…and old men in suits playing with young lives
“Senator McCain should take the high ground of bringing the conflict to an end. He is misrepresenting the US objective in Afghanistan.”
Last Thursday, President Trump said he was very close to making a decision on Afghanistan. John McCain – the ranking senator and chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee – is getting restless and wants immediate deployment of more troops. Ronald Neumann, a former American Ambassador to Afghanistan, has surmised that the US is not winning because it has not done enough to build the capacity of the Afghan forces. Andrew Bacevitch, a Vietnam veteran and an authoritative voice on military history recommends early withdrawal.
From tentative poise to aggressive build-up, and from timid management to profound historical guidance for disengagement, it is open season in Washington for the new policy on Afghanistan. Let’s reflect on these divergent views.
The tentativeness of Trump administration is fully justified. The scepticism expressed by the President on the meaning and efficacy of the longest war in American history is fully justified. He did not support the war on his campaign trail. As early as in 2013, Trump had tweeted: “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.”
He was highly critical of the ‘nation building’ approach of his predecessors. Wary of expending more American lives, he even asked Secretary Mattis to hear out Bannon and Kushner on the proposal to contract out the increased troops without owning it. He would do a great good to American interests by adhering to his campaign promises on the subject of Afghanistan.
Ambassador Ronald Neumann (Washington Post), who served in Afghanistan during 2005-07, has lamented that not enough resources and efforts were expended in building Afghan Security Forces (ASF) to face off Al-Qaeda and Taliban, which, according to him, was the main aim of the American strategy.
One is at a loss to understand the views expressed by a diplomat who otherwise has spent all his life in the Foreign Service and has held significant positions in many countries of the Middle East. Cursory research is sufficient to find out how colossal the failure of the project known as capacity building of ASF is. A CBS report in January 2016 reported that as many as 40 percent of the registered personnel may be Ghost Soldiers, and the basic reason why Taliban is winning increasing amount of territory. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in an interview to Daily Signal (Heritage Foundation) in April 2017 noted that in June 2016, there were supposed to be 319,595 soldiers but an Afghan official told AP the “best internal estimate” of the real number was “120,000”. When interviewer quipped: This implies fraud, obviously, Mr Sopko replied:
“Absolutely. Major fraud. And what’s happening is the commanders or generals or other higher officials are actually pocketing the salaries of the ghosts. And I remember President [Ashraf] Ghani, again, at that time he wasn’t president, saying, “John, you, the United States government, are paying the salary of an Afghan who’s a teacher, he’s a civil servant, he’s a doctor, he is a policeman, and he’s a soldier. And it’s the same Afghan. And he doesn’t exist.””
When it comes to morale and the will-to-fight, there is equally damning evidence that ASF are no match to the spirited and highly motivated Taliban. They often sale their arms to Taliban and pay protection money to avoid combat. Accordingly, the very question of building capacity and numbers of ASF is meaningless.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (Washington Post) have advocated a very aggressive approach and warned that a bill may be introduced in the Senate that would make the troop increase mandatory. Perturbed on ‘stalemate’ he relies on the assessment of the US commander in Afghanistan John Nicholson (who was nearly fired by Trump a weeks ago) to argue that ‘not losing’ strategy should be abandoned. He uses SIGAR report to underline the loss of territory to Taliban but has overlooks numerous failures in the US reconstruction efforts, particularly in building the capacity of ASF. He claims the US objective remains the same as in 2001 i.e. to prevent terrorists from using Afghan territory to attack our homeland. The article closes with the following advice:
“The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years. Weary as some Americans may be of this long conflict, it is imperative that we see our mission through to success. We have seen what happens when we fail to be vigilant. The threats we face are real. And the stakes are high — not just for the lives of the Afghan people and the stability of the region, but for America’s national security.”
It seems, Senator McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, has not learned any lessons from Vietnam. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he continues to believe that the world’s biggest military power would win in Afghanistan, if adequate resources are provided. He would do well for America if listens to another Vietnam war veteran and the most renowned military historian, Andrew Bacevitch, who has titled his recent article (Washington Post) “Yes Congress, Afghanistan is Your Vietnam”. Like Senator McCain, his father and grandfather did not serve in the US Armed Forces but he has no less a distinction of sacrificing his only son in Iraq.
For Bacevitch, the parallel with Vietnam is stark. The first Congressional resolution for war, as required under the Constitution, was sought in August 1964 after a misrepresentation of the Tonkin Bay episode where a US destroyer Maddox came under attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Bacevitch has reflected on Senate Foreign Relation Committee (yes, it was the leading committee on the subject then, and not the Armed Forces Committee) headed by J. William Fulbright as it quizzed Secretary of State Dean Rusk, whose only defence was Tonkin Bay Resolution. While Senator Fulbright pushed back any suggestion for ownership of war, Senator Lausche had more profound observation to make:
“For three years we have been arguing it, arguing for what purpose? Has it been to repeal the Tonkin Bay resolution? Has it been to establish justification for pulling out? In the three years, how many times has the Secretary appeared before us? Those hearings, those debates, in my opinion, have fully explored all of the aspects that you are speaking about without dealing with any particular issue. Now, this is rather rash, I suppose: If our presence in Vietnam is wrong, [if] it is believed we should pull out, should not one of us present a resolution to the Senate[?] …. [Then] we would have a specific issue. We would not just be sprawled all over the field, as we have been in the last three years.”
Bacevitch then contrasts the situation in Afghanistan:
Of course, the Afghanistan War (ostensibly part of a Global War on Terrorism) differs from the Vietnam War (ostensibly part of the Cold War) in myriad ways. Yet it resembles Vietnam in three crucial respects. First, it drags on with no end in sight. Second, no evidence exists to suggest that mere persistence will produce a positive outcome. Third, those charged with managing the war have long since run out of ideas about how to turn things around.
Senator McCain should take the high ground of bringing the conflict to an end. He is misrepresenting the US objective in Afghanistan. The aim in 2001 to expel Al-Qaeda. Taliban had not attacked the US, harboured no enmity with the US and neither do they have any international agenda. Numerous high-ranking officials in various administrations have remarked that Taliban are not terrorists nor do they represent any threat to the US. When the momentous surge (140,000) of Obama days has failed to achieve a victory, what is the basis of Senator’s continued belief that few thousands more troops would make any difference in the final outcome. More disturbingly, forcing the administration to raise the troops level is akin to taking the direct responsibility of fighting a war, which is not the job of the legislative branch under the US Constitution and should be avoided by giving the President due space to make the right decision.