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Nick Mills

Nick Mills

Posted: September 29, 2010 10:08 AM

Obama's Wars

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Everyone seems to know how not to fix Afghanistan, but there's precious little in the way of ideas on how to fix Afghanistan. Insider journalist Bob Woodward has struck again, this time with a book called Obama's Wars, which chronicles the bitter, name-calling divisions within the Administration over policy, strategy and tactics in Afghanistan.

The title itself seems like a bit of Republican disingenuousness, as it was George W. Bush who started both wars and left it to his successor (or probable successors) to clean up the messes. Bush blundered into Iraq for still-unfathomable reasons, destabilizing the entire region and inadvertently making Iran the neighborhood powerhouse. The initial attack on Afghanistan was, of course, both necessary and justified -- the U.S. had been attacked by Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda, which was then based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Getting Bin Laden and busting up al Qaeda were crystal-clear imperatives. But the blundering Bushies took their collective eye off Afghanistan while the Twin Towers were still smoldering and focused, in their blurry way, on Iraq. They didn't get Bin Laden. Al Qaeda is stronger than ever. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are now mainly fighting Afghans and Pakistanis rather than that small band of stateless (and mostly Arab) terrorists who were the actual enemies. No Afghans participated in the 9/11 attacks, and while the Taliban were an odious regime they had come to power by ending a chaotic civil war that had left Afghanistan a shattered ruin. Almost as soon as U.S. and allied forces entered Afghanistan in October, 2001, things began to go wrong because of a lack of understanding of the country and its people, a misreading of regional politics (read: Pakistan), and a chronic failure to distinguish help from hurt.

Now a new Bob Woodward piece in the Washington Post offers details of meetings between a high-level Obama Administration delegation and Pakistan's President Zardari and the chief of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, whom Woodward refers to as "the most powerful figure in the country." The Obama team -- CIA Director Leon Panetta and National Security Advisor, retired Marine General James L. Jones -- were trying to muscle the Pakistanis into coming down much harder on their domestic terrorist groups and giving the U.S. military more operational space inside Pakistan. According to Woodward, Panetta and Jones warned Zardari and Kayani that another Pakistani-hatched terrorist attack on the U.S., such as the failed Times Square car-bomb attempt of April 30, might result in massive retaliatory strikes against Pakistan. Or if a Pakistani terrorist group launched another Mumbai-type attack on India, the Indian military would certainly retaliate with devastating force. But, Woodward writes, the Pakistanis didn't seem to get it. Zardari and Kayani indicated that they were doing all they cared to do, and if a Pakistani terrorist network launched attacks against the U.S., well, that was not their problem.

Even without a triggering event such as a new terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the U.S. is getting deeper and deeper into Pakistan. There have been dozens of strikes by Predator drones on targets inside Pakistan, and commando units such as the CIA's semi-secret "pursuit teams" of elite Afghan fighters regularly chase insurgents across the border. The conundrum here is that the more the U.S. violates Pakistani sovereignty to fight terrorists, the more Pakistanis hate the U.S. and join or at least sympathize with the terrorists. And the average Pakistanis despise their government for allowing the U.S. to cross the border with impunity. Current U.S. policy is a formula for a widening and never-ending war.

Meanwhile, the headlines from Kabul offer a dismal summary of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan: Karzai fires anti-corruption prosecutor; Karzai asks Moscow for military aid; U.S. soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for "sport"; U.S. casualties rise.

The policy muddle is mirrored by the tactical failures. For an eye-opening glimpse of what U.S. soldiers face on a daily basis in Afghanistan, watch Lara Logan's recent 60 Minutes report on her experiences with troops from the 101st Airborne Division at a small outpost near the Pakistan border. It's Vietnam all over again -- daily patrols, daily ambushes by the insurgents, daily U.S. casualties, daily inflated enemy body counts. And as with Vietnam, there is no military solution to the conflict which we must now call the Afghanistan-Pakistan War. You think things are bad now? Just wait.