General Malaise

When I was embedded with U.S. troops in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, a smart tactical commander told me the American people, cognizant of war's fog and friction, don't expect the military to be efficient. "But," he said emphatically, "they do expect us to be effective."

I thought about his comment as the media frantically investigates the alleged improprieties of the U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, generals Petraeus and Allen. Is this brouhaha distracting us from the real question: Have these generals been effective? Have any of the eleven U.S. commanders over the last eleven years been effective?

The U.S. has never lacked for grand strategies in Afghanistan. Each of the eleven U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan brought in a new strategy, along with new staff, new orders, new emphases, new Powerpoint decks of pixilated promise. It was effective execution that was missing.

Like most of the ambitious American careerists who cycled through wartime Afghanistan, the generals were mainly interested in punching their tickets and moving on. Effective oversight and long-term sustainability weren't part of their agenda. As former ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Neumann said, "Most people complained about policy. But what we lacked was an ability to implement."

Critics such as Thomas E. Ricks and Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer have pointed out the contemporary military's obsession with standardized measures of individual and unit performance have supplanted essential metrics of military success -- such as achieving victory.

We are now in the twelfth year of the war in Afghanistan. The failing counterinsurgency has cost American taxpayers about $600 billion, with the final bill estimated to be well over a trillion dollars. Tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives have been destroyed.

And what did Americans get for this horrific investment of blood and treasure? Afghanistan's government is ranked as one of the planet's most corrupt. It is 6th on the Failed States index. Much of the $90 billion in U.S. development assistance has been leached away by greedy U.S. corporations and corrupt Afghan insiders, leaving little for the Afghan people. The American aid and military logistics contracts are so poorly managed that the Taliban systematically finances their insurgency with money skimmed from the contractors. Soldiers ruefully tell me, "We're funding both sides of the war."

Given the dysfunction, it is no surprise the Taliban-led insurgency has grown at double-digit rates each year since the 2001 invasion, proving the Special Forces dictum that if an insurgency is not shrinking, it's winning.

We are long past the drift point. Afghanistan is unraveling. As the country's kleptocratic government postures and tribal leaders gird for civil war, the Taliban-led insurgents are growing in strength. In the meantime, U.S. political leaders are essentially standing mute on the war, leaving many of the 66,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan unclear about their mission.

While enjoying the titillating tales about our randy commanders and their girlfriends, war-weary U.S. taxpayers are enduring a U.S. counterinsurgency so flawed it funds our enemy without accomplishing our national security goals, a story I documented in my recently published book. As politicians, diplomats, development cabals and the military-industrial complex plan further long-term commitments to the Afghanistan War, it must be enough to make the average American wonder not just who's in bed with whom, but who, precisely, is getting screwed?