This week marks the one-year anniversary of the US military offensive into Marjah in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak, as it was called, was the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the removal of the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001. However, it served not just as a military operation, but also as a high profile public relations campaign and the "official" start of America's escalation of the Afghan War.*
Occurring just two months after President Obama's announcement at West Point in December 2009 to "surge" an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, Operation Moshtarak would prove the chance for the Pentagon and its boosters, desperate for a clear "win" post-Iraq, to demonstrate a smart and new vision of war.
American forces, both in uniform and as elements of the much-heralded "civilian surge", a self-stylized modern day mating of McNamara's Whiz Kids and Lawrence of Arabia**, riding in together and wearing white hats, would deliver democracy and justice to a beleaguered, oppressed and yearning rural, tribal and poor population. Root causes of the conflict in Afghanistan, a tragedy unbroken since the 1970s, were too complex or too messy to be of much concern for Operation Moshtarak; while any legitimate political grievances the local population possessed for supporting the insurgency, to include political disenfranchisement or victimization due to exclusion and predation, as a result of US, NATO and Afghan government policies, were given similar little regard or consideration. The fact that the conflict in Afghanistan, multi-layered and complex, and characterized through a kaleidoscopic host of reasons and causes including, but not limited to, regional, tribal or ethnic civil war, a proxy war between Pakistan and India and an amazing multitude of local feuds which could aptly be described to Americans as Hatfield and McCoy type narratives, many pre-dating America's arrival into the conflict in 2001, and most importantly, completely irrelevant or tangential to al-Qaeda, were similarly unconsidered.
This hubris and arrogance should not be surprising, since the everlastingly nasty, brutish and terrifying nature of warfare, the fact that the enemy always gets to make decisions too and that, just possibly, the local population may not see Americans, or any other occupiers, as the ones wearing the white hats, are as troublesome and unfitting to today's promoters of counter insurgency warfare, as they were to the advocates of shock and awe, speed and the Revolution in Military Affairs in the spring of 2003.
To the politicians, generals, policy makers, pundits, theorists and bloggers, many of whom are resident in Washington DC and to whom the title "Chickenhawk" would not be unfairly applied, the question of conflict and war, so far as they are removed from it, in physical, emotional and existential connections, consistently remains how we should conduct war and almost never as to why or to what end. So, noting the nature of those who offered us escalation of war, with all its attendant costs, as a means to better our lives, on this anniversary of Operation Moshtarak and the "official" escalation of the Afghan War, we must continue to argue for a new course forward for the United States in Afghanistan.
Derrick Crowe and the team at Rethink Afghanistan superbly document the hyperbole of promised victory prior to the launch of Operation Moshtarak. Additionally, they refute, based upon evidence and fact, the endless and baseless assertions of progress and success in Afghanistan made by the Obama Administration and the Pentagon that have marked the past twelve months. Derrick's article is well worth bookmarking, as it will be an important source this spring as we near President Obama's promised date for "accelerated transition" in Afghanistan. At that point we can have a national debate we should have had this past December, but did not, during a much promised strategy review, on the future of our nation's war in Afghanistan. A debate we should not say we did not receive, but rather one we failed to force.
We have a responsibility to force such a debate for many, many reasons. Thousands of American service members have fought and many have died or been forever wounded these last twelve months to clear, hold and build Marjah and countless other nameless valleys and villages in Afghanistan. An argument can be made, that after twelve months of very tough fighting, during certain times of the day, Marjah can be considered "cleared." The hold and build aspects of the operation however, like most of the Pashtun dominated eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan, to include most especially Kandahar, remain glaringly out of reach.
In a year's time, Marjah may come to look like Nawa, which took nearly two years to become the seemingly one and only model of success in Afghanistan since President Obama's initial authorization of 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan in March 2009. Sangin, this year's Marjah, after another year or two of heavy fighting, may come to look like Marjah. The question is, however, if we ever leave Nawa, and not just our Marines, but also our money, how quickly will it again return to Sangin-like or Marjah-like conditions? And what about the majority of the Helmand districts and sub-districts we are not currently occupying? The nature of this war, the enemy and the population will assuredly cause us to see future Nawas, Marjahs and Sangins in villages and valleys whose names are not yet known, but whose vital strategic importance to the peace and prosperity of the United States will surely be proclaimed by those who trumpet war and argue fear in order to achieve such goals. When I resigned from my position with the State Department in Afghanistan nearly eighteen months ago, I used the term Sisyphean to describe the mission given our military in Afghanistan. Now, I still imagine Sisyphus, but with a larger stone.
The name of the next Marjah, Sangin or Nawa, a place to which we will be told we must dispatch more of our young men and women to fight boogiemen hiding in the fields of illiterate and subsistence farmers, is as unknown as are the gains we have received for our sacrifices throughout Afghanistan over this past year. What are known, however, is what the costs have been, what the costs are and what the costs will be. Casualties seen, those physically killed and wounded, I believe are better known and understood than those unseen casualties, particularly post traumatic stress disorders and traumatic brain injuries, that will rip apart lives and families until the last of this war's generation passes in the second half of this century. That is a very long time to ask our service members, their families and their communities to continue to pay the price of fighting Afghan farmers in fields that are devoid of al-Qaeda.
The insanity of our expenditure extends past the physical and into the fiscal. The US currently garrisons Marjah with two battalions of Marines and Sailors. Two battalions form more than 2,000 men and women. Utilizing the White House's standard of $1 million per service member in Afghanistan per year, the US has now spent and continues to spend at least $2 billion dollars a year to garrison, i.e. police, Marjah, a rural Afghan hamlet of 50-60,000 Afghan farmers. Not only is this maddeningly absurd, but try and explain this to the residents of Camden, NJ, Reno, NV, or Tulsa, OK. Using logic similar to our policy makers and appropriators in Washington, I presume if we were to change those cities' names to Camdahar, Renostan and Tulsabad, then those cities and their residents could afford the same level of police protection we provide Marjah and countless other nameless valleys and villages in Afghanistan.
As citizens of a democratic republic we have an obligation and a responsibility not to entrust the lives of our service members and their families, our finances and our communities to those who approach war based on a 2012 political calculus or to those who desire the adrenaline rush of a clash of civilizations or of chasing monsters abroad. We, likewise, have an obligation and responsibility to future generations to pass them a more prosperous and prouder nation; not an empire, a destroyer or a bully, but a leader, an inspiration and a trusted global partner.
Walk with a child on the Mall in Washington DC and it is easy to explain America's wars as enshrined by the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial. Walk to the Korean War Memorial and it becomes a little more difficult to explain that part of American history, but it is still possible. Walk now to the Vietnam War Memorial and try and explain that Wall and her names to a child. Purposeless is the honest answer.
We will have a memorial one day to these wars of the early 21st century. If built today nearly 6,000 names would appear. Many thousands more will be remembered if we justly and honorably include those whose lives ended at home by their own hand because they returned from war desolately changed and traumatically ill.
It was generations older than mine from which we inherited the Vietnam War Memorial. My generation will be responsible for the memorial for America's current wars. 6,000 names on a monument are already far too many. How will we explain those names to our children and them to theirs? How will we explain any more names?
Let's not have this conversation again, next year, on the two-year anniversary of Operation Moshtarak and President Obama's escalation of a purposeless war. Let's not have another monument to another purposeless war.
*President Obama authorized over 20,000 additional US forces into Afghanistan in March 2009, however, the authorization for 30,000 more US forces in December 2009 by President Obama is publically acknowledged as his "Surge" and so the "official" escalation of the conflict.
**I can say such, as I was one of the first of that civilian surge into Afghanistan in 2009.