The Petraeus Syndrome
So what would we actually have to show for all this expenditure of money, effort and lives?
We would be in minimalist possession of a fractious, ruined land, at war for three decades, and about as alien to, and far from, the United States as it's possible to be on this planet. We would be in minimalist possession of the world's fifth-poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's second-most-corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold fifty to 100 Al Qaeda operatives ("maybe less")—for whom parts of the country might still be a "safe haven." And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year.
On the basis of our stated war objective—"We cannot allow Al Qaeda or other transnational extremists to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies," as General Petraeus put it in his confirmation hearing at the end of June 2010—success in Afghanistan means increasingly little. For Al Qaeda, Afghanistan was never significant in itself. It was always a place of (relative) convenience. If the United States were to bar access to it, there are so many other countries to choose from.
After all, what's left of the original Al Qaeda—estimated by US intelligence experts at perhaps 300 leaders and operatives—seems to have established itself in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a place that the US military could hardly occupy, no matter how many CIA drone attacks were sent against it. Moreover, US intelligence experts increasingly suggest that Al Qaeda is in the process of fusing with local jihadist groups in those borderlands, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and elsewhere; that it is increasingly an amorphous "dispersed network," or even simply an idea or crude ideology, existing as much online as anywhere in particular on the ground.
In this sense—and this is the only reason now offered for the American presence in Afghanistan—a counterinsurgency "success" there would be meaningless unless, based on the same strategic thinking, the US then secured Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and a potential host of other places. In other words, the US military would have to do one thing the Bush years definitively proved it couldn't do: impose a Pax Americana on planet Earth.
Of course, the Bush administration might have offered other explanations for the ongoing Afghan War, including the need to garrison what it called "the arc of instability" stretching from North Africa to the Chinese border (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet), roll back Russia from its former Soviet "backyard" in Central Asia and guarantee the flow of Caspian Sea oil westward. More recently, with the revelation that a trillion or more dollars worth of natural resources lie under Afghan soil, securing that country's raw materials for Western mining companies might have been added to that list. The Obama administration, however, offers no such explanations and, being managerial rather than visionary in nature when it comes to US foreign policy, might not even have them.
In any case, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be telling a rather different story. The singular thing the Iraq War seems to have done politically is promote Iranian influence in that country. Economically, it's made Iraq a safer place for the state-owned or state-controlled oil companies of China, Russia and a number of other non-Western nations. In Afghanistan, in terms of those future natural resources, we seem to be fighting to make that country safe for Chinese investment (just as the recently heightened US sanctions against Iran are helping make that country safe for Chinese energy dominance).
The Question Mark Over Afghanistan
All of this leaves the massive American investment of its most precious resources, including lives, in Afghanistan an ongoing mystery that is never addressed. Somewhere in that country's vast stretches of poppy fields or in the halls of Washington's national security bureaucracy, in other words, lurks a great unasked question. It's a question asked almost half a century ago of Vietnam, the lost war to which David Petraeus turned in 2006 to produce the Army counterinsurgency manual that is the basis for the present surge.
The question was: Why are we in Vietnam? (It even became the title of a Norman Mailer novel.) In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's administration produced a government propaganda film solely in response to that question, which was already threatening to drive down his polling figures and upend his Great Society at home. The film was called Why Viet-Nam. While it had no question mark after the title, the question of whether to add one was actually argued out in the most literal way inside the administration.
The film began with the president quoting a letter he had received from a mother "in the Midwest" whose son was stationed in Vietnam. You hear the president, in his homey twang, pick up that woman's question, as if it were his own. "Why Vietnam?" he repeats three times as the title appears on the screen, after which, official or not, a question mark seems to hover over every scene, as it did over the war itself.
In a sense, the same question mark appeared both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it has never been associated with Afghanistan. Because of 9/11, Afghanistan remained for years the (relatively) good (and largely forgotten) war, until visible failure visibly tarnished it.
It's now past time to ask that question, even as the Obama administration repeats the Al Qaeda mantra of the Bush years almost word for word and lets any explanation go at that.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is our treasure being wasted there when it's needed here?
It's clear enough that a failed counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan will be an unaffordably expensive catastrophe. Let's not wait a year to discover that there's an even worse fate ahead, a "success" that leaves us mired there for years to come as our troubles at home only grow. With everything else Americans have to deal with, who needs a future Petraeus Syndrome?