In the wake of several deaths among its contingent of troops in a previously peaceful province in Afghanistan, New Zealand (like France and South Korea) is now expediting the departure of its 140 soldiers. That's not exactly headline-making news here in the U.S. If you're an American, you probably didn't even know that New Zealand was playing a small part in our Afghan War. In fact, you may hardly have known about the part Americans are playing in a war that, over the last decade-plus, has repeatedly been labeled "the forgotten war."
Still, maybe it's time to take notice. Maybe the flight of those Kiwis should be thought of as a small omen, even if they are departing as decorously, quietly, and flightlessly as possible. Because here's the thing: once the November election is over, "expedited departure" could well become an American term and the U.S., as it slips ignominiously out of Afghanistan, could turn out to be the New Zealand of superpowers.
You undoubtedly know the phrase: the best laid plans of mice and men. It couldn't be more apt when it comes to the American project in Afghanistan. Washington's plans have indeed been carefully drawn up. By the end of 2014, U.S. "combat troops" are to be withdrawn, but left behind on the giant bases the Pentagon has built will be thousands of U.S. trainers and advisers, as well as special operations forces to go after al-Qaeda remnants (and other "militants"), and undoubtedly the air power to back them all up.
Their job will officially be to continue to "stand up" the humongous security force that no Afghan government in that thoroughly impoverished country will ever be able to pay for. Thanks to a 10-year Strategic Partnership Agreement that President Obama flew to Kabul to seal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as May began, there they are to remain until 2020 or beyond.
In other words, it being Afghanistan, we need a translator. The American "withdrawal" regularly mentioned in the media doesn't really mean "withdrawal." On paper at least, for years to come the U.S. will partially occupy a country that has a history of loathing foreigners who won't leave (and making them pay for it).
Tea Boys and Old Men
Plans are one thing, reality another. After all, when invading U.S. troops triumphantly arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in April 2003, the White House and the Pentagon were already planning to stay forever and a day -- and they instantly began building permanent bases (though they preferred to speak of "permanent access" via "enduring camps") as a token of their intent. Only a couple of years later, in a gesture that couldn't have been more emphatic in planning terms, they constructed the largest (and possibly most expensive) embassy on the planet as a regional command center in Baghdad. Yet somehow, those perfectly laid plans went desperately awry and only a few years later, with American leaders still looking for ways to garrison the country into the distant future, Washington found itself out on its ear. But that's reality for you, isn't it?
Right now, evidence on the ground -- in the form of dead American bodies piling up -- indicates that even the Afghans closest to us don't exactly second the Obama administration's plans for a 20-year occupation. In fact, news from the deep-sixed war in that forgotten land, often considered the longest conflict in American history, has suddenly burst onto the front pages of our newspapers and to the top of the TV news. And there's just one reason for that: despite the copious plans of the planet's last superpower, the poor, backward, illiterate, hapless, corrupt Afghans -- whose security forces, despite unending American financial support and mentoring, have never effectively "stood up" -- made it happen. They have been sending a stark message, written in blood, to Washington's planners.
A 15-year-old "tea boy" at a U.S. base opened fire on Marine special forces trainers exercising at a gym, killing three of them and seriously wounding another; a 60- or 70-year-old farmer, who volunteered to become a member of a village security force, turned the first gun his American special forces trainers gave him at an "inauguration ceremony" back on them, killing two; a police officer who, his father claims, joined the force four years earlier, invited Marine Special Operations advisers to a meal and gunned down three of them, wounding a fourth, before fleeing, perhaps to the Taliban.
About other "allies" involved in similar incidents -- recently, there were at least 9 "green-on-blue" attacks in an 11-day span in which 10 Americans died -- we know almost nothing, except that they were Afghan policemen or soldiers their American trainers and mentors were trying to "stand up" to fight the Taliban. Some were promptly shot to death. At least one may have escaped.
These green-on-blue incidents, which the Pentagon recently relabeled "insider attacks," have been escalating for months. Now, they seem to have reached a critical mass and so are finally causing a public stir in official circles in Washington. A "deeply concerned" President Obama commented to reporters on the phenomenon ("We've got to make sure that we're on top of this...") and said he was planning to "reach out" to Afghan President Karzai on the matter. In the meantime, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did so, pressing Karzai to take tougher steps in the vetting of recruits for the Afghan security forces. (Karzai and his aides promptly blamed the attacks on the Iranian and Pakistani intelligence agencies.)
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, flew to Afghanistan to consult with his counterparts on what to make of these incidents (and had his plane shelled on a runway at Bagram Air Field -- "a lucky shot," claimed a NATO spokesman -- for his effort). U.S. Afghan War commander General John Allen convened a meeting of more than 40 generals to discuss how to stop the attacks, even as he insisted "the campaign remains on track." There are now rumblings in Congress about hearings on the subject.
Struggling With the Message
Worry about such devastating attacks and their implications for the American mission, slow to rise, is now widespread. But much of this is reported in our media as if in a kind of code. Take for example the way Laura King put the threat in a front-page Los Angeles Times piece (and she was hardly alone). Reflecting Washington's wisdom on the subject, she wrote that the attacks "could threaten a linchpin of the Western exit strategy: training Afghan security forces in preparation for handing over most fighting duties to them by 2014." It almost sounds as if, thanks to these incidents, our combat troops might not be able to make it out of there on schedule.
No less striking is the reported general puzzlement over what lies behind these Afghan actions. In most cases, the motivation for them, writes King, "remains opaque." There are, it seems, many theories within the U.S. military about why Afghans are turning their guns on Americans, including personal pique, individual grudges, cultural touchiness, "heat-of-the moment disputes in a society where arguments are often settled with a Kalashnikov," and in a minority of cases -- about a tenth of them, according to a recent military study, though one top commander suggested the number could range up to a quarter -- actual infiltration or "coercion" by the Taliban. General Allen even suggested recently that some insider attacks might be traced to religious fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, combined with unseasonable summer heat, leaving Afghans hungry, tetchy, and prone to impulsive acts, guns in hand. According to the Washington Post, however, "Allen acknowledged that U.S. and Afghan officials have struggled to determine what's behind the rise in attacks."