The recent death of Paul Fussell was mourned by all those who love military history. Besides his other work, the prolific Prof. Fussell wrote movingly, as only a combat veteran could, about how the press sanitized war and made it easier for the public to dissociate from the horror soldiers faced on a daily basis. Other writers, like Andrew Bacevich, explain how this effect is exacerbated by the existence of our volunteer armed forces, which have become almost a Praetorian Guard carrying out administration-generated missions, and whose travails matter only to themselves and their families.
However much we publicly bless our troops and proclaim our support, we seem unable to transmit any pressure to get our troops out of Afghanistan any faster than is presently planned, i.e., the end of 2013. Even the increasing frequency of incidents of NATO troops being shot by uniformed Afghans is having no impact. At the funeral of one such American boy shot by an Afghan, New York representative Peter King talked about how we had to better protect our people. Why didn't he enunciate the more obvious solution: get our people the heck out of there?! Maybe Mr. King would feel differently if a member of Congress had to stand guard during each session so that other representatives wouldn't be shot by people in the gallery.
Afghanistan has had failure written all over it for much longer than our politicians and military are willing to admit. State Department and US Agency for International Development planning was faulty as far back as 2003, and the Bush administration never seemed to understand that nothing could be accomplished without real security. The opium problem has never received the required military attention. Pakistan, Iran, Russia, our NATO partners, and the central Asian republics have, among others, been chronically mishandled. Why does this seem such a mystery to the American public?
A major issue is the disconnect between the upper and lower echelons of our military. A 23 August Pentagon briefing included an appearance by Gen. John Allen, the commander of all forces in Afghanistan. He talked about how much better things have gotten in that country. I have too much respect for Gen. Allen to suggest that he's a fabricator, but once someone achieves a third star on his or her shoulder (and certainly a fourth), that person is no longer a soldier as much as a politician. The administration line is articulated by everyone who needs a future nomination to higher rank approved, or has hopes for higher command. Just ask Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, who became persona non grata under Donald Rumsfeld for telling the truth to Congress about our involvement in Iraq.
Now speak to men in the field at the rank of major and below, and the story is entirely different. In speaking to dozens, I have yet to find one with any optimism about the mission. Afghan troops, illiterate and devoted to their home villages, are difficult to train. Corruption reaches down to the lowest levels. Desertion is endemic. Ground is held only when troops are present, and the Taliban is never far behind. The difficulties are legion.
What we need is immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, but we have a two-pronged problem blocking this. The first is Congress. Some senators, such as Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain, have never seen a foreign policy problem that couldn't be solved by the American military. Others see visions of a stable, democratic Afghanistan that has never really existed, and, with its rotten governance, lack of security, absent infrastructure, and dangerous neighbors, is less likely than ever to become so. Still others simply lack the guts to admit we've failed.
The other problem is our military, on a certain level its own worst enemy. The greatest in the world by a wide margin, it cannot be beaten. This means that it will stay in place until national will fails and our troops are ordered home, but they cannot be forced home through military means. In addition, one gets the feeling that our generals really don't want to see this war end, especially when another is unlikely anytime soon. There is an ancient military maxim that says that great armies do not rust from disuse, and nothing is worse to these warriors than peacetime service, with its lack of promotions and decorations, and decreased funding. The generals are back by a defense industry always mindful of the words of their arch enemy, the specter of Dwight Eisenhower, whose admonition against the military-industrial complex remains as current as it did a half century ago.
Finally, our leaders act as though "winning" in Afghanistan will end terrorism. Terrorism has always been with us. Terrorists can train anywhere, and are doing so. Even the importance of removing al Qaeda from Afghanistan can be questioned. Bin Laden, whose death was certainly satisfying, came long after his effectiveness as a leader had ended. The existence of al Qaeda is no longer quantifiable, since any terrorist group may adopt the name to add instant credibility. The real tragedy is our inability to accept the difference between the Taliban and international terrorism. Pashtun tribesmen make up half the population of Afghanistan and provide the manpower for the Taliban; they aren't going anywhere.
We can only hope that the next election will give the winner some top cover to get out of Afghanistan sooner than later. Nothing is going to change for the better, no matter how long we stay.