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What Are We Fighting For?

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Amid news today of NATO strikes that killed at least 25 Pakistani soldiers at Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan, one might well wonder what the goals are of our war in Afghanistan and our diplomatic efforts with both countries. Fortunately, there’s plenty to read on this topic.

To start, have a look at Franklin C. Spinney’s piece this week in CounterPunch (hat tip: Jim Fallows). Spinney opens by observing that

It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States. To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over “who lost the Afghan War.”

To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordersman’s most recent situation report on the AF-PAK War, THE AFGHANISTAN- PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011: Strategic Failure? Talk Without Hope? Tactical Success? Spend Not Build (And Then Stop Spending)? It was issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on November 15. Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it — at the very least, take a few minutes to read the executive summary.

You may be familiar with defense analyst Anthony Cordesman from his many appearances on TV. (I first became familiar with him during my high-end audio days through his pieces in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, signed simply AHC.) Following Spinney’s advice, I read Cordesman’s executive summary. Here’s the opening:

The US is on the thin edge of strategic failure in two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. This failure may never reach the point of outright defeat in either country. Iraq may never become hostile, revert to civil war, or come under anything approaching Iranian control. Afghanistan and Pakistan may never become major sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on the US and its allies.

Yet Iraq is already a grand strategic failure. The US went to war for the wrong reasons, let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories – if they last – did little more than put an end to a conflict it help create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

[snip]

The outcome in Afghanistan and Pakistan now seems unlikely to be any better. While any such judgments are subjective, the odds of meaningful strategic success have dropped from roughly even in 2009 to 4:1 to 6:1 against at the end of 2011. It is all very well for senior US officials to discuss “fight, talk, and build,” and for creating a successful transition before the US and ISAF allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops and make massive cuts in the flow of outside money to Afghanistan. The US, however, has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows the US and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War.

Trucks waiting to cross border from Pakistan into Afghanistan

[Qazi Rauf/Associated Press]

Also worth a look is Steve Coll’s Thanksgiving Day post at The New Yorker regarding an upcoming governmental National Intelligence Estimate on the war.

[T]he draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

Those generals and their aides have lately been talking up signs of progress, such as improved security in Kandahar and Helmand provinces and a reduction in self-reported statistics on violence, even though other statistics, published by the U.N., suggest that things are still getting worse. The draft, however, is said to raise doubts about the authenticity and durability of the gains the military commanders believe they have made since Obama’s troop surge began in 2009.

The findings also raise questions about the Administration’s strategy for leaving behind a stable Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai is due to step aside in 2014, at the end of his second term, as the Afghan constitution requires. The N.I.E., I was told, includes a forecast that the next generation of political leaders is likely to be—and to be seen by Afghans—as corrupt. The Estimate also raises doubts about the pillar of the Administration’s strategy, the training and equipping of about three hundred and fifty thousand Afghan military forces and police. The report notes that the projected cost of running an Afghan force of that size is about eight to ten billion dollars annually, a sum that may well outrun the will or the fiscal capacity of the United States. A withdrawal of American funds would leave the Afghan forces vulnerable to a crackup. (At the same time, those costs are only a tenth or less of what the U.S. currently spends each year on the war.)

Coll concludes with concern that the findings of the N.I.E. won’t be made public.

Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

The United States is about to elect its next President in the second decade of a distant, expensive Afghan war. The soldiers and Marines who risk life and limb on foot patrols in Lashkar Gah and Maiwand deserve, when they return to their Forward Operating Bases and watch Fox News while eating their starchy meals on Styrofoam trays, to hear an election-year debate in which no fact, no interpretation, and no question about the war is suppressed. We know amply what the generals think. Let us also hear from the spies.

An open debate about the real costs and benefits of war would certainly be a welcome change. For now, we must rely on the widely-ignored Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman among our presidential candidates (and I include President Obama on this list) to provide the lone voices of dissent to our forever war.

Country Joe asked the essential question long ago, about another war. Obama has yet to provide a satisfactory answer.

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