Loose Canons

Powerless in Retreat

After ten plus years we're not able to shape Afghanistan's future in any way we'd like.

By 3.19.12

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As we grind down to defeat in Afghanistan it's suddenly fashionable for pundits and pols to prescribe the outcome we will reach.

Their prescriptions are usually phrased in terms of "what the Afghanis must do" or "what Afghanistan must understand," and sail off from there into ivory tower fantasies.

Such as the one built by the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who wrote last week that we should: "Build a good enough Afghan army to hold Kabul and maintain contact with the provinces; negotiate power-sharing with the Taliban that can avert civil war; and work with Afghanistan's neighbors to build a firewall that can keep the inevitable violence there from destabilizing the region."

The worst came from the Economist, via British PM David Cameron. In its latest issue, Economist says: "David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, defined 'doing the job' in Afghanistan as leaving the country 'looking after its own security, not being a haven for terror, without the involvement of foreign troops.' That does not seem too much to ask. Democracy, women's rights, even political stability: all these are now at best subsidiary parts of a job that has consumed the past decade."

Really?

We've invested ten years of war in Afghanistan so we have a right to expect these things? But wars aren't financial instruments. You aren't guaranteed anything at the end. Not peace, not security, not even an end to the killing. If you want those things, you have to kill the enemy and convince his survivors that he is defeated. These things we have not done.

The ivory tower dwellers will talk and keep talking. But there are a few facts that explode their theories and demonstrate why America -- even after a decade of war -- is essentially powerless to affect the future of Afghanistan now, and that our power will diminish daily until we withdraw completely.

One fact is that the Taliban operate freely across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, frequently accompanied by Pakistani jihadis who fight alongside them. In towns and villages across Afghanistan, wherever U.S. troops are not at that very moment, the Taliban moves without disturbance.

Most Afghanis tolerate or sympathize with the Taliban. They suffer oppression, murder, and theft of their crops, especially partially-processed opium, which remains Afghanistan's major crop and a huge source of revenue for the Taliban. Many Afghanis may hate the Taliban but they tolerate them for two reasons.

First is that they resent -- and in some regions such as the Korengal Valley -- deeply hate non-Muslims far more. We have been offering what we thought was a good swap: democracy for Taliban oppression. But the Afghanis haven't bought what we've been selling. They don't want to swap anything for their deeply ingrained Islamist beliefs even if it means suffering murder and confiscatory taxation by fellow Islamists who they cannot themselves drive away. It is the tribal warfare Afghanis have lived with since Alexander the Great.

Another part of that is that we haven't delivered on what we've promised.

The first principle of "counterinsurgency" is to provide security to the locals to pave the way for civilian government to provide credible leadership and services. We simply can't do that in Afghanistan -- it's just too big and the population is too scattered -- and knew we couldn't from the start.

The second reason is the failure of the Karzai government.

Hamid Karzai's kleptocracy is comprised of his relatives, friends, and co-Pashtun tribalists. You really need to read Bing West's great book, The Wrong War, to see how deep and comprehensive this failure is. Karzai may pretend to rule in Kabul, but outside its environs there is no government and no prospect of one. Derivatively, the Afghan army and security forces are held together only by the presence of U..S troops and the prompt payment for everything the Afghan forces do. As West writes, we have created a perfect entitlement society in the Afghan government. No one does anything for patriotism or nationalism, they do things for money or goods or personal favors. Nationalism and patriotism are unknown concepts. Islam dominates all thought and action.

Resting atop all of this is Pakistan's dedicated alliance with the Taliban which we are unable to disrupt or even interfere with.

Given these stubborn facts, to say that we are going to ensure Afghanistan is democratic, that it won't again be ruled by the Taliban and be a hatching-ground for terror, that it will be stable in any other sense or that we can build some "firewall" around it to keep its evils inside, is, plainly, fraudulent. Afghanistan will, soon, be again what it was before 9/11, or worse. And there isn't a bloody thing we can do to prevent that from happening.

I CANNOT LET PASS last week's event in which U.S. Marines in Afghanistan were ordered to disarm and attend a speech by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Showing this distrust of some of our very best dishonored every man and woman who has ever worn the eagle, globe and anchor.

Why were Panetta and his minions so afraid?

Historical precedent condemns Panetta's action. In August 1588, facing the Armada and Spanish invasion, Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury to rally her troops. Some of her lords insisted that she not walk among the armed men, fearing for her safety. She knew better. In her speech, Elizabeth said:  

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

If only Elizabeth's spirit lived within some of our uniformed and civilian leaders. There is no safer place -- for any American -- than to be surrounded by armed Marines. May Heaven condemn those who dishonor them. 

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.