Killing at least sixteen Afghan civilians as they slept. Urinating on dead Afghan bodies while laughing about it. Setting fire to their Korans. Day after day, a tired American public hears that these are just “isolated acts” and that these incidents “cast shadows” and “complicate” Washington’s plan for a gradual withdrawal of troops over the next thirty-four months. We are told that the raging anger and distrust between many Afghan and American troops is a further sign that the steady plan is at risk.
But what if it’s the other way around, that the repeated acts of madness—and the record number of US military suicides—are signals of distress from an American army that knows it cannot win this war?
Many in the peace movement, myself included, have reluctantly accepted the reality that the withdrawal of our superpower state from Afghanistan would be gradual because so many powerful forces are invested in the ill-fated adventure. This includes our president, who pledged his reputation; the Pentagon, stung by failures in Iraq; the CIA; the neocons and Republicans, with their never-surrender diatribes; NATO and the United Nations; the liberal humanitarian hawks and the mainstream media, which never ever advocates for rapid withdrawal.
While others left the frontlines of the peace effort after Iraq, and more would leave to join the fight against Wall Street, a vibrant peace network has still carried on the push for steady withdrawals, lobbying our Congressional representatives to co-sponsor Barbara Lee’s HR 780 bill to defund the war safely and responsibly or petitioning our senators to sign letters to the president.
Any progress, many of us thought, was better than the deepening quagmire, and so it was a welcome event when the president began de-escalating the war, which he himself had thought necessary to escalate. Ten thousand US troops have already come home since that command. Another 22,000 will come home by this fall. Sixty-eight thousand to go, in stages, by the end of 2014. The end of the American combat role is being pushed up in time for the NATO summit at the end of May. Unsettled and unsettling questions remain: whether US troops will stay in training, advisory and counter-terrorism roles and, if so, how many; whether US bases would come to symbolize a permanent imperial presence in that “graveyard of empires”; how many American and Afghan lives would be lost or permanently damaged; and how many trillions in additional deficits an unfunded war would cost. But a managed de-escalation is at least underway, and it has appeared to many, including the president, that we could turn our attention to other woes.
Not so. I’ve warned several times of how many things can go wrong when a superpower is under the illusion that it can control the endgame of a war which it cannot win and cannot afford. The biggest difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that the Afghan “government” lacks popular support and is a just a shell over nepotism and corruption. The Afghan “armed forces” lack the morale, unity, training, cohesion and organization to defend even their own enclaves after American forces leave. It’s not that the Taliban are popular with an Afghan majority either. But the Afghan president is Humpty-Dumpty. His army can’t be trusted by anyone, including its American trainers.
Isn’t it time to reverse the traditional Machiavellian fear of losing? That will only lead to new calls from think tanks to “stay the course.” But since it’s a course to nowhere, has it become the very reason so many of our troops are going berserk or committing suicide—because they know in their bones that their bodies are being sacrificed for someone else’s face?
Courage in leadership requires grasping when defeat is inevitable, when it’s too late to worry about political cover because the corpses and the taxes are piled too high, when denial only makes it all worse.
The president has to say that the people of Afghanistan don’t want us there, that our troops can’t defend a country that doesn’t like us, and therefore the time has come for us to leave. We of course should stand ready to assist a war-ravaged country if asked by the Afghans and by a new international coalition.
As he gives that signal, the potential vacuum will be filled by regional diplomatic efforts. An interim power-sharing arrangement will be supported by Karzai (he will have no choice) and the governments of Pakistan, China, Turkey, Iran, Russia and India, along with humbled envoys from the United Nations and NATO. If nearby Vietnam can co-exist productively with the United States, so can Afghanistan. If Obama has introduced a new military doctrine letting others lead, as in Libya, surely he can promote a new diplomatic initiative in which the United States lets others lead as well.
Perhaps this is an over-reaction to recent catastrophes, and the sturdy American war bureaucracy will muddle along and muddy its tracks. But the power of illusion can overpower a superpower to the point of no return—that is the danger we are in.
Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute’s Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and history for over three decades, beginning with the student, civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.