A little over 200 years ago, the most powerful military empire on Earth became mired in a decade-long war that ended in humiliating defeat. The locals, consisting mostly of poor uneducated rural farmers and ranchers with few resources, used their “homefield advantage” to eventually defeat the foreign invaders.
If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m referring to the American Revolutionary War against the British. The longer the conflict went on, the better the American “insurgency” got. Early on, the American forces were nearly defeated. They sought military assistance from a mutual enemy of England: the French. But France refused to commit any forces to aid the Americans until they proved they could actually defeat the British on their own. Perhaps you remember this famous painting?
Washington Crossing the Delaware
This famous painting commemorates Gen. George Washington’s first victory over the British in 1776… Christmas Day to be exact. And it is the victory that finally convinced the French that we were “willing to do anything to defeat the British” and thus worthy of their involvement. Yes, Washington’s first military victory was a sneak attack on British troops late at night while they celebrated Christmas. Just imagine the cries of outrage today if American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan were attacked on Christmas. “Those Godless barbarians” would be pilloried in the Media, and cited as justification for increased military action.
Support for the war in Afghanistan is deteriorating as quickly as the conflict itself. The Bush Administration basically ignored Afghanistan in favor of Iraq from day one of the Iraq War and for years afterward. You probably remember how rarely Afghanistan was even mentioned during the evening news for seven years under President Bush. As recently as 2007, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was labeling Afghanistan a success, and as recently as October of last year, Fox News host Olie “I never lied to Congress” North described the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “all but won“), regardless of the fact that in 2006, there were already signs the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating:
Last week, the big news was that General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, gave a very sobering assessment of the current state of the war in that country, saying that he needs “between 25,000 and 45,000 additional troops” to avoid the war in Afghanistan from becoming “a total failure”. Even more amazing, McChrystal, in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes yesterday, acknowledged the fact that overwhelming firepower from the United States is NOT the way forward in Afghanistan because “the damage done to civilians is ultimately detrimental to our strategic goals.”
If McChrystal gets his 40,000 troops (and the chances of President Obama rebuking his generals on the ground is basically nill), they will HAVE to come from Iraq (sort of a good news/bad news story there) meaning we would have more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the first time since the Iraq War began (currently, there are 145,000 troops in Iraq and 68,000 in Afghanistan).
Let’s keep in mind just what the mission is in Afghanistan. Though the war there was once considered “all but won”, the Bush Administration neglected that conflict in favor of Iraq for so long, al Qaeda was able to slip out of the country to neighboring Pakistan, and the Taliban was able to regroup. Let me repeat that first point: al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. They are now in Waziristan, the no-mans land between Pakistan and Afghanistan, out of reach of both Coalition and Pakistani forces:
So the mission in Afghanistan is NO LONGER “to get al Qaeda”. Today, it is simply “to stop the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan” and a turning it back into a safe-haven for al Qaeda.
But al Qaeda doesn’t NEED Afghanistan anymore (Sorry Condi, you fear-mongering hack). They’ve got Waziristan. Defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan is now more a “mission of mercy” for the Afghan people than it is a mission of defending the United States. If the goal was “to get al Qaeda”, we would be focusing all our resources on Pakistan… which we can’t do now because Pakistan… a country with a long history of supporting – terrorism themselves… was befriended by President Bush after 9/11 in order to obtain “fly-over rights” to attack Afghanistan. Yes, thanks to their catastrophic failure to focus on al Qaeda BEFORE 9/11, they befriended an unstable sponsor of terrorism in order to pursue another unstable sponsor of terrorism.
Okay. “Spilled milk”. What now?
Well first, you stop turning a country of 28 million people into a warzone simply to “defeat” (a term with no clear definition) an organization (The Taliban) with just a few thousand members. If your chief concern is preventing The Taliban from regaining control of the country, the ONLY people that can make that decision are the people living there. And who are they going to side with? The foreigners in their country dropping bombs on them and killing civilians, or the locals boys trying to defeat them? With every bullet fired, you lose the battle for the hearts & minds of Afghanistan. If you want the local population to accept you and reject the oppressive Taliban from being returned to power, you have to convince them that YOU are doing more to improve their lives than your enemy.
You build schools. You build hospitals. You haul away garbage and dig wells to provide clean drinking water. And if the Taliban tries to destroy these new facilities, you rebuild. Soon, the local population will see just who has their best interests at heart and who doesn’t.
This is what Republicans derided as “Nation Building” for eight years under the Clinton Administration, until it was their turn, and then spent nearly a Trillion dollars in five years doing exactly that in Iraq. Only, instead of calling it “Nation Building”, the Bushies rebranded it “Counter-insurgency”… a term often used interchangeably (and erroneously) with “counter-terrorism”.
The benefits of such a strategy are manifold: you don’t need “600,000 troops” to concentrate on infrastructure. You can do the job with 10-20,000 troops and hire locals to do the bulk of the work, creating jobs and reviving the local economy. And if insurgents attack a hospital “built by Americans”… it’s just an inconvenience. But if the Taliban destroy a hospital the locals themselves spent months building, THAT will get real old real fast. Destroy a school with their children inside… and they’re not going to blame the people that helped them build it.
How many schools and hospitals could one build in a dirt poor country like Afghanistan for the cost of a single “million-dollar” bomb? How many seeds could you plant for the cost of a single round of ammunition? And mostly, how many lives do you spare by not engaging in fire-fights day after day?
The most effective “counter-insurgency” strategy there is, is to make the local population prefer you over your enemy. The fact that is can be done FAR more cheaply and quickly, with fewer casulties, isn’t just icing on the cake. It IS the cake.
Sometime in the next week or two, Gen. McChrystal is going to ask President Obama for more troops. He’ll have no choice but to say Yes (if he was dead-set against sending more troops, he never should of asked for the report in the first place). But he doesn’t need to give the military an open-ended commitment either and turn Afghanistan into another Vietnam. President Obama needs to attach an ultimatum clearly stating, “Okay, but not only won’t you be getting any more troops six months from now, but we’re going to start reducing that number over the next 18-months. So start devising a strategy that fits that scenario.”
As for what to do about Pakistan… that’s a problem for another day.
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