Afghanistan: War Without End?

The war in Afghanistan rarely makes the front page of the newspaper anymore.

Political Washington prefers it that way.

But as we approach the end of 2010 and enter the final two years of President Barack Obama’s four-year term — and the year in which he said he would start bringing American troops home, this invisibility is a liability.

About 100,000 Americans are serving in the country, with another several thousand coalition forces. The president had announced in 2009 that he would start bringing large numbers of troops home, ending what he said was not an “open-ended commitment.” But an open-ended commitment is looking more and more likely. Press reports — generally away from page one — “have suggested that Administration officials are trying to make Democratic voters forget that the Administration promised to start drawing down troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 by ‘pivoting’ to the ‘aspirational goal’ that ‘most’ US ‘combat troops’ will be withdrawn by 2014,” Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy pointed out in November on Huffington Post.

That’s a far cry from his original goal of turning the mission over to an Afghan army and police force and, as the New York Times’ Web site points out, it is a victory for the military.

Michael A. Cohen, senior fellow at the American Security Project, wrote in an opinion piece in Foreign Policy that it has been the military’s goal since the president refocused the Afghanistan strategy to push the withdrawal date back.

“The simple fact is that ever since the president announced a July 2011 deadline for commencing withdrawals the military has chafed against what its views as an arbitrary deadline for pulling the plug on the operation,” he wrote. “Rather than following Obama’s admonition to not send troops into areas that could not be realistically handed over to the Afghan security forces by 2011, NATO and US forces have engaged in a ‘clear, hold, and build strategy’ in places where there is limited chance of turnover any time soon. It’s hard to square that approach with a White House that seems desperate to embrace political reality and find the Afghan exit ramp.

“But by spinning an optimistic tale of progress — and pushing stories to journalists that suggest success is just around the corner — the military could see only a nominal decrease of troops in July 2011. At the very least, it will put more public pressure on the White House to stay the course and fudge the troop withdrawal deadline.”

Apparently, the needs of the war economy and the corporate war state demand a different plan than the one put on the table by the president, one that requires us to spend more and more money waging war on distant shores, even though the initial mission has given way to a vague effort to impose order on the “Af-Pak theater.” The Obama administration has been talking about the region as though our drone attacks and bombing sortes were just an extension of what we were supposed to be doing in Afghanistan, when what he has authorized is (as Rachel Maddow pointed out) a military action against Pakistani territory — against a nation with whom we are supposed to be allied.

You can argue that the war in Afghanistan is justified — Obama says we did not choose to fight the war. I disagree, but you can make the argument claiming that the Taliban, by supporting al Qaeda, posed an existential threat to the United States. But there is no justification for allowing the war to spill over into a neighboring, allied nation. It is unclear to me how this is different than the illegal bombings ordered by the Nixon administration in the 1970s that spread the war across Southeast Asia.

This is the military’s plan, of course, though it is difficult to see what the military gets for staying in Afghanistan for another four years (or more) — unless you look beyond the specifics of Afghanistan and start asking questions about the military budget. With Washington turning its attention to the deficit (prematurely) and with some quarters arguing for cuts to the Department of Defense, prolonging a hot war makes budgetary sense — if your goal is to avoid defense cuts.

But this makes me look like a conspiracy theorist. Perhaps we remain in Afghanistan to protect Afghan civilians (even though we are killing them in greater and greater numbers). Or maybe, we’re fighting to protect Afghan women. Or to allow democracy to flourish.

I don’t know. I’m just not buying it.

Hank Kalet is a regional editor for in central New Jersey and a poet. E-mail

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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