Thursday, September 24, 2009

Can the Taliban be defeated militarily?

This new piece from the Times of London confirms the conclusion that's been taking an ever stronger hold in my thinking.  To answer the question I posed in the header: No - at least, short of nuking or carpet-bombing most of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I trust we all agree that that's simply not an option.  Every model of effective counter-insurgency I've ever seen recommends tens of thousands more US forces than are already in Afghanistan, and they simply aren't available, nor could they be without resorting to the draft back here at home.  There's no way that Obama, or anyone else, can sell that to the American public.  The Iraq disaster has already cost the US too much in blood and treasure, which has made us sick of war-fighting; and on top of that, too many Americans are already burdened with doubt that more losses in Afghanistan are worth it . . . .

Especially, with no possible end in sight, with the goals of stabilizing the country virtually impossible to attain with the current corrupt, illegitimate, ineffectual Karzai government in power (and as things now stand, Karzai's going nowhere.).

Especially, with poverty and illiteracy worse now than ever, with destruction seemingly waiting all around.  One of the villagers interviewed for the Times piece put it plainly:

“We are starving, no one is helping us.  If the Government does not help us, we’ll go back and join the Taleban.” As his neighbours angrily denounced President Karzai’s rule, [the villager] admitted that he did not like the Taleban. But he added: “We just want anyone who can bring security.”

Bringing security to Afghanistan is not something that the US can do.  We don't have the resources, we don't understand the culture, we're mostly clueless about the ethnic and tribal structure, and we've already killed too many innocent Afghans over the years  - by air strikes on fuel trucks, or air strikes on wedding parties, or air strikes on villages that just happened to be targeted because someone thought we could catch some "bad guys" there, or air strikes on the people who went to the funeral of the killed "bad guys" --  for us to even begin to have justifiable hope that Afghans would accept US forces as anything more than occupiers or - at best - intruders from whom locals can connive some money or good stuff.  (Like, for example, the enterprising young men who show up for training as Afghan security forces, then depart with some money and a gun, then show up again for a do-over, with US trainers oblivious to what's going on.)

Obama, blessedly, seems to be re-thinking his options, and maybe - just maybe - he'll be wise enough to find a way to disengage.  As Dan Froomkin notes in the Huffington Post, Mr. Obama - in sharp contrast to his predecessor - seems able to admit a mistake and change course.  If he does do that, he'll catch hell from McCain, Graham, and all the "victory or dishonor" types.  But to not be "victorious" in Afghanistan (and again, will someone tell me what that was supposed to look like?) is not the end of America.  Maybe no ticker-tape parades in the Big Apple, maybe no deck-of-the-USS-Missouri moment . . . but disengaging from Afghanistan might just let us take some first baby-steps toward a major national reassessment of who we really are, and what we can really do.

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