official results of Afghanistan's presidential elections won't be known
for weeks. The ballots cast around the country need to be brought to
Kabul--some by donkey and helicopter--and counted. Nevertheless, U.S.
officials have rushed to celebrate the process, and NATO Secretary
General Anders Fogh Rasmussen heralded the elections as "a testimony to
the determination of the Afghan people to build democracy." This,
despite more than 75 reported incidents of violence throughout the
country, an estimated 26 civilians and security forces dead, reports of more than a handful
of districts where no one voted, and complaints about impermanent ink,
intimidation, and other irregularities.
As we continue to watch and wait for the final results, this focus
on Afghanistan should provoke a reconsideration of means and ends in
what the world is now calling "Obama's War." The military won't defeat
al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nor will elections in an occupied country
solve this problem. We have to start looking at different solutions.
Can't Get There from Here
In a primetime speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in
Arizona last week, President Barack Obama recommitted himself to the
war in Afghanistan, saying that "this is a war of necessity" that is
"fundamental to the defense of our people." And repeated what he
characterized as a "new strategy" with a "clear mission" and "defined
goals," namely to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its
This strategy does sounds less grandiose than President George W.
Bush's articulation of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan from 2002.
"We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan
people the means to achieve their own aspirations," Bush said. "Peace--peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable
government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and
develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an
education system for boys and girls which works." After enumerating the
ills of the Taliban, Bush concluded: "By helping to build an
Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which
to live, we are working in the best of traditions of George Marshall."
But whether the goal is an Afghan Marshall Plan that turns Herat
into Heidelberg or Obama's more limited but still sweeping goal, the
fact of the matter is--as they say in Maine--you can't get there from
In the VFW speech, Obama did acknowledge that "military power alone
will not win this war" and he has dispensed with the Bush-moniker
'Global War on Terror." But he continues to rely on slightly upgraded
(and very costly) versions of the same set of tools used by the Bush
administration--troops on the ground, military training for Afghan
security forces, and technology (especially drone strikes in Pakistan)--to "win" in Afghanistan.
Defining what success looks like is proving just as difficult in the
44th White House as it was in the 43rd. As Af-Pak Special
Representative Richard Holbrooke said, "We'll know it when we see it." That is not an acceptable matrix for success--not when the price-tag is $177.5 billion and counting. Historic elections or no, Obama finds himself just as lost as any other would-be conqueror.
Disrupting, dismantling, and irrevocably defeating al-Qaeda and the
Taliban cannot be done with remote-controlled drones,
counter-insurgency forces, NATO troops, and private contractors
training the Afghan security forces. It cannot be accomplished through
increasing the number of doctors, dentists, and nutritionists in the
country, or sending more city planners, engineers, and communication
experts--all during an occupation and a war. Democracy, education for
girls, development--none of these laudable and critical goals can be
achieved through military operations or external efforts protected by
military operations. They can be temporarily delivered. Elections can
be held, schools can be built, and girls can be protected on the way to
school. But this no more than photo-op, fleeting kind of change.
Rick Reyes, a retired Marine corporal who served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently wrote in Roll Call
magazine: "As a Corporal in the U.S. Marine--who served in both
Afghanistan and Iraq and who remains willing to give my life for this
country--let me say from experience that our current strategy will not
bring security to Afghanistan or to America." U.S. military efforts, he
continued, have created "too many civilian casualties, too many
children without food and women without husbands, too many innocent
Afghans becoming anti-American because of our action."
Being effective means beginning from a different position. We need
to start by saying that the Taliban and al-Qaeda do not represent an
existential threat to the United States. They are not large, they are
not powerful, and they are not unified in anything except their
opposition to the intervention of the United States and NATO. These
adversaries need to be isolated, delegitimized, and undermined, not
confronted as an equal on the battlefield.
"Al-Qaeda consists of a few hundred people running around Pakistan,
seeking to avoid detection and helping the Taliban when possible. It
also has a disjointed network of fellow travelers around the globe who
communicate over the internet," writes John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University and author of Overblown.
"No convincing evidence has been offered publicly to show that al-Qaeda
Central has put together a single full operation anywhere in the world
since 9/11. And, outside of warzones, the violence perpetrated by
al-Qaeda affiliates, wannabes and lookalikes combined has resulted in
the deaths of some 200 to 300 people per year and may be declining.
That is 200 to 300 too many, of course, but is scarcely suggests that
'the safety of the people around the world is at stake,' as Obama
dramatically puts it."