A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Kimberly and Fred Kagan argues “Why US troops must stay in Afghanistan.” The article demonstrates clearly that the number-crunching Kagans know exactly how many combat and support troops it takes to man an army base in Jalalabad and they pile Pelion on Ossa to demonstrate how a residual force of roughly 34,000 US soldiers can “continue to conduct counterterrorism operations in Southeast Asia” after 2014. They conclude “the United States can stabilize Afghanistan if it maintains around 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan into 2014, dropping to over 30,000 thereafter … the idea that the war is inevitably lost is a convenient mask behind which decision makers hide to deflect responsibility for pulling out troops who are making a real difference. We have argued that the current defeatism about Afghanistan is overdrawn and unfounded … .” We cannot “abandon the fight against al-Qaeda and its allies in South Asia.”
But the op-ed also demonstrates that the Kagans continue to be clueless over the question they raise in their title: “why” we Americans are in Afghanistan at all and they fail to demonstrate any understanding of how outside forces can impact on a limited military presence’s viability in a foreign land. They make the same mistakes in their predictions of the likely course of developments as they did regarding Iraq. Like the Iraqis, the Afghans will have a say in their future and might not like the idea of continuing to grant legal immunity to a foreign occupying force. Nor does it appear that the perpetually rebuilding Afghan army will ever be battle ready, meaning that the American soldiers will become trapped in their bases, hostages to Afghan internal politics. Like it or not local sentiment does matter, even to a superpower, and it can serve to derail the best laid plans of the Kagans and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The stay-in-Afghanistan crowd generally argues that a continued presence is necessary to stop Afghanistan from becoming a failed state that would permit the return of terrorist groups. But Afghanistan is already a failed state if measured by massive corruption, its narco-economy, and the inability of the central government to control much of the country. Even if the Taliban returns it will undoubtedly have learned the lesson of 2001 and would not invite a return by U.S. forces by giving groups like al-Qaeda a safe haven, so the continued occupation serves no meaningful objective.
And what of the terrorist threat itself? By the government’s own reckoning in its annual report on global terrorism, the al-Qaeda remnant in Afghanistan-Pakistan is a spent force that has been largely decapitated, suffers from poor morale and is only locally and intermittently funded. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in places like Yemen and the Maghreb are far more formidable, but even including the threat they pose the Obama Administration is reported to be considering an end to the military-based approach against them that has been in place since 2001, replacing it with conventional intelligence and law enforcement. So why maintain the equivalent of two U.S. Army divisions in an unstable country where the local populace is far from friendly just to “fight against” a threat that approaches insignificance. Obviously there is no reason to do so.
That the Kagans are beating the drum for war and still more war is not surprising as that is how they make a living, but it is more disturbing when newspapers and media outlets that pretend to be reputable persist in providing a forum for their cheerleading. The Kagans are likely familiar to many readers of TAC, having been leading neoconservative spokesmen since 9/11. Kimberly is currently president for the oddly named Institute for the Study of War while Fred, who claims to have been a co-creator of the surge policy that was applied in Iraq, is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Fred’s brother Robert is at the Brookings Institution and has also been a foreign policy adviser to both John McCain and Mitt Romney.
The Kagans are classic neocon entrepreneurs who rely on nepotism and cronyism to work their way through the system. Kimberly studied ancient history at Yale under Donald Kagan and then married his son. She is now billed as a “military expert” by the neocon media in spite of her lack of any actual military experience. Kimberly and Fred have together attached themselves firmly to the COIN counterinsurgency strategy and to the surge tactics as well as to two of its leading proponents, General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus. Kimberly has written a book glorifying Petraeus entitled “The Surge: a Military History.” For the neocon Weekly Standard she wrote a hagiography of the plodding General Raymond Odierno called “The Patton of Counterinsurgency” which might well be considered a comedy piece but for the fact that it was serious. Fred and Kimberly write mostly about the Middle East, but they do not appear to have working knowledge of either Farsi or Arabic, like many of the other neocon so-called experts, so their knowledge is derivative.
The Kagans became War on Terror frontline personalities when General McChrystal included them in a commission to conduct a sixty day review intended to devise a formula to repeat an Iraq style surge to win in Afghanistan. It is important to note that the advisory group was selected to reflect a certain diversity of opinion in tactical terms, but no one was selected to represent an alternative viewpoint, i.e. that the US should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. It was a group designed from the start to say “yes.”
After McChrystal committed himself to surging 40,000 more troops to win in Afghanistan, Kimberly and Fred embarked on a media campaign to sell the concept. Kimberly, described as a McChrystal adviser, appeared on ABC news saying “Those forces would go in, they would protect the population they would interact with local elders, village elders, try to figure out who those bad guys are in those communities and figure out different ways of making those communities safe.” On CNN she explained that “What 40,000 does is fill in the gaps around Kandahar, around Khost and Helmand Province. It does not, however, cover the entire country.” She supported full deployment of the precise number 40,000, just as she is now pushing for “over 30,000”, because “It’s not as though we can simply plug half as many holes with half as many troops and somehow seize the initiative from the enemy. On the contrary, half as many troops will probably leave us pinned down as we are.”
The two Kagans, enthusiastic cheerleaders for overthrowing Saddam Hussein back in 2003, seem to have short memories and they have been dead wrong about Iraq. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on the impending US departure from Iraq in December 2011 they described five “American core interests” in the region. They were: that Iraq should continue to be one unified state; that there should be no al-Qaeda on its soil; that Baghdad abides by its international responsibilities; that Iraq should contain Iran; and that the al-Maliki government should accept US “commitment” to the region.
But looking back a bit, in 2003 Iraq was more unified and stable than it is today; there was no al-Qaeda presence; Saddam abided by a sanctions regime imposed by the UN; and Iraq was the principal Arab state restraining Iran. Then, as now, the US was clearly “committed” to the region through the presence of its armed forces and one should add parenthetically that Iraq in no way threatened the United States, or anyone else. It was precisely the US invasion that dismantled the Iraqi nation-state, introduced al-Qaeda to the country, wrecked the nation’s economy, and brought into power a group of Shi’a leaders who are now much closer to Tehran than they are to Washington. So none of the five “core interests” have actually been achieved, or, rather, they have actually been reversed due to the invasion and occupation by the United States endorsed by the Kagans.
The Kagans also used their media access to promote the trajectory of General David Petraeus and reportedly also became his advisers when he moved to CIA, so it is apparent that being wrong repeatedly has no effect on one’s employability. Seeing Iraq as a stepping stone to war with Iran Kimberly once wrote a bizarre opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Second Iran-Iraq War” which repeated the Petraeus claim that Iran was responsible for most of the violence in Iraq and then went on to assert that the “US must recognize that Iran is engaged in a full-up proxy war against it in Iraq.” In her piece on the “Patton of Counterinsurgency” Kimberly shamelessly flattered Petraeus and his colleague Ray Odierno, “Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.” The deceased generals whom Kagan cites won their laurels by fighting against enemies who were as well armed, well equipped, and numerous as their own forces. They didn’t earn their stars and garters by bombing Fedayeen irregulars or arming and then bribing the insurgents to cease and desist as was done during the surge in Iraq. Far from being a respected battlefield tested soldier, Petraeus has only one decoration for valor, a somewhat dubious Bronze Star awarded when he was already a general. He has never seen combat at a close and personal level. Nor has Odierno.
And so relying on such expert advice we might well soldier on in a war that the United States will inevitably lose. Only “over 30,000” more troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity and we will be just fine. The Kagans guarantee it.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.