The PR disasters over the last three months — including pictures of American troops urinating on Afghan corpses, the burning of Qurans, and the massacre of Afghan civilians, including women and children, by at least one deranged American soldier — have morphed into a grand strategic debacle. From the perspective of the Afghan insurgency, these are gifts that will keep on giving.
Why do I use the modifier grand strategic?
Because these incidents have (1) increased the moral strength of the Afghan insurgents by handing them a coup to rally supporters and attract the uncommitted to their cause. They also widen the existing rift between the United States military and the Karzai government, which in any case is viewed by many Afghans as a corrupt, illegitimate, quisling lapdog of the US. And (2), they are visibly weakening the rapidly crumbling solidarity at home. Recent polls in America, for example, suggest the already overwhelming majority of Americans who now think it is time to exit the Afghan enterprise is growing again. Moreover, an increasing number of politicians and editorial boards are now beginning to reflect the views of the majority of American people. These incidents have magnified the already widespread perceptions among Afghans of a grotesque mismatch between the ideals we profess uphold and what we do.
Readers unfamiliar with the idea of grand strategy and the central importance of moral effects in any kind of conflict will find brief introduction to the criteria of a sensible grand strategy here. Use these criteria to judge for yourself whether or not our dismissal of these incidents as isolated occurrences and apologies will counter the damage described above.
You will see that these shifts at the moral level of conflict are about as bad as it gets when it comes to grand strategy. The emerging moral asymmetries between the US and its insurgent adversaries go well beyond trite comments about staying the war weariness and make a mockery of Defense Secretary Panetta’s wildly optimistic claim that we reached a turning point thanks to the 2011 surge. The US is leaving Afghanistan, the only questions left are how soon and how messy the departure will be?
Two recent essays help one grapple with some implications of these questions:
The first is an op-ed, “Why the Military needs to leave Afghanistan, and Soon,” by Phil Sparrow in the Sydney Morning Herald. Sparrow explains why people who argue we should remain in Afghanistan, because the Afghan people don’t want us to leave, simply don’t know what they are talking about. Certainly, the one per cent living in fortified compounds who have profited from the corruption unleashed by the torrent money we have poured into that impoverished country have been enriched by our presence [want us to stay], but what about the other 99 per cent?
In addressing this question, Sparrow demolishes the argument for staying the course. Bear in mind, it is written by a man who has lived in Afghanistan in local housing since 1999. He explains why the time to leave has arrived, and the sooner we depart the better. Sparrow’s op-ed was emailed to me by a highly educated Afghan friend from a distinguished Pashtun family, a man who is working for the restoration of a multicultural neutral Afghanistan, sans warlords and kleptocrats, whatever their ethnicity. He prefaced it by saying, “Finally, the truth.” Bear in mind, the individual making this comment is a longtime admirer of America, going back to our aid in the Helmand River irrigation project during the Eisenhower Administration. Read Sparrow’s essay and make your own judgement … then compare it to other points of view which can be found here and here, and ask yourself who is making the strongest argument.
“Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace” is a deeply troubling essay by Neal Shea in the current issue of the American Scholar. Shea has been writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006, where he has been spent most of his time embedded with NATO units.
He paints a grim portrait of how the confrontation dynamics of the Afghan guerrilla war are evolving violent psyches in some of the American troops who are being tasked to carry out the endless patrols and night raids. These search-and-destroy operations have morphed the aim of winning hearts and minds into a futile attrition strategy aimed at of killing insurgents faster than the local population can replace them … and according to Shea, the unfocused violence emerging from this strategy is having frightening side effects on the psychology of some of our soldiers.
If Shea is close to being right, the reality at the pointy end of the spear is very different from that perceived by the lounge lizards and neoconmen inside the beltway think tanks who calling for more time because our strategy is slowing winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people
Left hanging, but implicit in the title of his essay, is the question of what this menacing acculturation implies for the future of America. That is … what will happen when those afflicted return home, with no wars to expend their aggressive energies on? Add in the numbers of returning American mercenaries laid off by American contractors as their Afghan honey pot dries up, and the prospect becomes ominous indeed.
To be sure, Shea is only one observer at the microscopic level of organization, but he has been around, and if his observations are close to being right, the leaders of our military and government, who are debating when to leave, had better start thinking about how to contend with the kinds of post-combat stress problems posed by acculturation Shea describes, whatever its magnitude.
But that kind of contingency planning is not going to happen any time soon. The politicians and generals are too busy scrambling to save their reputations by devising some kind of face-saving exit strategy from a quagmire of their own making. (Shades of Nixon’s promise of ‘Peace with Honor’ in Vietnam?)
No one in Versailles on the Potomac is thinking about how to ameliorate the potentially explosive domestic blowback from the targeted killing strategy that landed America in this pickle. What will have happen, for example, to our demobilized young veterans, after they are downsized by the milcrats in the Pentagon to make budget room for cold-war inspired turkeys like the $500 billion F-35 fighter program? Many of these soldiers and marines joined the all-volunteer professional military, because they needed a job — this is their profession. What skills can be transferred to the private sector? Guarding gated communities or serving in private armies owned by the super rich banksters, speculators, and globalization titans who helped so much to reduce their job prospects to begin with? What does this dilemma tell us about the wisdom of maintaining a large professional all-volunteer military in a democratic republic?
History has seen this peculiar kind of unemployment affliction before — for example, the unemployed hoplites in ancient Greece, selling their killing services to the highest bidder, or the unemployed German soldiers after World War I donning the brownshirts — and the results are never pretty.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.