Death, scandal, dashed hopes, and tragic new milestones for America. It's been a disastrous week for the Afghanistan war.
On Monday, June 7, the Afghanistan war completed its 104th month, becoming the longest-ever war the United States has fought. Costs continue to rise, outpacing that of the Iraq war for the first time last month -- a trend that appears likely to continue. Victory is defined too nebulously to substantively measure. Withdrawal timetables have repeatedly been gutted. The future looks as bleak as ever.
Also on Monday -- probably not a coincidence -- 12 NATO soldiers were killed, seven of them Americans. It was the deadliest day for coalition forces since last October. An additional five troops lost their lives on Sunday, and five more on Wednesday, making this one of the war's worst weeks for coalition casualties in its nearly nine years.
Another troubling nugget of news from Afghanistan this week came in a New York Times report: an ongoing investigation sees compelling evidence that Afghan private security contractors have been bribing Taliban militants with US funds to escalate violence and thus boost the need for their services. "A series of events last month," the Times reported, "suggested all-out collusion with the insurgents."
The Times spoke to a NATO official in Kabul who "believed millions of [American] dollars were making their way to the Taliban." The fallout? None, really. Crickets from the White House. No declarations from party leaders. The only member of Congress who seemed to notice was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). "Our troops are dying in Afghanistan, and now it turns out we may be funding their killers," he fumed.
Relations have soured this year between the US and Hamid Karzai's government, which many Afghans deem illegitimate after his disputed reelection last fall, but whose support and leadership is indispensable to the NATO mission's success. Between Karzai's growing criticism of the West and his bizarre threat in April to join the Taliban, the fissure between the two nations greatly complicates matters.
The cordial faces and promises of continued co-operation he and President Obama offered the cameras last month pale in comparison to Karzai's true sentiments. After Afghanistan's top intelligence operative resigned last week, key aides of his privately confessed of the Afghan leader's growing pessimism towards NATO success. Karzai has "lost his confidence in the capability of the coalition or even his own government [to protect] this country," one aide told the UK Guardian.
Obama hasn't flinched on his commitment to the Afghanistan effort in the face of mounting obstacles, declaring that it's "absolutely critical that we succeed on this mission." He hasn't scrapped plans to begin winding it down next July, but last month warned war critics not to get their hopes up. "We are not suddenly as of July 2011 finished with Afghanistan," he said, noting that America is "still going to have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is secure" from then on.
Defeating Islamic extremists seeking to target the West is, clearly, an important and worthy goal. But the viability of the military operation in Afghanistan needs to be measured against specific goals as well as the cost and likelihood of achieving them. An indefinite occupation with no parameters is simply not practical or strategically sound. The president has downplayed the notion of "victory," making it easy to justify the sustained effort under virtually any circumstances.
The violence has gotten progressively worse since the US-led invasion in 2001. 2009 was by far the worst year for NATO fatalities, and 2010 isn't looking any better. So far this year, 249 coalition forces have died, of which 161 were American. But none of that has affected Congress's staunch support for the war. Kucinich's resolution to set a swift timetable for troop withdrawal in March was crushed 365-65; Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-Wis.) more lenient proposal weeks ago got pummeled 18-80.
The Senate just overwhelmingly voted to approve $33 billion to fund the Obama administration's 30,000-strong troop surge into Afghanistan. The House of Representatives is expected to follow suit. It will. It always does. War has become a fact of life for post-9/11 America -- a permanent fixture of the Washington establishment that can hardly be challenged, lest anyone with insufficient pro-war credentials be dismissed as unserious and naive. It's what stifles any constructive discussion about the most practical way forward with this war.