America’s Lost Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq call for a Change in Policy

When President Barack Obama reassesses the progress of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in December, as he has promised to do, he will be reviewing a lost war. Although there will be no formal surrender ceremony in Kabul, none of the goals policymakers claimed to have in mind have been achieved, and the likelihood of achieving them is diminishing.

As the war entered its 10th year, the Taliban had returned to Afghanistan in force and resumed control of large areas of the country. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots had largely left the country, but were operating freely elsewhere, especially in Somalia and Yemen. Even the "war on terrorism" had failed to achieve its objective. The danger of an attack by militant extremists in October prompted Europe to go on high alert and the State Department to issue travel warnings to American tourists. Police in France and Germany rounded up dozens of suspected militants.

As experts predicted, the war has spread to Pakistan, intensifying internal religious and ethnic violence in that country and creating additional problems for the U.S. war effort. After NATO helicopter attacks in late September killed or wounded six Pakistani soldiers inside Pakistan’s border–”the fourth such attack in a week–”Pakistan shut down a vital supply route into Afghanistan for 10 days. As some 200 trucks lined up at the entrance to the Khyber Pass, they were easy targets for the Taliban, which set fire to dozens of oil tankers.

Gen. David H. Petraeus attempted to change the course of the war by ramping up the U.S. offensive close to Pakistan’s border, launching as many as a dozen commando raids a night and greatly increasing the number of drone missile attacks inside Pakistani territory, attacks that Pakistan’s Foreign Office called "intolerable." Many of the air strikes are aimed at tribal networks the U.S. regards as terrorists but which the Pakistan army is reluctant to alienate, since as past allies they may be needed again.

Another complication is the army’s distrust of Pakistan’s civilian leaders, whom officers consider both incompetent and corrupt. Many in the 60-member cabinet, along with President Asif Ali Zardari, face corruption charges. Despite receiving billions of dollars a year from the U.S., the government is providing almost no aid to the 20 million people who are still homeless because of the floods.

Alliance with a corrupt and unpopular government has become a familiar aspect of U.S. wars. Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in late September were marked by even more fraud than last year’s election for president. Video clips showed ballot stuffing, interference with election workers and, most of all, bribes. Votes reportedly sell for as much as $18, a large sum for Afghan workers, but a bargain for the candidates. The 249 members of the largely inactive legislature make $2,200 a month, and have rich opportunities for graft.

That the perks of officialdom extend down the line was demonstrated in late September, when a well-intentioned event organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development went awry. The idea was to hold a kite festival at which girls would fly kites bearing slogans praising gender equality and the rule of law. A comic book with justice as its theme would be distributed.

According to an AID promotional release, "The mere portrait of 500 kites soaring in the winds is enough to instill hope in even the most disheartened oberver…" The "portrait" that emerged, however, was of Afghan policemen grabbing the kites, and beating children off with sticks when they reached for one. The district police chief said, "We are not taking them, we are flying them ourselves. It is so people can understand the rule of law." The New York Times reporter at the event saw hardly any girls with a kite.

A recent report sponsored by the New America Foundation suggests that the war in Afghanistan "may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group." That assertion was made even more relevant by reports in early October of a group of American soldiers based in Kandahar who repeatedly killed Afghan civilians for sport and collected their body parts as trophies. Local elders said 42 civilians had been killed by Americans in their district, and that many of the victims did not support the Taliban.

Crimes against civilians, like increasing incidences of suicide and domestic violence, are an inevitable byproduct of requiring young men to serve three and four grueling tours of duty fighting long drawn-out wars in which they are almost constantly in danger. War under these conditions becomes a self-defeating enterprise, corrupting the society that wages it.

There is no sign yet of what Obama’s decision will be after the December assessment, but there is a slight hope that existing policies will change. When National Security adviser Gen. James Jones resigned in early October, Obama lost no time appointing a civilian, Thomas E. Donilon, to replace him. Donilon was Jones’ deputy, but he has angered the military, as well as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by questioning their policy of keeping a large army in Afghanistan for 10 years or more. Officials say Donilon has warned Obama that "an endless war" was neither wise nor politically acceptable.

A recent report by the New America Foundation suggests a possible exit strategy. Its authors, regional experts and former government officials, call for ending U.S. support for the Karzai government, and propose instead an effort to achieve a better distribution of power between the central government and the provinces, and among ethnic and tribal factions. According to the report, the Taliban is composed of a variety of factions that are united mainly in their opposition to the Karzai government and their determination to oust the foreign troops that support it.

There were reports in September that Taliban leaders had reached out to the Karzai government with the hope of starting the process of negotiation, reconciliation and power sharing. Petraeus has expressed approval of this effort, but he does not support the troop withdrawal demanded by the Taliban. When Obama reviews the situation in December he should ignore advice from his generals, recognize that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and announce a timetable for withdrawing our troops.

A Deeply Fragmented Iraq

The U.S. has come no closer to achieving its goals in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Recent events have underscored once again that ousting Saddam Hussain did not lead to the free-market democracy envisioned by America’s neocons, but to the replacement of a modern state ruled by a secular tyrant with a deeply fragmented society ruled by a corrupt autocrat. As war damage remains unrepaired and millions of Iraqis live in poverty, members of the do-nothing government are busy enriching themselves with oil profits, foreign aid and kickbacks.The International Monetary Fund found that Iraq had a government surplus of $52 billion in 2009–”and that $40 billion of this had disappeared. Iraq’s finance minister said only that the money had gone to "cash advances and loans."

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has used every means at his disposal to stay in power. Following an election in March that was narrowly won by the secular opposition party headed by Ayad Allawi, the government remained in limbo for eight months while the prime minister tried to forge a coalition that would give him a majority in parliament. He finally managed to do so in early October, when the party of Shi’i cleric Muktada al Sadr agreed to an alliance. A government dominated by Sadrists and other Shi’i parties, however, is certain to inflame the anger of Sunnis, whose candidates were frequently purged from election rolls and their spokesmen jailed by officials allied with al-Maliki.

The rise of al-Sadr and his party has also caused concern in Washington. The Sadrists have frequently fought against American and Iraqi troops, and are suspected of carrying out a recent wave of rocket attacks aimed at the Green Zone. Al Sadr is certain to stand fast against a longterm U.S. presence in Iraq. Al-Maliki may salvage the situation, at least temporarily, by appointing the secular Allawi to a major post, but the Sunnis are not likely to be appeased unless the government comes through with more jobs and a greater allocation of benefits.

The costs, and failures, of U.S.military intervention in two Muslim countries did not deter Secretary of State Clinton from saying in a September speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that this was "a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways." The final phrase offered hope that the administration may use other than military means to deal with problems abroad. But shortly after Clinton’s speech Obama announced a multibillion-dollar sale of American combat systems and other military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to U.S. officials, the purpose of the sale is to extend the U.S. "defense umbrella" over much of the Persian Gulf.

Because large numbers of Americans will have to be stationed in the Gulf states to maintain the advanced equipment and serve as trainers, the sale will "allow the U.S. armed forces to operate seamlessly in that part of the world," according to the Pentagon. Unfortunately that message is certain to reach many in the area who deeply resent the presence of U.S. troops and their support of often autocratic governments.

In 2001 that resentment was channeled by Osama Bin Laden into an act of wanton violence that killed nearly 3,000 Americans and provided an excuse for two wars that have so far killed more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers, countless numbers of civilians, and cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The lesson still to be learned is that we cannot protect national security by extending our military power all over the world and propping up governments that lack popular support. Americans will be safe only when we have a government that respects international law and the sovereignty of other nations, and aims at peaceful coexistence, not military dominance.