Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reality in Afghanistan

Five Afghan soldiers were killed Wednesday when a NATO air strike mistook them for the enemy, and so America's war in Afghanistan under a newly appointed general continues as it had under the previous few -- not a complete disaster, but certainly a distressing failure. GOP chairman Michael Steele's latest firestorm-inducing comments that the Afghan War is "not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in" was ludicrous, but the other part of his statement on the subject -- that it is "a war of Obama's choosing"-- is only partly off base. The president may not have chosen to invade Afghanistan, a decision made by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but after a methodical review last year Obama ordered an increase in troops, shaking off the advice of Vice President Joe Biden -- a man he'd in theory added to the ticket for his extensive foreign policy experience.

Obama should have known better. While it's true that politically he would have been excoriated if he'd rejected General McChrystal's request last year for more troops and instead initiated a withdrawal, it was the right thing to do and that should always take precedence over the politics. US forces have been in Afghanistan for nine years and now there is no easy way out. The Taliban are going to come back -- they are there now and they will be everywhere in Afghanistan as soon as the American troops leave. I certainly don't want them in power; I don't want them shutting all the girls' schools and enforcing their theocracy. However, the US cannot stay there forever.

What we needed to do back in 2001 was to set a clear goal, accomplish it and pull out. Our military, along with the Afghan enemies of the Taliban known as the Northern Alliance, took the capital of Kabul in just five weeks. We pushed the Taliban out of power and we retaliated for 9/11. At that point the US should have left victorious, but instead our government leaders decided that we could build a democratic nation from scratch. The vision of the world guiding our political leadership of the time was "American exceptionalism," which holds that we are somehow better than everyone else. Such thinking led us into two wars at the same time, one of which we initiated completely. As a result we have thousands of dead American soldiers, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans, and a government even more in debt at the worst possible moment.

I recently saw a documentary of the Afghan War called "Restrepo," which follows a platoon of US soldiers who spend a year at a small forward base in the Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The guys spent most days getting shot at and then taking their anger out on the nearby villagers. In the end our soldiers pulled back from the valley without building the road they'd promised the locals. Sebastian Junger, who co-directed and shot the movie and wrote a book, "War," based on his time with the troops, writes in Vanity Fair magazine, "By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart." Historian and writer William Dalrymple, just back from Afghanistan, says, "The war has lost all semblance of shape or form." One Afghan elder told Dalrymple, "The Americans know that this war is lost. It is only their politicians who pretend they can win it."

It's time to stop pretending.

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