Why Afghanistan Isn’t a Campaign Issue: Neither Obama nor Romney Have a Solution

The 'systemic problem' of uniformed Afghans attacking their American mentors raises questions about the viability of a bipartisan exit plan

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The transfer case containing the remains of U.S. Marine Cpl. Richard Rivera, is moved by a U.S. Marine carry team during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Aug. 13, 2012. Cpl. Rivera who was from Oxnard, Ca. was killed on August 10th while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

“Just don’t talk about the war!” was the motto evinced by John Cleese’s comic British innkeeper Basil Fawlty when entertaining German tourists at his establishment. The same motto seems to have been embraced by both candidates in the 2012 U.S. presidential election — and not simply because it’s difficult to detect significant differences on their policies for ending the longest war in America’s history. Neither President Barack Obama, nor Governor Mitt Romney can offer the electorate the prospect of a plausible outcome in Afghanistan that won’t leave many Americans wondering what was achieved in 11 years of a war that this week claimed its 2,000th American combat casualty. Opinion polls routinely find a substantial majority of Americans opposed to remaining militarily engaged in Afghanistan, which may be why the bipartisan consensus envisages most U.S. troops coming home by the end of 2014, handing security responsibility to the Afghan forces whose training and mentoring is rapidly becoming the mission’s prime focus. The Taliban won’t be defeated by the time the U.S. leaves, in other words, and it takes a leap of faith to envisage Afghan security forces finding the political will to fight the Taliban on behalf of a widely discredited Afghan regime once the U.S. leaves — and that was before the emergence of what the U.S. military calls a “systemic problem” of uniformed Afghans turning their weapons on their U.S. and NATO mentors. Afghanistan, for U.S. presidential campaign purposes, is a huge downer.

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At least 40 times this year alone, U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed by gunfire from allied security personnel in ostensibly safe bases. And the scale of of “green-on-blue” violence — although the Pentagon now prefers “insider attacks” — is difficult to determine, because such attacks are only reported when Western personnel are killed.

Insider attacks, deemed a “systemic problem” by the Pentagon, have already killed 23 Americans this year. And the vulnerability of Western troops is expected to actually increase in the coming months as a combat mission continues its transformation into one that deploys smaller groups of U.S. and NATO troops to mentor Afghan forces, exposing them to greater risk of attack from uniformed Afghans.

President Obama briefly addressed the issue last Monday, citing efforts to confront the phenomenon through improved intelligence and vetting of Afghan forces, and giving some U.S. personnel — “guardian angels” — the task of guarding others working with Afghan forces. California congressmen Duncan Hunter has called on the House Armed Services Committee to discuss the issue — but it’s an uncomfortable conversation because it hints at what may be fundamental flaws in the premise of the U.S. exit strategy, and perhaps even of the war started by President George W. Bush and escalated by Obama.

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“It’s becoming obvious that the American people no longer have a clear sense of what we are trying to accomplish, why it remains necessary and how far we are from attaining our goal,” Virginia Republican congressman Frank Wolf told the Huffington Post. “We believe Congress has a moral obligation to convene hearings that will explore what has brought us to this point and how we can move forward as a nation in a sustainable way, honoring the tremendous sacrifice that has already been made by so many.”

It’s generally recognized across the board, now, that the Taliban won’t be militarily defeated, nor is there any immediate prospect of a political solution to the conflict. It’s politically difficult for the U.S. to offer concessions that might tempt the Taliban, which recognizes that the U.S. has reached the limit of its military commitment in Afghanistan. And the movement’s long-time backers in Pakistan’s security establishment are unlikely to press the Taliban into talks unless Pakistan’s interests in a future regime in Kabul are accommodated.

So, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan locked in the throes of the same civil war that was underway when it first invaded in late 2001, albeit with the scoreboard having been reversed:  The Taliban is now the insurgent force, while its erstwhile enemies, the Northern Alliance, form the basis of the regime in Kabul. But whether that balance remains depends on the Afghan forces trained, equipped and funded by the  U.S. and other international donors for the foreseeable future. Their numbers are far bigger than what Kabul could sustain on its own. But getting the Afghan military on its feet is not simply a question of training, equipment and funding. It is fundamentally a question of politics—Afghan politics over which Washington has little influence.

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“The United States military often tends to behave as though you can create an effective allied military by just running them through the right number of training courses, giving them the right number of weapons, paying salary in sufficient amounts to raise a large enough force,” warns George Washington University professor Stephen Biddle. “But success and failure in building a third-world military, which is essentially what we are trying to do in Afghanistan, usually turns on soft questions like politics, whether the military in question gets captured by cronyism and politicized–and in this case, whether the politics of their relationship with their mentors works.”

It’s not hard to see how that relationship is poisoned if U.S. personnel suspect their Afghan charges could, at any point, shoot them in the back. The resultant wariness among American trainers towards their Afghan charges becomes a vicious circle, warns Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and consultant to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. “The Afghans must surely sense the Americans and other Westerners do not fully trust them, and it would only be natural for them to respond to that mistrust in kind.” One result Exum predicts is that U.S. personnel will be more inclined to trust ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks, traditionally supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, rather than Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but also the social base of the Taliban. That will only reinforce long established tensions within the Afghan security forces, threatening the viability of those security forces after the U.S. leaves. (Relying on non-Pashtuns to fight the Taliban in the Pashtun heartland of southern and southeastern Afghanistan is, in the long-term, a losing strategy.)

That would be exactly why the Taliban would infiltrate supporters to conduct this kind of attack. U.S. forces believe infiltration is only a small part of the problem, although outside analysts believe it might be higher — and the Taliban is certainly claiming credit. But there appear to be other grievances at work, as well, and friction between Western troops and their Afghan charges. Gen. John Allen, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, on Thursday even cited the impact on soldiers’ mindset of the fact that the Ramadan fast fell during the fighting season this year as a contributing factor.

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While Exum and others suggest that it would be easier to deal with Taliban infiltration, which is a counterintelligence challenge, the fact is that neither explanation offers much comfort, and has dimmed Western enthusiasm for the war — prompting NATO partners such as France and New Zealand to expedite their own withdrawal.

Nobody’s expecting the Afghan force that takes control in 2014 to take the fight to the Taliban. “It is unlikely that they are going to be able to drive the Taliban out of strongholds that the Taliban control at the time of handoff in 2014,” warns Biddle, who sees the best case as Afghan security forces managing to hold the ground taken from the insurgents by NATO forces. “The war is going to be in a condition of long-term stalemate as of 2014,” he warns, “and what that means is that the U.S. Congress is going to be asked to write multi-billion-dollar-a-year checks to keep this war going for a long, long time.” Whether or not Washington will remain willing to fund Afghanistan’s security after most U.S. troops leave remains an open question — and not one that’s likely to be discussed on the presidential campaign trail.

MORE: Afghanistan Sacks Its Security Chiefs: How Will That Affect U.S. Forces?

25 comments
Eric Jones
Eric Jones

There are no issues in this election unless rhetoric and name calling are considered to be issues. It's typical of today's politics - spend lots of money running negative advertising to slander your opponent. He who slanders most effectively wins!! our military action in Afghanistan is not a war either - its another mess like Vietnam with fewer Americans dead only because our government learned that Americans don't like high casualty counts in these so called campaigns for democracy and freedom in other  countries. And of course the media, owned by so few and driven by the next big thing, has moved on to the next big thing, like "Man mauled to death by bear in Denali".. Imagine that!

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

And who will pay cash for this? I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

The US of A should get out of Afghanistan ASAP with total disregard to the hell it leaves behind. There is no point in staying any longer. Bush’s idea of bringing democracy to primitive countries is simply untenable. Let Afghans fight each other to eternity if they so inclined. The USA should learn the sad lesson from Israel’s doomed involvement in Lebanon during the 80ies. We believed that we can tip the scales of the civil war in favor of the “enlightened” Christian community against the coalition of fundamental Shia Muslims and Palestinian terror organizations. We’ve learnt that both sides will betray us for far less than 30 pieces of silver. We paid dearly until the Israeli government decided that Lebanon is not worth the price of saving it from itself. It was not a glorious return of the soldiers, but around here there is no place for gallantry, no oppressed people thankful to their liberators, and no politician you can trust. Same for Afghanistan. Get out, write off the investment, stand by to defeat any new danger coming out from this hell, and wait for them to discover what they’ve lost when the Americans went home. Just look how Vietnam, is begging the capitalists to return. Victory is imaginary when you side with the forces of retrogression.

ttaerum
ttaerum

The reason Afghanistan isn't a campaign issue is because no one is willing to admit that the Afghan "surge" was one of the worst conceived strategies ever implemented. The bizarre notion of Obama that because the Iraq surge worked that an Afghan surge would work has, at long last, been proven to be false - as I predicted. Any time you put in 3 years of extraordinary military effort into something and there is no observable and maintainable difference pre to post, then it has been a huge waste of treasure and lives. Any time the enemy (whether AQ or the Taliban) resurrect themselves time after time, after being declared dead, then only the truly delusional would argue the war is being won.

Unfortunately, there are those who cling to the notion that you can somehow wipe out twenty percent of a population's social ethnic fiber by "digging in" or "doubling down". What we see now are the end of results of a White House who thought they knew better than Bush. The first rule of winning a war is - do not believe your own propaganda. Unfortunately, from Iran to Syria to Aghanistan to Egypt, this Administration has drunk heavily of its own cool-ade.

afghanrule
afghanrule

favoring non-pashtuns has been one of the U.S. military's greatest blunders.

the cause and effect of this clearly absurd decision unfolds.

Anthony McMillan
Anthony McMillan

These same "friends" were equipting now, will more then likely be facing us on another battlefield in a few years time. And using the weapons we've given them in "friendship" as well.

Palerider1957
Palerider1957

Now, let me see if I understand this correctly.

While Bush was in office, the MSM posted daily "death counts" of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We were told how Bush got us involved in these wars through lies; and yet, when pResident Soetoro makes matters worse there, we are to ignore it?

This reporting stopped when Obama took office. Sure, we still get death tolls reported, but not like when Bush was in office.

Is it because under the "leadership" of pResident Barry Soetoro the death toll of our troops more than quadrupled?

Is it not an issue since Barry Soetoro CAMPAIGNED on getting us out of these "illegal wars" and not only didn't do that, but involved us in another 5 wars, oh, excuse me, unconstitutional "kinetic military actions(?)"?

Oh, I know, pResident Soetoro can't run on his record of "accomplishments", and we surely don't want to bring out his miserable failures either.

It IS a legitimate campaign issue, whether or not you "Soetoro Campaign Workers", commonly referred to today as "journalists",  like it or not.

afghanrule
afghanrule

obama nation or obomination?

which one is it?

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

the US knows its a fake 911 and NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS INVOLVED IN 911 NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS EVER INVOLVED IN ANY KINDA SO CALLED TERROR ATTACK OUTSIDE OF AFGHANISTAN AGAINST ANY OTHER NATION NOT IN 911 NOT BEFORE 911 yet afghans are paying the huge price by theiir lives every day THIS NEEDS TO BE QUESTIONED oh and plz dont tell me how horrible taliban are and justify the illegal invasion and massacare of afghans by US

spwright1
spwright1

Fri 8/24/12 Oh Child PLEASE !  Our Military Warriors amp; Their Families, Our Veterans amp; Their Families are the ONLY AMERICANS Fighting this War.

The Rest of America is "At the Mall" amp; could Give a S___ about the War in Afghanistan.

Don't believe me ? Just mention the issue of Afghanistan then witness how Fast Americans Walk Away. They can't be bothered with this War. It's not important to them.

Yes I would Just Love It IF some one could Prove Me Wrong.

SPW in Alaska "Airborne"

Heterotic
Heterotic

Leet muslims kill muslims, get out and stay out.

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

and let christians kill christians. there's like gunshot and  killing in amerika by amerikans everyday. 

SlapHappyDude
SlapHappyDude

 Was that the plan on September 10, 2001? Oversimplified answers are rarely sufficient.

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

the US knows its a fake 911 and NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS INVOLVED IN 911 NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS EVER INVOLVED IN ANY KINDA SO CALLED TERROR ATTACK OUTSIDE OF AFGHANISTAN AGAINST ANY OTHER NATION NOT IN 911 NOT BEFORE 911 yet afghans are paying the huge price by theiir lives every day THIS NEEDS TO BE QUESTIONED oh and plz dont tell me how horrible taliban are and justify the illegal invasion and massacare of afghans by US

Xolani Mahlangeni
Xolani Mahlangeni

You may be right but Afghan was and remains the easiest route for these people to hit western democracies. To hit back quickly they were naturally the first in the line fire. It is unfortunate that they were the easiest to exploit by the Taliban in the fight versus US. That doesn't mean to disrupt the Taliban in their backyard you have to start off there.

SlapHappyDude
SlapHappyDude

 Geez, lay off the caps lock.

I agree that our military actions should always be questioned, and questioned again. It sucks that ordinary afghani people are paying the price for the actions of the taliban and Osama Bin Laden. It also is terrible they are still paying the price for British Imperialism. Still, one can't argue that simply ignoring the middle east exists will have positive consequences for the US and the world; policy is always far more complex than that.

curly4
curly4

No, Afghanistan is not a campaign item this year but back in 2008 it was and the media was all over it. This year it is almost not mentioned unless it is reporting the number of NATO killed. It is more or less mentioned as oh, by the way ....

This shows that media makes news of items depending on which side is in power. 

ubuntuluser
ubuntuluser

Americans have turned from a nation of warmongers to a nation of pacifists.

Poliphobic
Poliphobic

Some of us would tend to think that you've got that rather the wrong way round, old chap.

JamesTee56
JamesTee56

As shown in this article, American taxpayers are still shelling out billions of dollars a year for the Iraq war, including hundreds of millions of dollars to teach English language skills to Iraqis...in Jordan:

http://viableopposition.blogsp...

 

18235
18235

no more americans should die for that rat hole somalia with mountains---which is all afghanistan is.

afghanrule
afghanrule

afghanistan's geographical beauty is unmatched anywhere.

you must've been a FOBBIT!

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

Afghans never welcomed you to their land. so just fuck off and go back to your fatass hole amerika. btw im indian.

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

Afghans never said to amerika that they are welcome in their land. so get the fuck out of afghanistan and get back to your fatass hole amerika. btw im from india.

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

the US knows its a fake 911 and NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS INVOLVED IN 911 NOT A SINGLE AFGHAN WAS EVER INVOLVED IN ANY KINDA SO CALLED TERROR ATTACK OUTSIDE OF AFGHANISTAN AGAINST ANY OTHER NATION NOT IN 911 NOT BEFORE 911 yet afghans are paying the huge price by theiir lives every day THIS NEEDS TO BE QUESTIONED oh and plz dont tell me how horrible taliban are and justify the illegal invasion and massacare of afghans by US