Monday, October 12, 2009

Afghan base pull-out represents American command failure of its own troops

There is little to cheer about--ever--in seeing my fellow servicemembers killed or wounded, and even less reason for joy when a senseless loss proves my point that our troops are being squandered for political expediency rather than the legitimate defense of our country.

The Kamdesh evacuation cost at least eight American and three allied Afghani soldiers their lives last week, and the battle never should have been fought in the first place. Exposed, isolated firebases in hostile territory heavily dependent on air power for combat support have been losing propositions since Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh. Even an enemy with modest means will eventually be able to concentrate sufficient forces to overrun some small isolated base--or even take advantage of a planned withdrawal--to declare a major propganda victory, as the Taliban has done here. It is certainly worth it, in the grand scheme of things, for the Taliban to lose over 100 fighters in exchange for such a "victory."

All of this points to two central observations I have been making here for some time, and a third which should have been implicit but needs to be stated openly:

1) This is the wrong war for the United States to be fighting: even leaving aside the moral, ethical, and political questions of why we continued to occupy Afghanistan after the initial knocking out of the Taliban, we have (a) no reasonable definition of victory available; (b) no pretence of being able to create a stable democracy in an area that has been a tribal non-state for millennia; and (c) no excuse for fighing out a war that will allow China and Russia to become the primary benefactors of Afghanistan's natural gas resources even if we somehow did win.

2) Continuing to fight the wrong war rather than acknowledging the mistakes we've made does not keep faith with our troops: it treats their lives as meaningless. I understand that my fellow soldiers may well feel the desire to win through in order to honor those already fallen or because winning is simply what good armies do at virtually all costs. They have to feel that way in order to get up every day and risk their lives to do their jobs. That's why we are supposed to have civilian control of the US military: to make the decisions about when and how force will be used, and when it is justifiable to continue asking young Americans to sacrifice their lives and when it is not. Kamdesh represents our failure to act decisively in either direction.

3) There are limites to what military power can achieve--even ours. We arguably field the most technologically, battle-experienced military in the world today. There are few conventional forces the United States could not immolate on the battlefield with the proper combination of firepower, and our enemies know it. But they are also becoming increasingly aware that US military power can be whittled down by exposing it to the kind of warfare we have never done very well at: insurgency/counter-insurgency. Currently, if one dispassionately examines the situation in the Af-Pak theater of war, most of the traditional advantages fall directly to the insurgent, and our own technological supremacy is dramatically discounted. General McChrysal has argued [and I would probably have made the same argument in his boots] that what he needs is more numbers, more resources in order to offset the geographical, cultural, political, and logistical advantages of his opponents. In reality, additional resources are pretty much the only type of reinforcement we can give him, because we have entered a contest in which we cannot materially affect most of those geographical, cultural, political, and logistical advantages.

To be honest, I blame the current position of the United States almost equally on Presidents Bush and Obama.

In 2001, after deposing the Taliban and sending Al Qaeda scurrying to the hills, the pragmatic approach would have been to keep throwing money and resources at three or four well-positioned warlords so that they could have maintained Afghanistan in a state of near-perpetual civil/tribal war. Nation-building in Afghanistan? It was a fool's errand from the start. Bush blew Afghanistan when he was not out of there completely by mid-2003 at the latest.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama made talking tough the centerpiece of his campaign strategy to neutralize the perceive GOP advantage on foreign and military policy. Despite the fact that most of the time during the primaries [remember the debate in Texas] when he opened his mouth he got it wrong, the strategy worked. But it left the new President with a major campaign commitment that he had to honor: doubling down in Afghanistan. Which he has done for political advantage ever since....

Some day a military historian will deal with Kamdesh and other small battles against long odds that our troops have been asked to fight for the wrong reasons. We in the military family will honor our heroes as we always have--as the French Foreign Legion honors its own dead on Camerone Day.

But none of that justifies leaving those men and women with their asses hanging out in the middle of nowhere, without adequate support, for no reason that could possibly justify their sacrifice.


kavips said...

This caused me to think.

This is not a comment on whether or not this war is ours to fight.

It is on how we decide whether the loss of lives is in vain or not..

The principal I am reflecting upon after reading what you wrote, is that we have people willing to risk their lives at great sacrifice at no gain of their own.

That is an awesome weapon. Obviously we were at that outpost to protect those inhabitants from random violence being inflicted by Taliban each time they came off their mountain and swept through that village... Those who died, help carry on the legacy that this is a nation that believes in helping...

If there is any tragedy, it is this: that the message that America will risk it's lives to help a victim throw off it's oppressor, that America will spend its money to rekindle their livelihood, and once they are effectively able to function on their own, America will go home; that message is not getting through.

These soldiers then did not die in vain, even if we eventually may yet lose the war. They, and they alone, are what serve to carry on the legacy that our nation, is very different nation, made up with very different people from any other nation that has ever occurred upon this planet we call home.

PlanetaryJim said...

It is a very bad war. And, apparently the rifles the troops were given weren't functioning. That seems idiotic, and evil.

But it is consistent with the last very long war, Vietnam. The rifles would jam. Troops didn't have enough ammo in many situations. Sometimes artillery or air support would drop on friendly troops. All sorts of bad stuff.

It seems to me that the beneficiaries of this long war are the military contractors, or death merchants. They evidently don't have to be very competent - KBR electrocuted those soldiers with faulty wiring but they were never disqualified from future contracts. Whoever sold these rifles did a lousy job, and will go on selling crap to the military, because the military doesn't care what the soldiers have to deal with.

The military procurement scum bags approve huge contracts. Then they retire and lo and behold, six months or three years later they have jobs with the same companies they awarded huge contracts. And if there are no wars, there are far fewer contracts.