Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And it's 1, 2, 3 . . . what are we fighting for?

Pretty much everyone agrees that Afghanistan, and the American war effort there, is a bloody mess.

What you don't get from most of the popular media, though, is a sense of exactly how horrible a mess it is. How very like the American war effort Vietnam it is. Of how fool's errands such as Afghanistan -- and Iraq -- are putting us on a path to permanent war.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University has been thinking about all this, and if anyone in this country has the standing to offer some strong opinions on such things, it's the professor of international relations and history. First, he's a retired Army colonel and Vietnam veteran. Second, "all this" has cost him his son.

LAST WEEK, Bacevich discussed "all this" on Bill Moyers Journal:
BILL MOYERS: General McChrystal himself has said that we've shot - and this is his words not mine—an amazing number of people over there who did not seem to be a threat to his troops.

: I think that is—that's clearly the case. When McChrystal was put in command last year, and devised his counterinsurgency strategy, the essential core principle of that strategy is that we will protect the population. We will protect the people. And the contradiction is that ever since President Obama gave McChrystal the go-ahead to implement that strategy, we have nonetheless continued to have this series of incidents in which we're not only not protecting the population. But indeed we're killing non-combatants.

: Given what's happening in the killing of these innocent people, is the very term, "military victory in Afghanistan," an oxymoron?

: Oh, this is—yes. And I think one of the most interesting and indeed perplexing things that's happened in the past three, four years is that in many respects, the officer corps itself has given up on the idea of military victory. We could find any number of quotations from General Petraeus, the central command commander, and General McChrystal, the immediate commander in Afghanistan, in which they say that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, that we will not win a military victory, that the only solution to be gained, if there is one, is through bringing to success this project of armed nation-building.

And the reason that's interesting, at least to a military historian of my generation, of the Vietnam generation, is that after Vietnam, this humiliation that we had experienced, the collective purpose of the officer corps, in a sense, was to demonstrate that war worked. To demonstrate that war could be purposeful.

That out of that collision, on the battlefield, would come decision, would come victory. And that soldiers could claim purposefulness for their profession by saying to both the political leadership and to the American people, "This is what we can do. We can, in certain situations, solve very difficult problems by giving you military victory."

Well, here in the year 2010, nobody in the officer corps believes in military victory. And in that sense, the officer corps has, I think, unwittingly really forfeited its claim to providing a unique and important service to American society. I mean, why, if indeed the purpose of the exercise in Afghanistan is to, I mean, to put it crudely, drag this country into the modern world, why put a four-star general in charge of that? Why not—why not put a successful mayor of a big city? Why not put a legion of social reformers? Because the war in Afghanistan is not a war as the American military traditionally conceives of war.

: Well, President Obama was in Afghanistan not too long ago, as you know. And he attempted to state the purpose of our war there to our troops.

: Our broad mission is clear. We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear. We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. We're going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people.

: That sounds to me like a traditional, classical military assignment, to find the enemy and defeat him.

: Well, but there's also then the reference to sort of building the capacity of the Afghan government. And that's where, of course, the president, he'd just come from this meeting with President Karzai. Basically, as we understand from press reports, the president sort of administered a tongue-lashing to Karzai to tell him to get his act together. Which then was followed by Karzai issuing his own tongue-lashing, calling into question whether or not he actually was committed to supporting the United States in its efforts in Afghanistan. And again, this kind of does bring us back, in a way, to Vietnam, where we found ourselves harnessed to allies, partners that turned out to be either incompetent or corrupt. Or simply did not share our understanding of what needed to be done for that country.

: What does it say to you as a soldier that our political leaders, time and again, send men and women to fight for, on behalf of corrupt guys like Karzai?

: Well, we don't learn from history. And there is this persistent, and I think almost inexplicable belief that the use of military force in some godforsaken country on the far side of the planet will not only yield some kind of purposeful result, but by extension, will produce significant benefits for the United States. I mean, one of the obvious things about the Afghanistan war that is so striking and yet so frequently overlooked is that we're now in the ninth year of this war.

It is the longest war in American history. And it is a war for which there is no end in sight. And to my mind, it is a war that is utterly devoid of strategic purpose. And the fact that that gets so little attention from our political leaders, from the press or from our fellow citizens, I think is simply appalling, especially when you consider the amount of money we're spending over there and the lives that are being lost whether American or Afghan.

: But President Obama says, our purpose is to prevent the Taliban from creating another rogue state from which the jihadists can attack the United States, as happened on 9/11. Isn't that a strategic purpose?

: I mean, if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow and achieve in Afghanistan all the purposes that General McChrystal would like us to achieve, would the Jihadist threat be substantially reduced as a consequence? And does anybody think that somehow, Jihadism is centered or headquartered in Afghanistan? When you think about it for three seconds, you say, "Well, of course, it's not. It is a transnational movement."

: They can come from Yemen. They can come from—

: They can come from Brooklyn. So the notion that somehow, because the 9/11 attacks were concocted in this place, as indeed they were, the notion that therefore, the transformation of Afghanistan will provide some guarantee that there won't be another 9/11 is patently absurd. Quite frankly, the notion that we can prevent another 9/11 by invading and occupying and transforming countries is absurd.
THE AMERICAN EMPIRE cannot go on forever. And like they say, if something can't go on forever . . . it won't.

Empires being what they are -- not to mention empires' habit of coming to think they are exceptions to history's rules -- ensure that the end of this particular one will be about as ugly as all its predecessors'.

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