Afghanistan: The End of America’s Longest War?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington for talks with the Obama administration on the gradual draw down of foreign troops from his country over the next two years. There are currently about 104,000 NATO and other outside troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans.

In a recent piece for CNN, I wrote:

“By summer of 2013, it is anticipated that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will draw to a close. By the end of 2014, only a few thousand U.S. troops will be left, and they will mainly supply close air support to the Afghanistan army when it engages in combat. Whether the some 350,000-strong Afghanistan security forces are up to the challenge of fighting the Taliban and other insurgents is a matter of great controversy. American officers in Kabul insist that the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) now takes the lead in 80 percent of operations against the enemy, up from 50 percent just last summer. But a recent Pentagon review admitted that only one of 23 ANA brigades is capable of functioning on its own, without U.S. or ISAF help. In 2012, some 300 were dying every month in battles with the Taliban and other militant groups. The ANA has low rates of literacy (a third the rate of the general population), high rates of drug use, and high rates of desertion. It is also disproportionately drawn from the Tajik, Dari Persian-speaking minority. Only 2 percent of the troops hail from Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in the Pashtun south, the strongholds of the Taliban.”

Earlier arguments about whether the US would keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after December 31, 2014, or only 3,000 have abruptly been eclipsed by a White House staffer’s announcement that the “zero option” is on the table. That is, the US may leave entirely.

This threat is likely intended to convince Karzai to withdraw his objections to granting extraterritoriality (immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts) to the remaining US troops. It was the refusal of the Iraqi government to grant such immunity that led to the complete withdrawal of US troops from that country at the end of 2011.

In Iraq, PM Nouri al-Maliki would have had to get extraterritoriality passed through his parliament (which nowadays is up in revolt against him), and that would have been impossible. The Iraqi parliament is full of Shiite nationalists and Sunni nationalists who were dying to see foreign soldiers out of their country.

The Afghan parliament is even weaker than the Iraqi, and Karzai can probably make his own deal with Washington. But he can’t act just as he pleases.

Karzai’s opposition among hard line Muslim fundamentalists are painting him as a traitor for signing any agreement at all with the US on the post-combat American troop presence. Karzai wants to negotiate a settlement with them, which is probably not impossible, but they say American troops remaining in their country is a deal breaker with regard to negotiations.

Nor can the president afford to alienate too many MPs in his own, weak parliament, since some of them are still movers and shakers in the country.

Will Karzai fold on the immunity issue and grant extraterritoriality to US troops? Or will he risk the departure of the Americans (whom he has sometimes admitted he does not like very much).

I don’t doubt that in the absence of a deal on immunity from prosecution in local courts of US troops, the Obama administration would be perfectly willing to pull them all out. Obama is a Pacific Rim president and is annoyed by the distractions of the Middle East, which he does not think is very important compared to China, Japan, the Koreas and the Philippines.

I wrote at CNN:

” Ironically, the draw-down of Western forces may make it easier for warring Afghan factions to begin serious negotiations with one another over the shape of the future. The United States has reportedly given up on attempting to play a role in those talks, and is bequeathing the task of achieving a negotiated settlement to the Afghans themselves and to Pakistan. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly said that the end of the foreign troop presence is a precondition for any serious talks. Perhaps light at the end of that tunnel will be enough to at least begin behind-the-scenes discussions. It is also possible, however, that the radicals will attempt to improve their eventual bargaining position by taking more territory from Karzai and his successor.

28 Responses

  1. the headline implies a legitimacy and a purpose that i cannot understand ..

    not war .. invasion

    end? of what? surrounding iran? claiming minerals or oil? keeping the territory out of chinese hands?

    what the heck was it all about, that it can end?

    • The successful effort to oust the Taliban and Mullah Omar, and to deprive Al-Qaeda of a safe-haven in Afghanistan, was the reason the United States went in. It was fully justified, both under international law and under the Law of War, as we had been attacked by an enemy (Al-Qaeda) who received the support of the Afghan government (the Taliban). The U.S. had every right to defend itself and take out those who had committed such an act of war.

      The problem is the U.S. got bogged down in counter-insurgency. I have posted several comments in the past about the reasons why the circumstances in Afghanistan do not favor a successful counter-insurgency program. I will not repeat the reasons here, but the only successful counter-insurgency program since World War II was that of the British in Malaya.

      As the U.S. draws down in Afghanistan, we need to continue our robust counter-terrorism program, including the use of drones and Special Ops, both in the Pakistani FATA and in Afghanistan if intelligence reveals a return of Al-Qaeda or its affiliated organizations.

      Rest assured, the U.S. did not engage in Afghanistan to “surround Iran, claim minerals or oil, or keep the territory out of Chinese hands.”

      • The problem is the U.S. got bogged down in counter-insurgency.

        You talk about this like we blew a tire, and it’s nobody’s fault and everybody’s. The Bush Administration got bogged down in counter-insurgency, and they did so because they made a policy choice that they intended to made Afghanistan a client state and maintain it within the American military sphere. Moving into counter-insurgency was not a natural outcome of The successful effort to oust the Taliban and Mullah Omar, and to deprive Al-Qaeda of a safe-haven in Afghanistan. Kabul fell to an Afghan army that was receiving air support and some special forces help from a few hundred Americans. There was something else going on in the Bush administration’s head that led them to determine counter-insurgency was necessary, and we needed to have tens of thousands of troops in the country.

        Rest assured, the U.S. did not engage in Afghanistan to “surround Iran, claim minerals or oil, or keep the territory out of Chinese hands.”

        I don’t know how you can say all of that. There is clearly some other explanation necessary to explain the Bush administration’s actions.

        • Of course the Bush Administration made a policy decision to engage the U.S. in counter-insurgency. It follows that the U.S. got bogged down in counter-insurgency. One needn’t get into the details to reach that conclusion.

          You state that you don’t know how I can say that the U.S. did not engage in Afghanistan to “surround Iran, claim minerals or oil, or keep the territory out of Chinese hands.” It’s easy, Joe. There is absolutely no evidence that those were the reasons the U.S. engaged in Afghanistan. There is every reason to think we went in to engage in the (admittedly foolish) game of “nation-bulding” in order to create a nation and government that would maintain a bulwark against terrorism springing from its territory. Nevertheless, Joe, I am open to consider any evidence you can proffer that would suggest we engaged in order to “surround Iran, claim minerals or oil, or keep the territory out of Chinese hands.”

        • There are, in fact, some pretty good reasons to believe that surrounding Iran was a motivating factor in why the Bush administration (and the Republicans to this day) want to maintain a permanent presence in Afghanistan. There’s their states desire to carry out a series of wars against the “Axis of Evil” countries (plus Syria), for one.

          But more importantly, there’s the screaming need to come up with some explanation for actions that can’t be explained by the initial war goals – routing al Qaeda and toppling the regime that backed them. I agree that oil, minerals, and China don’t fit the bill, Bill, but what does that leave?

          There is every reason to think we went in to engage in the (admittedly foolish) game of “nation-bulding” in order to create a nation and government that would maintain a bulwark against terrorism springing from its territory.

          That’s a plausible reason, too.

    • not war .. invasion

      What is this even supposed to mean? Almost all wars involve invasions. Are you saying there isn’t a war in Afghanistan?

      what the heck was it all about, that it can end?

      At this point, it’s about trying to leave in a manner that doesn’t produce a catastrophic power vacuum.

      • And what do you so very much smarter guys suggest are the policies and tactics to be followed in order not to create a giant sucking sound of some “catastrophic power vacuum” as the last C-117s and Blackhawks hoist their loads and flee, er, “leave”?

        The whole “Vietnamization” thing ain’t going to work any better here than it did there, but of course we Americans are now happy to deal with those Dirty Commies who “filled that catastrophic power vacuum,” to the point of now filling Walmart’s shelves and racks with cheap, well-made clothing. And on the “What was that all about?” scale again, now our Navy, having connived at the fraud of the Gulf of Tonkin scam that sucked us into full-chat invasion and war-making without any national interest (other than the kind of false pride limned in Greek tragedies) or support, floats around in the Gulf of Tonkin doing joint maneuvers with the “gooks”??

        And about that chasing-bin Ladin-and-Mullah Omar and “acts of war,” what’s the apologist’s justification for a trillion dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, and you don’t seem to care much about the trashed moral standing of the US in the wider world since those stupid, meaningless things that “we’ve” done Over There get ignored and pushed into the ignorant, uncaring past as just “mission creep?” (And look! now it appears that “we” could have “taken out” bin Ladin years and trillions earlier, if that was in fact the mission, and just how did Mullah Omar pose a trillion dollars’ worth of ‘threat” to the US, again?

        And yes, Virginia, there’s war in Afghanistan, armed men (and our women, too) kicking down doors and patrolling to draw fire, too puny to protect our own troops and knowing “we” are unable to force any other change, and what the Frick is the mission, again? “We kill some of them, so they kill some of us, so we kill some of them…”? And WE, or more accurately our Brass and soldiers and contractors and sneaky-petes invaded, just like bin Ladin wanted us to, just like the Soviets did, and with the same freakin’ result. Your “justification” and “pre-emption” arguments are nonetheless totally bogus, and I defy you to show even any economic sense in all that’s gone down in terms of how much “security” “we” supposedly achieved by sending $4 trillion into Dumbspace for the contractors and native players to feed off of.

        Ach, you guys know of course that it’s a waste of time to challenge your Narrative, all comfy and smug. You got an answer for everything, all nice and neat and how’s that go, “legal?” Too bad your Players have been bleeding all the life out of this nation on their fool’s errands and the scams and frauds that go along with it.

        • You wrote exactly the same thing about Obama’s managed withdrawal from Iraq, JT, and you were dead wrong.

          What do I suggest? I suggest putting the responsibility for planning and conducting the withdrawal in the hands of competent professionals who, unlike some, don’t consider it a virtue to have exactly the same answer to every question. YOU are going to criticize ME for being attached to a narrative? JT, you project more than an opera singer.

          I suggest basing our strategy on the negotiated withdrawal from Iraq: a reality-based policy, setting, announcing, and clearly demonstrating a timeline for withdrawal, and giving the people on the ground a high degree of flexibility in how to plan and operate as they move down the timeline. I suggest that a withdrawal can also generate positive political results.

          But mostly, JT, what I suggest is that the administration actually try to answer the question you’re asking, as opposed to merely using it as a launching point for one’s very favorite boilerplate. A Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Really? You sound like a parody.

        • Hey, Joe, where you gonna find “competent professionals” to put the withdrawal in the hands of? They got a bunch of those hanging around in “the administration” in DC and Langley and Foggy Bottom? And maybe you could show me where I wrote “the same thing” about withdrawal from Iraq, which hmmm, hasn’t actually gone all that well, has it? “Positive political results?” Like what, and for whom? Karzai? the hornet’s nest of tribalists and drug lords and arms dealers and contractors and The Hated Taliban and stuff? Reality-based? I guess “whatever happens” is “reality?”

          I guess we should once again just have faith that the “competent professionals” will do the right thing? Sorry we descend to the personal attacks… but there’s always enough hate and tribalism to go around… How’s that for a parody?

    • Of course there is implying going on and that is why you need to read between the lines
      For example, Freedom fighters, militants, revolutionaries, insurgents and terrorists
      To each his own and suddenly even fox news becomes useful source of information.

  2. Around and around it goes, shedding profit opportunities and endless woes…

    Where’s the cartoonist to make a telling pair of images, the first of Nguyen Van Thieu, our puppet dictator in the end days of the idiot involvement in Vietnam, and Karzai coming to DC to, among other things, be sure he has the same kind of exit options as Thieu? Who left his Sacred Native Land by US chopper just days before the Commies completed the rolling up of the corrupt rulership of South Vietnam, to go live out a quiet rest of his life in the suburbs of Boston? Both had/have their hands deeply in the pockets of the US taxpayer, and both helped warp the idiot debate and policy momentum that had Our Sacred Native Land involved in grotesquely expensive Wars Against National Interest in places where empires go to die (ask the French how that works.)

    And I am just sure that there are huge reams of policy pontifications that justify, in the minds of those who even care about justification as opposed to simple exercise of the doctrines of that other “Hegel,” an occasional misspelling you see in all the claptrap over Obama’s appointee, having to do with the inherent manifest exceptional policy to do whatever the “will” moves the doers and shakers to do and shake.

    Who cares?

  3. Is Obama, who led the “surge” in Afghanistan, going to do something about the American share of this:

    “More than three decades of conflict in Afghanistan — from the Soviet invasion of 1979 through the civil war of the 1990s to the U.S.-led invasion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — have left the impoverished farming country one of the most heavily mined in the world.

    “Basically, Afghanistan has been contaminated with unexploded ordnance by the full range of actors,” said Elena Rice, a program officer with the United Nations Mine Action Service.”

    “”Kids, they’ll be out playing ball and they’ll come across something neat and shiny,” he said. “They go over to play with it, and the next thing you know, they drop it and it goes boom — and you have children that are injured, or worse.”

    ….. Mathew Hay Brown, Baltimore Sun.

    link to articles.baltimoresun.com

    • Actually, the US has been carrying out landmine removal projects in Afghanistan for almost two decades.

      link to state.gov

      There is an Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the State Department that specializes in funding these projects.

      link to state.gov

      They’ve spent over $100,000,000 just in Afghanistan.

      Oh, and here’s a cheery little tale about the Taliban beheading a mine-clearance team.

      link to abc.net.au

      • “WE” worked really hard to sucker the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, and they brought a lot of mines with them, and we (for a profit, of course) supplied a lot of mines to be used in those parts of the continual bloodshed. And of course in lots of other places where “we” have fomented or taken some part in “conflict.”

        Don’t you DARE to be claiming “moral credit” for the US for picking up our toys over there:

        From 1969 to 1992, the United States exported 4.4 million antipersonnel mines, mostly to Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Somalia, and Vietnam.

        U.S.-made or supplied APLs have been found in 32 countries, including Afghanistan.

        link to uscbl.org There’s much more at that site too, like the fact that mines cost about $3 or not much more to make, and cost thousands to remove, and do millions more in physical and psychic damage.

        The mine clearing is a for-profit operation, and I have a hard time being more sentimental about mine-clearers getting killed by your possible “the Taliban” than any other person killed or maimed in this whole fool’s paradise (possibly excepting Osama bin Ladin):

        The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has been working to clear landmines from Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began. The USACE uses a combination of US soldiers and contractors to perform the work. The USACE’s Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, AL, recently awarded a contract worth up to $60 million to EOD Technology (EODT) in Lenoir City, TN, to clear mines and battlefield areas…

        Under the contract announced Feb 1/10, EODT will provide clearance of munitions and explosives of concern, including landmines and unexploded munitions throughout Afghanistan. EODT has provided mine clearing, security services, and expeditionary services in Afghanistan since 2004.

        link to defenseindustrydaily.com Lookie here, maw! A profit-centric opportunity!

        • Alert! Alert!

          Positive information posted about United States!

          Woot woot woot! This is not a drill, people!

          Get to those keyboards now now now!

          This will not stand. As God is my witness, this will not stand!

        • Speaking of parodies… One of those repetitive things I stick at is personification of “nations.” “The U.S.” is made up of a whole bunch of disparate moving and acting parts, including sets of people who do “Doctors without Borders” and International Red Cross and stuff, and who oppose the crazy clumsy bleeding bureaucracy called the MIC, and the sale of murderous weapons all over the planet, and people who actively push and profit from those same sales. And some of “us” manage the overthrow of, say, Iranian governments for the benefit of British petroleum corporations, and little Central American countries for the benefit of United Fruit and so on.

          That US contractors get paid to manage teams of largely indigenous people to risk their lives picking up mines that are in the ground as a result of “our” fixation on playing the Great Game sure doesn’t seem like a “good deed” worthy of praise. But that’s just me, of course.

  4. Are there examples of countries that have said to other countries, “we’ll grant you extraterritoriality in exchange for your keeping troops in our country” ?

  5. “By the end of 2014, only a few thousand U.S. troops will be left, and they will mainly supply close air support to the Afghanistan army when it engages in combat.”

    Isn’t that our main use of force now? My guess is that the US “close air support” force will not be Karzai’s “bomber command”. Rather I suspect it would be another tool to be used by the US in pursuit of its own objectives.

    And close air support using our ostensibly super accurate weapons could mean anything from helicopter gunships and drones to ship and ground launched cruise missiles launched far outside of Afghanistan. I also think that the “few thousand troops” will be augmented by double that in US contractor personnel. We never go half way.

  6. Longest war? The U.S. was in Vietnam from ’54 to ’75, and was instrumental in the French effort from ’45 to ’54. They call it the Ten Thousand Day War for a reason.

    • “They call it the Ten Thousand Day War for a reason.”

      Yes, but it wasn’t a Ten Thousand Day U.S. War. Read your history. To the Vietnamese it appeared to be a continuous struggle, but the “War” had two distinct phases, the French and the U.S. Do not try to conflate the two.

      • During WWII, Ho Chi Minh was an ally of the U.S. during the Japanese occupation. The Vietminh often rescued downed American pilots.

        The CIA, but not the U.S.military, played a role in Vietnam during the 1950s.

        The first U.S. soldier to die in Vietnam was Spec. 4 James Davis in 1961.

  7. The reason the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979 was its leader, Leonid Brezhnev, announced the “Brezhnev Doctrine” -extending military aid to any Marxist regime that was in danger of falling. The interest in propping up the Babrak Karmal government in Kabul at that time was due to the fact that the Soviets were also arming Balochi rebels in Pakistan and were hoping that they would get their badly-needed naval base on the Indian Ocean. The Americans were preoccupied with the Iranian hostage crisis that had just began a month earlier. The Afghan military was so unpopular that the government had to kidnap Afghans off the street to serve and many Afghan units intentionally shelled their own fellow soldiers in mutiny.

    It was the void that was created by the Red Army withdrawal in 1988 that led to the collapse of the Marxist regime in 1992 and the fighting between the various Afghan warlords that led to the Taliban assuming power in Kabul in 1996.

    Neither the Soviets nor the Americans established a civil infrastructure in the country which would allow the Afghan people to eradicate one of the highest illiteracy and infant mortality rates in the world. During the 1970s the national literacy rate was only 5% – tying it with Somalia for the lowest in the world at that juncture. The lack of a stable rural economic base led farmers to cultivate opium poppies which has grown to such an extent that 87% of the worldwide opium production currently emanates from Afghanistan.

    It was only after 9/11 that the U.S. began bombing the then-abandoned terror training bases in Afghanistan that had been used by al-Qaeda.

    The failure of the Soviet Union and the U.S. to provide needed foreign aid to develop Afghanistan into a stable economy and democracy is traceable to the rise of the dangerous Taliban and al-Qaeda presence that exists to this day in that region.

    • This is an excellent comment, with one weakness: Clinton launched cruise missile attacks on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in August 1998, in response to the bombings of two American embassies in Africa.

      Still, your larger point remains.

  8. There is a good book out there called “Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan” by Tamim Ansary. I am paraphrasing, but my take is that he argues that the reason so many foreigners have intervened in Afghanistan is because of the country’s location–it was the court on which Czarist Russia and Great Britain once played the Great Game (with Russia wanting to get closer to the Indian ocean and the British wanting to prevent that), and later being another square on the chessboard that was the Cold War. Beyond the War on Terror, countries will continue to have their eyes on Afghanistan because of its location–for example, an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Karachi (an alternative to over dependence on oil passing through the Persian Gulf) would have to go through Afghanistan. I don’t think the U.S. will drop their Afghan involvement cold turkey, though it may be in the President’s interest to project that to certain voters at home. On another note, the Jan 7 edition of “All Things Considered” states that “Taliban leaders have long rejected peace talks with the Karzai government, saying they will only negotiate with the U.S. The U.S., for its part, says the two Afghan parties should negotiate directly.” Prof. Cole, since you state in your article that “the Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly said that the end of the foreign troop presence is a precondition for any serious talks” I’m wondering what your take is on all this–would the U.S. and Taliban really sit and talk?

    • The US was willing to talk to some elements of Taliban, but the Taliban balked. The US now says Kabul will have to negotiate with the various insurgents itself, Afghan-to-Afghan.

      • “The US now says Kabul will have to negotiate with the various insurgents itself, Afghan-to-Afghan.”

        In my opinion this is as it should be. The U.S. should not negotiate on behalf of a feckless government in Kabul that, after the U.S. pulls out, will have to come to terms with the Taliban anyway. I think it is pretty clear that Afghans understand each other far better than we do. Let them reach their own compromises and deal with the results.

        • Correct, Bill. Very astute comment. Too bad “the U.S.” did not limit itself, legally or not, to the two items you think were justification for invasion and $4 trillion of war games, getting bin Ladin and that Mullah Fella off the stage. Why didn’t “we” leave the various parts of the people living in Afghanistan to sort things out amongst themselves in the first place?

          But that is of course not how our machinery works, now is it?

  9. In 2001, the US partnered with misogynist fundamentalist warlords to defeat the Taliban. Then, our thugs were invited into the new government. For 12 years we’ve been enabling these women-haters, while selling ourselves as liberators. We’ve done nothing but exacerbate a dire situation.

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