By Ivan Eland
Apparently, in a fit of personal pique at Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, President Obama has threatened a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan than the scheduled endpoint at the close of 2014 and also has warned that there could very well be no residual American force to support Karzai’s regime after that date. Karzai was irate that the United States was trying to negotiate a separate peace with the Taliban and its Pakistani allies without a significant role for the Afghans; as a result, he had abruptly ended talks with the United States over any post-2014 US residual force. A videoconference between Obama and Karzai to smooth over such issues didn’t go well.
OK, Karzai can get on anyone’s nerves, and Obama finally seems fed up with him after more than four years of his antics. But isn’t it shocking that Obama has threatened to change American policy just because Karzai is being difficult? Should a policy that allegedly has fulfilled US vital security interests be drastically altered because of mere personal animosity?
Yet we have been down this erratic policy road before. The Obama administration argued that keeping a residual postwar US military force in Iraq was vitally necessary, only to nix a settlement when the Iraqi government refused to exempt US soldiers from Iraqi law in the event they committed crimes—a rather imperial request to say the least.
In short, the US government first tells us that residual forces are vital to battling terrorists and assisting governments to keep terrorists or those who harbor them from taking or retaking power and then threatens, for seemingly minor reasons, to abandon retaining such forces in the countries concerned.
So we can thus surmise that perhaps such residual occupation forces were never very vital to US security. But then logically, that might lead us to ask why we needed any occupation forces in the first place. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a one-off raid by Special Forces in Pakistan, not American forces occupying Afghanistan, killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.
So if vital US security interests did not require occupation forces for nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan after the Saddam Hussein and Taliban regimes were toppled, then why did George W. Bush and Obama need to send even more Americans to die in their respective troop “surges.” In Iraq, Bush sent more troops to their deaths to tamp down an unexpected counterinsurgency war that erupted after an unnecessary invasion of a foreign country—apparently only so that the US could leave with at least some dignity. According to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, in Afghanistan, a skeptical Obama—a Democratic president vulnerable to the charge that he was against all wars (heaven help us!)—agreed to a troop surge to placate the powerful military pressure group and to say that he had given the already existing nation building war there at least a college try. Yet the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, although still pending, look grim and not worth the extra loss of American or indigenous life.
However, letting more people die in messy counterinsurgency wars that were already lost is not a transgression unique to Bush and Obama. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and promised America “peace with honor” in ending the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, many more Americans died as he spent too much time on an unsuccessful attempt to preserve national honor—only reaching an eventual peace five years later in 1973. In my new book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won (with a publication date at the end of July 2013), I detail other episodes of great powers continuing wars that they should have admitted were lost.
The book also notes that chaotic counterinsurgency wars in developing nations are rarely militarily and politically successful; both are required to defeat insurgents. Also, war goals are often conflicting and have to be scoped back, as the conditions are often much tougher than the often-hubristic great powers initially expect. Such was the case in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Also, amazingly, great powers often forget basic lessons learned in their previous counterinsurgency wars—the US military had to relearn lessons from Vietnam the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama bear moral responsibility for escalating unnecessary nation building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were already lost. The US military bears moral responsibility for pressuring them to do so and for needing to relearn, under fire, the costly lessons of Vietnam. The right answer in all three conflicts was an early and rapid withdrawal, leaving no residual forces that implied American responsibility for the future of these countries. As petty as the fight with Hamid Karzai seems, let’s hope President Obama takes advantage of it to leave Afghanistan immediately and completely.