Thursday, September 3, 2009

Catch-22: Afghanistan

For those who want us out of Iraq and Afghanistan... keep wishing, but don't hold your breath.

Why? Okay, for starters--thankfully--the U.S. and coalition forces are slowly making their way out of Iraq. This is old news. But even if we leave we probably will have some presence there for a long, long time. Witness this: World War II is more than 70 years distant, yet the U.S. has a huge presence in Europe as a member of NATO as well as remaining in Japan. South Korea and the Korean War is more than 50 years behind us and, like Europe, we still maintain military bases in South Korea (where one of my friends is stationed today).

I am not naive enough to state that our presence in Europe and Asia is unwarranted, but I am pointing it out as a point of reference to my thesis that the U.S. Armed Forces forces will most assuredly remain in the Middle East as a vigilant watchdog for more years than I imagine the Bush Administration ever contemplated, and therein lies a problem.

It is obvious to most of us President George W. Bush, his paranoid vice president and "yes-man" staff did not think things through prior to launching a war against Iraq. If they had, they might have (or should have) reconsidered opening the can of worms that they have. But so they did, and now we have to live with those consequences and move on--and hopefully rectify what I consider was a hugely disastrous foreign affairs blunder.

This whole situation of our war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is complicated and was exasperated by the events of September 11. Whether readers want to admit it, our preemptive war with Iraq really had little to do with 9/11, but more to do with the Bush Administration's misguided desire to punish Saddam Hussein for his past sins. I do wish to clarify that I am not saying Hussein was a leader we could live with--I am saying other means were available to force him to "play nice," but think he basically drew a line in the sand and lost--and handed the Bush Administration an excuse to attack.

Bush's spin doctors were most expert in drawing conclusions that were erroneous at best, and blatant lies at worst, to gain national and world support for toppling Saddam Hussein's empire. It saddens me to this day that Secretary of State (Gen.) Colin Powell's reputation was used (and severely diminished) to launch a needless war in Iraq.

But I digress.

Today, public support for the Afghan War is beginning to show signs of waning.

Just this week ABC News and independent commentator George Will came out (ala Walter Cronkite's reluctant admonishment that we abandon our war effort in Vietnam) in favor of pulling coalition forces out of Afghanistan, saying we cannot accomplish our goals...

Will says, "So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."

To some degree, I cannot fully support Will's position, but I do understand it. I disagree with his assessment that we should scale back and wage war from the skies. In the past, this has proven imprecise, unreliable and deadly to many innocent victims. We already have claimed more Afghan lives who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, thus weakening our friendship with the Afghan government, which in some ways is not necessarily a bad thing (the Karzai government, like many before it, is corrupt beyond compare.

As a Sailor in the US Navy I find this approach of detached warfare somewhat cowardly. I do, however, agree with Mr. Will's position regarding Pakistan.

Already, critics are calling this "Obama's War." This is rather unfair assignment as this was a war launched by President Bush in response to the actions against us on September 11, 2001. I do not, however, have the same harsh words over this one issue. The Afghanistan of 2001, one ruled by Taliban tyranny also played host to Al Qaeda. As news commentator Ted Koppell said on National Public Radio it was here where Al Qaeda was given safe refuge; it was here where the events of 9/11 were nurtured, planned and launched (with the aid of certain factions in Saudi Arabia) and it was here where American launched a manhunt for the world's most hated man, Osama bin Laden.

Where I part ways with President Bush in regards to the Afghan War is simply this: He blinked. He lost focus; and he lost the game. By allowing his hatred of Saddam Hussein to consume him, he lost track of why we went to war in Afghanistan. We weren't at war with Hussein, but with Al Qaeda. But he forgot that and we lost ground; we even lost the "high road."

Not because of WMDs as he claimed; not because Hussein was a threat to U.S. security as he claimed; and not because Hussein was killing his people (that argument, I could have supported). Saddam was not the first nation to thumb his nose at U.S. concerns, but he was the first to suffer from a U.S. led preemptive war.

President Bush lost the game in Afghanistan and now--eight years later (next month)--we find ourselves immersed in the longest war in our history and many are beginning to question for what gains and at what cost... and why?

Having served as a Navy photojournalist in Afghanistan for a year, I am proud of the work our troops are doing in the streets of Kabul and countless other cities. We are there, not as conquerors nor bullies, but as teachers, mentors, humanitarians and as a protective friend. However, as the violence against the Afghan people escalates--and against us--that role is beginning to change... and as a result plans are being made to circumvent a return of Taliban rule.

When we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 we were welcomed by a people as we put an end to the Taliban tyranny that for all intents and purposes propelled that nation backwards to the 13th or 14th century.

For those of us leading comfortable lives here in our safe and sanitized world, most of us cannot imagine the horrors of the day-to-day lives of the Afghan people under Taliban rule. Women were stoned to death for refusing to submit to male dominance (the old adage of "barefoot and pregnant" would find a willing home in the Taliban's eye); girls were forbidden to attend schools; men imprisoned for refusing to wear a beard; no music, no television; beheadings in public squares... all used to invoke terror and subjugation. This is what the U.S. led coalition forces saved the Afghans from.

Move forward eight years to today and now the Obama Administration finds itself in a quandary. In 2007, then Sen. Obama, on the road as a presidential candidate, made it very clear he was not in favor of the Iraq War, but reluctantly concluded that our presence in Afghanistan a necessary evil. Today, plans are afoot to send in more troops to face an increasingly bloody Taliban threat who want "their" country back.

The sad matter of fact is, they (the Taliban) are beginning to make inroads. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the Taliban is making life increasingly more difficult for the Pakistan government as well. Today's military strategists believe Osama bin Laden and the top Al Qaeda echelon are hiding out in the twisting mountains of Pakistan, aided by members of the Taliban.

This is dangerous for both coalition forces and the Pakistan government. For Afghanistan, this is problematic since the border between the two countries is extremely porous making it easy for Taliban terrorists to move back and forth with relative ease.

Coalition forces training the Afghan National Border Police are making this a more difficult aspect for the Taliban, but for Pakistan, the presence of the Taliban is creating its own dilemma-for both Pakistan and for the coalition forces hoping to bring a lasting peace that would bring a revival of long poor Afghanistan (where the average Afghan earns approximately $400 a year).

Not wanting to appear as alarmist as the expert Bush Administration, the Taliban's influence in Pakistan is increasing and this puts us--and Pakistan in a terrifying position. Terrifying for Afghanistan, terrifying for India, terrifying for China and Russia and terrifying for the entire southeast Asian continent.

Why? Because Pakistan possesses the bomb. It is no secret that Pakistan has built approximately 100 nuclear warheads, standing ready for launch. World leaders as well as the Pakistan government are fully aware of the consequences if that government were to fall to the Taliban. The entire region could be destabilized with one careless action from Pakistan if its government fell to a zealot Taliban force (especially if they remain aligned with Al Qaeda).

So... back to Afghanistan, where we are definitely damned if we do, damned if we don't. This is the ultimate nightmare... and why it is unlikely the U.S. will leave the region any time soon.

But one can certainly hope.