Alligators and Objectives

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nick Mills Associate professor of Journalism, Boston University

Two major headlines of the past few days, "Obama Visits Kabul" and "U.S. Troop Deaths Double in Afghanistan," seemed to silently scream the overarching question: Why Are We in Afghanistan?

I'm sure you know the expression, "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp." What was our objective anyway?

The visit to Kabul by President Obama was brief -- only about six hours on the ground, part of that in a pep rally with troops -- and was apparently undertaken so that President Obama could tell President Karzai face to face that he needed to do more to earn America's commitment of blood and treasure to his country. Why hasn't this point been made forcefully to Karzai, president to president, over and over during the eight-plus years since we helped the Northern Alliance rout the Taliban? During all that time the U.S. has steadily increased its military commitment while Karzai has repeatedly thumbed his nose at suggestions that he do something about the rampant corruption in Kabul, about his alleged drug-lord brother Wali in Kandahar, about his own hapless military and police forces -- not to mention the massive fraud in the 2009 election which gave Karzai a second term in office. And speaking of nose-thumbing, when Karzai received Obama at the Arg Palace he was just back from visiting his new best bud, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Tehran, in the second of a home-and-home series of Happy New Year, hug-your-neighbor house calls. If one of the reasons we're in Afghanistan is to curb the spread of Iran's influence in the region, guess what? It ain't working in Kabul.

Then we learn that U.S. troop deaths this year in Afghanistan are twice what they were during the same period last year. We are told by the generals that we have to expect more casualties as the U.S. tries to bludgeon the Taliban into suing for peace, or at least coming to the negotiating table. As Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month, "We must steel ourselves...for harder days yet to come."

As the price in blood increases, so does the cost in dollars. According to infoplease, which gets its numbers from the Center for Defense Information, the total outlay for Afghanistan operations in this fiscal year will be $300 billion. Combined with the cost of Iraq operations, the U.S. will spend over a trillion dollars in FY 2010 waging two bad wars. For the first few years after the U.S. jumped into Afghanistan in late 2001, the cost was moderate: under $15 billion in 2003 and 2004; around $20 billion for 2005 and 2006. But in 2007, when the Bush Administration woke up to the fact that things were going galley-west in Afghanistan, the outlay nearly doubled to $36 billion, and that figure nearly quadrupled in 2008 to $140 billion. Now, in 2010, even that number has been more than doubled.

A refresher course: Remember 9/11/2001? Of course you do. Remember Osama bin Laden? He was the mastermind of the attacks on 9/11. He had a little group called al Qaeda and it was based in Afghanistan. The Taliban did not attack the U.S., but they provided Osama with real estate for his terrorist training camps. Location, location, location. So the reasons for invading Afghanistan were, 1) kill or capture Osama bin Laden; 2) unhorse the Taliban for giving him aid and comfort. We accomplished Number Two with surprising ease. But the evil Saudi who bankrolled and planned the 9/11 attacks slipped away into Pakistan and became, to the Bush Administration, Osama bin Forgotten. Osama, Enemy Number One of the U.S., was trapped, defeated, and demoralized in the Tora Bora mountains and the Bushies did not mount an aggressive effort to cut off his escape route! I have been told by people who were there that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied a request by commandos in the mountains to air-drop a few hundred troops as a blocking force. So Osama strolled across the line into the safe haven of our "ally" Pakistan, where his legend grew and his tribe increased.

Then the U.S. stepped into the same painful leghold trap that hobbled the U.S.S.R. for a decade, putting an army of occupation into Afghanistan and fighting an asymmetrical war against an indigenous insurgency. The Soviets, at least, had some legitimacy in the region; their 'Stans bordered on Afghanistan and they had warm relations with Iran. We came barging in from a continent-and-a-half plus an ocean away. And the guy we put in place to lead the "New Afghanistan" just isn't cutting it, any more than the Soviet puppets were cutting it in the 1980s.

In other words, we are up to our ass in alligators, and not only have we failed to drain the swamp we have created a much bigger swamp than the one we dove into in 2001. What's more, our objective seems to have grown both grander and vaguer over time. Let's define a new objective: get out.