soldiers, ages 20 and 23, were killed by an IED while serving in Tsamkani, Afghanistan. While tens of thousands of their counterparts will be coming home from college this month, they’ll be coming home in a box. That brings the total to 2,235 U. S killed since the war began.
They say America is war-weary and it is. For good reason. There seems to be no good answers. Leaving the country to the Taliban seems to be a cruel way to go – we are already hearing that the number of attacks on girls’ schools is increasing. And did you hear more women in Afghanistan are in prison for “moral crimes” now than at any point since the Taliban was kicked out of Kabul 11 years ago? The old warlords are eager to re-impose their own brutal control, too. Yet leaving U.S Special Forces in the country to shadow local Afghan security forces in counter-terror operations seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Protests again erupted in Wardak this week with charges that U.S Special Forces played a hand in disappearing and torturing local young men to death, a charge flatly denied by American officials.
There are pockets of hope, however. The front page of The Washington Post Monday featured Farhad Akbari, 33, who in revenge of the death of his mother by the Taliban, has raised a local vigilante force to keep them out of Kolangar, “a quiet farming region” in Logar province. This local milita has kicked the Taliban out of a number of local hamlets and it doesn’t work with the Americans, which might be their secret.
Of course, the Americans don’t believe so much in small crusades, do they? My aforementioned friend felt she was part of something much bigger and to hear her angst about the failure of the endeavor is a blow. I’ll take her view from Kabul over the think tankers every time.
Yesterday would have been uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s 72nd birthday. He died December 13, 2010 while on the job as our top envoy to Afghanistan, and one can’t help thinking that whatever 1960’s idealism still existed in terms of making that country a better place, died with him. At least symbolically.
That is not to say that Richard “bulldozer” Holbrooke wasn’t a strident advocate for the use of military force — he was for sure, and I believe it was only to his and our ultimate detriment. But unlike his neoconservative cohorts in Washington, Holbrooke believed in starting wars (Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq) as a matter of humanitarian intervention, not merely for “securing the realm” or for preserving “western interests.” That is not to say his positions on those wars were any better than those of his neocon peers, it’s merely a distinction, one being that humanitarian interventionists like Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton actually believed American power could transform societies. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, have shown time and again that while they are quite good at breaking things (and regimes), putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was never high on the priority list.
I raise the spirit of Richard Holbrooke now because I heard an old clip of him speaking on P.O.T.U.S Radio on Wednesday, in tribute to his birthday. It referred to the day in 2009 he was named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were a number of VIPs there to share in what was probably his last true moment in the sun. The radio spot tracked his Associated Press obituary, which noted his early service as a provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then as an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon during the Vietnam War:
Holbrooke spotted an old friend in the audience, John Negroponte, his one-time roommate in Saigon (the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City) who later was the first director of national intelligence and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time,” Holbrooke said.
This seems so sad, veering into Shakespearean territory. Here is man who spent his entire life grooming to be in a position to produce “a better outcome” than Vietnam, and then he helps, in essence, to duplicate it, by supporting a military invasion that ripped the fabric of Iraqi society apart and turned nearly every religious and ethnic group against us at some point during the last 10 years . The U.S spent trillions and strained its powerful military and sent millions of Iraqis fleeing — and to what end?
By the time the Bush Administration was on its way out and Holbrooke could have put his diplomatic skills to the test for a Democrat in Afghanistan, the world had unfortunately moved on. The military was everything, not just a means to getting men like Holbrooke to the negotiating table. The new president seemed happy to keep the military on this course, whether that was to hell in a hand basket didn’t appear to matter, as long as the brass got blamed and some kind of deadline for withdrawal could be achieved.
So, after a voluminous career that stretched back to the Kennedy Administration, Holbrooke found himself patronized and later ignored by the young whippersnapper President, who never seemed to let him flex his legendary skills to get the job done for “Af-Pak” the way he had presumably did for the Balkans. Afghan President Karzai appeared to hate him, preferring military men like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had gobs of fun at Holbrooke’s expense in 2010, right in front of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. McChrystal lost his job because of it, but Holbrooke looked very much the weaker man throughout the entire episode.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Holbrooke’s own ego didn’t do him any favors (more than once being called a ‘bull in a china shop’), making him as many enemies as friends during his 2009-2010 stint, one thing is clear: the military was (and remains) in control of the entire war and foreign policy effort in Af-Pak. The State Department as Holbrooke had known it was and is a shell of its former self — strangled by the petty bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, subservient to the military mission, always begging for scraps at the trough.
And the military was — and is — not negotiating. In fact, “negotiation” and “diplomacy” seem like quaint terms these days, right behind “Geneva Convention” and “law of war.” Depending on the “deal” the Obama Administration makes with Karzai for post-2014 military relations, the U.S could likely leave Afghanistan the same way it left Iraq, a country on the brink of disaster.
Holbrooke seems to have sensed this was coming down the road, perhaps staring up at the future from his diminished perch had made him see things more clearly. James Mann, who wrote extensively about Holbrooke for his book The Obamians in 2012, quotes Holbrook’s wife, Katy Marton:
“He thought that this (Afghanistan) could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”
There was even a question over his last words, the first reports being that he told his doctor “to stop this war.” The context in which he said this has been in dispute (his doctor says it was made in “painful banter” as he awaited the surgery from which he never emerged, alive).
It was clear that the humiliation, his isolation, the failure of any way forward in Afghanistan had taken its toll, however, and was foremost on his mind when he collapsed. According to Mann’s well documented account:
On Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, Richard Holbrooke played tennis on Long Island with Bill Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, a former foreign correspondent who became friendly with Holbrooke when both were living in Europe. They played for about an hour. Drozdiak thought Holbrooke seemed unusually pale, pudgy and out of shape, as if he’d been working too hard.
Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him …
The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.
What would Holbrooke say today, now that his idea of “humanitarian intervention” has been completely discarded in favor of targeted killing, covert “dirty” wars and yes, a relatively low urgency for the humans themselves. Would he justify it, especially if he were given a prestigious inside view? Should he own it, considering that he and his “muscular Democrats” had set the stage for this evolution in the 1990’s, and had supported Obama’s tough “counter-terrorism” approaches from the beginning?
Daniel Ellsberg suggested in this interesting eulogy after Holbrooke’s death in 2010, that for as idealistic as Holbrooke was, his career came first. Perhaps the daily soul sacrifice working in the Obama Administration — for the scraps of condescension he got in return — was too much for the man. He must have known that the war enterprise was as dirty as it was doomed to failure, but he was committed to defending it nonetheless.
But we will never really know. We can safely say however, that this isn’t exactly the legacy Richard Holbrooke wanted to leave behind. Or this. Or this. In fact, it’s probably worse than he would have imagined.
The Battle of Waterloo was a decisive defeat for the Emperor Napoleon: his losses forced his abdication, restored King Louis XVIII to France’s throne, and sent the former emperor away for the rest of his days in exile on the isle of Saint Helena. In other words, it destroyed him.
From then on, meeting one’s “Waterloo” has become a catch-all for ruinous defeat against an insurmountable opponent.
For Slate military writer and author Fred Kaplan to draw such an analogy from the once-vaunted counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, sanctified and pursued by once-Gen. David “King” Petraeus for the U.S Army and for the whole of the military (if not the entire U.S government’s efforts overseas) from 2007 through 2011, it’s well, a big deal. For years, COIN was shoved down our throats as the new American Way of War. Careers in the Pentagon thrived –and were thwarted — based on who “got it” and who failed to be a willing Team COIN player.
But just as fast as COIN madeth, COIN tooketh away. Kaplan wrote about this evolution in his new book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Hindsight is fun, but one gets the sickly feeling that it would have been nice if more mainstream writers had stuck their necks out to complain about the lack of the emperor’s clothing when it really counted (like six years ago). Kaplan was one of the few who had, writing pieces like this in late 2006, when plans for Petraeus’s Iraq “Surge” were all the rage among the establishment hive in Washington.
Regardless, Kaplan is getting some “I told you so” time, now, and had this to say recently in a Q&A interview on Small Wars Journal (quite notable for once being the go-to site for the COINdinista crowd at its height):
Afghanistan was COIN’s Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama’s policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed–at least by the standards that justified the president’s surge of 33,000 extra troops–then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals–Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others–who are trying to preserve “the lessons of 11 years of war” (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a “core mission,” ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations. ….
… When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who’s out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.
…(military adviser) David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: “it is folly,” he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it’s petty clear the regime isn’t interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers “must” make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn’t know to make during its first year in office – and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.
The take home point for me here is that Petraeus was thriving politically for pushing the COIN template on Afghanistan instead of advising the President to do otherwise, which would have been more in keeping with the fundamentals of COIN these “COINdinistas” had been warbling about all along. Politics and the thrall of proving COIN in the latest mission had taken priority and the gamble became their Waterloo.
Kaplan’s book has been lauded for its detail in tracking the counterinsurgency strategy from the inside, but it’s taken some criticism, too, mostly for not being tough enough on Petraeus. This review on the Kings of War website (hardly a bastion of antiwar writers) calls it “too dependent on the tale told by ‘the insurgents’ and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy ‘friends of Petraeus.'”
As I have not read the book myself, I cannot say whether this is true and if I do read it — which I am more compelled to do now — I will report back. In the meantime, just having reviewed Nick Turse’s book on atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, I was intrigued by Kaplan’s references in the interview (and book) to the West Point “Sosh Mafia” clique which had been formed after World War II and had continued to influence Army doctrine and policy under Petraeus (West Point ’74) today:
The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George “Abe” Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who’d served as General Marshall’s aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters – hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the “Lincoln Brigade” (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group’s knowledge of politics, economics, society and war – and the connections among them – made the idea resonate. The networking they’d picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved – and, in most cases, had its roots in — the Sosh mafia.
In Kill Anything That Moves, Turse refers to West Point too, but he talks about the “West Point Protective Association (WPPA),” active under much more ominous circumstances:
“In 1968, twenty -two out of the twenty-four principle commanders and staff officers in the U.S Army were all graduates of that prestigious military academy. Protecting West Pointers was thus essentially tantamount to protecting the military itself as an institution. Not surprisingly, quite a few West Point graduates implicated in war crimes saw the allegations against them conveniently disappear.
So out of the ashes of Vietnam came Petraeus and the young Turks of the Sosh Mafia. Into the ashes of Afghanistan goes COIN, the hive now officially (and finally) declares.
It’s one thing to acknowledge failure, but it’s another to learn from it. Are we smart enough to anticipate our next Waterloo? Or are we still too dependent on the Sosh Mafias, and the Petraeuses of the military to avoid it?
Let’s hope that newly minted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will live up to some of our expectations and not be afraid to tell it like it is. Let’s start with Afghanistan. We just found out today that an alleged data entry glitch in the Pentagon program that spits out regular assessments like the number of Taliban attacks on our forces prompted the Department of Defense to issue too-rosy proclamations on the progress of the war there.
From Robert Burns at The Associated Press on Tuesday:
The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.
In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.
“This particular set of metrics doesn’t tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it’s unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems,” Little said.
I hate to be cheeky, but why start now? The Pentagon and the war’s top commanding officers have been quite up front all along that winning the hearts and minds of the domestic audience was just as important — if not more important (in order to keep the money and the recruitment flowing) — than its PR successes with the Afghan people. At its peak in the year 2009, for example, the military was spending upwards of $4.7 billion a year on “strategic communications, ” which included $1.6 billion for recruitment and $547 million for public affairs at home. The military planners meant business.
With that kind of investment in “good news” it was no surprise over the years to hear generals completely buff and polish the truth about troop casualties and our tactical successes against the enemy. Especially in Afghanistan. There was always a silver lining or some sort of perfume to mist over what were clearly underwhelming statistics, if not bad news altogether. The worst was when nearly three years ago, Gen. David “Surge!” Petraeus, then commander of U.S and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, actually tried to tell congress that the use of IEDs by the Taliban against U.S forces had “flattened,” when really it was the worst year for our troops in terms of blast injuries,ever. From Gareth Porter in September 2010:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, Petraeus asserted that the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban had “flattened” over the past year and attributed that alleged success to pressures by the U.S. military, and especially the increased tempo of Special Operations Forces raids against Taliban units.
Data provided by the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), however, shows that IEDs planted by Afghan insurgents killed nearly 40 percent more U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of 2010 than in the comparable period of 2009.
The data also show that Taliban IEDs wounded 2,025 U.S. and NATO troops in the first eight months of this year – almost twice the 1,035 wounded in the same months last year.
In the Journal interview, Petraeus said that the data on violent incidents in Afghanistan indicate a slowly improving security situation.
Almost a year later, I juxtaposed Petraeus’s rosy picture (he left his command for the CIA in the summer of 2011) and chronicled on these pages some the year’s worst IED stories:
According to the most recent data, there was a 120 percent rise in wounded soldiers undergoing amputations from 2009 to 2010 (75 cases to 171 cases, the steepest increase being in the last four months of the year). There was also a dramatic hike in soldiers suffering amputations of more than one limb and genital injuries, and an overall increase — 40 percent — in IED fatalities year-over-year.
As of Aug. 1, there were 158 IED-related coalition deaths (the vast majority American) in 2011, according to data posted at iCasualties. There were 368 such fatalities in 2010.
A year after that, I demanded the military “tell the truth already” about the newest “signature wound,” the “dismounted complex blast injury” that was rendering U.S and coalition troops not only legless but childless for life. At the same time, Afghan soldiers were being accused of killing coalition troops in increasing numbers of “green on blue” attacks. Then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker (he too, has since jumped ship) and now outgoing Gen. John Allen, did the rounds on television to assure everyone that things were running smoothly. “I think we have made tremendous progress,” Crocker told the BBC at the time.
Fast forward to December 2012, the Pentagon gives the 7 percent “decline in attacks” figure we now know was “flawed” to Congress in their mandated report of the war’s progress. Not sure if that will be changed now. Also in December, according to the AP, Panetta was telling reporters that “violence is down” for 2012, and Afghan forces “have gotten much better at providing security” in areas where they have taken the lead. “Overall,” he added, the Taliban “are losing.”
That narrative was carried over into last week’s UN report that civilian casualties are down year over year in Afghanistan. But, again, no surprise, the UN’s findings were actually a mixed bag: violence against women was up, as were attacks on civilians by “anti-government forces,” and U.S drone strikes had increased, too — from 243 in 2009 to 494 in 2012. That means more civilians killed by drone: 6 civilians killed and three wounded in five incidents, up from just one incident in 2011, according to the AP.
While the spin has largely been unsuccessful – most people believe the war was a waste, and we don’t hear much confidence that the government there is going to hold it together when we’re gone — but it hasn’t been helpful, either. It has blurred our vision, placated our fears and white-washed bad news for far too long.
Let’s hope that Hagel won’t feel the need to prettify the obvious. He should know better, more than most, that burying the lessons of the past merely damn us to repeating them in the future.