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Michael Brenner Headshot

America's Stranded Armies

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Military force is properly used when it serves a well-defined political purpose. Employment of violence otherwise carries a serious risk of dangerous, unwelcome consequences. Today, the United States has troops in seventy-five countries. They are engaged in combat of one sort or another in about twenty places. That includes regular forces, special forces, paramilitary units and private security mercenaries. They fight with or without the knowledge/approval of local authority -- where it exists.

Their numbers range from over 100,000 (mercenaries included) in Iraq and Afghanistan, to a couple thousand in Pakistan, to hundreds in the peripheral zone where various radical Islamist groups are the prey. This last category covers Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and probably a few other places as yet unidentified. Smaller, more specialized units have been authorized by President Obama to hunt down and kill persons suspected of being a threat to the United States, or Americans, worldwide -- U.S. citizens not exempted.* All these actions are subsumed within the "War on Terror." The "War on Drugs" is a companion sphere involving tens of thousands of armed personnel.

Let's concentrate on the former. For the stakes and implications there are far greater. In the AfPak theater it is impossible to say what is Washington's strategic design or even objective. It could be liquidating all Al-Qaeda, all potential terrorists groups, all who may threaten the United States -- plus all who provide support or encouragement. A grand project. Still, perhaps a logical one if the goal is zero threat, and if one is ready both to provide the huge forces necessary, to exhibit a modicum of political skill and to accept the political repercussions. The White House to date has not made that goal explicit, provided the requisite resources for it, or offered a consistent, credible strategy for achieving either it or a lesser objective. The 'Surge' announced in December was a melange of disparate elements. It promised troops in numbers dictated by domestic politics disconnected from aims. It set a deadline for withdrawal without any idea of whether or to what extent our efforts might work.

Recent developments have left the "plan" in complete disarray. The military surge has been relabeled a "civilian" surge. Marjah in Helmand province, the cutting edge of the ambitious strategy, has been shrunk from the city of 80,000 declared by Central Command to a cluster of villages. Security has not been achieved despite the presence of 40,000 soldiers creating an unprecedented 1 to 2 troop/population ratio, as Gareth Porter has pointed out. The "government in box" we promised to deliver that would have the locals salivating for more America and more Kabul has never taken root. Not surprising given that its main dish, an expatriate Governor, had just been released from a German prison where he served time for aggravated assault against a relative.

The campaign directed at Kandahar (city and province), handpicked as the cornerstone for a Taliban free zone in the Pashton heartland, now has been put on hold. The residents have pronounced themselves opposed to being the experimental laboratory for yet another try at something-building. That sentiment seems to express distrust of Americans, intimidation by the still unintimidated Taliban, and President Karzai's personal, on the spot vow that the citizens would not be subject to the planned indignities. Karzai's remarks to a second Kandahar shura seemed to encourage local cooperation with whatever initiatives Washington has in mind. One suspects that it was devised to cover himself with the U.S. and to cover a series of accommodations that will render the "offensive" nugatory. Meanwhile, the Loya Jirga sponsored by Karzai calls for engaging the Taliban in talks on Afghan terms; the session is rocketed by Taliban infiltrating the capital, and fresh revelations appear that the United States has been lavishly building up a strong man in Orugzan province who runs the place with a heavy hand in the interests of the Americans, the drug networks, the Taliban and his own power/riches -- not necessarily in that order. This last story surfaces the same day as the Pentagon issues an extensive report detailing (other) individuals whose corrupt activities are having a deleterious effect on our mission of peace and uplift.

To put it bluntly, we have no plan or strategy worthy of the name. Certainly not one consonant with the circumstances that exist in Afghanistan. American forces, bereft of reasonable purpose, are adrift. These marooned soldiers have been ill used by their ambitious, politicized military commanders and a weak minded Commander-in-Chief who instinctively defers to them.

Our position in AfPak strikes me as being far more dire than Iraq in 2006. There, a couple of jokers in the pack (Sawah movement, and the Iranian pressure on the Sadrists) not only created the impression of "success," but spared the US acute embarrassment. Embarrassment as well as failure awaits us in Afghanistan. Short of a massive force expansion, the ignominious end seems likely to come fairly soon -- for political rather than military reasons. We no longer have even a weak reed to lean on (unless we include the likes of the felonious Governor of Marjah and our illiterate man for all seasons in Oruzgan). A cascade phenomenon may have started in both Afghanistan and Pakistan whereby our sympathizers peel away (for diverse reasons) with increasing rapidity -- or, are simply cut adrift as did Karzai with the two Northern Alliance heads of Interior and Intelligence. Every faction for itself may be the outcome. More broadly, we could see an ethnic conflict between Pashtuns vs Tajiks with Uzbeks (Dostum et al) leaning toward whomever looks as the possible survivor winners. As for the Hazeris, their faith in a Compassionate Allah may be tested, once again.

It is hard to imagine how Obama would handle such a situation. One can surmise that: 1) the 2011 withdrawal date is a dead letter; 2) he hasn't the courage to confront the country with the truth about our feckless mission; 3) easing out of the place with a measure of dignity may be impossible; therefore, 4) he'll wind up sending more troops while firing up terrorism fears at home so as to blunt the inevitable Republican attacks. Unfortunately for us all, the last simply means greater tragedy -- "going forward" as they say.

Elsewhere, we observe a similar combination of relentless campaigns animated by vague ideas and little intelligent design. In Iraq, our outsized troop contingents bustle around trying to make themselves useful but in truth have become little more than spectators to the multitude of tangled conflicts one of whose protagonists is a still robust Al-Qaedi in Mesopotamia. Iran's presence and influence has surpassed that of the United States by a growing margin. As for the full court press against assorted Islamic fundamentalists around the globe, we know too little to assay how much damage it has done -- in form or extent. Its benefits are equally unknowable; but given Washington's impulsive trumpeting of every plot foiled and inflating of every tangible incident, logic suggests that they have not been of any great magnitude.

* In accordance with a legal doctrine publicly stated by the White House on more than one occasion (e.g. testimony of Admiral Blair before the Senate Intelligence Committee), some unspecified person could determine by applying unspecified criteria that I pose a time urgent threat to the Republic, and an order for my immediate elimination given by another unnamed person within minutes of my clicking the 'Send' box -- perhaps, if designated an ultra high value target, before clicking.