Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Clueless in Kabul

The evidence is mounting that the US is close to clueless in Afghanistan - and that Mr. Obama - nothwithstanding the high hopes and best wishes with which so many of us launched his presidency -  is pouring soldiers and marines into a vortex that swirls only faster the longer the US presence there is prolonged.

  • Today, a major suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 18 people, including 6 NATO soldiers - 5 of them American.  Despite supposedly tight security in the national capital, the bomber was able to drive a van packed with more than 3/4 ton of explosives into rush hour traffic, close to the parliament building.  The NY Times Dexter Filkins has a report filled with graphic, stomach-turning detail: 

  • The blast sent a fireball billowing into the air, set cars aflame and blew bodies apart. Limbs and entrails flew hundreds of feet, littering yards and walls and streets. The survivors, many of them women and children, some of them missing limbs, lay in the road moaning and calling for help.In a passenger bus, an Afghan woman lay dead in her seat, cut in half; with her baby still squirming in her arms. Fifty yards away, a man’s head lay on the hood of a truck.
  • A recent Pentagon report makes it clear that the US project in Afghanistan is going very poorly - and as Slate's Fred Kaplan points out, "the full report is a hair-raiser. The news is almost all bad; and the few bits of good news turn out, on close inspection, to be extremely misleading."
  • The "victory" in Marja a few months ago has vanished into thin air.  The Taliban have reasserted themselves there, and there's really not much the US can do about it.
  • And other hands-on projects that the Marines have taken on have largely blown up in their faces, or even exacerbated tensions among the Afghan tribes upon whom the US hoped to build an effective resistance to the Taliban - a la the much touted Sunni Awakening that so many US think-tank warriors assert as the chief reason why the US was "successful" in Iraq.

As it now stands, the US effort in Afghanistan is going nowhere, and fast.  The Obama team hitched its wagon to two ideas that, with typical US "can-do" bravado, it was sure it could make work:
  • a strong central, "national" government at Kabul, led by our hand-picked hero, Hamid Karzai.  But Karzai is as corrupt as the next guy; he kept himself in power via major shenanigans during the 2009 election; he doggedly stands by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is the de facto ruler of Kandahar and a major drug lord.  And . . . there never has been a truly strong central government in Afghanistan.  It runs completely counter to the political-social-cultural norm in the region.  That the US can't get its head around that is pathetic.
  • our ability to work with local tribal groups - to buy their love by giving them money for local infrastructure projects, and to rally their martial virtues against the "Taliban."  Again, the results there have been mixed, sometimes awful - with much of whatever good results that might have been achieved subsequently undercut by the US's Special Forces' infamous night raids, which all too often have "wasted" innocent locals.

It's hard to fault the on-the-ground Marines and soldiers, who've been handed a strategic lemon and are struggling to tactically make lemonade from it.  But their efforts, their misery, their sacrifice have produced nothing that can be unambiguously identified as potentially lasting progress - nor do they have any justifiable hope of doing so.

But the "solution", I fear, will likely be the one that Tom Engelhardt recently spotlighted: prolongation  and escalation of the US involvement.  Despite his "Surge," Team Obama is faced now with losing Afghanistan - not that it truly was ever his to win in the first place.  And with elections upcoming, he can't allow himself to be saddled with that.

Update: Joe Klein likewise sees no way ahead - and he just returned from Afghanistan only a few days ago.
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