Not only is it unclear that the U.S. and NATO are winning their war in Afghanistan, the lack of support for their effort by the Afghanistan president himself has driven the American commander to the brink of resignation. In response to complaints from his constituents, Afghanistan’s mercurial President Hamid Karzai called Sunday for American troops to scale back their military operations. The supposed ally of the U.S., who only last spring petulantly threatened to join the Taliban, astonished Washington with this new outburst, which prompted a warning from Gen. David Petraeus that the president was making Petraeus’ position “untenable,” which some speculated might be a threat to resign.
During the past two months, the U.S. military has fought a major campaign in the environs of the southern Pashtun city of Kandahar, launching night raids and attempting to push insurgents out of the orchards and farms to the east of the metropolis. Many local farmers were displaced, losing their crops in the midst of the violence, and forced to become day laborers in the slums of Kandahar. Presumably these Pashtun clans who found themselves in the crossfire between the Taliban and the U.S. put pressure on Karzai to call a halt to the operation.
That there has been heavy fighting in Afghanistan this fall would come as a surprise to most Americans, who have seen little news on their televisions about the war. Various websites noted that 10 NATO troops were killed this past Saturday and Sunday alone, five of them in a single battle, but it was hardly front page news, and got little or no television coverage.
The midterm campaign circus took the focus off of foreign affairs in favor of witches in Newark and eyes of Newt in Georgia. Distant Kandahar was reduced to an invisible battle in an unseen war, largely unreported in America’s mass media, as though it were irrelevant to the big campaign issues—of deficits and spending, of taxes and public welfare. Since it was President Obama’s offensive, Democrats could not run against it. Since it is billed as key to U.S. security, Republicans were not interested in running against it. Kandahar, city of pomegranates and car bombs, of poppies and government cartels, lacked a partisan implication, and so no one spoke of it.
In fact, the war is costing on the order of $7 billion a month, a sum that is still being borrowed and adding nearly $100 billion a year to the already-burgeoning national debt. Yet in all the talk in all the campaigns in the hustings about the dangers of the federal budget deficit, hardly any candidates fingered the war as economically unsustainable.
The American public cannot have a debate on the war if it is not even mentioned in public. The extreme invisibility of the Afghanistan war is apparent from a Lexis Nexis search I did for “Kandahar” (again, the site of a major military campaign) for the period from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15. I got only a few dozen hits, from all American news sources (National Public Radio was among the few media outlets that devoted substantial airtime to the campaign).
The campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar had been modeled on last winter’s attack on the farming area of Marjah in Helmand Province. Marjah was a demonstration project, intended to show that the U.S., NATO and Afghanistan security forces could “take, clear, hold and build.”
Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine depends on taking territory away from the insurgents, clearing it of guerrillas, holding it for the medium term to keep the Taliban from returning and to reassure local leaders that they need not fear reprisals for “collaborating,” and then building up services and security for the long term to ensure that the insurgents can never again return and dominate the area. But all these months later, the insurgents still have not been cleared from Marjah, which is a site of frequent gun fights between over-stretched Marines and Taliban.
There is no early prospect of Afghan army troops holding the area, or of building effective institutions in the face of constant sniping and bombing. Marjah is only 18 square miles. Afghanistan is more than 251,000 square miles. If Marjah is the model for the campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar, then the latter will be a long, hard slog. Kandahar is even more complicated, since the labyrinthine alleyways of the city and its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants offer insurgents new sorts of cover when they are displaced there from the countryside.
Counterinsurgency requires an Afghan partner, but all along the spectrum of Afghan institutions, the U.S. and NATO are seeking in vain for the “government in a box” once promised by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The people in the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are largely hostile to U.S. and NATO troops, seeing them as disrespecting their traditions and as offering no protection from violence. They see cooperating with the U.S. as collaboration and want Mullah Omar of the Taliban to join the government.
Although the U.S. and NATO have spent $27 billion on training Afghan troops, only 12 percent of them can operate independently. Karzai and his circle are extremely corrupt, taking millions in cash payments from Iran and looting a major bank for unsecured loans, allowing the purchase of opulent villas in fashionable Dubai. It is no wonder that Petraeus is at the end of his rope. The only question is why the Obama administration is not, and how long it will hold to the myth of counterinsurgency.
Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is “Engaging the Muslim World.”