It's Time for a New Policy Face in Afghanistan

Here’s a modest proposal for President Obama and our policy wizards to consider:

General Petraeus has provided laudable service to his great nation by pulling counter-insurgency theory from the wreckage of Vietnam and giving it CPR; and after his predecessor self-immolated in Rolling Stone, he stepped in and assumed command of US forces in Afghanistan.

But, now, as a New York Times military analysis makes very clear, the mission in Afghanistan has moved on into new territory. Also, according to an independent think tank known as PHOOA, it is time to replace the good General Petraeus with a new commander more appropriate to the reality of the mission.

The new candidate is Bozo The Clown. PHOOA (pronounced P-Hoooah!) is an acronym for Pull Head Out Of Ass. It’s time to put someone in charge who perfectly symbolizes the reality of current US war policy in Afghanistan, which is simply in-your-face absurdity.

Bozo over Af-PakBozo over Af-Pak

Reading the latest news from Afghanistan – especially as we approach the annual commander’s briefing to Congress – is reminiscent of that famous Monty Python routine where the Black Knight’s arms and legs are cut off, yet he insists, “It’s just a flesh wound. C’mon, you pansy!”

Sure, we could bomb them “into the stone age,” and we could muster the resources to keep troops there forever. And our troops are as tough and as brave as any on the planet. But every sign indicates it is our vast national wealth and far superior firepower that allows us to stay while the logic of our occupation runs out of gas. As in late Vietnam, saving face is now our most important mission.

We insist on remaining committed to an enterprise dependent on vast and unaccountable amounts of US tax resources, involving notorious levels of US and Afghan corruption, countless outright lies and delusions, the usual degree of high-powered incompetence, and finally, the resultant destruction and killing.

The reason a policy becomes absurd is that it is formulated at the top from ten thousand miles away based on reasoning and political motivations far removed from the battlefield. Absurdity is defined as: “The state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable.”

But don’t take it from me. According to the Times analysis, high-ranking, deployed officers are finding it an absurd mission. Consider the colonel who had the bravery to speak to a New York Times reporter – at the colonel’s insistence, anonymously.

“You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics. We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn’t working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?”

This officer characterized the gap between our soldiers’ day-to-day, on-the-ground reality and the strategic decisions and demands coming from Washington and Central Command as “the great disconnect.” This, of course, is exactly the disconnect that characterized the endgame in Vietnam, a disconnect created by the fact the war made no sense and was ultimately untenable. Tragically absurd.

As General Petraeus plans for his annual appearance before Congress next week, he is telegraphing to reporters like New York TimesCarlotta Gall that the war is going well. At the same time, he’s busy apologizing for the pilots of Apache gunships whose lethal flying machines ran down nine terrified little kids and turned them into smoking, blackened mush.

President Hamid Karzai was so incensed by this event, for the first time, he refused to accept Petraeus’ apology, though it was just as earnest as the dozens of other apologies he or his predecessors have made for the same thing. When the nine kids were rat-a-tat-tatted into ground meat, the Afghans were still getting over the 65 civilians we were so sorry for gunning down in February.

A pattern has developed in how the US responds to these incidents.

The initial, reflexive response right out of the gate is to muddy up the waters. Well-trained flaks always stress that the facts are not clear, implying the incident isn’t as bad as the Afghans say it is. Usually, it is claimed that our pilots or soldiers are confident they were shooting at legally killable enemy insurgents. Yes, there may have been some “collateral damage,” and the US forces are always terribly sorry about that. An investigation is announced to get to the bottom of the confusion created by the incident. There is an unstated insinuation that the Afghans are backward, conniving people driven by some anti-western motivation.

In the end, after weeks of PR minimizing the agonizing deaths, somewhere on page 14 of The Times there will be a story saying the investigation has confirmed X number of civilians were tragically and accidentally killed and that the United States — at this point, it’s usually the ISAF or International Security Assistance Force — will pay restitution and renew its efforts to kill fewer civilians in the future.

Sometimes, the US suggests that Afghan civilians are intentionally injuring their own children to claim reimbursement from the US forces. According to a report by an anonymous attendee at a meeting between General Petraeus and President Karzai on February 20, Petraeus suggested the Afghans had either invented stories of injuries or, more sinisterly, they had actually burned their kids.

Rear Admiral Greg Smith, an ISAF flak, went farther. He first conceded the military had “initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned.” Then, he added this: “We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be.”

There is an incredible amount of fudging, speculation and innuendo in all that. I certainly don’t know enough, in this case, to say Admiral Smith is “lying.” But I’ve been in the military in Vietnam and I’ve worked in a PR office, and I know damn well he’s not telling the truth. Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt made famous a term for what Admiral Smith is up to: Bullshitting.

It’s understandable why Karzai would not accept Petraeus’ latest apology. Both men are politicians with critical constituencies, and even they know the situation is getting more and more absurd.

Their responses must play to their respective constituencies. Petraeus and his deep backfield of flakkery are playing not to Afghans, but to the US public and the US Congress — in order to keep the tax money coming and the war going. He naturally wants to deflect and minimize the image of our forces gunning down civilians. Meanwhile, Karzai, as the President of Afghanistan, has to stand up for his constituents, people who identify with the gunned down civilians.

In what may be the most bizarre civilian killing yet, on March 9 a US special operations night raid killed one of President Karzai’s cousins. There are many questions at this juncture, one being whether the raid was a Karzai clan vendetta with the US special operations team used as the weapon. No doubt, we’ll hear more in the future from flaks like Admiral Smith.

So once again General Petraeus is coming to Congress to sell the war in Afghanistan through 2014. The promise made to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year has gone the way of the other promises not to continue the Bush tax cuts and to close Guantanamo.

Why anyone might expect the next three years to produce anything other than more dehumanization and bloodshed is why the war has become an absurd expression of brute power and nothing more.

It’s time to bring in Bozo The Clown.