In the worst of times, my father always used to say, "A good gambler cuts his losses." It's a formulation imprinted on my brain forever. That no-nonsense piece of advice still seems reasonable to me, but it doesn't apply to American war policy. Our leaders evidently never saw a war to which the word "more" didn't apply. Hence the Afghan War, where impending disaster is just an invitation to fuel the flames of an already roaring fire.
Here's a partial rundown of news from that devolving conflict: In the last week, Nuristan, a province on the Pakistani border, essentially fell to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrew its forces from four key bases. Similarly in Khost, another eastern province bordering Pakistan where U.S. forces once registered much-publicized gains (and which Richard Holbrooke, now President Obama's special envoy to the region, termed "an American success story"), the Taliban is largely in control. It is, according to Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, now "one of the most dangerous provinces" in the country. Similarly, the Taliban insurgency, once largely restricted to the Pashtun south, has recently spread fiercely to the west and north. At the same time, neighboring Pakistan is an increasingly destabilized country amid war in its tribal borderlands, a terror campaign spreading throughout the country, escalating American drone attacks, and increasingly testy relations between American officials and the Pakistani government and military.
Meanwhile, the U.S. command in Afghanistan is considering a strategy that involves pulling back from the countryside and focusing on protecting more heavily populated areas (which might be called, with the first U.S. Afghan War of the 1980s in mind, the Soviet strategy). The underpopulated parts of the countryside would then undoubtedly be left to Hellfire missile-armed American drone aircraft. In the last week, three U.S. helicopters -- the only practical way to get around a mountainous country with a crude, heavily mined system of roads -- went down under questionable circumstances (another potential sign of an impending Soviet-style disaster). Across the country, Taliban attacks are up; deadly roadside bombs or IEDs are fast on the rise (a 350% jump since 2007); U.S. deaths are at a record high and the numbers of wounded are rising rapidly; European allies are ever less willing to send more troops; and Taliban raids in the capital, Kabul, are on the increase. All this despite a theoretical 12-1 edge U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have over the Taliban insurgents and their allies.
In addition, our nation-building "partner," the hopeless Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- known in better times as "the mayor of Kabul" for his government's lack of reach -- was the "winner" in an election in which, it seemed, more ballot boxes were stuffed than voters arrived at the polls. In its wake, and in the name of having an effective "democratic" partner in Afghanistan, the foreigners stepped in: Senator John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and other envoys appeared in Kabul or made telephone calls to whisper sweet somethings in ears and twist arms. The result was a second round of voting slated for November 7th and likely only to compound the initial injury. No matter the result -- and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's opponent, has already withdrawn in protest from the runoff -- the winner will, once again, be the Taliban. (And let's not forget the recent New York Times revelation that the President's alleged drug-kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whom American officials regularly and piously denounce, is, in fact, a long-term paid agent of the CIA and its literal landlord in the southern city of Kandahar. If you were a Taliban propagandist, you couldn't make this stuff up.)
With the second round of elections already a preemptive disaster, and foreigners visibly involved in the process, all of this is a Taliban bonanza. The words "occupation," "puppet government," and the like undoubtedly ring ever truer in Afghan ears. You don't have to be a propaganda genius to exploit this sort of thing.
In such a situation, even good imperial gamblers would normally cut their losses. Unfortunately, in Washington terms, what's happened in Afghanistan is not the definition of failure. In the economic lingo of the moment, the war now falls into the category of "too big to fail," which means upping the ante or doubling down the bet. Think of the Afghan War, in other words, as the AIG of American foreign policy.
Playing with Dominos, Then and Now
Have you noticed, by the way, that the worse Afghanistan gets, the more the pundits find themselves stumbling helplessly into Vietnam? Analogies to that old counterinsurgency catastrophe are now a dime a dozen. And no wonder. Even if it's obvious that Vietnam and Afghanistan, as places and historical situations, have little in common, what they do have is Washington. Our leaders, that is, seem repetitiously intent on creating analogies between the two wars.
What is it about Washington and such wars? How is it that American wars conducted in places most Americans once couldn't have located on a map, and gone disastrously wrong, somehow become too big to fail? Why is it that, facing such wars -- whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican -- Washington's response is the bailout?
As things go from bad to worse and the odds grow grimmer, our leaders, like the worst of gamblers, wager ever more. Why is it that, in obscure lands under obscure circumstances, American administrations somehow become convinced that everything -- the fate of our country, if not the planet itself -- is at stake? In Vietnam, this was expressed in the absurd "domino theory": if Vietnam fell, Thailand, Burma, India, and finally California would follow like so many toppling dominos.
Now, Afghanistan has become the First Domino of our era, and the rest of the falling dominos in the twenty-first century are, of course, the terrorist attacks to come, once an emboldened al-Qaeda has its "safe haven" and its triumph in the backlands of that country. In other words, first Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then a mushroom cloud over an American city. In both the Vietnam era and today, Washington has also been mesmerized by that supposedly key currency of international stature, "credibility." To employ a strategy of "less," to begin to cut our losses and pull out of Afghanistan would -- they know with a certainty that passeth belief -- simply embolden the terrorist (in the Vietnam era, communist) enemy. It would be a victory for al-Qaeda's future Islamic caliphate (as it once would have been for communist global domination).
By now, the urge to bail out Afghanistan, instead of bailing out of the place, has visibly become a compulsion, even for a foreign policy team that should know better, a team that is actually reading a book about how the Vietnam disaster happened. Unfortunately, the citizenry can't take the obvious first step and check that team, with all its attendant generals and plenipotentiaries, into some LBJ or George W. Bush Rehabilitation Center; nor is there a 12-step detox program to recommend to Washington's war addicts. And the "just say no" approach, not exactly a career enhancer, has been used so far by but a single, upright foreign service officer, Matthew P. Hoh, who sent a resignation letter as senior civilian representative in Zabul Province to the State Department in September. ("To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war... The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.")
More or Less More?
In this context, despite all the media drama -- Is Obama "dithering" or not? Will he or won't he follow the advice of his generals? -- we already know one thing about the president's upcoming Afghan War decision with a painful degree of certainty: it will involve more, not less. It will up the ante, not cut our losses. As the New York Times put it recently, "[T]he debate [within the administration] is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed." In other words, we know that, in response to a war everyone on all sides of the Afghan debate in the U.S. now agrees is little short of disastrous, he will, in some fashion, feed the flames.
Admittedly, President Obama himself has offered few indications of what exactly he plans to do (if he even knows). It's now being said, however, that, at the end of a highly publicized set of brainstorming sessions with his vice president, top advisors, generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congressional representatives, and cabinet officers, he may (or may not) announce a decision before he sets out for Tokyo on November 11th.