An agonizing series of missteps by U.S. troops in Afghanistan show us how precarious is our hold there. Marines urinating on corpses, troops burning Korans, many instances of mistaken killings of civilians: all these have reinforced the idea that we just don’t belong there, that we don’t respect the Afghani people.
And now, the chilling story of a single American soldier who went from door to door of a village, systematically killing everyone and burning the bodies. Imagine the headlines if he had been killing Americans in, say, Kansas. As it is, the story has been front-page news, but competing with the presidential campaign and various other more parochial concerns.
President Obama seeks to wind down our involvement in Afghanistan by progressively building up the government and armed forces so that they can take over and keep the Taliban from returning to power. The odds of success were never particularly good: the Karzai government is weak, divided, and corrupt. The military forces and police have as yet shown little capacity to fight the Taliban on their own. Tentative talks with the Taliban, taking place in Dubai, have yet to show much promise of a workable settlement.
Now these recent incidents from U.S. troops suggest that our own force is under increasing strain, increasingly unreliable as the right arm of Obama’s policy. The window of opportunity for a graceful exit (such as he managed from Iraq) is closing. We can stay there by effectively occupying the country (a major escalation of our current effort), or by withdrawing to secure bases. We cannot stay the course we are on: it will not lead to a graceful withdrawal.
Andrew Bacevich’s recent book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010) makes clear that Afghanistan is merely the most recent incarnation of a pattern dating to World War II, which has committed this country to an essentially permanent war footing, even in the absence of compelling justifications for such a posture.
It is, he argues, no accident that we went into Afghanistan, and no accident that we are failing there. Afghanistan has seen the revival of the doctrine of counterinsurgency that was discredited in Vietnam (see my 2009 essay, “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan"). Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a scholar of American national security policy, makes clear that counterinsurgency cannot be any more successful in Afghanistan than it was in Vietnam.
Bacevich argues that we have reached the point where we simply must stop trying to run the world. We need, as he says in his concluding chapter, to “cultivate our own garden.” After seventy years, making that shift will be hard and traumatic. If we fail to make it, we will accelerate our own decline.