This piece was originally published at TomDispatch.
Going, going, gone! You can almost hear the announcer’s voice throbbing with excitement, only we’re not talking about home runs here but about the disappearing date on which, for the United States and its military, the Afghan War will officially end.
Practically speaking, the answer to when it will be over is: just this side of never. If you take the word of our Afghan War commander, the secretary of defense and top officials of the Obama administration and NATO, we’re not leaving any time soon. As with any clever time traveler, every date that’s set always contains a verbal escape hatch into the future.
In my 1950s childhood, there was a cheesy (if thrilling) sci-fi flick, The Incredible Shrinking Man, about a fellow who passed through a radioactive cloud in the Pacific Ocean and soon noticed that his suits were too big for him. Next thing you knew, he was living in a doll house, holding off his pet cat, and fighting an ordinary spider transformed into a monster. Finally, he disappeared entirely leaving behind only a sonorous voice to tell us that he had entered a universe where "the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle."
In recent weeks, without a radioactive cloud in sight, the date for serious drawdowns of American troops in Afghanistan has followed a similar path toward the vanishing point and is now threatening to disappear "over the horizon" (a place where, we are regularly told, American troops will lurk once they have finally handed their duties over to the Afghan forces they are training).
If you remember, back in December 2009 President Obama spoke of July 2011 as a firm date to "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan," the moment assumedly when the beginning of the end of the war would come into sight. In July of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of 2014 as the date when Afghan security forces "will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country."
Administration officials, anxious about the effect that 2011 date was having on an American public grown weary of an unpopular war and on an enemy waiting for us to depart, grabbed Karzai’s date and ran with it (leaving many of his caveats about the war the Americans were fighting, particularly his desire to reduce the American presence, in the dust). Now, 2014 is hyped as the new 2011.
It has, in fact, been widely reported that Obama officials have been working in concert to "play down" the president’s 2011 date, while refocusing attention on 2014. In recent weeks, top administration officials have been little short of voluble on the subject. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ("We’re not getting out. We’re talking about probably a years-long process."), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, attending a security conference in Australia, all "cited 2014…as the key date for handing over the defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves." The New York Times headlined its report on the suddenly prominent change in timing this way: "US Tweaks Message on Troops in Afghanistan."
Quite a tweak. Added Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller: "The message shift is effectively a victory for the military, which has long said the July 2011 deadline undermined its mission by making Afghans reluctant to work with troops perceived to be leaving shortly."
Inflection Points and Aspirational Goals
Barely had 2014 risen into the headlines, however, before that date, too, began to be chipped away. As a start, it turned out that American planners weren’t talking about just any old day in 2014, but its last one. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the NATO training program for Afghan security forces, put it while holding a Q&A with a group of bloggers, "They’re talking about December 31st, 2014. It’s the end of December in 2014…that [Afghan] President Karzai has said they want Afghan security forces in the lead."
Nor, officials rushed to say, was anyone talking about 2014 as a date for all American troops to head for the exits, just "combat troops"—and maybe not even all of them. Possibly tens of thousands of trainers and other so-called non-combat forces would stay on to help with the "transition process." This follows the Iraq pattern where 50,000 American troops remain after the departure of US "combat" forces to great media fanfare. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was typical in calling for "the substantial combat forces [to] be phased out at the end of 2014, four years from now." (Note the usual verbal escape hatch, in this case "substantial," lurking in his statement.)
Last Saturday, behind "closed doors" at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Afghan War commander General David Petraeus presented European leaders with a "phased four-year plan" to "wind down American and allied fighting in Afghanistan." Not surprisingly, it had the end of 2014 in its sights and the president quickly confirmed that "transition" date, even while opening plenty of post-2014 wiggle room. By then, as he described it, "our footprint" would only be "significantly reduced." (He also claimed that, post-2014, the US would be maintaining a "counterterrorism capability" in Afghanistan—and Iraq—for which "platforms to…execute…counterterrorism operations," assumedly bases, would be needed.)
Meanwhile, unnamed "senior US officials" in Lisbon were clearly buttonholing reporters to "cast doubt on whether the United States, the dominant power in the twenty-eight-nation alliance, would end its own combat mission before 2015." As always, the usual qualifying phrases were profusely in evidence.
Throughout these weeks, the "tweaking"—that is, the further chipping away at 2014 as a hard and fast date for anything—only continued. Mark Sedwill, NATO’s civilian counterpart to US commander General David Petraeus, insisted that 2014 was nothing more than "an inflection point" in an ever more drawn-out drawdown process. That process, he insisted, would likely extend to "2015 and beyond," which, of course, put 2016 officially into play. And keep in mind that this is only for combat troops, not those assigned to "train and support" or keep "a strategic over watch" on Afghan forces.
On the eve of NATO’s Lisbon meeting, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, waxing near poetic, declared 2014 nothing more than an "aspirational goal," rather than an actual deadline. As the conference began, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the alliance would be committed in Afghanistan "as long as it takes." And new British Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir David Richards suggested that, given the difficulty of ever defeating the Taliban (or Al Qaeda) militarily, NATO should be preparing plans to maintain a role for its troops for the next thirty to forty years.
Here, then, is a brief history of American time in Afghanistan. After all, this isn’t our first Afghan War, but our second. The first, the CIA’s anti-Soviet jihad (in which the Agency funded a number of the fundamentalist extremists we’re now fighting in the second), lasted a decade, from 1980 until 1989 when the Soviets withdrew in defeat.
In October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched America’s second Afghan War, taking Kabul that November as the Taliban dissolved. The power of the American military to achieve quick and total victory seemed undeniable, even after Osama bin Laden slipped out of Tora Bora that December and escaped into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.
However, it evidently never crossed the minds of President Bush’s top officials to simply declare victory and get out. Instead, as the United States would do in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, the Pentagon started building a new infrastructure of military bases (in this case, on the ruins of the old Soviet base infrastructure). At the same time, the former cold warriors in Washington let their dreams about pushing the former commies of the former Soviet Union out of the former Soviet socialist republics of Central Asia, places where, everyone knew, you could just about swim in black gold and run geopolitically wild.
Then, when the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003, Afghanistan, still a "war" (if barely) was forgotten, while the Taliban returned to the field, built up their strength, and launched an insurgency that has only gained momentum to this moment. In 2008, before leaving office, George W. Bush bumped his favorite general, Iraq surge commander Petraeus, upstairs to become the head of the Central Command that oversees America’s war zones in the Greater Middle East, including Afghanistan.
Already the guru of counterinsurgency (known familiarly as COIN), Petraeus had, in 2006, overseen the production of the military’s new war-fighting bible, a how-to manual dusted off from the Vietnam era’s failed version of COIN and made new and magical again. In June 2010, eight and a half years into our Second Afghan War, at President Obama’s request, Petraeus took over as Afghan War commander. It was clear then that time was short—with an administration review of Afghan war strategy coming up at year’s end and results needed quickly. The American war was also in terrible shape.
In the new COIN-ish US Army, however, it is a dogma of almost biblical faith that counterinsurgencies don’t produce quick results; that, to be successful, they must be pursued for years on end. As Petraeus put it back in 2007 when talking about Iraq, "Typically, I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years." Recently, in an interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, he made a nod toward exactly the same timeframe for Afghanistan, one accepted as bedrock knowledge in the world of the COINistas.
What this meant was that, whether as CENTCOM commander or Afghan War commander, Petraeus was looking for two potentially contradictory results at the same time. Somehow, he needed to wrest those nine to ten years of war-fighting from a president looking for a tighter schedule and, in a war going terribly sour, he needed almost instant evidence of "progress" that would fit the president’s coming December "review" of the war and might pacify unhappy publics in the United States and Europe.
Now let’s do the math. At the moment, depending on how you care to count, we are in the tenth year of our second Afghan War or the twentieth year of war interruptus. Since June 2009, Petraeus and various helpers have stretched the schedule to 2014 for (most) American combat troops and at least 2015 or 2016 for the rest. If you were to start counting from the president’s December surge address, that’s potentially seven more years. In other words, we’re now talking about either a fifteen-year war or an on-and-off again quarter-century one. All evidence shows that the Pentagon’s war planners would like to extend those already vague dates even further into the future.
On Ticking Clocks in Washington and Kabul
Up to now, only one of General Petraeus’s two campaigns has been under discussion here: the other one, fought out these last years not in Afghanistan, but in Washington and NATO capitals, over how to schedule a war. Think of it as the war for a free hand in determining how long the Afghan War is to be fought.
It has been run from General Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul, the giant five-sided military headquarters on the Potomac presided over by Secretary of Defense Gates, and various think-tanks filled with America’s militarized intelligentsia scattered around Washington—and it has proven a classically successful "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency operation. Pacification in Washington and a number of European capitals has occurred with remarkably few casualties. (Former Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, axed by the president for insubordination, has been the exception, not the rule.)
Slowly but decisively, Petraeus and company constricted President Obama’s war-planning choices to two options: more and yet more. In late 2009, the president agreed to that second surge of troops (the first had been announced that March), not to speak of CIA agents, drones, private contractors and State Department and other civilian government employees. In his December "surge" address at West Point (for the nation but visibly to the military), Obama had the temerity as commander-in-chief to name a specific, soon-to-arrive date—July 2011—for beginning a serious troop drawdown. It was then that the COIN campaign in Washington ramped up into high gear with the goal of driving the prospective end of the war back by years.
It took bare hours after the president’s address for administration officials to begin leaking to media sources that his drawdown would be "conditions based"—a phrase guaranteed to suck the meaning out of any deadline. (The president had indeed acknowledged in his address that his administration would take into account "conditions on the ground.") Soon, the Secretary of Defense and others took to the airwaves in a months-long campaign emphasizing that drawdown in Afghanistan didn’t really mean drawdown, that leaving by no means meant leaving, and that the future was endlessly open to interpretation.
With the ratification in Lisbon of that 2014 date "and beyond," the political clocks—an image General Petraeus loves—in Washington, European capitals and American Kabul are now ticking more or less in unison.
Two other "clocks" are, however, ticking more like bombs. If counterinsurgency is a hearts and minds campaign, then the other target of General Petraeus’s first COIN campaign has been the restive hearts and minds of the American and European publics. Last year a Dutch government fell over popular opposition to Afghanistan and, even as NATO met last weekend, thousands of antiwar protestors marched in London and Lisbon. Europeans generally want out and their governments know it, but (as has been true since 1945) the continent’s leaders have no idea how to say "no" to Washington. In the United States, too, the Afghan war grows ever more unpopular, and while it was forgotten during the election season, no politician should count on that phenomenon lasting forever.
And then, of course, there’s the literal ticking bomb, the actual war in Afghanistan. In that campaign, despite a drumbeat of American/NATO publicity about "progress," the news has been grim indeed. American and NATO casualties have been higher this year than at any other moment in the war; the Taliban seems if anything more entrenched in more parts of the country; the Afghan public, ever more puzzled and less happy with foreign troops and contractors traipsing across the land; and Hamid Karzai, the president of the country, sensing a situation gone truly sour, has been regularly challenging the way General Petraeus is fighting the war in his country. (The nerve!)
No less unsettling, General Petraeus himself has seemed unnerved. He was declared "irked" by Karzai’s comments and was said to have warned Afghan officials that their president’s criticism might be making his "own position ‘untenable,’ " which was taken as a resignation threat. Meanwhile, the COIN-meister was in the process of imposing a new battle plan on Afghanistan that leaves counterinsurgency (at least as usually described) in a roadside ditch. No more is the byword "protect the people," or "clear, hold, build"; now, it’s smash, kill, destroy. The war commander has loosed American firepower in a major way in the Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.
Early this year, then-commander McChrystal had significantly cut back on US air strikes as a COIN-ish measure meant to lessen civilian casualties. No longer. In a striking reversal, air power has been called in—and in a big way. In October, US planes launched missiles or bombs on 1,000 separate Afghan missions, numbers seldom seen since the 2001 invasion. The Army has similarly loosed its massively powerful High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in the area around the southern city of Kandahar. Civilian deaths are rising rapidly. Dreaded Special Operations night raids on Afghan homes by "capture/kill" teams have tripled with 1,572 such operations over the last three months. (These are the tactics on which Karzai recently challenged Petraeus.) With them, the body count has also arrived. American officials are eagerly boasting to reporters about their numerical efficiency in taking out mid-level Taliban leaders ("368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, and 968 lower-level insurgents killed and 2,477 captured, according to NATO statistics").
In the districts around Kandahar, a newly reported American tactic is simply to raze individual houses or even whole villages believed to be booby-trapped by the Taliban, as well as tree lines "where insurgents could hide." American troops have also been "blow[ing] up outbuildings, flatten[ing] agricultural walls, and carv[ing] new ‘military roads,’ because existing ones are so heavily mined…right through farms and compounds." And now, reports Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, the Marines are also sending the first contingent of M1 Abrams tanks (with a "main gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away") into the south. Such tanks, previously held back for fear of reminding Afghans of their Russian occupiers, are, according to an unnamed US officer he quotes, bringing "awe, shock, and firepower" to the south.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with winning hearts and minds, just obliterating them. Not surprisingly, such tactics also generate villagers fleeing embattled farmlands often for "squalid" refugee camps in overcrowded cities.
Flip of the COIN
Suddenly, this war for which General Petraeus has won his counterinsurgency warriors at least a four- to-six-year reprieve is being fought as if there were no tomorrow. Here, for instance, is a brief description from a British Guardian reporter in Kandahar of what the night part of the war now feels like from a distance:
After the sun sets, the air becomes noisy with US jets dropping bombs that bleach the dark out of the sky in their sudden eruptions; with the ripping sound of the mini-guns of the Kiowa helicopter gunships and A-10 Warthogs hunting in the nearby desert. The night is also lit up by brilliant flares that fall as slow as floating snowflakes, a visible sign of the commando raids into the villages beyond. It is a conflict heard, but not often witnessed.
None of this qualifies as "counterinsurgency," at least as described by the general and his followers. It does, however, resemble where counterinsurgencies have usually headed—directly into the charnel house of history.
Chandrasekaran quotes a civilian adviser to the NATO command in Kabul this way: "Because Petraeus is the author of the COIN [counterinsurgency] manual, he can do whatever he wants. He can manage the optics better than McChrystal could. If he wants to turn it up to 11, he feels he has the moral authority to do it."
We have no access to the mind of David Petraeus. We don’t know just why he is bringing in the big guns or suddenly fighting his war as if there were no tomorrow. We don’t know whether he fears the loss of the backing of an American president or the American people or even the US military itself, whether he despairs of President Karzai or the Taliban, or the whole mission, or whether he has launched his version of a blitz in the most hopeful of moods. We don’t know whether he sees the contradiction in any of this, though no one, the general included, should be surprised when, for all the talk of rational planning and strategy, the irrationality of war—the mass killing of other human beings—grabs us by the throat and shakes us for all we’re worth.
Petraeus has flipped a COIN and taken a gamble. However it turns out for him, one thing is certain: Afghans will once again pay with their homes, farms, livelihoods and lives, while Americans, Europeans and Canadians will pay with lives and treasure invested in a war that couldn’t be more bizarre, a war with no end in sight. If this goes on to 2014 "and beyond," heaven help us.