Saving Face in Afghanistan

In the documentary film “The Most Dangerous Man In America,” Daniel Ellsberg tells about a fellow Rand Corporation war planner circa 1968 who described the US commitment to the war in Vietnam this way:

“We are 10 percent concerned about the Vietnamese; we are 20 percent concerned about the Chinese; and we are 70 percent concerned about saving face.”

The United States has now clearly arrived at the same insidious predicament in Afghanistan.

US soldier overlooking the land we have decided to tameUS soldier overlooking the land we have decided to tame

Sure, we are concerned about al Qaeda and other violent elements hostile to the United States. The threat from al Qaeda is real – as is the fact that a history of foreign, and especially US, intervention in Muslim lands is at the root of this hostility. This backstory, of course, is embargoed from mainstream American minds — as our military policies rely on yet more intervention in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Last week an Americanized Pakistani who had lost his job as a financial analyst and whose $285,000 home had been foreclosed failed in a bumbling attempt to bomb Times Square. Already, demagogues like Senator Joe Lieberman are working the incident as a means of emasculating the Constitution, calling among other things for revocation of the man’s US citizenship.

Former CIA operative Bob Baer told MSNBC that Americans should not be surprised at attacks like this, given the killing of dozens of Pakistanis by remotely piloted drones each week in the Pashtun areas of northwest Pakistan. Former CIA European station chief Tyler Drumheller added this: “We cannot think that we’re going to attack them and they won’t attack us.”

Sure, the nations of the Middle East and South Asia have problems, and many people there are hostile to the US and its ally Israel. Sure, the Taliban are far from free-market westerners. But none of this justifies a military occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban, at least up to this Time Square incident, have never attacked us and had shown no interest in doing so; and al Qaeda has reportedly moved on from Afghanistan.

Besides having no impact on the effort to defeat al Qaeda, supporting 100,000 very expensive US troops and a massive military infrastructure in Afghanistan is actually playing into al Qaeda’s hands, since the tremendous cost of supporting this military bootprint in such an inaccessible, rugged place furthers Osama bin Laden’s clearly expressed desire to drive the US to bankruptcy.

We can quibble about the percentages, but it’s clear the US government and the US military are, again, in the costly face-saving business. The face they are saving has to do with US military prestige and the policy, at a time of great domestic economic stress and need at home, of escalating war in Afghanistan and Pakistan instead of doing everything possible to ratchet hostilities down and pull the troops out.


Forget the PR. The decision to escalate has to do with the fact that the war is not going well and the hope that if they just keep it going long enough, a combination of our immense power and determination will somehow wear the insurgency down and disprove the old notion of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires.”

Meanwhile, it is difficult for critics to get at the truth about Afghanistan thanks to the incredible secrecy of our military operations and our wars. This is one side of a two-sided monster. The other side is the military’s powerful public relations capacity. There’s the secret world of managing the wars, and there’s the PR world of explaining them to the tax-paying public. And never the twain shall meet.

Back in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg blew the lid off this monster when he xeroxed and released the so-called Pentagon Papers. Unfortunately, what the government and the military learned was not to let such a thing happen again. The Obama administration is currently going after one New York Times reporter, James Risen, in court and is working in other areas to plug other leaks.

George W. Bush didn’t set the precedent that the United States doesn’t admit to making mistakes or apologize for its actions. What he did was puff up this long-standing reluctance to speak truth with a chest-thumping arrogance. The degree of secrecy and the extent of “war off the books” that we live with today makes the Iran-Contra Scandal seem quaint.

To begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan now would mean President Barack Obama would have to publicly acknowledge truths he seems unable or unwilling to recognize. So he saves face by making Afghanistan his war and by adopting all the arguments for war that have been discredited over and over again. And he escalates the morally questionable drone war.


One of the greatest hurdles to ending the war in Afghanistan is four-star General David Petraeus, who according to a recent Vanity Fair sanctification by Mark Bowden, is called by some “King David.” Petraeus’ backstory even includes the basic Catholic requirement for sainthood – a miracle story about the general visiting a wounded soldier in a coma and, at his bedside, hollering the unit slogan, whereupon the man woke and sat up in bed. The soldier now has two prosthetic legs and has reportedly been seen jogging with Petraeus.

A brilliant, highly competitive man who likes to “project an illusion of omnipresence,” Petraeus has taken Democratic Washington by storm. Bowden’s piece is titled “The Professor Of War,” a reference to his PhD and his re-writing of the Army counter insurgency manual, an academic prescription now in full throttle operational mode in Afghanistan.

In theory, Petraeus’ COIN approach is simple and logical, revolving around the notion that counter insurgency war is political war. Politics is as important, or more important, than killing and destroying things. All aspects of “nation-building” are subsumed under the COIN umbrella: electoral politics, finance, development, education, information, myth — basically everything and anything that the local target population is involved in. In this case, the population is the Pashtun people who straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border established in 1893 by the British to divide-and-conquer the Pashtuns. The Taliban are virtually all Pashtuns.

The Petraeus counter insurgency formula is a kind of a good-cop, bad-cop approach to guiding and co-opting a population. The challenge is that it takes time and lots of money. The bad-cop comes in when all the good-cop’s efforts – roads and bridges, jobs, bribery, etc – don’t do the trick. The key term of art, here, is reconciliation. If you are an insurgent, you have the choice of putting down your weapon and reconciling with, in the case of Afghanistan, the central government and the United States Military – or you have the choice of becoming an “irreconcilable.”

If you choose the latter, you become subject to capture and death. Here is where General Stanley McChrystal’s specialty comes in: the special operations hunter/killer teams used to ferret out irreconcilables and neutralize them. The “secret weapon” of the program, which McChrystal oversaw in the Surge in Iraq: death squads. A growing drone program in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan is also used to eliminate irreconcilables. The mix also includes standard infantry units and highly lethal air support.


In academic theory, and morality aside, it all sounds good, but on the ground in real time, well, shit happens. Lately, the program has not been going as planned. In fact, the Pentagon’s congressionally mandated six month report on Afghanistan was just released and, behind the usual boilerplate assertions of “some improvements” and “increased optimism,” the overall view was pretty dismal.

“Insurgent activity in the past six months has spread to several other areas where it had not previously been a major factor,” according to a story on the report in the New York Times. The Afghan government, its military and, especially, the national police force continue to have no credibility and are feared outside of Kabul. The US is banking on training the military and police to change all this.

The list of problems begins with Hamid Karzai, the recalcitrant US puppet president who regularly criticizes the US for incidents of civilian casualties. In one recent example, jittery US troops assaulted a clearly marked civilian bus on a highway near Kandahar, resulting in five dead and 18 wounded. Karzai called the incident “unjustifiable.”

Civilian killings have more than doubled over last year. They are now a fairly regular occurrence and are usually immediately followed by a US denial of wrong-doing along with claims that the victims were insurgents; then some days later the whole affair is minimized and the military’s great concern to avoid civilian casualties is cited; then, finally, there is a concession and an apology and a payment to the victims’ families. The ending of the story is generally not publicized and often doesn’t even make it into the US media.

The Obama team has been critical of Karzai for corruption. But Karzai has consistently responded to this by snarling and snapping. He told a roomful of Afghan legislators, “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”

Unwilling to go the Vietnam route, where the puppet President Ngo Din Diem was simply killed in a CIA-led coup, the US is treating Karzai with kid gloves. It has dropped the talk of corruption, a charge mitigated by former Obama campaign adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who, when asked by Rachel Maddow about Afghan corruption, responded: “Yeah, Rachel. But what about the corruption in Washington?”

Karzai has also consistently called for negotiations with the Taliban, an approach the US has been studiously avoiding. In a recent New York Review Of Books article, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband outlined a way out of Afghanistan that entailed exactly this approach, with understandings to be reached with the surrounding powers, including Iran.


Employing the unique Petraeus tactic of broadcasting assaults well in advance, a major US military attack on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar planned for June is now creating havoc in Afghanistan’s second -largest city, as Special Ops teams kill off insurgent leaders and Taliban fighters attack US friends and allies.

The smaller, much-touted assault on Marja in March was marred by out-of-the-gate civilian casualty incidents and less than encouraging follow-up accounts. In one Times report, a brigadier general expressed the military’s frustration this way: “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”

This is the fundamental problem with counter-insurgency warfare and is the reason William Polk in “Violent Politics,” a fine little book on the history of counter insurgency, says all counter insurgency wars tend to devolve into indiscriminate killing.

Petraeus’ new, improved COIN doctrine hopes to prove Polk wrong by replacing the indiscriminate killing that results from tactics like carpet bombing with a theoretical strategy that uses humility, a capacity for listening and a basic concern for the protection of the lives of the local population.

In this sense, the Petraeus view of counter insurgency war is not all bad. Its recognition of local citizen concerns and the importance of the political over the military would be wonderful. The problem is that it doesn’t eliminate the military from the equation. Instead, it uses the military’s amazing lethality like a gun to a citizen’s head. And it shoots enough “irreconcilable” citizens to make its point very clear.

Time and many hundreds of billions of US tax dollars will tell if Saint Petraeus can pull off this expensive gamble in Afghanistan. So far, he has been able to get all the time and the money he wants.

With a crippled job economy at home, a crumbling domestic infrastructure and a host of societal demands rumbling below the surface, though, the political question hanging in the air is whether the American people will continue to commit time, money and young lives to an escalating war in Afghanistan.