Monday, December 16, 2019

The Afghanistan War

The Washington Post has over the last 7 days published a detailed account based on many secret documents they have spent years obtaining to provide an accurate account of what has happened during what is now the longest war the US has been engaged in.  It is an impressive account, which I have tried to follow, although with finishing a semester I did not read every word ot it. But it is a serious and important serious series, just reaching its conclusion today, along with lots of commentary in the WaPo Sunda Outlook section.

One extremely serious bottom line on both of them was lying by US officials, just rampant and all over the place for both wars.  WaPo Outlook had an especially useful column by Lauren Kay Johnson who was US military PR person in late 2009-early 2010, soon after Obama came in.  Lies, lies, lies.

The obvious comparison is with the Vietnam War, and  much does carry over such as corruption and bad excuses for continuing with unlikely improvement outcomes. Vietnam was bigger and deadlier, well over 2000 dead per year in Vietnam compared to about 100 Americans dying in Afghanistan per year.  Easy to pay no attention to them.

So aside from a lot lower US deaths, maybe the other big difference from the Vietnam War is the shift to drones, perhaps not unconnected to the  first.  While this almost certainly reduced the US deaths, it also led to less knowledge on the  ground  that was there in Vietnam (see "They Marched into Sunlight" by David Maraniss, old friend of mine).

Obviously a big difference between the two wars is that Vietnam beyond some point engendered a massive anti-war protest movement, while the longer Afghan war has not even to now triggered anything like the protests the Vietnam predecessor brought.  Certainly both the far lower death rate and lower costs lie behind this.

But the similarities are clear and must be recognized.  This has been a corrupt, ultimately hopeless war that people at many levels of the US govt have  just routinely lied about.  A big difference between the teo wars is the big role of opium in Afghanistan, with the money in that just hugely important,while a much more minor matter in the earlier war.

A big question coming out of these reports, especially important for Dems, is the tole of Obama.  Unfortunately he looks somewhat like LBJ in the Vietnam War, although not identical. The similarity is that both inherited their war from a predecessor and then were subjected to accusations that they needed to show that they were tough and not Communists or Muslim radicals, and so each attempted to make intermediate deals that kept the war going while not going all the way the superhawks wanted, allowing both those who wanted more war and less to whine.

For Obama the ultimate of this came with Libya, where he was pressured by many outsiders, including the old colonial powers UK and France, with Hillary Clinton transmitting these outside demands, Obama took a middle route, the much-mocked "leading from behind" where the air forces of UK and France were leading the way in with massive outside support, including from the Arab League complicated, not going to get into details of that, but Arab Spring was going on).

On the politics I note that Newt Gingrich (or some other high GOP of the time) in a single sentence criticized hiin for being a wimp and only "leading from behind" rather than going in all out, while also, in the same sentence criticizing him for going in at all, implicitly the later Trump critique.

So, yes, Libya became aa mess, still one to this day, which made Obama loath to go all in in Syria, although he did set up the deal with the Syrian Kurds  i NE Syria that after Trump got in led to the defeat of Daesh/ISIL.  But, hey, he got 8 Benghazi hearings that eventually led nowhere.

But then we have him imitating LBJ at a later stage and rather than pulling out as JOe Biden of all people was basically advising him to do, he played to the hawks as people like Trump were claiming he was not even a US citizen, and had his "surge," not all that big, but enough to stick him into the war for the rest of his presidency.  This was one of the biggest mistakes Obama made.

Which Brings us t o Donald Trump. He campaigned on opposing this war and got support from some leftsts due to this and similar promises elsewhere.  The botton line is that despite a lot of so-far failed negotiations with the Taliban, he has not gotten anywhere, and there are now more US troops in Afghanistan than when be became president.  This is also true  in other parts of the wold.

What almost nobody commenting on this, and while I did not read every single word of the generally excellent WaPo series on this, is that there was a compltely justified reason for the beginning of this war.  Al Qaeada attacked the US on 9/11/01, killing nearly 3000 Americans, with them being protected and housed by the Taliban regime then there.  Many have forgotten that when G,W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to bring regime change thee, he had the support of well over 90 percent of the US population, including me. And the invasion was successful: the government was overthrown.

Which gets us to the critical point: we should have declared the real victory we had achieved and withdrawn soon after, arguably, possibly, with some more to pursue bin Laden, but not necessarily as he had built the mountain caves he initially retreated to, and Sausi intel was  not giving us the info on them at that time.

But, G.W. Bush got distracted with the completely idiotic  invasion of Iraq, and once that got going, Afghanistan was forgottn, an embarrassing, which it has remained ever since, so unfortunately.

The harder question I see here is the massive momentum of the US mil/intel complex.  Once it gets going anywhere, it is just so hard to overcome and stop;  There was from a thoughtful perspective an argument to get out soon after the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.  But instead we got this massive momentum: we needed to get the right successor regime, fix things up, etc etc etc, and given that the Bush adminhad become refocused on the totally idiotic invasion of Iraq, simple did not happen.

So, we did not leave when we could have with honor as a success, and given how these things go, even with newly elected presidents o both parties calling for us to leave, well, we remain there with more troops than ever.

In any case, as a bottom line, I thank the Washington Post for having provided this highely detailed account of what has happened with the now-long US war in Afghanistan.

Barkley Rosser

PS: note that at certain points this was written as of being 12/15, but it did not get finished and gou out until 12/16.


Anonymous said...

Really well done.

2slugbaits said...

The initial objectives of the Afghanistan war were entirely achievable, but then OBL, A-Q and the Taliban were allowed to escape from Tora Bora in late 2001. And I say "allowed" because the original order to take them out while they were in a highly vulnerable position was countermanded, as we know from Gary Berntsen's first hand account in Jawbreaker. GEN Tommy Franks claims to be the one who countermanded the kill order, but if you believe that then I've got a bridge to sell you. This one had Dick Cheney's fingerprints all over it. Recall that by Dec 2001, when it was clear A-Q and the Taliban were in a trap, there were plenty of hushed whispers and a little handwringing over the possible effect that killing OBL too soon might have on the planned war with Iraq, which was originally scheduled for Nov 2002. OBL was the poster child for the GWOT and Cheney was working overtime to try and connect Saddam with OBL and A-Q. The decision to put Afghanistan on the backburner and Iraq on the front burner was made in late Sep 2001. GEN Franks has admitted that he illegally diverted $500M in FY2002 funds to prepare for the Iraq war, but what has not gotten as much attention is the $200M in Congressionally appropriated FY2001 Defense Emergency Relief Fund (DERF) dollars that were laundered the last week in Sep 2001 to support heavy armor O&MA pipeline requirements. Recall that FY2001 DERF O&MA funds effectively expired on Friday, 28 Sep 2001, so the Bush Administration only had a few days to obligate (i.e., "launder") those funds because Congress didn't appropriate those funds until late Sep 2001.

Anonymous said...

a professional army ... from boots to stars ... "mantra of the day "we have the world's best military" ...

Afghanistan is a political issue a foreign policy issue for the president and his advise and consents senate

as obama learned withdrawing from Afghanistan needs political muscle because the "professional army" is the darling of congress ...

we need to go back to a draft ... when citizens have skin in the game there is pressure against the generals

never has been and never will be reasonable explanation for us to spend blood and treasure in afghanistan

2slugbaits said...

Obama got sold a bill of goods with Petraeus' promise to replicate the apparent success of "the Surge" in Iraq. Biden was skeptical. Of course, we now know that the success of "the Surge" in Iraq was largely ephemeral and had very little to do with "the Surge" itself.

Eventually the US Army Training & Doctrine Command (TRADOC) changed the field manual and got rid of the COIN doctrine.

While the idea of a citizen-based army has a lot of civic appeal, the fact is that it's probably not practical. Today's army is not your grandfather's army or even you father's army. Maybe not even your older brother's army. It takes a very long time to train today's soldier. The time when you could crank out 90 day wonders is long gone. Today's army is capital intensive and there is simply no way that the army could use, train or absorb a universal draft army. So that leaves us with a small lottery draft army; i.e., low morale and poorly trained.

Finally, I don't think you can lay blame solely on the military. I know very few officers who like the idea of war. They like to train with expensive toys, but they aren't thrilled with having to use them in earnest. It wasn't the generals that pushed for war in Iraq. In fact, back in Oct 2002 there was a "Saturday night massacre" in which seven 3-star and 4-star generals were relieved of command because they disagreed with the way Rumsfeld wanted to prosecute the Iraq war. It was the chicken hawks in suits who pushed for war. We still live in something that at least pretends to be a democracy, so at some point voters have to take responsibility for the actions of their government. A draft army will still give is idiotic policies so long as we have idiotic, nitwit voters. A draft army didn't save us from the folly of Vietnam.