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Why Haven't We Learned Anything After 10 Years of Fighting in Afghanistan?

Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated déjà vu with a Mobius strip.

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Are you bored to death yet?  No, then I’ll keep going.

* " Audit: Afghans don’t know how many police on rolls":  The news embedded in this headline is that a recent audit by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan has found that some of the $10 billion a year being poured into training, building up, and supplying Afghanistan’s security forces is undoubtedly missing-in-action.  The IG reports that “the country's police rolls and payrolls cannot be verified because of poor record keeping,” which means that the numbers “for all practical purposes become somewhat fictitious.”  Put another way, the U.S. and its coalition partners are undoubtedly paying “ghost” policemen.

This story could be paired with a recent Reuters piece, “ Pentagon’s rosy report of Afghanistan war raises questions,” which points out that, despite the billions of dollars and years of time invested in mentoring Afghanistan’s security forces, “there are currently no Afghan National Police units that are able to operate independently.”  In addition, even that recent “rosy” Pentagon report indicates that so many Afghan soldiers are deserting -- six out of every 10 new recruits -- as to imperil the goal of creating a massive army capable of taking over security duties in the next several years.  It has also been difficult to find enough trainers for the program, and given all of the above, experts suspect that the country will not have an effective army in place by 2014.

But here’s the thing: such reports about the massive training program for Afghan security forces, the inability of those forces to operate independently, the wholesale desertions continually suffered, and so on have appeared again and again and again over the last years.

* “ With bin Laden dead, some escalate push for new Afghan strategy”: Here’s the only problem with that “new Afghan strategy” reportedly being debated in Washington -- it’s not new.  It’s drearily old.  In fact, it’s simply a replay on the downhill slide of bitter policy arguments in the fall of 2009 involving Washington policymakers and the U.S. military.  That was a moment when the Obama administration had set about reassessing Afghan strategy and trying to choose between counterinsurgency (“the surge”) and what was then called “counterterrorism plus” (more drones and more trainers, but less combat troops).

Then the debate was narrow indeed -- between more (an increase of 40,000 troops) and more (an increase of 20,000 troops).  There was never a real “less” option.  Today, with almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and despite reports of “war fatigue,” even among Congressional Republicans, as well as plummeting poll numbers among Americans generally, the new debate is similarly narrow, similarly focused, and deeply familiar, a kind of less-versus-less version of the more-versus-more duke-em-out of 2009.

Similar arguments, similar crew.  Then, Vice President Biden spearheaded the counterterrorism-plus option; today, it’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who quickly made the parameters of the “new” strategy debate clear: "I do not know of any serious policy person who believes that a unilateral precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would somehow serve our interests or anybody’s interests. I do not believe that is a viable option.”

As in the fall of 2009, agreement among “serious policy people” that there should be a continuing American “footprint” in Afghanistan is set in stone.  It seems the only question on the table is how small and how slow the drawdown should be, with the debaters already evidently settling into an agreed upon endgame of 20,000 to 30,000 American troops, special operations forces, and trainers post-2014. Despite the president’s promise of significant troop reductions this year, early hints about war commander General David Petraeus’s recommendations indicate that as few as 10,000 may be withdrawn, with no combat troops among them (though pressure to increase those numbers is rising).

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