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Miracles and Myths -- Opiate of the Afghanistan Hawks

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Revelations of the incompetence and deceit that have marked our Afghan adventure appeared just as the foreign affairs cognoscenti were bandying about the latest big question: Can General David Petraeus repeat his Iraqi miracle? The formulation exposes a double delusion about the legend of the "surge" and what realistically can be expected from "Son of Surge," and the state of mind that so desperately fosters delusion.

Failure and despair are the breeding ground for miracle-workers, prophets and the myths that their legendary feats spawn. Success and hope mute our craving for heroes and heroics. The myth of the miraculous Iraqi acts magically performed by David Petraeus stems from the country's desperate need to be reassured of its prowess in the face of its serial failures in the Greater Middle East. From Iraq through Palestine, Somalia, Lebanon, Iran to Afghanistan II and Pakistan, our ill-advised interventions have left a trail of surreal dreams, lost causes, foiled schemes and havoc. Nowhere have we come close to meeting our objectives. We instead have sown doubts about the probity of American strategic judgment and sullied our historical reputation as an agent for good that observes standards of ethical international behavior.

The blows dealt American self-esteem and pride are hard to accept. So we clutch for straws. Recasting the story of our faults and failings under the sway of imagined deeds that never happened and achievements that never occurred is the straw. David Petraeus is the improbable hero who personalizes this fictive tale. Here are a few uncomfortable, perhaps unpalatable facts.

One, Iraq is a bloody mess. The country is in political disarray, economically in worse shape than in 2003 and prey to growing violence. The outlook is for further deterioration in all three respects -- until the inevitable strongman takes charge on his own terms. Our only enduring accomplishment is to empower the Shi'ites, therefore ensuring intimate ties with Iran on every front.

Two, the so-called "Anbar miracle" was the result of hard-headed calculations by Sunni tribal leaders that had nothing to do with Petraeus or the "surge." Reversion from the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and their violent fundamentalist allies to tribal authority combined with defeat at the hands of the Shi'ites in the civil war of 2005 -2007 to force them to seek protection from the American occupiers. This policy crystallized at the end of 2006 before the "surge," before Petraeus. The promised entente with the Shi'ite Baghdad government is now unraveling.

Three, Petraeus' previous mission to recruit and train an "Iraqi" national army was perverted by bad planning and slap-dash implementation. (Judgment based on personal testimony from officers directly involved in the project.) He produced a force that was nearly 100% Shi'ite, riddled with militia members loyal to various factions. Its political flavor and ineffectualness did not stop Petraeus from writing a series of op-eds in the Fall of 2004 lauding the new "Iraqi" army as ready to take responsibility for the country's security -- op eds that lavished praise on the wisdom and courage of George Bush.

Four, the supposed success against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army was equally illusory. The record shows that in Basra the government forces were defeated before a truce and the intervention of Iran. (The Sadrists seized the broadcasting center on the eve of the ceasefire.) It was Tehran that forced al-Sadr to stand down in tripartite meetings in Qom. In Baghdad, the first phase of fighting produced stalemate. Several government units refused to fire on their fellow Shi'ites. When U.S. forces took over, they pushed the Mahdi army back into Sadr City in heavy combat, and there was possible need to give Sadr City the Fallujah treatment (hearts & minds?). Unexpectedly, the Sadrists overnight disappeared from the streets. Again, it was Iranian intervention that led to this convenient outcome (as declared publicly by their Ambassador to Iraq and, on the ground, confirmed by the testimony of an Army officer who commanded our helicopter squadrons).

Five, Afghanistan presents a very different configuration of forces. The Taliban are rooted in the majority Pushtun community rather than being a beleaguered minority. The Pushtun tribes are not reeling from sectarian conflict. President Karzai is a Pushton who has made it clear that he will strike a deal with the Taliban, only the specifics of when and how are left unclear. Pakistan has its own agenda that precludes subduing all the Taliban.

Six, President Obama's stated reason for escalating in Afghanistan is to crush both al-Qaedi (no longer in the country) AND the Taliban. To the extent that his words ever express dedication, he has stressed that anything short of that would leave the United States intolerably exposed. Yet achieving that daunting purpose is an impossibility. Thus the need for miracle-makers.

Mature, confident and competent states do not voluntarily place themselves in the position of choosing between (another) failure and faith in the power of prayer to summon a Saviour. America's inability to admit past mistakes and its vincibility is a sign that it lacks those qualities. Leaders, and those who presume to advise them, have no right to play games of make-believe when the country's well-being is at stake. Not to speak of the lives of the natives whose well-being weighs so lightly in the balance.