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Focus on the Tragedy of the Afghan War, Not on the Farce

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Afghanistan is back in the news in a big way, but for the wrong reasons. General David Petraeus in a tryst with his biographer. A Florida socialite and General John Allen exchange sweet nothings via email. The socialite's sister, her custody battle for her son, and character references signed by Petraeus and Allen in support of her. Afghanistan has become a backdrop for a bad "B" movie, a tawdry farce played for cheap laughs.

But the real story is not the farce but the ongoing military tragedy of Afghanistan. The United States still has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, with plans for a sizable training force to remain well past the troop withdrawal deadline set for the end of 2014.

Even as the media obsesses over the farce, a tragic war will continue for at least another two years, killing and maiming U.S. and Coalition forces for little apparent purpose. This tragic reality recalls the question I most wanted to hear asked of Obama and Romney in the last presidential debate. It went something like this in my mind:

You both talk about staying in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. But most Americans want to withdraw now. Why not withdraw now? And what do you tell the parents of the last soldier killed in December 2014 in the waning days of the withdrawal you're promising? What results of another two years of war in Afghanistan could possibly justify the blood and sacrifices of our troops?

OK, maybe that's two questions. But my point is that we must not allow the media obsession with the ongoing farce of generals, biographers and socialites in unholy intercourse to distract us from the tragedy of this war.

This lesson was brought home to me by a heartfelt email from a dear friend, an email that demands to be much more widely reported than the threats and innuendos contained in the emails of the biographer/socialite set:

I feel sometimes like our military leaders don't really think of the human cost [of war], even today. I went to church today and I wiped away many tears as they told the story of a member's son whose legs were recently blown off in Afghanistan, and of a chaplain in Iraq who was there with dying soldiers. These stories, and working and living with military families for all these years has really humanized war and made it so personal to me -- but I don't think most Americans have this personal connection.

Forget about the Broadwell/Kelley emails and focus on the email above. How many more troops have to get blown up before we realize that it's time to leave Afghanistan? How many more lives have to be crippled or snuffed out before our government admits its mistakes?

Yet the Washington elites keep fooling themselves, if not the Afghan people, about the progress we're making in Afghanistan. The best rejoinder to all their happy talk came from Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis's report on his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this report, Davis debunked the myth of counterinsurgency (COIN) success and the Petraeus surge as being decisive in Iraq in 2007, suggesting that the Army's belief in its own press led to more U.S. troops being deployed in the Afghan surge of 2010, but under conditions conducive to stalemate, with troops fighting and dying for little but that myth.

In LTC Davis's blunt words:

In my honest and very frank estimation, American Service Members are dead today -- and hundreds more have had limbs blown off -- as payment for the perpetuation of this [Iraq surge] myth, for we built the 2010 surge in Afghanistan on the belief that the same "fundamentals that served us so well in Iraq" could be adjusted to fit the new effort.

As has now been made very clear from the foregoing, however, the "protect the population" strategy used in 2007 in Iraq was never the primary causal factor leading to success as has been claimed. Instead, it was an event entirely beyond our ability to influence or control: America's main international terrorist enemy, al Qaeda, became such a heinous animal that the brutality they inflicted on our local enemy (the Iraqi national insurgency) caused the latter to turn against what ought to have been their natural ally. By burying that truth and instead elevating the myth to the status of doctrine, we have set the conditions for our own harm in Afghanistan.

That's the true tragedy of Afghanistan. In the coming days and weeks, let's focus on that -- and not on the farce.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.