The War Is A Scandal

by Joshua Foust on 6/13/2011 · 12 comments

In the FT, Daniel Dombey hears something absolutely scandalous from Adm Mike Mullen:

One senior official likens battling the Taliban to a game of “whack-a-mole”, a once-ubiquitous US arcade game where the player uses a mallet to bash a random and increasingly frantic series of moles back into their holes. Another official compares it to a “definition of insanity” – doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result…

Asked a few days ago what would constitute success, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said: “We will have a much better fix – in terms of clarity – towards the end of this year in terms of longer term what are the potential outcomes, and when those might occur, than we do right now.” This, mind you, after 10 years of war.

Asked if prevailing against the Taliban required the governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan to act in different ways than they have to date, Admiral Mullen said it did. It is worth saying that finding a US military official who believes Pakistan is really going to crack down on Taliban havens in North Waziristan is about as unlikely as finding an American diplomat who thinks Kabul will crack down on corruption.

There are a few things to extract from this exchange. The first is that it should be an absolute scandal that in June of 2011, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is asking for another Friedman unit before speculating about what success will look like. The second is that the entire strategy of defeating the Taliban requires two ordinarily recalcitrant governments in Kabul and Islamabad to somehow behave in a different way from how they’ve behaved in the past. Moreover, we’ve known this for years—even as we declare success in the south while simultaneously complaining about corruption and absent government, as we send our spymaster to beg the Pakistanis to please, pretty please, stop funding the murderous thugs who kill hundreds of Afghan civilians and dozens of U.S. soldiers each month.

The entire foundation of the war, in other words, is based on a concerted effort to ignore reality. If you think we’re about to defeat the Taliban and create enough space to withdraw, you must ignore the rampage of violence everywhere outside the south. You must ignore the fundamental inability of Kabul to send competent administrators and government staff to cleared areas. You must ignore the spike in civilian casualties. You must ignore Rawalpindi’s funding and training of the insurgency. You must ignore the horrible abuses of U.S.-funded militias.

The war in Afghanistan is a scandal. And it has been a scandal for years. At this point, if we are not sinking most of our time and resources into finding a political solution that includes the Taliban and excludes al Qaeda—even at the stage of moving beyond assumption and emotion to testing whether such a thing is possible—then we are, as a country, just not interested in ever ending the war. In which case we should pick up, pull out, and leave behind a stern warning that anyone who dares poke his finger into our chest again will be bombed into pieces.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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doylecjd June 13, 2011 at 11:45 am

The scandal comes in believing that this war was executed in pursuit of the destruction of the Taliban or al Qaeda or as part of the GWOT.

This was in pursuit of a US global positioning in countries that are key to their larger regions and neighbors. This is the very reason the US had designs on Afghanistan long before 9/11 and Iraq long before Saddam got uppity.

That this cannot be condensed for popular consumption or 7 second soundbytes is not really surprising as the interconnected nature is wide ranging and 99% of the people will tune out at the first mention of the SCC. That those charged with commanding the war choose their words too carefully is not a surprise either. Embarrass the leaders, lose a job is the way it works nowadays.

What is surprising is the number of people that continue to believe we are fighting a decade long fight at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and the immeasurable cost in lives for a few hundred al Qaeda or a few thousand hardcore Taliban. This is not to sound as if I am donning my tinfoil hat but meant to say that the war is for a much more broad cause than the relatively remote possibility that the US is threatened by ‘terrorists’.

A large part of the US force may be pulled back to satisfy the public, but significant US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq are not going anywhere for a long time.

Peter Hofmann June 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm


CE June 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Frankly, I don’t think anybody—and I mean anybody, whether civilian or military—has the balls to pull the plug on what has turned out to be one of the most shambolic military campaigns of the 21st century. (And if it’s not the most shambolic, then it’s definitely in the top two.)

Once the conflict bureaucracy gathers some momentum, once the materiel and personnel are in place, it must be greatly unsatisfying for the military (not to mention the politicians) to have to pull up stakes, pack up bags and head on home without having accomplished anything of lasting strategic or tactical import.

Don Anderson June 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

This is beyond scandal. It is failure personified.

This was not a grand master plan to dominate Western Asia. It has been the failure of a generation to understand where and what they are doing.

Beyond that, “whack a mole” personified in a full time assassination campaign borders on a regular daily war crime. No one is willing to say it, but all Afghans and now many many Pakistanis know what is going on. A great porportion of the killed in night raids and drone attacks are innocent. This constitutes a war crime. Like it or not.

The day may well come when the “whack a mole” specialists will be brought up on charges in The Hague. We have not one leader willing to divert and divest this terrible legacy. The Military Forces involved have lost all moral compass in the past several years.

When those of us fighting here and still morally functioning think that now we have Crocker coming and P4 in CIA, we struggle with our decisions daily. Can we support a defeat in progress that is so morally flawed?

We are failing because we have trampled on human rights and abused the short term good will our occupation brought. This has crystalized into a wide spread general national resistance against our policies in both countries.

Resistance personified by the ISI support for the Taliban(in hope of continued Pakistani control in the future).

Resistance personified by Islamic Insurgencies in two countries. Growing Insurgencies. Insurgencies that so many young men and women are willing to sacrifice themselves for-many via suicide if necessary. This is the tragedy in the failure and scandal. They are so enraged that they are willing to sacrifice a generation to see that our influence is destroyed completely.

Resistance personified by Afghans from top to bottom of the power structure praying daily that foreign forces leave them to themselves and let the cards fall as they may when that day occurs.

Hearts and Minds have been lost completely. Afghans know that the war will begin when we leave and then they can assert their independence for the first time in decades. This is the only hope left.

The silent majority being forced to accept negotiations that no one wants because we have made this into a National Resistance and not just a battle between religious viewpoints. How can Afghans support foreigners before fellow Afghans? How can Afghans support the very ISAF that invades their homes and kills with impunity, never ever explaining who and why.

This has been going on for years without respite. The failure has been well contemplated and justified via Kagans, Boots, Gates, Clintons and CNAS’s of the world. Failure is called “progress in the South” and many thousands of new police whom no one sees after the training is completed. Failure is brought nightly by masked heroes of the Rangers and Seals striking homes at night and flying away after the kill never questioning who and why they strike. The morning will bring more moles as the villagers discover another mistaken assassination that will never be questioned again.

This type of all out rejection has not been seen since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The results are moving in the same direction. Two failed states under the control of Mullahs actively hostile to the United States in all forms and features.

The wound, resulting from this colossal failure will not be going away. “Whack a Mole” players will get tired as the moles move from hundreds, to thousands, to millions and will whack no more.

This coupled with an active near default economic crisis means that we have lost all access to these areas for at least several decades.

The struggle in just increasing while our “whack a mole” players plan their near term departure. To say, “We died in vain,” is beyond even the conception of those of us here. To say, “We brought this upon ourselves,” is more painful than we can conceive.

Failure and Incompetence brought this on. It is way beyond a scandal now. Only the most stark changes to this policy now will avert disaster.

This is not even being considered by those who run the roost, thus the future is now written, and written in blood. Far beyond a Scandal here.

E2 June 14, 2011 at 3:48 am

“Resistance personified by Afghans from top to bottom of the power structure praying daily that foreign forces leave them to themselves and let the cards fall as they may when that day occurs.”

I generally agree with most of your points, except for the one above. Ignore what they say in public; NO ONE in the Afghan government or “power structure” wants foreign forces to leave. When (actually, IF) foreign forces leave, the money will stop flowing in or be significantly reduced. Those villas in Dubai don’t pay for themselves, after all.

Steve C June 13, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Hard to find a point of disagreement there, Don.

sayke June 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm

doylecjd – um, with all due respect… no. read _ghost wars_. the US didn’t give a shit about afghanistan from the fall of the soviet union till 9/11. it wasn’t even on the radar. the most significant engagement the US had was the stinger buyback program… peanuts.

it was US isolationism in practice – a classic failure to take responsibility for and follow up on our massive intervention in the region. we’re paying the costs for that today.

doylecjd June 14, 2011 at 1:44 am

I read it, more than once. Our failure then is poised to be our failure now unless the US takes a hard look at its goals, aims, and responsibility owed to Afghanistan. It’s not about isolationism as much as the fickle priorities demanded through US politicking.

Leaving Afghanistan in a hurry because a political ‘exit stage left’ has appeared through the killing of OBL will cause more problems than it solves. Our presence in Afghanistan has little to do with Afghanistan itself and much more to do with what is immediately East, West, North, and South of Afghanistan.

sayke June 15, 2011 at 6:11 am

i agree with you about your prescriptions, but i’m not sure i agree about the reasons for them! while that can be fine, and maybe i should leave it at that, i really do wonder what you’re getting at here.

if afghanistan was peaceful, stable, and independent, do you think US leadership would consider investment there a core national interest? i don’t think they would. i agree that they consider preventing iran or pakistan from taking over afghanistan to be very important, but if afghanistan was stable and free that wouldn’t be an issue… right? so isn’t this about afghanistan after all?

another way of phrasing it: if afghanistan was in a politically similar situation to kazakhstan, would the US invest heavily there? i don’t think they would. do you?

doylecjd June 15, 2011 at 10:14 am

If Afghanistan was stable and free perhaps not but not because we wouldn’t want to, but because it wouldn’t have necessarily been permissable.

I contend our involvement in Afghanistan is strategic to the region and is multi-faceted. At a very high level, it allows for:

-a presence to counter Iranian threat

-the engagement with Pakistan’s significantly sized, nuclear capable military

-proximity to Central Asian resources (Natural Gas) while countering Russia’s monopoly on distribution of those resources. Which is why Russia is hell bent on hanging on in the Caucasus.

-proximity to work towards guiding China’s interests in the region (note ‘guiding’ and not ‘supressing’) I believe it’s in the US’s best interest to see China grow but in a way that most benefits the US.

-a leveling influence against Chinese interest in Pakistan. The Chinese want unfettered access to the Indian Ocean.

I know Joshua hates the “great game” reference, but I think that involvement in Afghanistan is core to a much larger, much more in depth strategy to insert the US as an influence with which to be dealt on matters concerning the resources, influence, and geopolitics of the whole area.

Afghanistan represents a foothold to be able to project US influence throughout South/Central Asia, spreading up to Russia and over to China. Iraq represents a foothold to spread US influence throughout the greater Middle East. Both locations are key to their larger regional membership, both happened to be unstable to varying degrees, and both had leaderships that not many on the world stage would have balked about being toppled.

I don’t think either posed a real or threat to the US significant enough to warrant the lives, years, and financial costs, but terrorism and radical Islam are easy to package and sell on the evening news. People buy it. I don’t mean it to sound as cynical as it does, but terrorism is a convenient means for permission to do a lot more than would have been allowed against a stable, free society.

My biggest fear is squandering all of that because it has become a political hot potato or campaign issue. I fear a clumsy US withdraw or move towards isolationism because “out of sight, out of mind” would see US relevance and US influence wane.

This is not to say the last ten years couldn’t have been executed more effectively as I think our military/diplomacy ratio being weighted so disproportionately towards a military solution only, ignoring the greater diplomatic need is a large part of the reasons why we seem to be at a moment of reckoning.

The US is at a cross roads, hasty pullout may very well leave a vacuum and let’s face it, the chance of that vacuum being filled by a power structure beneficial to the US is unlikely. Continued, unchanged engagement just means what it has been going on for the last decade. The solutions will not be neat or easy and will take some smart minds, knowledgable and sensitive to the region. I believe it can be done, I’m just not sure our current crop of DC leaders can do it.

I know, I know, I’m too long winded. Sorry.

JackC June 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm

“doylecjd – um, with all due respect… no. read _ghost wars_. the US didn’t give a shit about afghanistan from the fall of the soviet union till 9/11. it wasn’t even on the radar. the most significant engagement the US had was the stinger buyback program… peanuts.

it was US isolationism in practice – a classic failure to take responsibility for and follow up on our massive intervention in the region. we’re paying the costs for that today.”


This word isolationism, I don’t think it means what you think it means. If anything the U.S. did is to blame for the situation, it was intervening in the first place in Afghanistan during the 1980s through the ISI.

Your response to which, is to claim that further intervention would have somehow made things better. As if the U.S. would have somehow done a better job putting Afghanistan back together again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, amidst an even more brutal civil war.

sayke June 15, 2011 at 6:12 am

further, and different, intervention would have undoubtably made things better. we can probably both think of ways that could have been, and still could be, the case.


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