Towards a New Paradigm Shift
At the end of June 2009, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Adviser at the time, traveled to Afghanistan to evaluate the situation on the ground on behalf of Barack Obama. The new president had just approved an additional 21,000 troops on top of the 47,000 American and 30,000 NATO troops that had battled the Taliban in Afghanistan since October 2001.
In an attempt to beef up his national security credentials as he criticized George W. Bush's disastrous Iraq war during the 2008 campaign, Obama advocated for "the necessary war" as he dubbed the largely forgotten conflict in Afghanistan.
Thus, Obama was willing to quickly fulfill his promise to take on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He thought that by approving the troop build-up he would be done with the issue, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his military commanders were promising they could "turn this around" with additional troops.
As soon as Gen. Jones was on the ground at Bagram Air Base, meeting with the American commanders, he was shocked to learn of the deteriorating security situation in the country and the military setbacks. But upon hearing the field commanders' urgent request to double the number of troops that had just been added, he indicated that after all those additional troops, if there were more requests for forces the president would have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment," in reference to the acronym WTF.
In his book, Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward, the associate editor of the Washington Post, reported a detailed account of the administration's 2009 six-month debate over U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. What's remarkable is how the fear of the Al-Qaeda's returning to its pre-9/11 safe havens in Afghanistan had dominated the debate and driven the policy.
During these endless National Security Council (NSC) meetings, U.S. intelligence agencies established early on that Al-Qaeda had "a tenuous foothold in Afghanistan," perhaps "20 to 100 people at the most." In addition, according to Peter Lavoy, the NSC intelligence point man, the total number of Taliban -- the poorly armed but determined fighters -- was estimated at no more than 25,000.
By the end of this process Obama felt trapped, but still chose a policy of sending another 33,000 American soldiers within six months for a total American commitment of over 100,000 soldiers, roughly the same number that the Soviet Union maintained in Afghanistan during the 1980s with little success. Despite the colossal economic difficulties facing the country, the administration and Congress approved the troop escalation with an annual bill that exceeds $113 billion, another huge sum to be added to the growing national debt that has more than doubled since 9/11, from $6- to $14-trillion.
How did it all begin?
Shortly after 9/11 Bush declared, largely with the support of the military-industrial-congressional-corporate media complex, that the U.S. was at war with all Islamic groups across the globe that disagreed with American foreign policy, even if they had never attacked the U.S. or considered it an enemy. This so-called "global war on terror" has thus needlessly transformed in the American psyche countless number of Muslim groups and political activists into the "enemies" camp. Not only was Al-Qaeda now considered the arch-enemy of the U.S, but overnight almost all Muslim political groups, even those who fight for self-determination and empowerment through nonviolent means, were suddenly added to the target list or were treated as suspects.
Woodward's account of the U.S. Afghan internal policy debate exposed the fault lines that have existed in U.S. policy in the region for over a decade. He portrayed the discussions as ones that were marked by the classic tension between the DOD and its military brass on the one hand, and the civilian leadership led by the White House on the other. In essence, the military commanders wanted to be given an open-ended commitment to "defeat" the Taliban, while the civilians wanted to "degrade" the capacity of the Taliban to prevent it from overtaking the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul.
The logic by the hardliners (the DOD brass plus Hillary Clinton) went like this: "A victory for the Taliban counted as victory for Al-Qaeda." The nascent Obama administration was indeed becoming hostage to Bush's declaration that the U.S. was at war against all extremists groups in the "war on terror." Lavoy successfully argued before Obama, "Were the Taliban perceived to be winning in Afghanistan, that would be a boost to militants worldwide."
Furthermore, during the 2009 NSC meetings Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who later became the Afghanistan field commander, grew frustrated with the arguments advanced by Vice President Joe Biden and other civilian advisers that distinguished between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In a meeting in October 2009 he lamented, "We're just parsing this distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda too much."
To him they were all extremists that should be defeated. Never mind that the Taliban never attacked the U.S. before its invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Nor in ten years since have the Afghan Taliban ever attacked any U.S. troops, let alone civilians, outside the borders of their own country, which they considered illegally occupied by the U.S.
Meanwhile, the While House coordinator for the Af-Pak policy, Lt. Gen.
Douglas Lute, commented on the final military plan to reverse the momentum of the
Taliban on the ground, "We're screwed. We're not going to demonstrate progress
this year." Yet at the end of the review process, the president gave the
military what it wanted but under the condition that it must start the
withdrawal process by July 2011.
Despite the dozens of meetings in the review process, it's remarkable that the whole premise of the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was not challenged or probed. The U.S. has committed tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of billions of dollars, and uncalculated risks of alienating peoples, countries, and regions based on a faulty premise.
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