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If 2015, Why Not Now?

Posted by on November 21st, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The editors of the UK's Independent newspaper are making a lot of sense:

Nato's new policy of disengagement is neither as clear nor as quick as it should be, but it is a welcome recognition that the end state in Afghanistan is never going to be perfect and that an open-ended commitment creates as many problems as it solves. The confusion continued in Lisbon, where Nato leaders managed to contradict each other while insisting that they were completely united. British officials briefed journalists that there would be no combat operations after 2014. American officials described the date as "an aspirational timeline". Nato officials said: "This isn't a calendar-based process." Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato Secretary General, promised that international forces would stay "as long as it takes". Perhaps he meant that Nato forces would stay in a support role for as long as it takes? No; he went on to say of the handover of combat duties to the Afghan army: "We will not transition until our Afghan partners are ready."

This has been the problem throughout the Obama recalibration: that the political imperative to show a "light at the end of the tunnel" to domestic opinion, in the US and the UK, conflicts with the military need to show resolve to see the job through. Matt Cavanagh, an adviser to Gordon Brown, makes the point in an article in next month's Prospect that "the messages had gone to the wrong audiences – the insurgency saw the light at the end of the tunnel, while to the public at home Afghanistan still felt like a war without end". That difficulty is inherent in any process of planned withdrawal. The best answer to it is to make the pull-out quick, which is what The Independent on Sunday advocated last year. Twelve months ago, we suggested setting a date 12 months ahead. Nothing has happened in that year to persuade us that we were mistaken.

…Military timetables are largely irrelevant or counter-productive to the achievement of a level of tolerable stability and the containment of any future threat from al-Qa'ida. The search for a political settlement in Afghanistan is what matters, and it must be intensified urgently.

Everyone admits this is true. McChrystal, Petraeus, Mullen, Gates, Obama, Karzai, the list of those who have said there will be no military resolution in Afghanistan goes on and on. Even Mullah Omar admits it, although he says any non-military resolution of this "meaningless, imposed and unwinnable war" cannot proceed until all foreign troops leave. Yet we're still largely talking about military "solutions", talking about "reversing the insurgency's momentum" and "driving it to the negotiating table" sometime in the next five years - after eight years of such talk already.

As Matt Yglesias writes, the real reason the West is still in Afghanistan after all these years "is that to much too great extent it’s really a problem about internal conflicts" in the West's corridors of power. And by West, we really mean the U.S. The rest follow, out of economic or diplomatic necessity.

The current predominant faction within the US military wants "something called a 'win' achieved through something called 'counterinsurgency'" and is quite willing to spin the facts to say that the only reason that hasn't been achieved yet is because there hasn't been a real COIN doctrine put in place yet. Indeed, COIN's greatest proponents think they have the moral authority to define COIN dogma as they go along. But it's all really just a mystery religion based upon ignoring ignore a key factor – human nature. The reason "real" COIN has never been tried to date and never will be is that whether we talk about "enemy centric" COIN or "population centric" COIN, the actual truth on the ground is that it is all and always "force protection" COIN.

While the COIN faction spins, leaks and bullies to promulgate its cult, it would be relatively powerless without a concommitant cult of American exceptionalism, based entirely upon use of the military, in the corridors of civilian power. To them, COIN is just a new variety of "Can we invade it? Yes we can!" One that lets them reach for the same military hammer for every nail while assuring themselves that it is a "kinder, gentler, war" and that nation-building at gunpoint is in any way possible.

Yet even as the evidence accumulates that such COIN nation-building is either outright impossible or impossible in practical terms for the U.S. in its current financial straits, those in the corridor of power continue to "stay the course". They follow what Andrew Bacevich calls the "Washington Rules".

Bacevich describes two components that define U.S. foreign policy. The first is what he dubs the “American credo,” which calls on “the United States — and the United States alone — to lead save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” Second is what he calls the “sacred trinity,” which requires that the United States “maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projections, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.”

These rules, Bacevich argues, are no longer vital to the existence of the United States, and have led to actions that threaten to break the army and bankrupt the treasury. Rather, they are kept in place by individuals who derive personal benefit from their continuance. Bacevich does not hesitate to blame a Washington class that “clings to its credo and trinity not out of necessity, but out of parochial self-interest laced with inertia.”

Be they politicians or pundits, think-tankers or journalists, the "serious people" inside the Beltway cannot accept any variation on the word "defeat". The loss of worldview, of prestige and personal pride – and most importantly for many the loss of votes from the American people they've been selling the Washington Rules to for too many years – make that a non-starter. And so we're treated to a non-sensical policy of escalation and prolongment that might be subtitled "desperately seeking every which way but lose" which even so ends up as an intensely negative result. Still, as long as it can be labelled a draw or a win, that's ok by them.

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