The United States invaded Afghanistan nine years ago to topple the Taliban and weed out terrorists, but the world’s richest military has failed to pacify a network of scrappy militants who continue to provoke chaos and bloodshed as the war lumbers on.
Taliban insurgents began a brazen raid Wednesday morning by detonating a suicide car bomb at the main gate of main US airbase in Jalalabad. They attempted to storm the base, firing light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at coalition troops. NATO reported that the assault cost the insurgents eight fighters. Two coalition soldiers were wounded, but a Taliban spokesmen claimed 32 Afghan and foreign security forces were killed. Meanwhile, hundreds of US and NATO forces battled a large group of militants in the eastern Kunar province.
June has been the deadliest month for the coalition forces since the invasion, with at least 59 US troops and 101 coalition soldiers losing their lives. US casualties hit 1,000 this spring and continue to rise in a dangerous campaign to pacify hostile populations in the Taliban’s southern heartland.
With new leadership, dwindling public support and $33 billion in additional war funding waiting for approval in the House, it is a pivotal moment for the war in Afghanistan and the growing political movement against the conflict.
Gen. David Petraeus set a standard when he attempted to win the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis during the 2007 US surge against a growing insurgency in Iraq. President Obama tapped Petraeus to replace reigning Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal last week, and, as expected, the Senate approved Petraeus on Wednesday.
The president’s comments indicate the decision was based more on McChrystal’s bold and insubordinate comments to Rolling Stone than a shift in war strategy. The US counterinsurgency strategy has focused on reducing civilian casualties and helping Afghanis help themselves build a new nation friendly to the West – based in Petraeus’ “hearts and minds” doctrine the general is expected to continue – but an upswing in violence and recent reports that Afghan civilians are just as worse off as ever sheds doubt that the quagmire in Afghanistan will end in a US victory any time soon.
“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, McChrystal’s chief of operations, in the now-infamous Rolling Stone article that prompted McChrystal’s termination. “This is going to end in an argument.”
Mayville’s comments reveal the uncertainty of the current situation in Afghanistan, which “is the product of more than eight years of chronic under-resourcing, under-reaction, spin, self-delusion and neglect,” according to analyst Anthony Cordesman.
“Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict,” Cordesman wrote in a report for the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”
Things aren’t looking good on the “hearts and minds” front. The United Nations (UN) reported that in 2009 nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives due to armed conflict, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Another UN report released in June revealed that years of death and conflict combined with easy access to opium products has driven one million Afghanis to serious narcotics addiction, a rate that is double the international average. NATO is struggling to build a viable police force in the country and predicts a decades-long battle against the deeply embedded corruption that permeates the impoverished Afghan government and society.
A Congressional investigation recently found that military contractors were spending tens of millions of dollars to pay off warlords, corrupt officials and the Taliban.
The uncertainty has spread to the home front. Support for the war in the US dropped from 91 percent in 2002 to 50 to 60 percent in 2008 and, by now, a majority of voters may be against the war, according to a Strategic Studies Institute report. Support among voters in the United Kingdom fell from 70 to about 30 percent over the same time period. A quarter of US voters surveyed last week support immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 28 percent support sending more, according to a Rasmussen poll.
Obama has defended his plan to stick to current US strategy and, after a 30,000 troop surge, begin withdrawing troops next summer, although he admitted that the US will provide assistance to Afghanistan for “a long time to come.” Petraeus cautiously supported Obama’s plan during a Senate hearing on Tuesday, leaving room for recommendations to put off a large scale withdrawal while promising “enduring” commitment to Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.
Americans against the war, however, see increasing political pressure to end the war as the only possible exit strategy.
“The [US] strategy is a total failure, you don’t have to be a professor in foreign policy to see that,” said Carolyn Eisenberg, a historian and activist with United for Peace and Justice.
Eisenberg points to the recent US offensive in Afghanistan’s Marjah district, an effort that began in February and was supposed to set a precedent for ousting insurgents and setting up local governments in the hostile Kandahar province. Progress in Marjah has been slow and bloody, a fact Petraeus recognized on Tuesday.
“[McChrystal’s] offensive in Marjah which was supposed to give him support was a failure, and they have no social base in Kandahar,” Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg said it is up to Congress to get the US out of the quagmire in Afghanistan, where opposition to the war is building as lawmakers are asked to throw more and more money at an exhausting conflict, while their constituents face the harsh realities of a dilapidated economy.
Last week, 30 representatives sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requesting a stalled war supplemental bill that would provide $33 billion for military operations in Afghanistan not be brought before the House until concerns about the war – and those in charge of it – are addressed. The letter cited “disturbing” characterizations of the war made by General Mayville and others in the Rolling Stone article that led to McChrystal’s resignation.
The war supplemental already passed in the Senate, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the bill must be passed by July 4 or the military will have to scale back operations.
Pelosi still wants to push the supplemental through, but said she is not cracking the whip and rounding up Democratic votes for the bill, according to The Hill. The vote is expected to be close because both antiwar Democrats and Republicans opposed to domestic spending included in the bill are expected to vote no.
In May, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) organized the Out of Afghanistan Caucus in the House. In April, Rep. James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) introduced a bill that would require the president to present a firm plan for safe and “expeditious” troop withdrawal, but the bill is currently stuck in committee.
Both Conyers and McGovern are part of a mostly liberal minority opposing a war policy that seems to set the stage for endless US occupation and battle against an elusive insurgency that will continue to cost taxpayers billions. Eisenberg, however, said that this minority should be encouraged to send its message.
“We understand is that this bill is going to pass,” Eisenberg said, referring to the war supplemental. But even if it passes … a significant number of anti-war Democrats voting no sends a message to the White House.”
The US has reached a turning point in Afghanistan. The picture of potential victory is decidedly vague, but now, nine years after the invasion, there are voices in Washington saying that it is not too late to turn back.