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Reading about another catastrophically maimed casualty of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) in Afghanistan, I was struck by a biographical note. This young American, now a triple amputee after stepping on an IED while on foot patrol, an integral feature of COIN’s hearts-and-minds efforts, was only 11 years old when the war in Afghanistan began.
Come October, this war will have lasted a decade. Last month, the Iraq war passed the eight-year mark. During the Vietnam War, the question was whether there was any “light at the end of the tunnel.” In these wars, we have to wonder whether there is any tunnel. If so, no one seems to be in any hurry to get out.
Why? Why is it that we have come to accept war without end – not to mention, I would (and do) argue, war without benefit? And why does it actually seem as though our leaders want it this way?
There are reasons, and they are shocking.
Watching Defense Secretary Gates in Iraq recently where he practically begged to leave U.S. forces in place after the scheduled pullout in December 2011, Jed Babbin, I think, nailed it. Writing in the American Spectator, Babbin guessed that President Obama just doesn’t want Iraq to fall apart, at least not on the eve of the 2012 election. Ditto Afghanistan. And falling apart – I would call it reverting to type – is the inevitable result of U.S. withdrawal. “Who lost Iraq and Afghanistan?” is not a question Obama wants to get into during the election. Thus, Obama will slog on with COIN, maintaining his weirdly logical wartime alliance with the neoconservative, democracy-project right. On Obama’s part, this is a political calculation, pure and simple. On the right, something else is going on.
The fact is, so long as we are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, the policy born of neoconservatism’s lights, embraced by nation-building Bushies, promulgated and entrenched by Gen. David Petraeus, still has a theoretical chance of working. A constant refrain from these camps is that prematurely withdrawing from either country would jeopardize what Petraeus has dubbed for more than four years “fragile and reversible” security gains. To them, staying forever is leaving too soon. It isn’t so much that in withdrawal lies defeat; it’s that in withdrawal lies confirmation of the defeat of their prized COIN strategy. In the strategy’s defeat lies the abyss.
And so they must keep reality at bay. And they do that by keeping Iraq and Afghanistan a work in progress. As such, it is up to our troops to try harder to win “hearts and minds,” walk more IED-strewn patrols, distribute more cash to make “them” like us, adopt more Shariah practices in dealing with Islam (as literally suggested by ISAF). In this way, the COINdinistas are hamster-footing it to keep the ride from stopping at any cost.
That’s their prerogative, but only until someone finds the courage to fire them. That won’t happen until people connect the human toll of these wars – ROE-related combat deaths, IED casualties, frequent unfriendly fire murders – with dead-end COIN strategy. It’s no secret. In a recent report on new military medical statistics that reveal a horrific spike in multiple amputations and genital injuries due to IEDs in Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times noted: “Troops are increasingly vulnerable to injuries from such makeshift bombs as they mount foot patrols in an effort to win support from Afghan villagers, a key strategy in the counterinsurgency campaign.”
Either our representatives are as deeply vested in “success” as the military brass is, or they’re too timid to demand answers. Just look what happened when Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., expressed his frustration about war unending to Gen. Petraeus last month. “You know, 15, 16, 17 years, for God sakes, how much more can we take, how much more can we give treasure and blood?” asked Jones. Petraeus won the day by announcing, to great but irrelevant effect, that his own son had completed his first Afghanistan tour in November.
“I don’t think you win this war,” Petraeus is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward’s last book “Obama’s War.” “I think you keep fighting. … This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
This “kind of fight” – COIN – needs to stop, if only for the 11-year-olds.