The Unwinnable War II: Didn't We Know All This Already?


What do we really learn from the Wikileaks monster-doc-dump? I think the actual answer is: not much that we didn't already know. But it's extremely depressing - and rivetingly explicit - confirmation of what anyone with eyes and ears could have told you for years. We already know the following:

The notion that a professional military and especially police force can be constructed and trained by the West to advance the interests of a "national government" in Kabul within any time frame short of a few decades of colonialism is a fantasy.

We are fighting a war as much against the intelligence services of Pakistan as we are the Taliban. They are a seamless part of the same whole, and until Pakistan is transformed (about as likely as Afghanistan), we will be fighting with two hands tied behind our backs.

This is the Taliban's country. Fighting them on their own ground, when they can appear in disguise, can terrify residents by night if not by day, and fight and then melt away into the netherworld of mountains and valleys is all but impossible. And as the occupation fails to secure popular support (and after ten years and a deeply corrupt government in Kabul, who can blame the Afghans?), the counter-insurgency model becomes even less plausible than it was before.

The enormous cost in lives and money is in no way proportionate to the eradication of around 500 Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, who are effectively being protected by a foreign government, Pakistan, we aid with a $1 billion a year.

The troops deserve to fight in a strategy that can actually work. They deserve not to be risking their lives for bases that have to be abandoned, on hillsides where they cannot see the enemy, in a war where the enemy abides by no civilized rules but where every civilian casualty in response is a propaganda victory for the Taliban. This is a lose-lose proposition.

Would you send your son to fight there, knowing all this. If not, how do we continue to support a strategy in which other people's sons are thrown into the wood-chipper that leads nowhere?

Now we all know why retreat is politically treacherous. The terror threat from that region is real - and made worse by the last few years. Allowing the Taliban to come back and launch attacks with al Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan is real. A president who withdraws and then presides over a terror attack will be vulnerable to cheap political attacks of the Palinite variety.

But a mature polity will understand that just because we cannot prevent any terror attack from that region does not mean we should be occupying it with 100,000 troops in a quixotic attempt at nation-building. We have to return to the Biden option of the least worst counter-terrorism strategy. In order to defeat this terror threat, the American people are going to have to accept that they will endure, for an indefinite period of time, a level of terror that is more than zero. They are also going to have to accept that the occupation itself has become a source of terror, globally. Don't take that from me. Take it from the former head of Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5 in a response to the UK inquiry into the Iraq war:

Britain's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan radicalized many Muslims and triggered a big rise in terrorism plots that nearly overwhelmed the British security services, the former head of the domestic intelligence agency said on Tuesday. Giving evidence to an official inquiry into the Iraq war, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former MI5 director general, said the U.S.-led invasions had substantially raised the number of plots against Britain. "It undoubtedly increased the threat and by 2004 we were pretty well swamped," she said. "We were very overburdened by intelligence on a broad scale that was pretty well more than we could cope with.

When one weighs the extra terror risk from remaining in Afghanistan, the absurdity of our chief alleged ally actually backing the enemy, the impossibility of an effective counter-insurgency when the government itself is corrupt and part of the problem, the brutality of the enemy in intimidating the populace in ways no civilized occupying force can counter, the passage of ten years in which any real chance at success was squandered ... the logic for withdrawal to the more minimalist strategy originally favored by Obama after the election and championed by Biden thereafter seems overwhelming.

When will the president have the balls to say so?