Kabul - Shut the Lights, the Party's Over

03/14/2012 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2012
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

The latest Afghan atrocity, on the heels of the Koran book burnings, should be seen as a flare in the night signaling that the last act in this tragic drama is upon us. Recently we have been distracted from this slowly unfolding disaster because our attention has been fixed on the much greater disaster that awaits us in Iran. Relative disaster has become the standard measure of our foreign policy misadventures of the 9/11 decade.

Incidents similar to this happen in every war. American ground troops probably committed more atrocities in WWII than in Afghanistan. They received far less attention for two reasons: they were eclipsed by the magnitude of the war and its stakes; they had no bearing on its outcome. The second point is key to understanding the significance of the current situation. Counter-insurgency depends on winning hearts and minds. At this point, we've pretty much lost them -- at least to such a degree as to render unattainable our objectives even if a complete Taliban comeback is equally improbable. That Afghanistan is a failed project has been obvious for some time. Yet all the anonymous high officials and commanders quoted in the news stories blather on about how NOW there is a risk of an otherwise viable strategy being stymied. This display of conceit and ignorance is calculated deceit.

The only way to prevent an ignominious collapse of our position there is to do some honest thinking and to convey the conclusions to the country. That means the president doing his duty. Obama, though, is clearly incapable of acting in a manner that requires candor, courage and commitment. He thinks only of four more years. So he'll drag things out, come up with clever formulations, and hope that the glue holds until November. Afterwards, if reelected? I suspect the priority will be to do all in his power to keep whatever outcome is in the cards within the realm of the spinnable -- thereby sanitized for inclusion in his memoirs.

"Calculated deceit" is a strong term. Yet, I'll apologize for using the term "stupid." It is wholly inappropriate in this venue. Willful ignorance with criminal implications is another matter -- I believe.

It is deceitful to make the investment and to incur the risks as we have done without even specifying the stake. As of the last official pronouncement from the White House, we are in Afghanistan to "break the momentum of the Taliban." At the price of a trillion dollars and how many dead and maimed? That's one.

It is deceitful to justify it in terms of the "war on terror' when the result is a net increase in the threat to the United States. Al Qaeda as an organization has ceased to exist as little more than a brand name. Whatever offshoots (or similarly motivated groups) may attack American interests, they can do so more easily from other locations. Besides, the Taliban leadership broke with Al Qaeda long ago and has no reason to retie the knot.

On the other side of the scale, we have motivated and provided training for thousands of potential militants thanks to our crude interventions in the region. That's two.

Long-term stability in Afghanistan in a form congenial to us is a pipe dream. There is no authoritative or competent government in Kabul. The country's political components now and in the future are warlords, clientele networks and sectarian groupings. The army on which our hopes reside is dominated at the command level by Tajiks and Uzbeks. The same holds for the few elite units that exist. Pashtuns are not thrilled. Once outside aid is no longer funneled through Kabul, the army will crumble like a stale biscuit as fragments break away to serve the master of their choice. We've seen this movie before. That's three.

It is deceitful to view Afghanistan as separate from our other concerns and obsessions in the Greater Middle East -- Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt. Still, there is not a hint of a comprehensive idea or strategy for connecting them. Nonetheless, we plow ahead in Afghanistan robotically. That's four. Four strikes and we should get out.