Are we deluding ourselves about Afghanistan?

By Daniel L. Davis
April 25, 2012

Over the past month, a veritable who’s who of American opinion makers have been on the major television networks and in the most prestigious print media strongly reinforcing the notion that America’s mission in Afghanistan is “on track.” To be sure, they admit, there are “challenges” and “rough patches,” but the overall trajectory of the war is going according to the timelines laid out in the 2010 Lisbon Agreement. With so much star power locked virtually arm in arm, there are few who would publicly contend with such a group; most accept their stance without challenge.

But regardless of the titles, positions and resumes they cumulatively possess, if the evidence on the ground does not support their theory, it must be challenged. I contend the evidence overwhelmingly argues that our Afghan strategy has failed, continues to fail, and, absent a major course correction, will end in failure.

When the fundamentals of this war are examined, it doesn’t take long for common sense to kick in. With it comes the recognition that absent major change, we are very likely to suffer a strategic defeat by the end of 2014. Here are a few pertinent facts and hard questions:

  • It strains credulity to suggest that what we were unable to accomplish in the first 11 years of war (creating a self-sufficient Afghan National Security Force, or ANSF) we will do over the next two years, with tens of thousands fewer troops and less than half the training budget, which has dropped from $11 billion to $5 billion in a single year. Further, who will provide the logistics for the Afghan troops we’re leaving behind? Who will provide the trucks and repair their vehicles, who will supply the fuel and provide spare parts, as well as ammunition, water, food, intelligence support, artillery support, attack jet support, helicopter gunship support, medical evacuation, and medical support – all of which ISAF currently provides, at least in part?
  • Pakistan’s borders remain an ungoverned conduit for support of the insurgency, and evidence suggests they will remain so.
  • There is no functioning economy in Afghanistan – much less one that could attain self-sufficiency in just the next few years.
  • The Afghan government at virtually every level remains corrupt and barely lacks the capacity to provide basic services.
  • By any honest assessment, the various factions of the Taliban insurgency remain a formidable and viable force.

Further, while the aim of America’s population-centric counterinsurgency is to protect the people, every year of the surge saw a new high-water mark for Afghan people killed, the United Nations reports. Although many U.S. pundits are quick to point out that, according to U.N. estimates, upwards of 77 percent of the civilian casualties were caused by the Taliban, it doesn’t matter to the people who did the dying. All the survivors know is that the most powerful military alliance in the world couldn’t protect them.

It is therefore not surprising that the most recent Asia Foundation poll revealed in 2011 that 76 percent of Afghan people said they would have “some level of fear” traveling from one part of the country to another and encountered – not Taliban – but U.S. and other coalition forces.

After more than a decade of warfare, we have to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that we have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Still, even at this 11th hour there are ways the mission could be salvaged. There is, for example, broad consensus among a number of key constituencies for a cease-fire. The best chance for a viable and lasting end to the war could be conducted in the absence of fighting, not during it.

However, until or unless we change our self-defeating propensity to characterize everything as we wish it to be rather than how it is, even the most brilliant plan would have little chance of success.

It is impossible to reconcile the upbeat and optimistic statements made by many of America’s best known opinion makers with the view that we are headed to a strategic defeat, which I and many others have expressed. It is imperative that the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate hold comprehensive and open hearings. In late February, several members of the House sent a formal request to the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader asking for hearings, but thus far their request has been met with silence.

The American public needs to know which of the divergent views of what is happening in Afghanistan is accurate. If the optimistic views shared by many public figures are right, the U.S. public should strongly rally around them. But if my views and those conveyed by so many others are right, we must contemplate fundamental and immediate changes.

Our vital national interests are at stake. So are the lives and limbs of potentially thousands of Americans, and likely a greater number of Afghan people. We owe it to them to be sure we get this right.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

PHOTO: U.S. soldiers from 5-20 infantry Regiment attached to 82nd Airborne walk while on patrol in Zharay district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

28 comments

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so after the success in Irak, where the mission was accomplished in 2003, we will have to live with another triumph in Afganistan. this until Iran gets invaded because of the WMD which where the “reason” why Irak had to be invaded. When will Americans start to think about their own interests and stop being manipulated by Israel ?

Posted by phoen2011 | Report as abusive

While I understand the origin of the eye-for-an-eye impulse that got us into Afghanistan, The odds have always been that the mission would end in “failure”, as the cultural and historical norms in place seem to defy the kind of orderly “control” that tends to be favored in developed nations.

99.9% of Americans stop at a red light and wait for it to turn green. Sure they may cheat a bit and roll through on a stale yellow, but in general, they follow the plan. I have been to many other nations where this is not the case. In India, Trinidad, Peru, and other nations, you might not find that many people who would be willing to wait at a red light at an empty intersection in the middle of the night…

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

The powers that be love saying such nonsense as “mission accomplished”, “chalk up another victory”, “welcome to democracy”, etc., but when you really think about it nothing has changed other than the bodies pile up and corporations continue getting rich.

Posted by sjtom | Report as abusive

While we’re at it, how about questioning the idea that Afghanistan is even a region, let alone a nation?

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Colin Powell got it right, based on a very painful lesson learned in fighting asymmetrical warfare, and we refuse to listen.

We will be no more successful at making Afghan peasants Western Secular Humanists than we were at making Vietnamese peasants Market Capitalists.

At least this time we’ve managed to not spit on the kids that fought it. Yet.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Thank you. I thought i was the only one who thought these analysts and opinion makers were full of it. In ten years of war we are no further along than when we started and yet all i hear is how well we are doing and that we cannot leave defeated. These people are no better than New York city peddlers selling Gucci watches, probably made in Afghanistan.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

50% or more of Afghanistan’s economy is dependent on our occupation. The rest is pretty much opium. If we want to leave behind an economy with any hope of survival, clearly our only option is to legalize heroin in the US and sign a US-Afghan Free Smack Trade Agreement (USAFSTA) with them.

Posted by spameroo | Report as abusive

It seems ironic to that we are attempting to install a system which parallels our own, when our nation is falling on it’s face because of that same system.

Posted by boon2247 | Report as abusive

With “the powers that be” spouting such nonsense regarding permanent victories in Afghanistan, how do they expect us to believe ANYTHING they say? I think we are staying just to placate those who sadly have lost loved ones, or have injured soldiers to care for. They could not do all this for their Country only to have us leave early. So, instead MORE soldiers will die or be maimed and then we’ll leave the mess anyway. I believe also that the Defense corporations are behind us staying sooooooo long$$$$$$$$$$$. Check out who in Congress is getting money from Defense Contractors and how they are voting. It’s sick!

Posted by jocare | Report as abusive

I find it appalling that we have wasted so many young people’s lives fighting an unnecessary war that increased our nation’s debt and has,seemingly, no end. Afghanistan broke the Soviet Union into little pieces many years before our folly and we were arrogant enough to think the U.S. could succeed where they failed.
I find it amazing that our politicians don’t speak about the damage this war has done to us as a nation. Vote them all out.

Posted by philiopo | Report as abusive

This so called war should of been over 9 years ago. Shades of VN. Again, we see when Contractors are being awarded multi million dollar deals on a daily basis, the war will continue without respect to original mission. We continue to waste the very best of our NCO Corp & young officers in a conflict without end and certainly without meaning. Can one single member of Congress define “Victory” in Afghanistan? Everybody from Alexander the Great on down has taken a shot at peace by victory over that region. Aint gonna happen Folks. Getting out now is the only option we have control of. Let the Drone War continue as necessary. There is simply nothing to be gained by American Boots on the Ground in that Wasteland.

Posted by Bluzpower | Report as abusive

“I believe also that the Defense corporations are behind us staying sooooooo long$$$$$$$$$$$. Check out who in Congress is getting money from Defense Contractors and how they are voting. It’s sick!”

Posted by jocare

As Pres. Eisenhower pointed out: beware the military-industrial complex. It is as powerful, and difficult to stop the corruption and profiting for the already wealthy who are involved, as the complex of the pharmaceutical industry-FDA-hospital industry-American Medical Association.

Many pointed out in 2001 what a losing, futile battle/war it would be in Afghanistan, after watching the Russians try to do the same thing for many years, albeit with different ideology, and finally giving up.

Posted by ayesee | Report as abusive

Victory in a sporting match is easily defined. Victory in war not so much. Every day without another 9-11 could be considered a victory. Yet after 10,000 such victories, a single day of defeat could last forever.

While trying to convince Afghanis not to join Al-Queda or the Taliban would be in our strategic interest, it is an almost impossible goal. Even more worrying is the population of Pakistan, where a much larger population provides a rich recruitment environment. This article and the arguments of many set the terms of victory as achieving the nearly impossible and at least highly improbable. That these are also among the stated mission goals of the US and UN forces also contributes to these too-high expectations.

Water follows the path of least resistance and over time can carve massive canyons through miles of rock. Eventually our stated goals will follow the landscape of the possible.

What is possible, and worth doing, in Afghanistan is the maintenance of a smaller force dispersed among several secure–and remote–bases. These forces will serve the same function as the 30k or so we still have in Iraq. They will provide a forward operating platform to continue to disrupt terrorist safe havens. In 1998 we came within 15 minutes of killing Bin Laden (and killed 3 Pakistani ISI agents–what were they doing there I wonder?) when we launched a cruise missile at an Al Queda training camp. Yet despite the fact that we then knew that OBL had declared war and proven a capable terrorist, we had no further ability to hit him than that failed strike. Our continued occupation of secure forward bases would give us enough options to keep Al Queda style training camps in hiding and hopefully disrupted.

A second strategic goal that would be accomplished is that this force, like the one in Iraq and indeed the one in South Korea, would act as a tripwire to deter invasion by Afghanistan’s neighbors. Iran knows that if it crosses into Iraq, then it automatically is at war with the US. Ditto for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

Furthermore, this would largely remove our presence from the streets of Afghan cities, and reduce our profile and along with it the population’s resentment. So, in the end, they might end up blaming the Taliban more for all those civilians the Taliban kills.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

^^^ This guy. “Iran knows that if it crosses into Iraq, then it automatically is at war with the US. Ditto for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.”

The US cannot afford another war. Their defense (more like offense) budget was cut in half for a reason. Iran is not another Iraq/Afghanistan. US soldiers would die by the hundreds every week. Saudi Arabia? Yea right. Attack the nation that supplies most of your oil. Lets see how long American citizens will like $10/gallon. North Korea? Well now you’ve entered China into the mix. Sure, send a bunch of high school dropout soldiers to fight a million man army. Stupid Americans still dreaming in fantasy land. You couldn’t even defeat a bunch of cave men in Afghanistan and now you’re talking Saudis, N. Koreans, and Iraanians with actual militaries lol…

Posted by mikaj | Report as abusive

mikaj, you are obviously a sports fan. I’ll repeat myself, war and sports are not the same. Now calm down.

If any country bordering Iraq were to attack Iraq, they would have to contend with the 30k or so troops we have stationed there and all our drone/cruise missile operational capability. Same with Korea. A state of war would automatically exist between these countries and America. This does not mean that the US would necessarily be invading these countries.

You don’t seem to think that the US would be capable of defending these countries. Maybe, maybe not. But there is no doubt that the US possesses significant firepower. In a defensive battle, it could severely hurt any attackers, and given time and the national unity that any attack might engender, the US would be able to put far more resources into play.

Your point that the US is strategically and tactically weak was poorly made yet it is an issue worth considering. I think it is possible to state that we are strategically and tactically weaker compared to our likely adversaries now than twenty years ago–however we are not yet actually weak. There is an enormous difference.

Need proof? Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have NOT invaded Iraq. Pakistan has NOT invaded Afghanistan. North Korea and China have NOT invaded Korea for 60 years. China hasn’t even invaded Taiwan.

Evidently, the leadership of those militaries do not share your assessment.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

And mikaj, support your statement that the defense budget was cut in half. Do not include operational expenses in Iraq and Libya, for which obviously less money now needs to be spent.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

If Iraq was a success then Santa Claus exists. 2003? What a joke. Why then are we still in Iraq and still bombings are occurring almost on a daily basis. This is the kind of success that opportunists look for.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

Somehow i see people still deluding themselves into the belief that we can still “stay” in Afghanistan to “win” this thing. It’s over, in the history of insurgencies only a couple have been overcome successfully. We are there just spending money on weapons, getting our soldiers wounded to come home to a broken country.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

CanyonLiveOak has a point which seems to be rarely explored. When we engage in combat we justify the encounter with values. But our values … any cultures values … are the product of our own experiences. For us they are of paramount importance, as the values of other cultures are important to them. We would not wish to live under values imposed from without. Why would we expect others to change their values for ours? Especially under occupation. Surely, the time involved for acculturation takes decades, if successful at all. I think we need to question ‘globalization’ and ‘multiculturalism’ if by those terms we imply a single culture with a single economic system. It’s not hard to see that certain Muslim cultures chafe under our values. And while some of their values might horrify us, we need to respect their right to choose their own way. In their countries/societies they have the right to live as they choose. And we, in the the comfort of our own shores, have the right to live as we choose. Anything less, makes us/them an aggressor … a threat to someone’s way of life. At this point, 11 years into Afghanistan, does it matter who threw the first punch? The more interesting question is why, as that may lead to revelations unexpected. We fought well, it’s time to go home and think about all this.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

The american strategy on Afghanistan was a failure on day one. After that it got worse.

Posted by ErnestPayne | Report as abusive

@ APR 26, 2012 10:56 PM EDT

That is sooooo well said!

Posted by brnwtrs7 | Report as abusive

You know folks, you cannot force feed your beliefs to a nation of people who don’t believe in your beliefs. Especially as you kill their people! How hypocritical is that to try to convince people that you are there to help them as you systemically kill them.

Posted by brnwtrs7 | Report as abusive

Except for the Warlords the Taliban fought, the Afghan people were fairly happy with the Taliban government, and didn’t mind Bin Laden’s presence.

Forget the neo-cold War policy of world domination by the US, The american people’s only interest in Afghanistan ws getting rid of Bin Laden, and that has been accomplished.

The american people want to leave Afghanistan NOW, and the Afghan peole want us out of their country NOW. We should forget the Bush family policies of “Nation building and spead of capitalism” and leave NOW.

The Republican party needs to forget the Bush family and Dick Cheney, unless they want an Obama landslide in NOvember. If Romney supports a conitnued presence in Afghanistan, victory in November will be impossible.

Eisehower got elected in 1952 to bring the boys home from Korea, and Nixon pledged to end the Vietnman War. The Bush Republicans gave us Iraq and Afghanistan–and elected Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to succeed them.

Stupid is as stupid does.

Posted by RPhillips111 | Report as abusive

Isn’t it quite possible all the supportive talking heads are being bribed (legally) for their support? The Bush administration paid for articles to support the war and knowing how important money is, I doubt it ever stopped.

WWI sent influenza back with the troops. That is one theory about the origin of the great influenza epidemic of the post war period.

I think the ME’s legacy to this nation will be the practices of bribery, graft, kickbacks and perhaps even nepotism (that one is harder to practice because it is easier to see). Political and economic systems that practice that will want lots of unquestioning patriotism and respect. Defeat will mean a reactive instinct – a kind of counter-reformation – could take hold here. The crooks taking the payoffs will want to hide it all behind a comforting show of political unity, respect for authority and they will throw up all sorts of phony defenses.

The major media will craft the message and they could be doing it all because it makes money for them.

It isn’t much mentioned, but some of the greatest warriors of history were chronic drunks. Alexander the Great, Marc Antony and U.S. Grant come to mind. They probably needed the sedative and maybe even the antiseptic effects of higher blood alcohol levels? OR they had to seduce their owns minds to continue their career objectives at any costs.

The last two wars were a kind of national binge. The huge funding was the intoxicant. Now we enter the hangover period.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Afganistan is Vietnam all over again.

Like the Viet Cong, the Afgan fighters have no place to go. This is a powerful motivator. Napolean said, “morale is to the number of soldiers in the ratio of 10 to 1.”

A chopper only holds as much as a good sized pickup truck and costs a fortune to operate and maintain. The Afgan fighters walk.

Afgan fighters are conditioned to endure harsh conditions of extreme poverty, heat, cold and hunger. Our troops are used to s much higher living standard and require extensive supplies.

We have an 8 thousand mile supply line. The Afgans live off the land and the local population. We supplied them with their AK-47s during the Russian occupation.

As in Vietnam we have very little to gain and very much to lose. The Afgans don’t need to win, they only need endure — time is on their side.

Posted by donhope | Report as abusive

paintcan, they discovered a few years ago that the influenza epidemic jumped from birds to humans at a Kansas Army base where soldiers were preparing to ship out to WWI. These soldiers then spread it across Europe and beyond. Of course they also then brought it back with them as well. Bottom line though, no WWI, then the conditions for the virus to spread so widely don’t exist.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

@BajaArizona – That’s amazing!

I know that WW1 started almost on automatic. I tend to think the “Great” war started because all the European powers had enmeshed themselves with mutual defense treaties that kicked into play like a market sell-off spurred by computer trades.

At the time of the first moves on Afghanistan, I thought the country really couldn’t say no. But I half hoped they would. Countries can’t seem to afford to “turn the other cheek”. Isn’t it wise to smell a rat or at least suspect a trap when something as spectacular and impossible to ignore like 911 occurs?

I had a long conversation in these pages with a Syrian a few months back and I have very little trouble accepting his statement that OBL was dead years ago. I thought he was too. There were no releases from him for years.

I accused Obama of pandering or engaging in psy-ops in a comment here. I even got a little hot with a returned VET down the street who just ignored me and tweeted or used his cell phone.

Since when is it good sense, or even thinking at all, to have to accept the statements of an elected government on faith alone?

What a load of indigestible baloney.

I have to work very hard now (I haven’t got much else to do) just to try to reconstruct a believable social, political and economic world order in my head, (most of which I actually had very little or no much formal education in)just to make sense of my memories and the stuff on this machine and Syrian Humanfriend cames along and knocked my stack of blocks over. And I never believed in them all that firmly to begin with.

Talk about Cognitive dissonance?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The American people are not deluding themselves about Afghanistan, but the American politicians are deluding themselves while trying to delude the people.

The politicians are cutting education, while they are building schools in Afghanistan, schools that are then bombed by the Taliban.

The politicians claim the taxpayers cannot afford to repair the crumbling US infrastructure, but the politicians are building roads in Afghanistan, roads that then get destroyed by the insurgents—over and over and over again.

The politicians say the U. S. cannot afford universal health care, but they are building hospitals in Afghanistan. In the meantime, the politicians have the very best of health insurance and health care at a 70% taxpayer subsidy.

The politicians say that the U. S. populace must cut-back severely on everything, including Social Security and Medicare while the politicians are sending plane-loads of cash to Afghanistan that provide jobs for Afghans and the rich-life for corrupt Afghan politicians.

The politicians say that the rich are not getting richer, that they owe the country nothing while the common man must continue to pay and pay and pay—even while the politicians claim that pigs can fly.

The politicians say that Afghans (and other Muslims) want democracy—Western or otherwise—even as virtually every Arab Spring nation is voting for those who will support sharia law.

Perhaps the American people are deluding themselves that the US political system is not broken and that the American politicians are not corrupt?

How much blood and treasure will be enough to waste on people who will not fight for their own freedoms as they continually have their hands out for ever more, More, MORE from the American taxpayers? How many years in Afghanistan will be enough: Fifteen, fifty, one hundred?

How many Americans does it take to change a lightbulb or a corrupt system? Theoretically, a majority—but even then, they cannot see the light.

Posted by Aprenous | Report as abusive