Obama’s good war goes bad

By Bernd Debusmann
November 5, 2009

Bernd DebusmannIn the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the most concise analysis so far has come from America’s top soldier: “If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance (there), then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking two days after Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, by default, in August elections so massively rigged that a U.N.-backed electoral complaints committee threw out about a million Karzai votes. That forced a run-off from which his challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, saying the second round would be just as fraudulent as the first.

So much for an exercise in democracy President Barack Obama had used as his rationale for escalating the war a few months after he took office. “I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important.”

It was. It showed that the United States and its NATO allies are fighting on the side of a corrupt and discredited government in a war, now in its ninth year, for which, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, there can be no purely military solution.

An angry assessment of the Afghan leader last year by Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, has proved prophetic. Karzai, he said, had been playing the Americans like a fiddle ever since he came to power. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”

U.S. officials, including Admiral Mullen, are now calling on Karzai to purge Afghanistan of corrupt officials by arresting and prosecuting them. This is an unlikely prospect. In his victory speech, Karzai said he would work to wipe off “the stain of corruption” but said that could not be done simply by removing corrupt officials.

The implicit notice that there would be no major house-cleaning followed a telephone call Obama made to Karzai to say it was time for “a new chapter based on improved governance (and) a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption…” If previous promises from Karzai are any guide, the new chapter will remain unwritten.


Obama is close to making a decision on a request by General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan for as many as 40,000 additional troops. If the president followed the logic of Admiral Mullen’s analysis, he would send none. But he will, because he is boxed in by his own portrayal of Afghanistan as the “good war” (as opposed to the war in Iraq) and his definition of why the U.S. must be in Afghanistan.

“This is not a war of choice,” he said in a speech in August. “This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

One of the most passionate arguments against this reasoning has come from Matthew Hoh, the first State Department official to resign in protest over the war. Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain, said in his letter of resignation that if the U.S. strategy really was to prevent al-Qaeda from regrouping in Afghanistan, then America should also invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – all countries with an al-Qaeda presence.

“Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. To…follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”

Instead, he wrote, the U.S. was following the example of the Soviet Union, a previous and unsuccessful occupier, by bolstering a failing state.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Afghanistan is simply a smaller version of Egypt. Only with Egypt we only had to buy off Mubarak with money. It took a lot of American and Afghani blood (and others) in order to buy off Afghanistan.

Rigged elections to keep puppet leaders in place, exactly what the US wants. We prefer everyone to be like the Saudi’s so we can just get around the whole democracy thing, but if we have to deal with it this is what the world will get.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

to this day i still dont understand how you can fight a pitched war against an idealogy with world war two there was atleast a defining line as germany had actually invaded other countries so there was a finite goal intelligence and defense of our actual state and national borders would seem to protect more……..by our logic of fighting terrorism the only clear way to win is to kill everyone because anyone could become a terrorist and if there is a more diplomatic way it isnt usually found at the end of a barell in iraq we are fighting for someone elses freedom if the people of iraq wanted our type of government so bad let them persevere as did those of this country even after suffering crippling defeat did not give up and ended up winning against great odds and freed themselves of the chains of oppression otherwise you will be creating another welfare state i agree freedom comes with a cost but one must be willing to pay it themselves or they deserve none….. so we send youths there to protect our people here yet soldiers are still dying there so are we just protecting citizens here?

Posted by kameha | Report as abusive

We keep squandering precious resources on adventures that are ideal, but will have no end. Fighting these expensive wars will deprive our own countries of the much needed resources and funds that we direly need. It is sad that almost a trillion dollars have been spent so far on Iraq and Afghanistan; funds that could have solved so many problems, financial, human, social, medical, etc. that more deserve these funds than wars.More soldiers will not win us the war.

Posted by Michael Antoun | Report as abusive

get out of afghanistan. the u.s.a. this is an unwinable war.

Posted by frank cooper | Report as abusive

The thought occurred to me reading this article that al-Qaeda is doing to us what we did to the old USSR. It was in the news just recently that the Russians have said that Reagan’s massive military spending in the ’80s bankrupted the USSR when they tried to match it and led to its collapse at the end of the decade. Al-Qaeda with a few very inexpensive operations has gotten the United States (and major segments of the rest of the world) to spend trillions and trillions of dollars. The United States is currently on the highway to bankruptcy and we’re currently cruising at 60 mph….

Posted by jeff | Report as abusive

We should pull out, Karzai was a joke before this election, it has just gotten far worse with this re-election.

If there are those Afghans who want to fight for their country, and their rights against the Taliban or other extremist muslim groups, we should support them to the hilt, regardless if they refuse to become a United States puppet in the process.

We need allies that want to fight for themselves, not more puppets to prop up with the blood of the working class, to keep fat cats wallets padded.

Posted by moose | Report as abusive

I don’t think withdrawal is the answer, but I do think that the current strategy isn’t working. I don’t believe it’s possible to transform Afghanistan into a westernized nation that will hold its own against Islamic radicalism. But, pulling out would only restart a dangerous cycle and might even lead to the fall of Pakistan to the Taliban, something that Iran would no doubt be thrilled about.

Posted by Dusan Ristic-Petrovic | Report as abusive

Yeah well whatever happens the hammer will still be there and the Afghan Government will not do anything about once NATO and the US leaves. If the UN gives the money for the program long range poppy eradication fights can be flown out of Iran, by Iran and Russia operators in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. It will take the pressure off the transnational interdiction’s via the supply routes. You may see the Mil Mi-24V Hind over Afghan sky’s as air support for the sprayers. No stingers this time. Running some of the CIA UAV’s out of Pakistan for narco-terrorists targeted killings in Afghanistan.

Posted by TCMSOLS | Report as abusive

I am with Matthew Hoh:- the fact the the leader of the 2-Towers escadrille, the one whose name we do not speak, ate pots of mashed potatoes in Germany does not mean NATO must bomb Germany with mashed potatoes, they have enough of that there. They might just retaliate with kartoffeln.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

The basic Q that needs an answer no one dares to ask. “Why are we in Afghanistan”? The standard 9/11, Al-Qaeda, BinLaden etc dos not wash since none of the infamous 19 were Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and there is zero evidence of any of these tribals travelling beyond their own provincial borders to threaten teir neighbors, let alone the West. Indeed if we cut off the funds flow into Al-Qaeda coffers from our friends in Saudia/the Gulf, they would not have any money to give to the Taliban. Guns and fighters are a cash business, no credit. I know the region well having visited Pakistan in April as a guest of the President just as Mullins/Holbrooke visited with their WH concocted Af-Pak strategy. Sent Biden and Clinton a 3-page treatise. Biden replied politely, no word from Clinton… Ah Well.. its Obama’s Waterloo..

Pardon the continuation but, in the treatise, I explained that sanctuary denial is the only solution and that if the 200 odd Al-Qaeda (Secy Clinton estimate, not mine) are a burning problem just invade the sanctuaries (in Quetta, Baluchistan) and destroy them. Drones are useless in populated areas.. Very Cheap Operation.. no need for 100,000 troops, just under 5000 special ops stratgically located and supplied, will suffice…one only needs to study the fate of the “invincible” Tamil T to learn that sanctuaries are the key to “terrorist” survival.. In my first hand experience, the credit goes to George Bush who signed the order to declare the TT a Terrorist group and to Treasury for enforcing it. Shorn of funds and even weapons, the Grand Master of modern T tactics knew the end was inevitable.. he perished on the “battlefield” in May this year… by the way, I was born in Sri Lanka..

Posted by pravin | Report as abusive

Can you think of one reason to invest in Afghanistan?

Response to Mr Harris:… According to the NY Times, Ahmed Wali Khan (Karzai) has invested quite profitably in “providing protection to poppy growers”…another area that comes to mind is “scrap metal” considering the enormous quantities of charred/bombed out metal hulks littering the countryside. At $300 per month, young Taliban soldiers are quite cheap. Almost all the aid groups and various Sovereign groups (Italians, British, Germans ..even the Americans) “contract to lease” Taliban militia for protection.. scrap steel fetches over $220 per ton across the border..

Posted by pravin | Report as abusive

What is there about “quagmire” that General McChrystal doesn’t understand?

If NATO pulls out in the morning and AfPak does start to fall to pieces, I’d imagine the men in power in places like India, China, Russia, Iran would have a much more immediate and direct problem than western Europe/America.

If nuclear weapons did get loose, they’d be a lot more likely to do local damage than make it thousands of miles to our shores.
This ignores the much more relevant drug problem, which for some reason is only a problem for the west and causes no problems locally, hmmmm I wonder……..

Of course at the moment these countries are just sitting back and relaxing while the blinkered morons in charge over here do all the work, spending all the money and blood that goes with that…… seems slightly strange to me?!?

All the while our children fall behind, our infrastructure to pieces and lets not mention healthcare!

It truly is a strange world we live in.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

I recall that the planning and training for the 9/11 attacks took place in Hamburg, Germany, and in the USA, respectively. Afghanistan was where Osama made video/audio tapes, and from there initiated wire transfers via a satellite phone.
To assert that the US and its allies are in Afghanistan to “prevent another 9/11″ is to call all of us idiots, and apathetic idiots at that. Now we are also told that we must fight in order to “send a message” about our resolve. I’m not sure why we are really still there, but given the available facts our leaders must either be idiots themselves, or liars, or both. And it speaks volumes about the American people.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

I have to retract my earlier statement. I decided to look up some 2009 Afghan public opinion polls by reading much of the 2009 Asia Foundation report from July, to get some idea of what the general population may feel like about their current situation.

Summed up the biggest issue for most in Afghanistan is security. Many Afghans cited good security as a reason for optimism for the future, and conversely many people cited insecurity as one of their biggest problems.

If an increase in troops and effort in Afghanistan is focused towards more security, it would not only help keep optimism in place, but would seem to increase it significantly.

The corruption is a big problem, but that is a thorny political question that good security in Afghanistan would be an essential part of fixing.

A high percentage of people in Afghanistan have favorable opinions of the United States, the ANA (their army), and the ANP (their police). So continuing to provide more training, equipment, and experience to the ANA and ANP seem to be very worthwhile ventures and is viewed favorably by most.

In the end I am against withdrawing from Afghanistan, especially anything unilateral and abrupt. At the same time the cost to US troops having to do multiple tours is becoming really high. The problems in getting combat veterans the medical and financial support they need hopefully will be a part of addressing the situation in Afghanistan. The problem is massive, but ditching the everyday Afghani to a mess that we mostly created is just plain wrong, especially when they clearly are supporting our efforts in general.

Posted by moose | Report as abusive

All soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq reading this article should throw down their weapons and walk away. That will end these wars and force the politicians to settle their differences in other ways.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

America seeks to create a strong democracy in Afganistan.

If that fails, it will settle for a strong government (democracy or no) which has a large enough military to deny the region to terrorist groups.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Who is running this war? The US or Karsi?

What happened to the old ways where is we did not like who we put in power we could pay off someone local to simply assassinate that person? The next Karsi would think twice about being such a rip off artist.

We waste so much money and blood with this politically correct bullshit. Karsi and others like him read us so well and laugh to no end.

Or…. is Karsi really what we want and that is why he has not been chopped yet. Think about it – first couple of want to be kings where assassinated.

Makes you think – what the hell is this war really about?
Is it a testing ground for our military brass with their weapons and tactics.

Maybe this good war is not gone bad – it’s gone just right and will go on for another 6 years – till we wake up and stop letting the military run the show.

Posted by Various Animal | Report as abusive