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Tom Engelhardt: Losing It in Washington

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"American officials are still struggling," wrote the New York Times in an editorial on the subject, "to understand the forces at work."  And in that the editorial writers like the general reflected the basic way these acts are registering here -- as a remarkable Afghan mystery.  In other words, in Washington's version of the blame game, the quirky, unpredictable Afghans from Hamid Karzai on down are in the crosshairs.  What is the matter with them?

In the midst of all this, few say the obvious.  Undoubtedly, a chasm of potential misunderstanding lies between Afghan trainees and their American trainers; Afghans may indeed feel insulted by any number of culturally inapt, inept, or hostile acts by their mentors.  They may have been on edge from fasting for Ramadan.  They may be holding grudges.  None of the various explanations being offered, that is, may in themselves be wrong.  The problem is that none of them allow an observer to grasp what's actually going on.  On that, there really should be few "misunderstandings" and, though you won't hear it in Washington, right now Americans are actually the ones in the crosshairs, and not just in the literal sense either.

While the motives of any individual Afghan turning his gun on an American may be beyond our knowing -- just what made him plan it, just what made him snap -- history should tell us something about the more general motives of Afghans (and perhaps the rest of us as well).  After all, the United States was founded after colonial settlers grew tired of an occupying army and power in their midst.  Whatever the individual insults Afghans feel, the deeper insult almost 11 years after the U.S. military, crony corporations, hire-a-gun outfits, contractors, advisers, and aid types arrived on the scene en masse with all their money, equipment, and promises is that things are going truly badly; that the westerners are still around; that the Americans are still trying to stand up those Afghan forces (when the Taliban has no problem standing its forces up and fighting effectively without foreign trainers); that the defeated Taliban, one of the less popular movements of modern history, is again on the rise; that the country is a sea of corruption; that more than 30 years after the first Afghan War against the Soviets began, the country is still a morass of violence, suffering, and death.

Plumb the mystery all you want, our Afghan allies couldn't be clearer as a collective group.  They are sick of foreign occupying armies, even when, in some cases, they may have no sympathy for the Taliban.  This should be a situation in which no translators are needed.  The "insult" to Afghan ways is, after all, large indeed and should be easy enough for Americans to grasp.  Just try to reverse the situation with Chinese, Russian, or Iranian armies heavily garrisoning the U.S., supporting political candidates, and trying to stand us up for more than a decade and it may be easier to understand.  Americans, after all, blow people away regularly over far less than that.

And keep in mind as well what history does tell us: that the Afghans have quite a record of getting disgusted with occupying armies and blowing them away.  After all, they managed to eject the militaries of two of the most powerful empires of their moments, the British in the 1840s and the Russians in the 1980s.  Why not a third great empire as well?

A Contagion of Killing

The message is certainly clear enough, however unprepared those in Washington and in the field are to hear it: forget our enemies; a rising number of those Afghans closest to us want us out in the worst way possible and their message on the subject has been horrifically blunt.  As NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski put it recently, among Americans in Afghanistan there is now "a growing fear the armed Afghan soldier standing next to them may really be the enemy."

It's a situation that isn't likely to be rectified by quick fixes, including the eerily named Guardian Angel program (which leaves an armed American with the sole job of watching out for trigger-happy Afghans in exchanges with his compatriots), or better "vetting" of Afghan recruits, or putting Afghan counterintelligence officers in ever more units to watch over their own troops.

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The question is: Why can't our leaders in Washington and in the U.S. military stop "struggling" and see this for what it obviously is? Why can't anyone in the mainstream media write about it as it obviously is?  After all, when almost 11 years after your arrival to "liberate" a country, orders are issued for every American soldier to carry a loaded weapon everywhere at all times, even on American bases, lest your allies blow you away, you should know that you've failed.  When you can't train your allies to defend their own country without an armed guardian angel watching at all times, you should know that it's long past time to leave a distant country of no strategic value to the United States.

As is now regularly noted, the incidents of green-on-blue violence are rising rapidly.  There have been 32 of them reported so far this year, with 40 American or coalition members killed, compared to 21 reported in all of 2011, killing 35.  The numbers have a chilling quality, a sense of contagion, to them.  They suggest that this may be an unraveling moment, and don't think -- though no one mentions this -- that it couldn't get far worse.

To date, such incidents are essentially the work of lone wolf attackers, in a few cases of two Afghans, and in a single case of three Afghans plotting together.  But no matter how many counterintelligence agents are slipped into the ranks or guardian angels appointed, don't think there's something magical about the numbers one, two, and three.  While there's no way to foresee the future, there's no reason not to believe that what one or two Afghans are already doing couldn't in the end be done by four or five, by parts of squads, by small units.  With a spirit of contagion, of copycat killings with a  message, loose in the land, this could get far worse.

One thing seems ever more likely.  If your plan is to stay and train a security force growing numbers of whom are focused on killing you, then you are, by definition, in an impossible situation and you should know that your days are numbered, that it's not likely you'll be there in 2020 or even maybe 2015.  When training your allies to stand up means training them to do you in, it's long past time to go, whatever your plans may have been.  After all, the British had "plans" for Afghanistan, as did the Russians.  Little good it did them.

Imagine for a moment that you were in Kabul or Washington at the end of December 2001, after the Taliban had been crushed, after Osama bin Laden fled to Pakistan, and as the U.S. was moving into "liberated" Afghanistan for the long haul.  Imagine as well that someone claiming to be a seer made this prediction: almost 11 years from then, despite endless tens of billions of dollars spent on Afghan "reconstruction," despite nearly $50 billion spent on "standing up" an Afghan security force that could defend the country, and with more than 700 bases built for U.S. troops and Afghan allies, local soldiers and police would be deserting in droves, the Taliban would be back in force, those being trained would be blowing their trainers away in record numbers, and by order of the Pentagon, an American soldier could not go to the bathroom unarmed on an American base for fear of being shot down by an Afghan "friend."

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You would, of course, have been considered a first-class idiot, if not a madman, and yet this is exactly the U.S. "hearts and minds" record in Afghanistan to date.  Welcomed in 2001, we are being shown the door in the worst possible way in 2012.  Washington is losing it.  It's too late to exit gracefully, but exit in time we must.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses the historically unprecedented nature of green-on-blue violence, click here or download it to your iPod here.

[Note: To read previous TomDispatch posts on green-on-blue violence, check out Death-By-Ally and Blown Away.]

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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