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Losing Afghanistan

When the only strategy is the exit strategy, chaos and distrust mount

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

Without a doubt it has been a tough month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Feb. 20 burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Base sparked unrest that had only begun to subside when U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales left his post in Kandahar Province on March 11, allegedly shooting and killing 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children.

Equally troubling but less reported have been multiple "green on blue" attacks, in which at least six U.S. military personnel and advisers have been killed by Afghan security forces since February. Two of those attacks took place inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul, suggesting that Taliban infiltration of U.S.-trained Afghan forces is capable of reaching the highest levels.

Reaction to these episodes is predictable, as most Americans are war weary and see this kind of unraveling of morale and trust as more evidence that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has passed its expiration date. It's coming not only from the anti-war left but also the populist right. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich probably spoke for many frustrated Americans when he said that if Afghan President Hamid Karzai didn't feel like apologizing for the riots and retaliation after the Quran burnings, "then we should say goodbye and good luck, we don't need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn't care."

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The "time to go home" reflex may feel good, but it defies the logic of our enterprise in Afghanistan and the sacrifice of our military and civilian personnel engaged there.

What we have faced since the 2007-2008 resurgence of the Taliban is a deadly force arrayed over difficult terrain in small numbers. Most U.S. military experts will tell you that for only a few months of 2010-2011 did we have U.S. forces sufficient to fight that kind of war: when the surge ordered by President Barack Obama reached its peak and before he began unexpected-and in my opinion reckless-drawdowns ahead of an expected withdrawal of all U.S. forces in 2014.

At that peak, U.S. military operations brought success, securing Kandahar and Helmand provinces, stabilizing Kabul and other key areas of the country, training Afghan forces, and allowing Afghans (also war weary) to return to their homes and begin to trust the anti-Talibans.

But many of the obstacles to our winning in Afghanistan since that time have been of our own making. As officers in NATO headquarters in Kabul told me last fall, "The only strategy anyone knows about now is the exit strategy."

When Obama moved Gen. David Petraeus from commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to head the CIA last year (and put a lifelong politician in charge of the Defense Department), in the minds of many he turned the war into a black ops operation-with the CIA stepping up unmanned and unpopular drone attacks-and left military strategy unclear, or subject to political expediency, until it was time to go home.

This feeds handily into the Taliban strategy. The Taliban can't defeat U.S. forces by overwhelming them; it succeeds only by undermining public support for the war, and by building Afghan distrust of Americans. This is part of the unraveling we now see: Instead of taking ownership for the mission, discovering and doing what is necessary to win, most U.S. military personnel have been left with one command, echoed from family and friends to the White House: "Just come home safe."

Ironically that's an unsafe strategy, exposing forces to more attack, creating uncertainty and distrust instead of winning hearts and minds. It risks not only an already significant U.S. stake in the future of Afghanistan, not only the rise of Islamic terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan-but it risks the very ability of our country to fight any war in the future.

We may do "operations" but we are learning that we are too layered up to do actual war: cumbersome rules of engagement on top of State Department directives under unclear strategies involving lukewarm coalition partners. It's a brew to indemnify our forces for losses more than to equip them to win. Our future allies-and enemies-are taking notes.

Email mbelz@worldmag.com

Listen to Mindy Belz comment on the situation in Afghanistan on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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