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Afghanistan: Leave It or Lose It

In the wake of several deaths among its contingent of troops in a previously peaceful province in Afghanistan, New Zealand (like France [1] and South Korea [2]) is now expediting [3] the departure of its 140 soldiers.  That’s not exactly headline-making news here in the U.S.  If you’re an American, you probably didn’t even know that New Zealand was playing a small part in our Afghan War.  In fact, you may hardly have known about the part Americans are playing in a war that, over the last decade-plus, has repeatedly [4] been labeled “the forgotten war [5].”

Still, maybe it’s time to take notice.  Maybe the flight of those Kiwis should be thought of as a small omen, even if they are departing as decorously, quietly, and flightlessly as possible. Because here’s the thing: once the November election is over, “expedited departure” could well become an American term and the U.S., as it slips ignominiously out of Afghanistan, could turn out to be the New Zealand of superpowers.

You undoubtedly know the phrase: the best laid plans of mice and men. It couldn’t be more apt when it comes to the American project in Afghanistan. Washington’s plans have indeed been carefully drawn up. By the end of 2014, U.S. “combat troops” are to be withdrawn, but left behind [6] on the giant bases the Pentagon has built will be thousands of U.S. trainers [7] and advisers, as well as special operations forces [8] to go after al-Qaeda remnants (and other “militants”), and undoubtedly the air power to back them all up.

Their job will officially be to continue to “stand up” the humongous security force that no Afghan government in that thoroughly impoverished country will ever be able to pay for. Thanks to a 10-year Strategic Partnership Agreement that President Obama flew to Kabul [9] to seal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as May began, there they are to remain until 2020 or beyond.


In other words, it being Afghanistan, we need a translator. The American “withdrawal” regularly mentioned in the media doesn’t really mean “withdrawal.” On paper at least, for years to come the U.S. will partially occupy a country that has a history of loathing foreigners who won’t leave (and making them pay for it).

Tea Boys and Old Men

Plans are one thing, reality another. After all, when invading U.S. troops triumphantly arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in April 2003, the White House and the Pentagon were already planning to stay forever and a day — and they instantly began building permanent bases (though they preferred to speak of “permanent access [10]” via “enduring camps [11]”) as a token of their intent. Only a couple of years later, in a gesture that couldn’t have been more emphatic in planning terms, they constructed [12] the largest (and possibly most expensive) embassy on the planet as a regional command center in Baghdad. Yet somehow, those perfectly laid plans went desperately awry and only a few years later, with American leaders still looking for ways [13] to garrison [14] the country into the distant future, Washington found itself out on its ear. But that’s reality for you, isn’t it?

Right now, evidence on the ground — in the form of dead American bodies piling up [15] — indicates that even the Afghans closest to us [16] don’t exactly second the Obama administration’s plans for a 20-year occupation. In fact, news from the deep-sixed war in that forgotten land, often considered the longest conflict [17] in American history, has suddenly burst onto the front pages of our newspapers and to the top of the TV news. And there’s just one reason for that: despite the copious plans of the planet’s last superpower, the poor, backward, illiterate, hapless, corrupt Afghans — whose security forces, despite unending American financial support and mentoring, have never effectively “stood up” [18] — made it happen. They have been sending a stark message, written in blood, to Washington’s planners.

A 15-year-old “tea boy” [19] at a U.S. base opened fire on Marine special forces trainers exercising at a gym, killing three of them and seriously wounding another; a 60- or 70-year-old [20] farmer, who volunteered to become a member of a village security force, turned the first gun his American special forces trainers gave him at an “inauguration ceremony [21]” back on them, killing two; a police officer who, his father claims [22], joined the force four years earlier, invited Marine Special Operations advisers to a meal and gunned down [23] three of them, wounding a fourth, before fleeing, perhaps to the Taliban.

About other “allies” involved in similar incidents — recently, there were at least 9 [24] “green-on-blue” attacks in an 11-day span in which 10 Americans died — we know almost nothing, except that they were Afghan policemen or soldiers their American trainers and mentors were trying to “stand up” to fight the Taliban. Some were promptly shot to death.  At least one may have escaped.

These green-on-blue incidents, which the Pentagon recently relabeled “insider attacks,” have been escalating for months.  Now, they seem to have reached a critical mass and so are finally causing a public stir in official circles in Washington. A “deeply concerned” President Obama commented [25] to reporters on the phenomenon (“We’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of this…”) and said [26] he was planning to “reach out” to Afghan President Karzai on the matter. In the meantime, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did so, pressing Karzai [27] to take tougher steps in the vetting of recruits for the Afghan security forces. (Karzai and his aides promptly blamed [28] the attacks on the Iranian and Pakistani intelligence agencies.)

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, flew to Afghanistan to consult with his counterparts on what to make of these incidents (and had his plane shelled on a runway at Bagram Air Field — “a lucky shot,” claimed [29] a NATO spokesman — for his effort). U.S. Afghan War commander General John Allen convened a meeting [30] of more than 40 generals to discuss how to stop the attacks, even as he insisted “the campaign remains on track.” There are now rumblings [31] in Congress about hearings on the subject.

Struggling With the Message

Worry about such devastating attacks and their implications for the American mission, slow to rise, is now widespread.  But much of this is reported in our media as if in a kind of code.  Take for example the way Laura King put the threat in a front-page [32] Los Angeles Times piece (and she was hardly alone). Reflecting Washington’s wisdom on the subject, she wrote that the attacks “could threaten a linchpin of the Western exit strategy: training Afghan security forces in preparation for handing over most fighting duties to them by 2014.” It almost sounds as if, thanks to these incidents, our combat troops might not be able to make it out of there on schedule [33].

[34]No less striking is the reported general puzzlement over what lies behind these Afghan actions. In most cases, the motivation for them, writes King, “remains opaque.” There are, it seems, many theories within the U.S. military about why Afghans are turning their guns on Americans, including personal pique, individual grudges, cultural touchiness, “heat-of-the moment disputes in a society where arguments are often settled with a Kalashnikov,” and in a minority of cases — about a tenth of them, according to a recent military study, though one top commander suggested [35] the number could range up to a quarter — actual infiltration or “coercion” by the Taliban. General Allen even suggested [36] recently that some insider attacks might be traced to religious fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, combined with unseasonable summer heat, leaving Afghans hungry, tetchy, and prone to impulsive acts, guns in hand. According to the Washington Post, however, “Allen acknowledged that U.S. and Afghan officials have struggled to determine what’s behind the rise in attacks.”

“American officials are still struggling,” wrote [37] the New York Times in an editorial on the subject, “to understand the forces at work.” And in that the editorial writers like the general reflected the basic way these acts are registering here — as a remarkable Afghan mystery.  In other words, in Washington’s version of the blame game, the quirky, unpredictable Afghans from Hamid Karzai on down are in the crosshairs. What is the matter with them?

In the midst of all this, few say the obvious. Undoubtedly, a chasm of potential misunderstanding lies between Afghan trainees and their American trainers; Afghans may indeed feel insulted by any number of culturally inapt, inept, or hostile acts by their mentors. They may have been on edge from fasting for Ramadan. They may be holding grudges. None of the various explanations being offered, that is, may in themselves be wrong. The problem is that none of them allow an observer to grasp what’s actually going on. On that, there really should be few “misunderstandings” and, though you won’t hear it in Washington, right now Americans are actually the ones in the crosshairs, and not just in the literal sense either.

While the motives of any individual Afghan turning his gun on an American may be beyond our knowing — just what made him plan it, just what made him snap — history should tell us something about the more general motives of Afghans (and perhaps the rest of us as well). After all, the United States was founded after colonial settlers grew tired of an occupying army and power in their midst. Whatever the individual insults Afghans feel, the deeper insult almost 11 years after the U.S. military, crony corporations, hire-a-gun outfits, contractors, advisers, and aid types [38] arrived on the scene en masse with all their money, equipment, and promises is that things are going truly badly; that the westerners are still around; that the Americans are still trying to stand up those Afghan forces (when the Taliban has no problem standing its forces up and fighting effectively without foreign trainers); that the defeated Taliban, one of the less popular movements of modern history, is again on the rise; that the country is a sea of corruption; that more than 30 years after the first Afghan War against the Soviets began, the country is still a morass of violence, suffering, and death.

Plumb the mystery all you want, our Afghan allies couldn’t be clearer as a collective group. They are sick of foreign occupying armies, even when, in some cases, they may have no sympathy for the Taliban. This should be a situation in which no translators are needed. The “insult” to Afghan ways is, after all, large indeed and should be easy enough for Americans to grasp. Just try to reverse the situation with Chinese, Russian, or Iranian armies heavily garrisoning the U.S., supporting political candidates, and trying to stand us up for more than a decade and it may be easier to understand. Americans, after all, blow people away regularly over far less than that.

And keep in mind as well what history does tell us: that the Afghans have quite a record of getting disgusted with occupying armies and blowing them away. After all, they managed to eject the militaries of two of the most powerful empires of their moments, the British in the 1840s and the Russians in the 1980s. Why not a third great empire as well?

A Contagion of Killing

The message is certainly clear enough, however unprepared those in Washington and in the field are to hear it: forget our enemies; a rising number of those Afghans closest to us want us out in the worst way possible and their message on the subject has been horrifically blunt. As NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski put it [39] recently, among Americans in Afghanistan there is now “a growing fear the armed Afghan soldier standing next to them may really be the enemy.”

It’s a situation that isn’t likely to be rectified by quick fixes, including the eerily named Guardian Angel program (which leaves an armed American with the sole job of watching out for trigger-happy Afghans in exchanges with his compatriots), or better “vetting” of Afghan recruits, or putting [40] Afghan counterintelligence officers in ever more units to watch over their own troops.

The question is: Why can’t our leaders in Washington and in the U.S. military stop “struggling” and see this for what it obviously is? Why can’t anyone in the mainstream media write about it as it obviously is? After all, when almost 11 years after your arrival to “liberate” a country, orders are issued [41] for every American soldier to carry a loaded weapon everywhere at all times, even on American bases, lest your allies blow you away, you should know that you’ve failed. When you can’t train your allies to defend their own country without an armed guardian angel [30] watching at all times, you should know that it’s long past time to leave a distant country of no strategic value [42] to the United States.

As is now regularly noted, the incidents of green-on-blue violence are rising rapidly. There have been 32 of them [43] reported so far this year, with 40 American or coalition members killed, compared to 21 reported in all of 2011, killing 35. The numbers have a chilling quality, a sense of contagion, to them. They suggest that this may be an unraveling moment, and don’t think — though no one mentions this — that it couldn’t get far worse.

To date, such incidents are essentially the work of lone wolf attackers, in a few cases of two Afghans, and in a single case of three Afghans [44] plotting together. But no matter how many counterintelligence agents are slipped into the ranks or guardian angels appointed, don’t think there’s something magical about the numbers one, two, and three. While there’s no way to foresee the future, there’s no reason not to believe that what one or two Afghans are already doing couldn’t in the end be done by four or five, by parts of squads, by small units. With a spirit of contagion, of copycat killings with a  message, loose in the land, this could get far worse.

One thing seems ever more likely. If your plan is to stay and train a security force growing numbers of whom are focused on killing you, then you are, by definition, in an impossible situation and you should know that your days are numbered, that it’s not likely you’ll be there in 2020 or even maybe 2015. When training your allies to stand up means training them to do you in, it’s long past time to go, whatever your plans may have been. After all, the British had “plans” for Afghanistan, as did the Russians. Little good it did them.

Imagine for a moment that you were in Kabul or Washington at the end of December 2001, after the Taliban had been crushed, after Osama bin Laden fled to Pakistan, and as the U.S. was moving into “liberated” Afghanistan for the long haul. Imagine as well that someone claiming to be a seer made this prediction: almost 11 years from then, despite endless tens of billions of dollars spent on Afghan “reconstruction,” despite nearly $50 billion spent [45] on “standing up” an Afghan security force that could defend the country, and with more than 700 bases [46] built for U.S. troops and Afghan allies, local soldiers and police would be deserting in droves [47], the Taliban would be back in force, those being trained would be blowing their trainers away in record numbers, and by order of the Pentagon, an American soldier could not go to the bathroom unarmed on an American base for fear of being shot down by an Afghan “friend.”

You would, of course, have been considered a first-class idiot, if not a madman, and yet this is exactly the U.S. “hearts and minds” record in Afghanistan to date. Welcomed in 2001, we are being shown the door in the worst possible way in 2012. Washington is losing it.  It’s too late to exit gracefully, but exit in time we must.

Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com [48]. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 [34]. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter [49]. Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Afghanistan: Leave It or Lose It"

#1 Comment By Nathan On August 27, 2012 @ 10:09 am

For much of the “right”, the Rush, Sean, Mark “right” the narrative for the next two three four decades will be that BHO lost both wars. That narratve will of course be wrong. The wars were lost at the time he took office, were perhaps unwinnable at the time they were launched. The failure to understand this “inconvenient” truth on the part of so many “conservatives” will no doubt lead to more unwinnable wars and more needless deaths both American and civilians.

#2 Comment By J Harlan On August 27, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

The paradox of this war is that the US had fueled (through “escalation of force” incidents, night raids, civilian bombing casualties and support of a corrupt government)and paid for it by providing the insurgents millions via “taxes” paid to the Taliban for USAID projects and “fees” paid for the safe passage of NATO supply convoys.

The faster the escape the better for the Afghans and the US.

#3 Comment By James Canning On August 27, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

I am one of those who think it is a mistake for the US to keep permanent military bases in Afghanistan, or in any of the former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union.

#4 Comment By Bob Loblaw On August 27, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

Gee America…DUH!
could you be any more ignorant of history?
The sad truth is that anyone with a brain and I am talking pretty much potted plants here, could predict this was going to be a disaster. No one since Alexander has conquered this crazy place…it destroyed a British Army and seriously contributed to the fall of the USSR.
Perhaps reading a book would have helped?
And now you can’t figure out why they don’t like you…war mongering twits that you are.

#5 Comment By J Harlan On August 27, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

Permanent bases reduce your flexibility. You’re tied to faculties that must be paid for and defended. There are so many that none can be defended against even a third rate opponent without huge reinforcement. To what end? Dumpistan is now in our orbit and the recipient of US largess in the form of dollars borrowed from China that can be used for numerous corrupt practices. Hurrah!

#6 Comment By Wesley On August 27, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

But it’s not just that the Afghans don’t like the Americans so they are killing our soldiers. There has also been an increase of Afghan soldiers killing their fellow Afghan nationals. There very well could be something to the theory that the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services are directing or at least influencing the Taliban to infiltrate the Afghan army to kill Afghan, American, and other coalition troops.

#7 Comment By Kevin On August 28, 2012 @ 1:48 am

I am here in Kabul. Mr. Englehardt is right-on in his assessment. We have long since lost any possibility of achieving the strategic goal of a reliable Afghan Security Force capable of effectively defeating the Taliban and, more importantly, adding a sense of stability to this country. Was this war a “loss” from the beginning, based on history? Hardly. Our mistake was in our strategy. Old generals full of old mental models of war and a complete inability to understand how to win the hearts and minds of these peolpe — the objective! We have been incapable of truly adapting and employing evolved tactics and operational art. Bush, Obama, and the American people have been victims to the military’s hubris. Blame the senior military leaders, no one else.

#8 Comment By B. Wooster On August 28, 2012 @ 8:18 am

On August 14th the Commandant of the Marine Corps sent a letter to all commanders stating the opposite: these attacks only show how well our strategy is working:

“Faced with our undeniable momentum and his own failure, the enemy is increasingly forced to resort to spectacular attacks. I am confident that these recent attacks were carefully crafted to drive a wedge between us and our Afghan partners. This is a common theme in the latter stages of a counter-insurgency operation. We saw the same thing in Iraq after the balance had tipped in our favor.”

When the head of my beloved Corps has so obviously drunk the Kool-Aid, is it any wonder that we continue to waste lives and treasure?

#9 Comment By James Canning On August 28, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

Kevin – – The false narrative of a “successful” “surge” in Iraq was employed by General Petraeus, and Hillary Clinton, to convince Obama he should treble the US troop presence in Afghanistan. A major blunder on Obama’s part. And one Joe Biden tried to prevent.

#10 Comment By Wesley On August 28, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

Kevin, how do you think that the military’s rules of engagement in which soldiers have to be restrained in their use of force against the enemy to prevent civilian casualties have affected the war effort in Afghanistan?

#11 Comment By Benjie C. Jackson On August 31, 2012 @ 6:17 am

I have been here more than 3 years witnessing the Construction and Military Training mission taking place on the bases. Several thoughts have continuously resonated with me during this time.
1. The U.S. Government should have learned it cannot solve the world’s problems or make any country a democracy with money and bullets alone. The people of any country have to stand up be and be accountable for their on future.
2. I compare Afghanistan to the Western part of U.S in the early 1800s when it was occupied mostly by Native Indians. Each Tribe had its own Government, its own interests and sets of rules, values and leadership. No infrastructure and Central Government that anyone could count on or show loyalty to, very much the way the vast land of Afghanistan is today, except Afghanistan has very limited resources. Once the millions of settlers in the U,S.began to govern themselves,local,state & federal with a set of values and standards and build infrastructure with the plentiful resources available, we became a stable and a thriving Nation (we invested in our own future). Here in Afghanistan, the thousands of austere local villages out in the middle of nowhere receive no help from the Corrupt Government (in Kabul) and have no loyalty to that Government. You can see what an astronomical task financially, & politically it is to establish a stable Government here. also, about 85% to 90% of the country is illiterate.
3. Our Military and Government Leaders must understand the situation on the ground, such as discussed above, before committing our boy’s lives, and our country’s assets.
4. The Afghan people are very much guided by their Islamic Religion that employs limited freedoms on its people.
5. The Karzai Government Government is corrupt and our weak Government does very little to set stringent policies and rules in which the Afghan Government should abide by in order to receive the billions of dollars.
6. Lastly, our American Warriors on the front lines in those villages do make small meaningful differences (“God Bless Them”), but strategically our Military Generals (as Kevin states) and Government Agencies have failed in the overall mission, because it did not understand the situation on the ground and adapt to the tenets needed on the Political and Military battlefield. We are still making the same mistakes we were making 9 years ago!! Unbelievable “educated” people can be so ignorant and unwilling to open up that can of bad decisions, learn from them and correct them, instead continue to keep kicking the can down the road.