The War Logs – a six-year archive of classified military documents about the war in Afghanistan, released on the Internet by the organization WikiLeaks – documents a grim struggle becoming grimmer, from the U.S. perspective. And for the Afghans, a mounting horror.
The War Logs, however valuable, may contribute to the unfortunate and prevailing doctrine that wars are wrong only if they aren’t successful – rather like the Nazis felt after Stalingrad.
Last month came the fiasco of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, forced to retire as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and replaced by his superior, Gen. David H. Petraeus.
A plausible consequence is a relaxation of the rules of engagement so that it becomes easier to kill civilians, and an extension of the war well into the future as Petraeus uses his clout in Congress to achieve this result.
Afghanistan is President Obama’s principal current war. The official goal is to protect ourselves from al-Qaida, a virtual organization, with no specific base – a “network of networks” and “leaderless resistance,” as it’s been called in the professional literature. Now, even more so than before, al-Qaida consists of relatively independent factions, loosely associated throughout the world.
The CIA estimates that 50 to 100 al-Qaeda activists may now be in Afghanistan, and there is no indication that the Taliban want to repeat the mistake of offering sanctuary to al-Qaeda.
By contrast, the Taliban appear to be well-established in their vast forbidding landscape, a large part of the Pashtun territories.
In February, in the first exercise of Obama’s new strategy, U.S. Marines conquered Marja, a minor district in Helmand province, the main center of the insurgency.
There, reported The New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel Jr., “The Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organization in a one-party town, with an influence that touches everyone.”
“‘We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’ said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. ‘Most people here identify themselves as Taliban. We have to readjust our thinking so we’re not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we’re trying to chase the enemy out.’”
The Marines are facing a problem that has always bedeviled conquerors, one that is very familiar to the U.S. from Vietnam. In 1969, Douglas Pike, the leading U.S. government scholar on Vietnam, lamented that the enemy – the National Liberation Front – was the only “truly mass-based political party in South Vietnam.”
Any effort to compete with that enemy politically would be like a conflict between a minnow and a whale, Pike recognized. We therefore had to overcome the NLF’s political force by using our comparative advantage, violence – with horrifying results.
Others have faced similar problems: for example, the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s, where they won every battle but lost the war.
Writing of another U.S. invasion – the Philippines in 1898 – Bruce Cumings, an Asia historian at the University of Chicago, made an observation that applies all too aptly to Afghanistan today: “When a sailor sees that his heading is disastrous he changes course, but imperial armies sink their boots in quicksand and keep marching, if only in a circle, while the politicians plum the phrase book of American ideals.”
After the Marja triumph, the U.S.-led forces were expected to assault the major city of Kandahar, where, according to a U.S. Army poll in April, the military operation is opposed by 95 percent of the population, and 5 out of 6 regard the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers” – again, echoes of earlier conquests. The Kandahar plans were delayed, part of the background for McChrystal’s leavetaking.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that U.S. authorities are concerned that public support for the war in Afghanistan may erode even further.
In May, WikiLeaks released a March CIA memorandum about how to sustain Western Europe’s support for the war. The memorandum’s subtitle: “Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough.”
“The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force,” the memorandum states.
“Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments.” It is therefore necessary to “tailor messaging” to “forestall or at least contain backlash.”
The CIA memorandum should remind us that states have an internal enemy: their own population, which must be controlled when state policy is opposed by the public.
Democratic societies rely not on force but on propaganda, engineering consent by “necessary illusion” and “emotionally potent oversimplication,” to quote Obama’s favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr.
The battle to control the internal enemy, then, remains highly pertinent – indeed, the future of the war in Afghanistan may hinge on it.
© The New York Times Syndicate