The Pentagon has finally released the semi-annual report on progress and security in Afghanistan for the second half of 2012. This congressional mandated report was completed before the presidential election, but its release was delayed, no doubt because the contents were so unpleasant. Had the public been aware of its contents, it would have been difficult for a president running for reelection to explain why he planned to dawdle on final withdrawal from Afghanistan, and how he justified continued financial support.
It is difficult to read the report without fuming over what we have been told repeatedly, and how our policy toward Afghanistan could have been conducted in so incomprehensible a manner. Everyone is saturated with comparisons to Vietnam, but that does not change the reality that the longer the Afghan adventure is prosecuted, the more the similarities pile up. Possibly, it is just that all such efforts start to bear common, inescapable characteristics. The recent work of Vietnam scholars such as Fredrik Logevall indicates how Lyndon Johnson pressed home the prosecution of the war with the support of right-wing Republicans, a small coterie of advisers, and a military leadership anxious for action. This must sound familiar, and there are many more parallels too lengthy for this piece. These facts make it even more inexcusable that we have again purposefully traveled the same path.
Painfully, the Afghan war has now stretched over two administrations, and the Obama administration is manifesting the same rotten judgment and deceit as that practiced by its predecessor. Indications of how badly things were going have always been there, and have been in the media for all to see. To withhold the report for what would pass as a respectable interval is merely confirmatory of a situation that was too embarrassing to allow it to embroil a sitting president in the midst of a reelection campaign.
Two salient issues are sufficient on their face to warrant a furious reaction from the American public: the role of the military and Afghan governance.
Examining the place of the American military in the Afghan fiasco is particularly painful because of its dichotomous nature. On the one hand are our combat troops. These are devoted, highly trained professionals who comprise the most able military in history. The great majority takes orders, goes into the field and carries out missions without regard for purpose. But, on the other, those troops are led by generals who have an agenda that revolves around continued action and success. Defeat is unacceptable, and justification for continuation of action is necessary, especially in the face of poor results.
My own experience with the results of training Afghan troops goes back as far as 2004. It was clear that officers involved in that effort were falsely reporting much greater success than they were having in order to placate the top brass, who either knew better, or were willing to accept what they wanted to hear. Over the years, military leaders and policy chiefs at the Pentagon reported this faux progress to Congress in self-congratulatory hearings that not only made the generals look good, but also reinforced congressional willingness to fund both military and civilian programs. However, discussing the performance of Afghan troops in the field with the officers and men who actually fought with them revealed a different picture. It is true that there are always exceptions, but, by and large, Afghan troops were simply judged by many as unacceptable for the role of comrades in arms. Many of the problems, such as high rates of desertion and lack of allegiance to the central government, have never been otherwise.
Continued governmental corruption is now reckoned by international standards as the worst in the world. Astonishingly, Afghan president Hamid Karzai blames the United States in large part for that corruption. Ironically, he is correct to a degree. Had we not mindlessly poured billions into his government's coffers, corruption would not be as great. Karzai, in the center of a web of criminal corruption populated by his relatives and cronies, has become adept at deflecting blame by pointing at the United States and Pakistan for Afghan failure to make any meaningful progress toward a day when Afghanistan could stand on its own feet. The Kabul Bank scandal, which is again in the headlines, is a prototypical example.
Unfortunately, the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development have had to justify continued support of Afghan reconstruction by suggesting that better days are around the corner, and by citing improvements in education, health care, and personal communication. All of this would be ephemeral without American dollars and troops to maintain it, which is both obvious and glossed over.
Because of mission creep, our leaders, both civilian and military, have fabricated motives for our continued efforts, most often dwelling on how much progress is being made. Unfortunately, lies beget more lies. Afghanistan, the country that never really was, is not about to become one tomorrow. Nor does American security depend on whether or not it does -- yet another convenient lie. It is time to accept that we went to Afghanistan for a purpose, and accomplished that purpose over a decade ago. We have passed the point of our greatest effort. We can hold our heads highest by accepting that we have made a noble effort, but refuse to squander any more of our men and women.