Locals cross a river after a bridge was destroyed in the Pakistani tribal area of Khyber. The bridge served as a major supply route for US troops in Afghanistan. (Photo: Mohammad Sajjad / AP)
"Our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But, he offered something less than a rousing defense of the new Afghan plan that he and Gen. David Petraeus will formally give President Obama. As one pundit put it, Gates's call to arms sounded more like "pre-emptive CYA."
Gates and Petraeus, chief of Central Command, want to commit as many as 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan by summer. But Gates was "deeply skeptical" about sending any more than that in the future, setting a ceiling that could later come back to haunt him.
Gates said he favored "modest" and "realistic" objectives, notably preventing the Taliban from ruling the country and providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda. He pointedly rejected any major nation-building, democratization efforts, or economic and social development. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money," he declared.
He also talked of the need to put "an Afghan face on this war" by training as many as 50,000 more soldiers for the Afghan National Army, bringing the total to 130,000. Without a strong local force out in front, Gates worried that the "Afghans [will] come to see us as the problem, not the solution, and then we are lost." We would, he said, "go the way of every other foreign army that's ever been in Afghanistan."
All this from the man George W. Bush appointed to run the Pentagon. How far we've come from the unrestrained fantasies of the neocons, or the neo-liberal call from candidate Obama to bring all elements of American power, soft and hard, to bear on Afghanistan. If, as many observers believe, no plan will produce an American victory in "the graveyard of empires," the less treasure and fewer troops Washington commits, the easier we will find it to walk away when good sense finally prevails.
Why will the new plan fail? Let me count the ways.
1. How long? Gates says it will be "a long slog," while Petraeus repeats what he said in 2005, that "Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the so-called 'long war.'" In other words, our top military minds have no idea how long the war might take. They are clueless and the war they propose will be endless. How long will the American public accept that, especially at a time when the billions of dollars a month could better be spent at home?
2. How many? The number - 30,000 more troops "for the next few years" - came from Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. At best, his proposal seems a bad compromise between the number of troops the Pentagon has available and the number of troops that might be needed.
Afghanistan has a land area 50% larger than Iraq and a slightly larger population of 30 million. According to counter-insurgency strategists, success requires some 20 counter-insurgents for every 1,000 people, which would be 600,000 troops. Cut that to 400,000 if you're feeling lucky. With the new total of 62,000 US troops and the hoped-for 130,000 Afghan soldiers, NATO and other allies would have to provide over 200,000 troops to fill the gap. No way, not even close, no matter how charming Barack Obama might be.
3. Exit strategy? Gates, Petraeus, and Obama all say that there will have to be "regional negotiations" with India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China and "a political settlement" among the Afghans themselves. But, as yet, no one has suggested any convincing diplomatic and political outcome that would let the troops come home. In other words, we have no exit strategy.
4. Afghan allies? No doubt, General Petraeus and his subordinates can buy the temporary support of tribal chiefs and their militias, as they did with the Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq. Petraeus can similarly win over various Taliban chiefs for various periods of time. But, in Afghanistan, dividing is not conquering. Just the opposite. It will force US and allied troops to remain in the country paying off their clients, while destroying any chance of building a strong national authority or rooting out the endemic corruption that plagues the country.
5. Hamid Karzai? Hand-picked by the CIA, Kharzai has never been more than "the mayor of Kabul," and his associates are highly corrupt, including his half-brother who has been accused of smuggling drugs in Kandahar. Many on Team Obama talk of withdrawing support from Karzai in Afghanistan's "democratic elections" this year, while a few pundits are recalling what the Kennedy administration did to our man Diem in Saigon.
I could go on, but it all boils down to the one lesson of Vietnam that Robert Gates and his Pentagon brass do not want to accept - that Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis and other people in Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer accept the United States and Europe occupying and running their countries. Counter-insurgency can prolong the pain, but it will never overcome the anti-colonial dynamic, as the British Empire, the French Empire and others all learned before us.