The US Has Lost in Afghanistan -- We Have to Come to Grips with What That Means
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Wars are rarely lost in a single encounter; Defeat is almost always more complex than that. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have lost the war in Afghanistan, but not just because they failed in the battle for Marjah or decided that discretion was the better part of valor in Kandahar. They lost the war because they should never have invaded in the first place; because they never had a goal that was achievable; because their blood and capital are finite.
The face of that defeat was everywhere this past month.
According to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, “In terms of insecurity, 2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001.”
A recent U.S. government audit found that despite $27 billion spent on training, fewer than 12 percent of Afghan security forces were capable of operating on their own.
Some 58 percent of the American public think the war is “a lost cause,” and 60 percent think the United States should begin to withdraw in July 2011. Only Republican votes in Congress saved the Obama administration’s request for $33 billion to fuel the war in the coming fiscal year. The war is currently hemorrhaging money at a rate of $7 billion a month.
The British public — the United Kingdom is the second largest armed contingent in Afghanistan — opposes the war by 72 percent, and other coalition forces are quickly abandoning the effort in the war-torn Central Asian nation. Poland announced it would withdraw its 2,600 troops in 2012. The Dutch will be out this August. The Canadians in 2011. The Australians, along with the rest of the NATO allies, declined a plea in July to send more combat troops.
In a sign of the dire circumstances of the war effort, twice in this past month, Afghan soldiers turned their guns on NATO soldiers.
A poll by the International Council on Security and Development reaffirms that the NATO alliance is failing to win over Afghan civilians, a cornerstone of success in the current strategy employed in Afghanistan. The poll found that in the two provinces currently at the center of the war — Helmand and Kandahar — 75 percent of Afghans believe foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions; 74 percent think working for foreign forces is wrong; 68 percent believe NATO will not protect them; and 65 percent think Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar should be part of the government.
The Arithmetic of Defeat
So does one calculate the arithmetic of defeat. But “defeat” does not mean the war is over. Indeed, the moment when it becomes obvious that victory is no longer an option can be the most dangerous time in a conflict’s history. The losers may double down, as the French and the United States did in Vietnam. They may lash out in a frenzy of destruction, as the United States did in Laos and Cambodia. Or they may poison the well for generations to come by dividing people on the basis of ethnicity, religion and tribe, as the British did when their empire began to disintegrate.
Faced with rising opposition at home, increased casualties on the battlefield, and growing isolation from its allies, the United States is casting about for a way to salvage the Afghan disaster, and coming up with schemes that may end up destabilizing not only Afghanistan, but much of Central and South Asia.
The most radical of these schemes is being floated by the former U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwell, a neoconservative mainstay and currently a lobbyist for India. Blackwell proposes partitioning Afghanistan into two countries: an independent, Pashtun-dominated south, and a northern and western section where Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras make up the majority. According to the scheme , “Pashtunistan” would be kept in line by armed drones and 30,000 to 40,000 U.S. Special Forces.