Last week, Afghanistan's upper house of Parliament recommended that the government begin peace talks with the Taliban and that foreign forces in the country cease all offensive operations. As written, the bill is unlikely to pass, but the fact that it's been proposed at all tells you how far south things have gone in what was once the "crown jewel" in our so-called war on terror.
Why would Afghanistan's Parliament bite the hand that created it? Civilian deaths, of course.
Hearts, Minds and Other Body Parts
Carlotta Gall and David E. Sanger of the New York Times report that "Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy American and allied reliance on air strikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance."
Many "collateral damage" deaths are the result of an over reliance on airpower to compensate for lack of ground troops in theater. As one senior NATO official said, “Without air, we’d need hundreds of thousands of troops.”
Is this starting to sound like another war we happen to be fighting right now? It should. And so should this. According to Gall and Sanger, American officials also "contend that the key to reducing casualties is training more Afghan soldiers and police officers."
Like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai attempted to institute an amnesty program to contain the threats to his government. In Karzai's case, the program targeted the Taliban, and showed some signs of success until Afghanistan's ballooning drug trade helped the Taliban ranks to swell.
In Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces, supposedly working together, actually operate under separate chains of command. In Afghanistan, NATO is supposedly in charge, but U.S. special forces and counterterrorism units operate separately from the NATO command, and U.S. and NATO commanders have never fully agreed on a strategy for fighting the war. This too is reminiscent of the situation in Iraq, where the coalition strategy has changed as often as the reasons we supposedly invaded the country in the first place.
As in Iraq, we're looking for military fixes to problems in Afghanistan that require political solutions. We're seen as occupiers in both countries, we can't control the borders of either country and the overwhelming sentiment in both countries is that the sooner we leave, the better. After years of nation building (four in Iraq, five in Afghanistan), nobody seriously considers either country to have a "sovereign" government. Victory is not in sight in either country; there's not even a recognizable concept of what "victory" might be.
How did the country that saved humanity in two world wars and a global cold war put itself in such a mess?
Strategies and Tragedies
The "terrorists"--whoever exactly they are--do not have a navy or an air force, or anything that by modern standards resembles a proper army. Potential state adversaries who do have formal military forces (Iran, for instance) wouldn't stand a chance against us in a no-holds-barred conventional war. The U.S. now spends as much or more on defense as rest of the world combined, yet our military might does not effectively defend our shores (9/11) or achieve our national aims overseas (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.).
A popular adage says that America consistently plans to fight the last war. It's more accurate to say that America consistently plans to fight the last world war. Thanks largely to what Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the "unwarranted influence" of the military industrial complex, America spent over a half century developing an armed force designed to fight a high tech analogue of World War II. Arguably, building and maintaining such a force deterred such a war from breaking out. Unfortunately, in the process of suppressing another full-scale global conflict, our force became woefully inadequate to fight and win the sorts of wars we presently find ourselves engaged in.
Force structure, however, isn't the primary problem. After all, even though Afghanistan and Iraq wound up seeming quite similar, they were initially two very different kinds of wars. Afghanistan was a war fought against mostly guerilla style forces, Iraq began as a conventional war against an organized army. Moreover, both campaigns were initially quite successful. That they both deteriorated into cat stampedes reflects a lack of imagination and poor understanding of the basic tenets of warfare on the part of U.S. military leadership. Entirely too many officers today are so fascinated with tactics and technology that they do not understand the connection between success in combat and achieving a war's political aims.
More importantly, however, U.S. political leaders need to learn that warfare is losing its efficacy as a tool of national power. When you've already beaten everybody up once, and you've become as strong as everybody else combined, what's the use of beating everybody up again? Yes, it's always good to have a "big stick" to back your diplomatic, economic and other "soft" power measures, but you can't just rub a cheese grater across somebody's face every time you don't get your way.
That's not behaving like a sole superpower. It's acting like one of the Three Stooges.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.