Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (left) teaches a political science class on homeland security and defense at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Friday, Feb. 25. In a speech to cadets, Gates warned against sending a big American land army into Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. As he winds down a remarkable Pentagon career – overseeing two long and very costly wars, wrestling with a military-industrial complex resistant to his budget moves aimed at questionable weapons, and shaking up the senior officer corps – Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a message for his successor. "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it." – Christian Science Monitor
Dominant Social Theme: The Afghan war should wind up … or down.
Free-Market Analysis: In trying to understand the fear-based promotions of the Anglo-American elite, one has to be alert for "messaging." In this article, we'll examine how the messages regarding the Afghan war are changing and what it means within the context of current Middle Eastern revolutions. We can certainly see from Defense Secretary Gates' comments, above, there has been a big shift already in the announced attitude of US top brass. Such a broad statement as Gates' is doubtless not simply made "off the cuff."
During the Bush years, there was no end to military confidence that wars could be waged and won, perhaps with the application of fairly few troops. History, however, has shown that invading and occupying countries with an eye toward nation building is both an expensive and tedious task, never mind the audacity of such desires. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have literally cost trillions and have left unaccounted thousands of civilian and military personnel dead and wounded. They have poisoned the land with depleted uranium and polarized the very societies they were supposed support.
Gates' remarks are startling in this context, as he seems to be repudiating almost a decade of American military action. We have no explanation for why he is making these statements now; it could be as simple a perception as the increasing realization that reality is demanding such conclusions. If there is going to be a rapid shift in the war's operation, the American public needs to be prepared. Perhaps the situation is more fluid than it seems on the surface.
A number of factors are militating against the war's continuance at this point. The surge itself seems to be running into a Pashtun-Taliban backlash, with violence growing fiercer rather than less so. And while NATO and the American military brass continue to maintain that the additional troop strength has brought good results, this has not stopped requests for additional funding and for an extension of the war effort. It is now thought that another 80,000 military police will be necessary to sustain Kabul's shaky hold on the country after the West begins its drawdown.
The biggest flaw is the one that has troubled Western strategy in Afghanistan from the beginning. Pakistan, a necessary ally, continues to sponsor the very enemies that the Anglosphere has been combating. Recently, the West and America in particular have applied considerable additional pressure on Pakistan to combat the Taliban on its soil. But the five or six great families of Pakistan are not about to give up the leverage that the Taliban affords them. And it is not just the Taliban.
There are apparently thousands if not millions of Pashtuns in the areas that the West wants to target for Pakistani attacks. These tribes have been there for 2,000 years and Pakistani leaders are correct to tread cautiously. As we have pointed out previously, the Pashtun tradition is in part a military one and if offended families and tribes seek revenge not just immediately but for several generations thereafter. One does not enter into a blood feud lightly; not if one lives in close proximity to those like to pursue it.
The whole thing seems a bit like a "non-starter." That's what makes it somewhat strange that American top brass now want until 2014 to begin a serious drawdown. The idea is that by this time the Afghan 300,000 man army and 100,000 civilian police force will be ready to take over. This too, in our humble opinion, is a fantasy. The vast majority of these individuals are drawn from ethnicities that the Pashtuns – 40 million strong – have feuded with in the past. The idea that Pashtuns and the Taliban fighting forces recruited from among them will consent to be safeguarded by forces drawn from tribes with which they have contended against for hundreds of years is a puzzling one.
The army and police are being taught that they are "Afghans" – not representative of any particular tribe or clan. But this begs the question: It does not matter especially what this nascent fighting force believes; what is of concern is what the Pashtuns and Taliban believe. And so far neither the Pashtuns nor the Taliban seem to believe they are "Afghan." Indeed they are not. The Pashtun's nomadic territory extends from Afghanistan to Pakistan – a greater Pashtun-land. The Pashtuns are a nation unto themselves and one of the most ancient on earth. They fought off the British a hundred years ago and are in the process of fighting off the Americans now.
While we've banged this drum in dozens of articles, we are well aware that we are simply a modest blog without any military or strategic background – and thus one of dubious credibility. Enter, then, Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a startling article at the Daily Beast entitled "A Tragic Waste of Heroes," Gelb argues that the military in Afghanistan has "lost its way." He makes the startlingly blunt statement that, "It's fair to conclude that further major U.S. combat in Afghanistan makes no sense."
The proximate cause of Gelb's argument is a "U.S. military announcement carried in Friday's New York Times and Washington Post that American troops were withdrawing from an obscure valley it once termed "central" to the war effort. Vital yesterday, not today." He continues:
The Times story opened deadpan, pointing out that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are taking troops out of the Pech valley in eastern Afghanistan not far from the border with Pakistan—a location they once termed "central" to the war effort. Now, apparently, it was no longer "central" or "vital." Now, despite the many lives and limbs lost in years of fierce battle there, it was no longer strategically worth continued American losses. It once was; it isn't now. May those who fell there rest in peace.
Now, the commanders determined, U.S. troops in that desolate place would better serve the overall campaign elsewhere—protecting population areas instead of defending against remote Taliban operations. The inescapable point … is that the U.S. military doesn't know how to judge what's vital inside Afghanistan and what's not …
The commanders did not claim "mission accomplished" in Pech because the mission was NOT accomplished. The Taliban continue to operate effectively in the area. Both stories also noted that Afghan forces would be replacing the American brigade of 800. But, of course, no one would venture even to hint that they could or would fight effectively or for very long. The conclusion seems inescapable: Deploying that U.S. brigade into Pech in the first place was a military miscalculation, and the losses, a mistake … Is it possible for anyone to figure out how to fight this war?
It really is an amazing article. Gelb even mentions Gates' remarks, and adds, "Folks, he was referring to Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So, if it doesn't make sense to fight in Afghanistan tomorrow, why do it now? … This quote alone about future military sanity should occasion serious debate about this long war." Wow. We can't resist one more paragraph:
Now, drink in this one last psychedelic quote by a "military official" too smart to let the Times use his name: "What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren't anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone," said one American military official familiar with the decision. "Our presence is what's destabilizing this area." Did you hear those words? The Afghan people in the Pech "just want to be left alone." It really isn't the horrid Taliban (and they are horrid) who live there who are the main problem. "Our presence is what's destabilizing this area."
We find some irony in Gelb's remarks, of course. The Council on Foreign Relations is a well-known repository of elite resources; it is nothing if not a reflection of the Anglosphere itself and has never shied away from considering military force – even brutal and massive force (think Shock and Awe) – as a considered diplomatic tool. In this article, Gelb sounds positively pacifistic. And yet within the larger scheme of things, we doubt that the Anglo-American elite ever believed that because a group or nation "wanted to be left alone," they should be.
In fact, on another front, NATO is apparently planning to apply military force once again. Reports have it that military intervention in Libya is a distinct possibility. The Obama administration has stressed that "all options are on the table." Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, intends to provide President Obama with "options as comprehensive and robust and as far-ranging as we can think of." DEBKAfile web site has gone on record with claims that "hundreds of US, British and French military advisers, including intelligence officers, were dropped from warships and missile boats at the coastal towns of Benghazi and Tobruk Thursday Feb. 24."
This is one of those situations where it simply is not possible to discern a clear pathway forward. Two of the nation's most influential leaders come on the record within a short span of each other questioning the current war effort; meanwhile NATO and the Pentagon are apparently considering further military action in the very area that Gates' has just warned about. It is either some sort of devious dialectic or simply a case of increasing confusion. If it is the latter, then it does not portend well for any of these efforts.
Confusion, even rhetorically, is not a way to address conflict. Afghanistan is by no means pacified and Iraq has seen many serious civil disturbances in the past week. Apparently Libya is a tempting target for nation building, given its vast oil resources and its ability to generate some further control for the PE to maintain underlying support for the global oil-dollar trade – support that is vitally necessary to keep that smoldering ponzi scheme. But before the Pentagon and NATO open up a THIRD front, they might give heed to Gelb's words regarding Afghanistan: "They just want to be left alone."