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Afghanistan - Winning Will Not Matter
By Terrell E. Arnold
The past several months have witnessed a dramatic surge in US drone attacks in Pakistan as President Obama truly makes this his war. It is perhaps confusing to some of us however that while Obama has said that Afghanistan is a necessary war, most of the mindless drone attacks are in Pakistan. Most of the casualties are either Pakistanis or refugees.
The true needs of this conflict, its actual service of US interests, and the real results of the attacks are all obscure subjects. US official announcements report military successes.  These are basically in the class of "We threw a bomb and it went off." Pakistani and Afghani reports uniformly detail killings of innocent bystanders as well as outright wipeouts of targeted families.  These are in part truth and in part counter-propaganda. Official reports are used in Washington to justify the $100 billion plus per year this war is costing. Reports on the ground serve to build America's burgeoning supply of enemies.
One sensibly can ask where all of this is headed.  The alleged American goal is the pacification of Afghanistan and the elimination of regional support for terrorism. However, it appears demonstrable that daily the cadres of Afghani people who roundly hate the United States expand and diversify. At the same time the pools of injured families, tribal communities and ethnic groups grow with each drone attack. The gross effect is to turn a war for hearts and minds into a wholesale transfer of respect and sympathy to the other side.
This means that the United States is not merely losing this war; it is planting the seeds for enduring hostility.  After eight years of little more than jungle warfare, it is obvious that a military attack on militants in this region kills some alleged enemies while generating some more real ones. The hardest question to answer is: Why?
The answer is a moving target. It is now clear that even before the 9/11 attacks the Bush administration had a plan make war in the region, starting with the invasion of Iraq, but 9/11 became the excuse. After the attacks of 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan before US officialdom had a clear picture of who had carried out those attacks.  They were blamed on al Qaida even though the evidence (as distinct from the charge) for that assertion was information eventually obtained by torture.  The allegedly self-admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, only provided that detail after being repeatedly tortured and brutishly confined.
As reported by Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 30, 2009, US forces still have not captured the alleged perpetrators of 9/11 in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Rather, US actions in the region have contributed to an increasingly dangerous insurgency.  In effect, US forces have turned the effort to capture a few criminals into a campaign that alienates the entire population of Afghanistan and western Pakistan.
One of the worst features of President Obama's situation is the "let it all hang out" environment that is created by today's information flows.  Even in the relatively primitive environs of Afghanistan, virtually everybody knows what is going on. Propaganda campaigns such as have been customary in America's previous wars are almost immediately countered by facts or competing versions of stories that hit the street, sometimes ahead of the official excuses. It has become much harder to lie, embellish or even tell the truth without being contradicted.
So let us take seriously Obama's assertion that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity."  He did not say necessity for whom, but let's assume he means the United States.  What are the possible necessities?
1.      The United States is under threat of imminent attack.  Even in light of 9/11, no such evidence has been presented by US officials.
2.      The United States must fight "them" over there so "they" will not come over here. The implication has been another 9/11 type attack, but again no evidence of such an attack has been reported. Moreover, our forces in Af-Pak have at best limited ability to identify and intercept individuals or small, previously unidentified groups who may intend harm to us.
3.      The region is a den of militants who intend the US harm.  Apart from the dubious "evidence" of letters from an elusive and perhaps even nonexistent Osama bin Laden, no one else in the region has threatened us. Rather, the Afghani people and increasingly the Pakistanis feel invaded by American forces. The Taliban government in power when the US went in had been brutally effective in shutting down the drug trade. However, the government of Hamid Karzai, whose brother ranks high among drug traffickers, is corrupt through and through, the drug trade flourishes, and Karzai lacks power virtually anywhere outside Kabul.
4.      The US can shut off the recruitment of terrorists by al Qaida by being on the ground there.  Having killed numerous people who were largely reported to US forces by their local enemies while capturing several hundred, many of whom we acquired for a fee from bounty hunters, US officials are only able to assert that they have prevented attacks; but they have no proof.  It is widely perceived that al Qaida makes effective use of the US presence and the attacks of US forces to recruit new members.
5.      The US response in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now in Yemen, is a demonstration of the Oliver North dictum that terrorists have no place to hide. That observation always has been better as rhetoric than as a demonstration of program effectiveness. Actually, the problem along both sides of the Durand Line (agreed by Britain's Sir Mortimer Durand and the Amir of Afghanistan in 1893) is that the line is still largely ignored, and tribes of the region still have virtually limitless places to hide.
The most telling success of the US campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the demonstration that warfare is not the answer to regional political discontent. Nor, in this case, is warfare the way to rid this ancient Islamic region of its extremes of faith and religious practice. The US used people who are now the hated Taliban and al Qaida, including Osama bin Laden, as frontline fighters in the battle to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The Russians were not beaten; they were finally exhausted by lack of success. That same handwriting has been on the wall for the US for several years, but our observers do not heed it.   It is a tragedy of Obama's presidency that he and his policy team have been blinded by the same strategic chimera that deluded the Bush administration.
Sooner or later it must register that there is no military victory in Afghanistan.  That has been the simple truth for more than three millennia since Kabul reportedly was founded.  While a tempting prize to Great Britain, the Great Khans, Alexander the Great, and even older seekers after greatness, Afghanistan's greatest value has been its place in the road between east and west.  The long progression from foot path to camel track, roadway, and airway may now be evolving toward oil and gas pipelines, but the basic character of the region has not changed.  Afghanistan is still in the middle of the east-west road, and there are challenges, which some people call opportunities, on both ends.
In the present situation, it is an increasingly urgent question of where oil and gas pipelines will be driven.  Part of the struggle is about who will own the toll gates and pumping stations for oil and gas lines originating in Central Asia or Iran. But the larger questions concern who will control products wherever the pipelines end.  While the United States is a long way from those potential pipelines, thirsty and rapidly growing economies, India and China, have borders and markets close by.  Whatever the outcomes in Afghanistan, both India and China will affect available supplies and market prices, reducing the first while boosting the second.
Sensitive to such complications, the Obama administration appears to be looking for ways to keep a leading role in the region while cutting its exposure. The available choices are Hobbesean: For starters, the administration is unlikely to admit that the leading interest is in energy resources.  Thus, the administration can continue the present war on terrorism or whatever they choose to call it. One scenario is to maintain a rising number of forces on the ground, take a growing number of casualties in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, increase the number of Pashtun casualties along with the number of aggrieved survivors, and assist the growing numbers of aggrieved American families. Or as some critics such as columnist George Will are recommending: Move the campaign offshore and carry out attacks "using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units".  That approach, even with the CIA on the ground to guide the drones, probably would increase the number of Pashtun and other casualties, while arousing the increasing anger of people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Neither strategy is likely to have much real impact on al Qaida.  In its present form, al Qaida is really portable. It can operate from virtually anywhere it can assure the security of leadership and communications.  In that mode, it already has removed virtually all of its members from Afghanistan, and it will do the same with Pakistan if the risks get too severe.  Whether or not al Qaida ran 9/11, the operation showed that terrorist attacks can be arranged and managed remotely with ease.  This really means that the total disappearance of al Qaida from the region would have little impact on present patterns of global terrorism.
The idea of a pyrrhic victory is almost as old as human time.  The battle is won but the war is lost. The precise term for Afghanistan is that the US may win repeated engagements on the ground only to find that the sum of all those engagements is not a military victory.
Assuming any victory in the Af-Pak region centers on besting the al Qaida enemy, the chances of that outcome appear increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, direct attacks on communities in, for example, the Helmand region of Afghanistan in pursuit of Taliban, are unlikely to woo Pashtun hearts and minds. Drone attacks or targeted killings make the American strategy sound easy and simple to execute.  Putting the show offshore makes it sound safe.  But shock and awe worked so well in Iraq that we have spent six years cleaning up after ourselves, and we are still afraid to leave for fear the situation will come apart. After eight years of getting nowhere, we should not kid ourselves that Afghanistan is winnable in any sense that matters to American interests.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at
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