Col. Muammar Qaddafi is a brutal dictator whose own people have turned against him, but he nevertheless asked a valid question in early June as NATO’s day and night bombing raids were obliterating his headquarters in Tripoli. "Why this constant bombing?" Qaddafi asked in a radio talk addressed to NATO. "Did we cross the sea and attack you?"
The same question could be asked by the people of Yemen, where the U.S. has escalated its bombing attacks and other operations against militants linked to al-Qaeda. Hundreds of members of the U.S. Special Operations Command and the CIA are now stationed in Sana’a determining the targets to be attacked. Similar attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan are being directed from locations in the U.S.
The common denominator in America’s ongoing wars, which are being waged with a heavy reliance on bombing, is the inevitability of a backlash. No matter what precautions are taken, civilians will be killed, and homes and crops damaged. The result is that more people turn against America and the war. In Yemen, popular resentment against U.S. drone attacks undoubtedly contributed to the effort to oust Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocratic ruler whom the U.S. considered a staunch ally. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, NATO bombing, along with night raids and arbitrary arrests, have gained recruits for the Taliban and other insurgents.
As the date neared for Obama’s announcement of the number of troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, Pentagon officials tried to make sure that number would be small. Gen. David H. Petraeus warned that too large a reduction would "threaten the gains the American-led coalition has made." Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed that anything but a modest troop reduction would leave Afghanistan "unstable."
Taking a position reminiscent of the Pentagon’s long-ago argument for remaining in Vietnam, Gates said, "The prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and our other adversaries conclude they cannot win militarily." Obama used almost similar words when he announced on June 23 that he would withdraw 10,000 troops starting this summer, and 20,000 more by the end of next summer. "We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength," he said, despite evidence to the contrary. Or as government officials said during Vietnam, "We must negotiate from strength."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Obama’s announcement of a troop departure "a moment of happiness for Afghanistan," but Obama’s modest defiance of his generals and secretary of defense did not appease opponents of the war at home.The fact that 70,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan until at least 2014 prompted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to say, "If we’re going to leave we should leave. Let’s quit prolonging the agony and the inevitable." Polls in June showed that only 36 percent of Americans now favor the war in Afghanistan, and only 30 percent support the war in Libya. Congress meanwhile was indicating an increasing reluctance to continue funding both wars. Ten members of Congress have filed suit in federal court charging that the continued U.S. bombing of Libya is violating the War Powers Act. The administration’s reply was that air strikes by drones and jet bombers did not constitute "hostilities."
An amendment in late May by Reps. James McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) to a $119 billion "defense" spending bill that called on the White House to come up with an accelerated plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan came within 12 votes of passing. In June, 27 senators sent a letter to Obama urging a "sizable and sustained withdrawal from Afghanistan."
The growing impatience of Congress and the public reflects the fact that the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the expenditure of $10 billion a month to keep them there, has brought victory no closer. Even the possibility of negotiations is becoming more and more in doubt. NATO assassinations of Taliban military commanders and administrators have led to an increasingly radicalized and diffused insurgency, whose members act on their own and may be reluctant to abide by any agreement that allows foreign troops to remain in their country.
According to a report released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the money pouring in from abroad has led to pervasive corruption and waste but has not reduced poverty or won over the Afghan people. Efforts to train an effective Afghan security force continue to be hindered by the fact that nearly a third of new army recruits quit before their training is complete, and police make up for their low pay by extorting money from villagers.
Lawrence Wright, a Middle East expert who has tracked the rise of Islamic militancy and who recently visited Afghanistan, doubts that the doctrine of "winning hearts and minds" is even feasible in that country. He writes in the May 16 New Yorker that "It seems, regrettably, that whatever we can accomplish in Afghanistan will be achieved by force." He quotes a colonel who recently returned from Afghanistan as saying, "The cultural complexity of the environment is just so huge that it’s hard for us to understand."
Even harder to fathom are the official policies of Pakistan, a vital U.S. ally that serves the U.S. military as a supply route into Afghanistan. The euphoria in America that followed the assassination of Osama bin Laden had hardly died down when news came that the Pakistani security forces had arrested several of the informants who had provided the information that made possible the success of the operation.
Just after CIA chief Leon Panetta visited Pakistan in mid-June to request that the U.S. be allowed to carry out drone strikes over a wider area, the Pakistan army’s 11-member Corps Command released a statement saying the CIA drone attacks "were unacceptable under any circumstances." The Pakistanis had already blocked the supply of food and water to at least one base used to launch drones. A former Pakistani officer explained that the army has "a feeling they are fighting America’s war against their own people."
In view of such difficulties, and with no clear vision of what is to be accomplished, the war in Afghanistan seems increasingly hopeless as well as counterproductive. As Obama makes his decision on troop withdrawals this summer he should pay attention to what President Hamid Karzai said at the same press conference at which Gates made his case for continuing the war. Karzai again complained of air strikes that caused too many civilian deaths, intrusive night raids, and detentions of innocent people. "We cannot take this any more," he said. Many Americans would agree.