So, You Want to Get Out of Afghanistan?

07/03/2010 09:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Taylor Marsh Political writer and cultural voyeur, author and speaker.

Gen. Petraeus has taken command in Afghanistan.

''In this important endeavor, cooperation is not optional.'' - Gen. David Petraeus

There's a new sheriff in town, but the challenges haven't changed.


Many of those obstacles are political. Just look at RNC chairman Michael Steele's recent comments, as well as the DNC's response.

Michael Steele's criticism of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan may be creating a headache for the Republican National Committee, but it's also shining a spotlight on the Democrats' mixed message on the war.

The Democratic National Committee pounced on the RNC's chairman's comments at a GOP fundraiser, accusing Steele of "betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan."

Steele saying "a war of Obama's choosing" and "not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," sounding like many on the left. While the DNC sounded decidedly like Dick Cheney.

It's because no one is being honest about what we're really doing in Afghanistan.

People keep asking are we winning the war in Afghanistan? It's the wrong question to ask. Americans are notoriously touchy about admitting we're not, just look at Vietnam. We're "winners" by nature, so saying we can't do something is anathema to our national character. Anyone wanting to shift the conversation has to change the subject to more uncomfortable territory. The question that must be asked is: Should we be nation building in Afghanistan with so many challenges here at home?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal no.

"Nation building" are two words that strike trepidation in most Americans. They connote a never ending siphoning of funds into a country not our own, but also fighting against people with whom we have no beef.

Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone article, "Runaway General," pointed to the fact that Biden's CT-plus is enjoying wider acceptance. In an interview with Andrea Mitchell, Sen. Jack Reed said that we'll be doing COIN until July 2011, when we then will shift to counter-terrorism, as draw-down of forces is supposed to begin. The good news is at least someone knows what we're doing. The bad news is that no one in Washington is admitting that what we're really doing is nation building so changing to counter-terrorism next year means we won't get the job done. Everyone knows it, even if those in charge aren't being honest about the mission. It's not so much mission creep, but that those in charge wouldn't use the words nation building, because of the backlash it would have caused. Obama saying he was going after al Qaeda more acceptable, though when he said he was going to defeat the Taliban it was laughable. Vietnam taught us that you can't defeat grass root rebels, no matter how they're defined.

In Afghanistan, even by CIA Director Panetta's estimate al Qaeda isn't the problem.

When you talk about defeating the Taliban that's another story, but you also have to realize they're going to out last us no matter how much money we spend or blood we shed. The only option is to make a deal, which is really up to Pres. Karzai, who's not got our best interests at heart, but is simply trying to stay alive.

As someone who's supported Pres. Obama since the beginning on Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal made it clear that we're floundering our way to a very bad end. But I believed in the mission of nation building in this country. Possibilities for short-term progress in Afghanistan, though I never bought the notion of "winning the war," now lie in the rubble of McChrystal's career. Not because he was the only man who could "succeed," but because through COIN, and because the Afghan country and culture itself, there is no way to impact the progress needed in the time the American people will allot for the mission. Simply put, nation building is a 15-year effort, with Obama in year two; because you can't count the Bush-Cheney years after 2003, which is when it all began to unravel, as did any hope of salvaging the country on our terms, though you could argue that was none of our business from the beginning. It's simply up to the Afghans, with whatever we can do now never going to amount to what was once possible.

It's the real reason why Gen. McChrystal's stunning Rolling Stone interview was so explosive. Beyond the insubordination and the atmosphere MsChrystal allowed to rise around him from his staff, there is simply no way a military man as seasoned, gifted and tested as he was would have vented if the situation over which he had command wasn't in horrible shape, in fact, deteriorating uncontrollably.

Fast track nation building through COIN is an abysmal failure. If you don't take anything away from McChrystal's implosion that much should be clear.

The challenge has always been that Afghanistan is one of the most unruly, unsophisticated and untamed areas in the world, with corruption rampant and drug trafficking prolific, while being rich in all sorts of exploitable resources. We're asking our military to fight warlords and insurgents with one hand tied behind their backs; putting civilian casualties above their own safety, though I'm not saying COIN is failing because we're not killing enough people, though Gen. Petraeus said last week that rules of engagement would be expanded.

There was a very odd article in the Washington Post last week that brought up interesting points while shedding more light on McChrystal's fall, but also the gradual shift away from COIN. It seems everyone is puzzled and alarmed about the turnover in high command. The writer of the piece, Greg Jaffe asks this question: For the military, this record of mediocrity raises a vexing question: What is wrong with the system that produces top generals? The setting for the question is the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Well, how about that these two wars and the missions in each were wrong in the first place? Civilian diplomatic missions are also confusing when you're armed to the teeth and told to walk softly; you don't carry a gun in dangerous territory without being ready to fire if challenged. In war that means offense; so perhaps war means war and fighting men shouldn't be asked to do missions that are loosely defined and merge military force with diplomacy in a land where Afghans have relatives who are Taliban. Afghanistan was a righteous war after 9/11, but once Bush took his eye off the target to focus on Iraq, at the same time as Gen. Tommy Franks let Osama bin Laden escape at Tora Bora, anything we might have accomplished slipped through our fingers. Iraq was quite simply the largest misadventure in U.S. history.

We can thank Gen. McChrystal, not only for his service to our country, but for his rant in Rolling Stone for finally stripping the bark off the battle. We learned a very important thing about what we're doing in Afghanistan through his career-ending candor.

It's over.

...unless we commit to not "winning the war," but admit that our real mission is nation building, which will take 15 years. Unfortunately, this is something for which we don't have the political or civilian will, and the economic capital it would take isn't worth it.

But as Tom Ricks rightly said recently, just because you walk out of a movie doesn't mean it's over.

Taylor Marsh is a political analyst and writer out of Washington, D.C.