By Scott Ritter
War is hell, as the saying goes. Murder, on the other hand, is a crime. In this age of the “long war” pitting the United States against the forces of global terror, it is critical that the American people be able to distinguish between the two. The legitimate application of military power to a problem that manifests itself, directly or indirectly, as a threat to the legitimate national security interests of the United States, while horrible in terms of its consequences, is not only defensible but mandatory.
The true test of a society and its leaders is the extent to which every effort is made to both properly define a problem as one worthy of military intervention and then exhaust every option other than the use of force. It is true that President Barack Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan from his predecessor and therefore cannot be held accountable for that which transpired beyond his ability to influence. But the president’s recent decision to “surge” 30,000 additional U.S. military troops into Afghanistan transfers ownership of the Afghan conflict to him and him alone. It is in this light that his decision must be ultimately judged.
In many ways, Obama’s presentation before the Long Gray Line at West Point, in which he explained his decision to conduct the Afghanistan surge, represented an insult to the collective intelligence of the American people. The most egregious contradiction in his speech was the notion that the people of Afghanistan, who, throughout their history, have resisted central authority whether emanating from Kabul or imposed by outside invaders, would somehow be compelled to embrace this new American plan.
At its heart, the strategy requires a fiercely independent people to swear fealty to a man, Hamid Karzai, whose tenure as Afghanistan’s president has been marred by inefficiencies and corruption (even Obama was forced to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of the recent election which secured Karzai’s second term in office). Trying to reverse centuries of adherence to local authority and tribal loyalty with the promise of effective central government would represent a monumental challenge for the most efficient and honest of Afghan leaders. That we are attempting to do so behind the person of Karzai represents the height of folly.
For any military-based solution to have a chance of succeeding, we would need to deploy into Afghanistan an army of social scientists capable of navigating the complex reality of intertribal and interethnic relationships. They would require not only astute diplomatic skills that would enable them to bring together Hazara Shiite and Pashtun Sunni, or Uzbek and Tadjik, or any other combination of the myriad of peoples who make up the populace of Afghanistan, but also an understanding of multiple native languages and dialects. But the reality is we are instead dispatching 20-year-old boys from Poughkeepsie whose skill set, perfected during several months of predeployment training, is more conducive to firing three rounds center mass into a human body.The nation-building or “civilian strategy” envisioned by President Obama, impossibly ambitious even under the most ideal conditions, simply cannot be achieved with the resources at hand, whether in 18 months or 18 years. That he has chosen to place at risk the lives of even more American troops, and by extension the citizens of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the pursuit of such unattainable ambition is inexcusable.
The American military is unmatched in its ability to wage war. If the problem of Afghanistan was able to be defined in military terms alone, then perhaps Obama’s surge would provide the basis of a solution. But the Afghan problem has never been a military problem. The United States has, from the very beginning of its Afghanistan misadventure, sought to define the mission within the overall context of a “war on terror.” But the real mission revolves more around bringing to justice the perpetrators of mass murder and building international consensus to help prevent another such crime than it does any variation of closing with and destroying an enemy through firepower, maneuver and shock effect, which is the traditional core of any military operation.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, created problems best dealt with through diplomacy, law enforcement and intelligence. That the United States chose to define it instead as an act of war means that we have never assembled the tool set necessary to solve the Afghan problem, which explains a recent admission by U.S. military officers that, after eight years of war, America was at “square one” in Afghanistan.
Obama’s characterization of the threat faced by the United States and its allies in the expanded Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) theater of operations is as misleading as it is inaccurate. There is no singular, homogeneous enemy to be confronted by a surging U.S. military. The notion that the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating in both countries are part of an overarching Islamic fundamentalist movement seeking to export violence to the shores of America is fundamentally wrong. While the president may in fact have seen intelligence information (of undetermined veracity) that shows that some individuals or groups operating in the Af-Pak area of operations have in fact plotted such attacks, to characterize these players and their actions as representing a majority (or even significant minority) opinion among the thousands of fighters opposing the United States and its allies is just plain wrong. Yet, having accepted the definition of the Af-Pak problem in military terms, Obama had no choice but to accede to the solutions put forward by such charismatic military leaders as Gen. David Petraeus (the commander of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM) and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.