Saturday, July 11, 2009

Graveyards of Empires . . . and Presidents

While Iraq continues to come apart at the seams, the deadly violence in Afghanistan continues, with British forces there suffering a horrible ten days with 15 killed - the worst losses for the Brits since the war began there in 2001. British PM Gordon Brown is under major political fire at home, and politicians are complaining that British troops are operating in Afghanistan with woefully inadequate logistics and air support. Problem is, their military simply doesn't have the wherewithal to do the job. And making more wherewithal costs money that Britain simply doesn't have. The financial crisis that our finance industry inflicted on the rest of the world has hit there worse than here.

Meanwhile, General McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, is reportedly about to recommend (demand?) a major increase in Afghan troops and police to assist the US efforts there. There's a sense of concern, trending toward desperation, here that's palpable. As the LA Times report notes, this will require even more US forces to be sent to Afghanistan, to serve as trainers - although one has to expect that they could be diverted to combat pretty readily if needed.

But where are the warm bodies who are going to fill these new Afghan boots-on-the-ground supposed to come from? Simply round up a bunch of local farm-boys and herders, offer them regular rations and paychecks, give them a few weeks of training, then send them out? Do any of us remember how much money and effort the US put into training Iraqis in the early years there after 2003, and how terribly ineffective they were once deployed? It has taken until now for at least some of those Iraqi units to be combat-efficient and reliable (although even very recently it was obvious that US grunts in Iraq - as opposed to the majors and colonels whose job it is to slap backs and spout can-do happy-talk - had little regard for the Iraqis they had to work with). I can only envision it taking equally many months and years to get new Afghan troops trained well enough to have much success against well-organized and well-supplied Taliban.

And those Taliban will also now be even more highly motivated, especially against US forces, after the report published in today's NY Times by James Risen (undoubtedly one of their top investigative guys):

After a mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.

American officials had been reluctant to pursue an investigation — sought by officials from the F.B.I., the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups — because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the C.I.A. and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in 2001, several officials said. They said the United States also worried about undermining the American-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defense official.

“At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either,” said Pierre Prosper, the former American ambassador for war crimes issues. “The first reaction of everybody there was, ‘Oh, this is a sensitive issue; this is a touchy issue politically.’ ”
Risen recounts the events that caused the mass killing in some detail (and this, by the way, ought not to be news to anyone who's been paying attention over the years): Taliban prisoners stacked like cordwood in metal shipping containers, sometimes for days, with no food, water, sanitation - having to lick the sweat off each other to try to survive.

But the Bush-administration Pentagon decided not to pursue an investigation into what was, by any reasonable definition, a war crime perpetrated by an ally with whom the US worked closely.

As if the Taliban needed more motivation.

And let's not forget that today's Taliban are cut from the same cloth as the mujahideen who kept it going (with the help of the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) against vastly better armed Soviet forces and eventually forced them out in what many think of as the USSR's Vietnam experience. (I'd also recommend a look at George Crile's book Charlie Wilson's War - forget the movie - which includes some rather graphic passages about the kinds of "special treatment" these guys meted out to captured Soviet soldiers. Any captured US marines or soldiers can expect the same.)

So, here's how I see things playing out in the next few years, and it's not pretty:

1. Iraq is already sliding backward into a new dictatorship, and the speed of that slide will only increase as the US tries to disengage and Mr. al-Maliki learns that without a real political reconciliation (which is far, far away), the only way for him to keep Iraq together will be by brute force, and even that won't be enough to keep the Kurdish provinces in the fold. There will be immense pressure on Mr. Obama to keep US forces engaged in support of Maliki, or even re-engage them. More blood (both literally and metaphorically) sucked out of the US system.

2. Either the US decides to flatten half of Afghanistan to eradicate the Taliban (which it will fail to do in any event), then pulls out and calls it success (if not victory), or else (to use the phrase of a Vietnam-era president - taste the irony) hunkers down for a long haul, sends more troops into the countryside (losing more hearts and minds as marines kick down doors, burst into shacks, humiliate the families), sends more body-bags home . . . and as the 2012 elections approach, Mr. Obama will have been pinned with a long war that George W. Bush (remember him?) handed off to him as a supposed good idea gone very bad, but for which Mr. Obama is likely to pay the political price.

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