How Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam
Let’s be honest: The presidential summit with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday put only the thinnest gloss of hope on what America faces in the imperiled region. Behind the diplomatic show, immense challenges remain to dealing with a powerful extremist insurgency. What nobody dares to admit is that America may well be fighting another war that, at least in its current form, it cannot win.
One troubling pattern evoking quagmire — in progress for years now — is how the U.S. keeps seeking to bomb its way out of the mess. The high civilian death toll of U.S. air strikes earlier this week continues a disturbing trend — and media spin deployed by U.S. military commanders has included a kind of misdirection that should set off alarm bells. It’s reminiscent of messaging that was commonplace during the war in Southeast Asia four decades ago.
With an investigation of the latest bombing incident underway on Wednesday, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, cautioned that the reports of civilian casualties might not withstand scrutiny. “It is certainly a technique of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to claim civilian casualties at every event,” he told reporters. In a follow-up report, McKiernan declined to give any details but said, “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties.”
Perhaps that’s the case. The U.S. has made efforts to reduce civilian casualties in recent years with precision air strikes. The nonpartisan advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented in the past how the civilian death toll caused by militant extremists in Afghanistan has far exceeded the toll caused by U.S. and NATO forces there.
But in another insurgent war in which identifying the enemy is often difficult at best, the grim reality is that U.S. military operations have resulted in many civilian deaths. More than 2,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year alone, according to the United Nations. It has produced a mood of “real hatred,” according to an unnamed Western diplomat quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday. “You have seen some incidents that produce a limited number of casualties but the resulting recruitment for the Taliban is enormous,” he said.
An in-depth analysis published in Foreign Policy earlier this year, coauthored by two veterans of America’s ongoing wars, confirms that view in stark terms:
In 2005, the coalition conducted 176 close air support missions (in which aircraft conduct bombing or strafing in support of ground troops) in Afghanistan. In 2007, it completed 3,572 such missions. Bombs — even “smart” bombs — are blunt instruments, and they inevitably kill people other than their intended targets. Each civilian death at the hands of the coalition further diminishes the finite amount of goodwill toward the United States among the Afghan people. Each civilian death undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government the United States seeks to support. Each civilian death, when refracted through the Taliban’s propaganda campaign, strengthens the narrative of America’s enemies.
As Obama sends 20,000 additional troops to the war zone, how much longer can it really last?
Not even the best and the brightest seem prepared to say. Gen. David Petraeus, now in charge of U.S. military operations in the region, is widely considered to be among the most brilliant counterinsurgency strategists around. This was his view of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as stated to Foreign Policy’s Susan Glasser in an interview earlier this year: “I told [then] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in September 2005 that Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the so-called ‘long war.’ That judgment was based on an assessment I conducted in Afghanistan on my way home from my second tour in Iraq.”
And three years later? “Having been back to Afghanistan twice in recent months,” Petraeus said, “I still see it that way.”
UPDATE: Regarding the initial comments above from Gen. McKiernan, we now have this from the Times late Thursday: “Initial American military reports that some of the casualties might have been caused by Taliban grenades, not American air strikes, were ‘thinly sourced,’ a Pentagon official in Washington said Thursday, indicating that he was uncertain of their accuracy. ‘It looks like at least some of the casualties were caused by the air strikes.'”