December 30, 2015
Critics of the war in Afghanistan consider the terrorist attack that killed six Americans near Bagram airbase as yet another indication that it is time for the U.S. to withdraw military personnel from the country post-haste, while proponents of a long-term U.S. military presence perceive it as a reason why the United States cannot leave. How does one explain such diametrically opposed interpretations of the exact same event? The problem is both sides are missing the big picture. The media’s hyper-focus on isolated tactical events prevents us from understanding the underlying causes and strategic defects that have led to the U.S. mess in Afghanistan in the first place, as U.S. Army War College Professor M. Chris Mason explained to this author.
Detractors of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan range from pure antiwar activists who want to get American troops out of harm’s way at all costs while preventing the U.S. war machine from slaughtering more Afghans. Hence, any sort of bloodshed like the Bagram attack is seized upon to rationalize immediate withdrawal.
Self-proclaimed realist types tend to see an extended military presence as counterproductive and argue that it is nigh time for the U.S. to cut its losses. After 14 years of occupation and investing billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars, they argue, the United States has failed to sufficiently degrade the Taliban and have fallen short in effectively training up Afghan security forces, and point to incidents like Bagram to support their thesis.
Although there are solid arguments for a U.S. dash to the exits, some experts have dangerous knee-jerk ideas about what should follow such a military drawdown. DePaul University Professor Tom Mockaitis has used Bagram to argue for an American withdrawal “sooner rather than later,” but the solution he offers in a Huffington Post piece would make the situation even worse:
“The Afghan government may well fall and the country could fragment, in which case the U.S. might work with the Tajiks, leaving the Pakistanis to deal with the Pashtuns,” Mockaitis writes.
Professor Mockaitis had me buying into his withdrawal argument until he presented a formula for full-fledged civil war. Point being, some are more adept at describing the problem than they are at devising prescriptions, especially in the aftermath of a tragic event.
Meanwhile, those among the “stay the course” crowd have used the Bagram attack as an ominous warning: If the U.S. withdraws now Afghanistan will collapse and be overrun by the Taliban. Others argue that Bagram is actually related to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and is part of an international jihad that requires a long-term American commitment.
However, according to Professor Mason, tactical actions should never be conflated with strategic decisions.
“The loss of six more American personnel on a routine patrol outside Bagram airbase, however tragic, will not impact American strategic calculus in Afghanistan. Senior American policy makers simply do not think in these terms,” Mason said.
The U.S. effort in Afghanistan was doomed to certain failure from the start because of decisions made during the Bonn Process in December 2001, Mason added. It was at Bonn that the U.S. tried to impose a Western-style government that was ill-suited to Afghan tradition and custom.
“Legitimacy of governance in Afghanistan has never come from an electoral, democratic process and it probably never will,” Mason added. “Only the reestablishment of a largely ceremonial monarchy in Afghanistan in 2001 could have provided enough traditional legitimacy to the American-led process to prevent a return of the religious legitimacy of the Taliban. It was always going to be one or the other.”
The failure of the military and political status quo is inevitable, Mason continued, and the Taliban will eventually control around two-thirds of the country, including all of the Pashto-speaking land and a portion of the mixed-language areas.
The current government is dysfunctional, the Afghan Army is losing 4,000 men net a month to attrition – about 5,500 desertions per month offset by approximately 1,500 recruits per month. Meanwhile, Mason added, the Taliban is growing by about 15 percent per year and “anything which could reverse or even slow this entropy is politically impossible.”
In addition, Mason noted, there have never been any “peace talks” – which is a favorite delusion of the media – and there never will be any “peace talks.”
“People who talk about this as if it were a possibility are fools on a fool’s errand,” he claimed.
The death of six American troops is certainly a tragedy that should not be overlooked (albeit the Western press tends to ignore the tens of thousands of Afghans that have been killed). One should be aware of the media’s tendency to inflate such incidents, especially when U.S. lives are involved. We then risk looking at incidents like the Bagram attack in a vacuum without context, while reducing the entire argument to “should we stay or should we go” as each side tries to exploit the situation politically, spin it to support their respective ideological narratives and try to sell ideas that should never see the light of day.