Friday, October 7, 2011

Round Numbers Can Be Deceiving

Just as last month was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, today is the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan (as if being governed by the Taliban would be considered "not war").  But that round ten number is deceptive.  Sure, it means that this conflict is the longest in American history (depending on when you start the clock on the Vietnam war), but at no time did this particular reflect a commitment and an effort akin to the big wars of American history--the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  Instead, it is actually akin to the war in the Philippines which dragged on far longer than the official enddate.   Insurgency and counter-insurgency is like that--not respecting treaties and such.

While there are plenty of good pieces being written about the war's 10th anniversary, such as at, the idea of 10 years at war is incredibly frustrating to me.  Afghanistan was going to be very, very hard to achieve anything looking like stability, but the US government, under Rummy, Bush and the anti-state-building, no foreign policy is too important to screw up gang, deliberately under-invested in Afghanistan.  Perhaps motivated by the myth that Afghans are so xenophobic that any decent footprint would be too big, but more likely using that myth to keep resources slated for the war in Iraq, Rummy set strict limits on the troops deployed to Afghanistan.  This not only meant relying too heavily on local proxies for the operations to capture Bin Laden and other AQ types, but it mean relying too heavily on warlords, Karzai, and Pakistan.  It mean, most importantly, wasting several years. 

The clock was always going to be ticking on the patience of the democracies, and doing real stability operations, including counterinsurgency takes time.  By very much wasting time between 2002 and 2008 (only serious efforts once Obama surged and re-surged), Bush, Rummy, Cheney and the rest not only let the Taliban to recover, but also helped to create the illusion that "we have been there longer than two world wars combined" and other myths that helped to run out the clock.  Given the acceptance of 2014 as the year of transition, it seems clear that the US had about 12-13 years to try to stabilize Afghanistan.  Sure, this was a very impossible task, but wasting half that time made it harder still.

Of course, the Iraq war was more than just a diversion of troops.  That war eroded American will, cost far more money, weakened allied support in Afghanistan, and fostered an insurgency that would then share its technologies (how to build a better roadside bomb) with the Taliban.  So, recent reports of one third of American vets saying both wars were "worth it" should not surprise us.  Iraq was not worth it, especially as it empowered Iran, impeded progress in Afghanistan, and cost an enormous amount of lives (US, Iraqi and others), dollars and political capital.  Afghanistan?  Hmmm.   We will only really know in 2015 or 2020.  The lives of Afghans are largely better now than in 2002 or 2001 or 2000, BUT if Afghanistan succumbs to another civil war after NATO leaves, then it will be very hard to argue it was worth it.

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