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One more war that can’t be won

“In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al-Qaeda. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country.” Barack Obama

March 30, 2009
By Rob Lafferty

Aside from the damage sustained during decades of armed conflict, Afghanistan seems much the same as it did a century ago. A few people make a comfortable life from the ancient trade in opium poppies, but many more live under the same stagnant economic conditions as their great-grandparents. Outside of the cities little has changed in living memory, only the names and faces of a continual stream of invaders – usually infidels – who come and go in ten-year cycles.

Afghans are a resilient, patient people with strong ties to tribal life. They know their own history of resisting every invading force that has come their way across thousands of years. Most of them deeply resent outsiders who try to impose changes on their society. That, at least, is one belief Americans and Afghans share.

Here in the West it can be hard to understand the difference between Taliban and al-Qaeda and mujahdeen, but we should be able to understand why the young men of Afghanistan resist foreign troops in their native land. For every true jihad beliver there are two opportunists looking to advance their social status and a dozen more who are essentially conscripts bribed out of poverty into the life of a soldier. They may each have an individual sense of religion or ideology driving them, but they all share a common purpose when fighting US and NATO forces in the hills they call home.

We would do the same, most of us. We would defend our homes against any perceived invader regardless of what their motives might be. At this moment, if the right call went out across the land, thousands of Americans would rise up in armed revolt against our own government. How many millions would join together to drive out an invading army?

As long as US soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan, they’ll be targeted by patriotic defenders of the homeland, especially among the four million Pashtun people who live along the eastern border with Pakistan. They’ll also be targeted by jihadists of al-Qaeda everywhere they go, but for very different reasons. In either case it’s impossible for soldiers under attack to know who is firing at them, or why.

And that’s a prime reason why the so-called “fog of war” is a condition where only bad things happen. Thousands of small but deadly battles have been fought over the past seven years, but hundreds of those had nothing to do with the Global War On Terror. Thousands of people are dead who posed no threat to America but were simply living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Probably, hundreds of American soldiers have died fighting – through the fog of war – the wrong enemy.

With each passing month more Western leaders and diplomats are accepting the ultimate futility of an invade/pacify/occupy approach to Afghanistan. They know their history too, and are willing to bow before it. What remains is a small hope for an arrangement that will allow development work to proceed with the blessing of the more tolerant opposition groups. The NATO nations have taken a first step towards that goal by creating some distance between themselves and President Hamid Karzai's government.

"We are lowering our ambitions," a senior – but carefully anonymous – French official admitted recently. "The Americans are now looking for a way out, they no longer regard Afghanistan as strategic. It'll take two to five years, but we're in a logic of disengagement. We need a strategy to neutralise the drug networks that feed the insurgents and a government in Kabul that isn't too corrupt and that can govern outside Kabul.”

That’s certainly not our official government policy, and it might not be our true unofficial position either. We have, however, heard a new public policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan outlined by our new president.

"Making sure that al-Qaeda cannot attack the US homeland and US interests and our allies. That's our number one priority,” President Obama said in a televised interview two weeks ago. "What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems. So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

What Obama didn’t say is one simple truth – we can’t afford to spend billions trying to fight small bands of terrorists using traditional military tactics when it just doesn’t work. A different kind of battle needs to be fought. We need to target key members of jihadist groups, capture them and bring them to public justice. We need to cut off the supply of guns and money to jihadist groups. We need to rebuild the relationship America once had with mujadheen freedom fighters who resisted the Soviet Army until it finally pulled out of Afghanistan and returned home to a crumbling Empire.

Another alternative would be to use assassination squads against the leaders of terrorist groups, which we now know is a practice Dick Cheney supervised from the Vice President’s office. But Cheney continues to insist that al-Qaeda remains strong and committed to launching another attack on American soil, so assassination and torture don’t seem to have worked very well. There’s also the fact that both practices violate the Constitution and every principle it represents, but ignoring the law of the land has always been a common habit among those who hold power.

“I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," Obama said. "I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history. The facts don't bear him out. I think that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us. This process will not be advanced by threats.”

This past week Obama issued a lengthy statement outlining his intent for the US-led effort to create a functioning economy, transform the government and cut off the poppy trade that funds extremist groups throughout the region. That plan includes sending 17,000 more combat troops and committing billions of dollars in aid and services to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has cost us dearly; this year the total will reach 5,000 soldiers and 800 billion dollars. Estimates of the long-range costs, including heath care for wounded veterans, range between $1 trillion and $4 trillion. Today even the most supportive of war hawks can’t deny that we’ll get little or nothing in return for our investment in Mesopotamia.

The amount of money our government is handing out to ease the current global economic panic is roughly equal to the amount it poured into the sands of Iraq. We get outraged when tax dollars are used to pay executive bonuses but we quietly accept an official budget that allocates $612 billion in one year for national defense. And since we haven’t learned from our own history, tens of billions of dollars will be spent this year fighting the wrong kind of battles in a rugged land once known as the Kingdom of Gandhara.

It might help if we stop calling our involvement in Afghanistan a “war” and stop thinking about our presence there in military terms. If we change the dialog we might be able to change a lot of false assumptions about what can be accomplished with an army, which might lead to a more honest assessment of our problems with radical Islamic groups.

Because there is no ultimate solution. Islamic fundamental extremists will never peacefully coexist with Christian capitalists; neither belief system has any place to include the other. But suicide bombers are a plague that affect Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists alike. And dealing with that kind of violent insanity is common ground we all share, and a common cause we will share for many years to come.

Rob Lafferty is a former editor of the Haleakala Times. He can be reached via email at rob@moonvalleypress.com