Hedging, Delusion and Dishonesty in Afghanistan

“The Americans have not been honest about this, even among themselves.”

That’s how Mullah Attullah Lodin, deputy chairman of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, sees our nation and its government as it relates to the question of permanent bases in Afghanistan and to his specific portfolio, the establishment of peace in Afghanistan.

Lodin is a former Hizb-e Islami militia commander (they fought the Russians), and he’s now in the Karzai government. Some might suggest he has an agenda, which generally means not being in synch with US policy. Americans don’t have “agendas.” The presumption is Afghans are backward and corrupt and somehow not as worthy of trust as a westerner or an American. And Lodin’s all for talking peace with the Taliban, which makes him radioactive.

Under the reigning myth of American Exceptionalism, whatever Americans do is right and good because they are Americans and — more important — because they have the most lethal weapons on the planet, up to and including the R&D marvel of the Afghanistan War, lethal drone technology.

As the rock anthem says: We are the champions!

Mullah Attullah Lodin, Kabul and the Mad HatterMullah Attullah Lodin, Kabul and the Mad Hatter

Only in America can a man in a flight suit in an air-conditioned room monitor TV screens following unaware people going about their business 10,000 miles away and, on orders from some other air-conditioned room, while sipping a Diet Pepsi turn those distant human beings into exploded pieces of steaming offal and flesh. This man, then, gets in his car and drives home to dinner with his wife and kids.

So far, we have not heard what it’s like in the realm of Post Traumatic Stress to do this kind of lethal, remote “combat” day-in-day-out. At what point does a drone pilot burn out or crack up? Is there a rest and relaxation spa and special counselors for drone pilots who begin to ask moral questions?

Drones are clearly the future of American warfare. As one NPR commentator put it recently, drone warfare in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan is the largest unreported story in America.

Recently I had a discussion about journalistic coverage of drone pilots with an Iraq veteran turned reporter who had been in Special Ops. For him, the reason reporters are refused access to drone pilots was a matter of security, while for me it was an issue of the military avoiding moral embarrassment. The secret technology isn’t what’s most interesting; it’s the mental human condition of these men (and presumably women) as they ponder the moral implications of their sanitized and remote brand of warfare.

Though removed from the fray, drone pilots are still part of the tactical aspects of war. Like their physically vulnerable brothers and sisters on the ground in Afghanistan, they are just doing their jobs. US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan are seen by insurgents only as “foreign” troops they want out of their country. They are, thus, trying to kill them. And nothing focuses the mind like someone trying to kill you.

When Mullah Attullah Lodin talks about American dishonesty, he’s talking on the level of strategic policy making. And, in this ethereal realm, he could not be more correct. The dishonesty operates at such a profound and widely accepted level it’s become a national tragedy. The double-speak employed by US leaders concerning our future presence in Afghanistan is like passing through the looking glass to a land of giant toadstools and mad hatters.

As the great reporter Rod Nordland points out in The New York Times, it’s now being called “Great Game 3.0,” following the Russian and English Great Games of the past. Before that you could include Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Like them, we are in Afghanistan because it’s central in SW Asia and we insist on projecting our imperial power into the region.

As the US builds what appears to pretty much everybody as permanent bases, Stepan Anikeev, a political adviser in the Russian embassy in Kabul, asks the obvious question: “How is transition possible with these bases? … We have no guarantee they’re not permanent.”

“One [American] says we are not building bases, another says we are building them, and it’s very confusing.” That’s Mr. Lodin, again, from the Afghan High Peace Council.

The issue is a document called the Strategic Partnership Declaration for US-Afghan relations after 2014, the date the US declared it will remove its forces from Afghanistan, a date that replaced the original date, which was the end of this year. So, now — if I have this correct — US forces are negotiating how long to stay beyond 2014, the date they say they are going to leave.

For some reason, these negotiations have informally gotten the name “The Permanent Bases Agreement.”

So watch the pea the man puts under the thimble. Keep your eye on it as he whips it this way, then that way, slips his hand to another thimble and, swoop and circle, now waving his hand around, circling again and again. Which hand is it? Is it there? Wait! Is it that one? No. Maybe it’s under this one! Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!

No one is better at this policy game than Secretary Of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has told everyone that any presence after 2014 will not mean “permanent bases.” Of course, she seems to concede, there will be huge bases and US troops still in Afghanistan indefinitely, but they won’t, she insists, be “permanent.” It’s kind of like her husband’s famous statement: “It all depends on what the meaning of is is.”

For Ms Clinton, the bases are a “long-term framework for our bilateral cooperation.” She goes on further: “In no way should our enduring commitment be misunderstood as a desire by America or our allies to occupy Afghanistan against the will of its people.”

I get it: We’re not interested in “permanent” bases; we’re setting up “enduring” bases.

No reason for confusion there.

As anyone who has followed the war in Afghanistan knows, since 2001 we have created a government there and are determined to train up both military and police systems to replace our troops when they finally leave those enduring bases. Some experts estimate these Afghan military and police systems will cost $10 billion a year to maintain. According to Nordland, Afghanistan only raises $1 billion a year in revenue.

These military and police systems are needed, we are told, to “secure” Afghanistan from a Taliban takeover. But then there’s the issue of loyalty. As has become clear, US training does not assure loyalty of trained troops to US policy – even if the forces might be the most well-trained on the planet. We have a long experience of training troops that eventually turn on us. This further makes our leaders reluctant to pull out.

The Taliban, on their part, say they refuse to sit down and negotiate for peace until the United States removes all its “foreign” forces from Afghanistan. Through much of recorded history, the rugged Afghans have been famous for fighting to run foreign forces out of their country. It is historically well-trod territory. And they don’t give up. Mr. Lodin is one of those tough Afghans. He knows.

But for US leaders, really leaving has become impossible no matter what the polls say and how much sense it makes for the nation’s current and growing domestic economics. The US hedges its international war policy bets in so many ways, persists on operating under blatant delusion and employs such laughable dishonesty that US imperial power in the world has become like the weather, something everyone just has to accept and work around.

Not being in Afghanistan has become unimaginable.