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Monday, July 13, 2009

The Good War

by digby

With the president's unexpected statement to Anderson Cooper that the administration is not going to simply ignore the story about the Dasht-i-Leili war crime and US cover-up, there is at least some potential good news coming out of Afghanistan. But that's about it. Things are pretty awful over there and it's very, very difficult to see how this ends well.

Reader Sleon wrote in with some perspective on the situation:

I found your "Best and Brightest Redux" most timely as I have been meaning to write you about Afghanistan for several days. I recently finished an account of war in Afghanistan, told from a "grunt's-eye-view" that I found important for several reasons. It contains many of the themes we are used to finding in such stories of war at the personal level: patriotism and idealism pared down to a willingness to do anything to survive. There is love for one's comrades and hatred of the enemy. There is a lack of preparation and equipment for the terribly difficult terrain, where weather and elevation cut sections of the country off from one another by land except in summer. There is a complete misreading of the enemy's intentions and capability. They constantly are caught in ambushes and traps sprung by men who know every blade of grass in their region while the occupiers must rely on native guides who eventually always play them false; there are attempts at fraternization with the locals followed by honor killings and executions for helping the invaders in any way. There is the slowly dawning realization that while in the absence of an outside threat the locals would be fighting each other, they have been united by their hatred of the foreigner and will band together to eventually expel him, no matter how long it takes. And there is the blooming realization that military victory is impossible in Afghanistan - which is why your mention of McNamara is so apt.

And yet this is not a story about the American occupation, but a previous invader. Nor is it a depiction of the Soviet experience, which also should supply some salutary lessons for our military and the Obama administration, as the Russian failure there was one of the precursors of the collapse of their government. Rather it is the tale of a Macedonian soldier in Alexander the Great's army. It's called "The Afghan Campaign" by Steven Pressfield, a former soldier himself and an author who has given readers some terrific historical novels, including a wonderfully evocative and moving version of the battle of Thermopylae. I've read, in translation, most most of the ancient sources on Alexander's conquest and Pressfield faithfully incorporates the known facts about one of the most efficient empire builders in the history of the world. And yet even Alexander was stymied by the Afghans. After a relatively easy series of victories over the conventional forces of the Persian Empire, Alexander found himself confounded by the guerrilla tactics of the Afghan insurgents as he tried to incorporate them into his new governing order. The ruthless viciousness with which the Afghans treated their European foes exacerbated the hatred of the Macedonian forces who eventually learned the bitter truth: "The only effective tactic against insurgency is massacre." Keep that in mind the next time one of our unmanned drones accidentally blows up another wedding or funeral.

This tragic realization still has consequences today, as it has in every such conflict. The only way to reduce your own casualties against such an enemy - one who wears no uniforms, knows the terrain and can seemingly vanish back into the air at will - is to make their fear of you outweigh their hatred. Even then the effect will only be temporary, for they will never give up, never stop hating and will fight you in any way they can until you leave. In the end Alexander bribed some leaders, married the daughter of one of his most intractable opponents, declared victory and went on to conquer northern India. His hold on Afghanistan proved as ephemeral as that of of the Soviets and every invader in between. In the nearly 2,500 years since Alexander's invasion only the destructiveness of the weapons has changed. There will be no military victory in Afghanistan whether we stay one more year or fifty. They say that Pressfield's work is now required reading at West Point. Clearly General McChrystal needs to go back to school and someone needs to send President Obama a copy of "The Afghan Campaign" before we waste any more treasure and lives on something that will prove as fleeting as it is costly.

I was always skeptical about the facile Democratic line about Iraq being a distraction from the good war, the real war. They felt it was necessary in order to prove they weren't pacifist wimps and I get that. But it wasn't very smart to trap themselves into a war in the one place that wars are never won. (I would imagine that Cheney and Rumsfeld actually understood that very well, which is one reason why they transitioned to one they could "win" as soon as possible.)

This is going to be a mess, and an even worse mess than it needs to be if guys like McChrystal really are the McNamara's of the day, entranced with theory and metrics that only pretend to measure progress and actually measure the depth of denial that some wars are simply unwinnable.