Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
In Iraq itself, the priority was not tying up loose ends but preventing them from fraying further. Curbing the authoritarian tendencies of the Shiites now wielding power while adjudicating intra-Iraqi disputes to maintain the facade of a functioning government presiding over an actual nation-state absorbed much of Odierno’s attention. To his credit, the general studiously avoided claiming that the war was ending in anything even approximating definitive success. When an annoying reporter in September 2009 asked if the Iraq insurgency was now finally in its “last throes”—in this context, a loaded phrase—Odierno responded with irritation. “I will never say last throes,” understandably forgetting that six years earlier he had essentially done just that. “And it’s not going to end, okay? There’ll always be some sort of a low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next five, 10, 15 years. The issue is, what is the level of that insurgency? And can the Iraqis handle it with their own forces and with their government? That’s the issue.”
The admission could not have been an easy one for an American four-star general to make. Having failed despite herculean efforts to impose its will on the enemy, the U.S.-led coalition had tacitly given up on trying. Indeed, the coalition itself had ceased to exist, the last non-U.S. foreign troop contingents pulling out of Iraq during the summer of 2009. Only the Americans remained.
With the world’s most powerful military establishment having initiated a conflict it had proven unable to finish, few palatable options presented themselves. Further prosecution of a war now detached from any larger strategic purpose would amount to sheer lunacy, even assuming that the political will to do so existed, which it did not. Nothing remained but to put the best face on things and leave.
In September 2010, Operation Iraqi Freedom gave way to Operation New Dawn, with General Austin now in overall command. The choice of such an Orwellian appellation was fitting. Although the name change was meant to signal the end of the U.S. combat mission, fighting continued, albeit sporadically. Whether or not anything new was actually dawning, one thing was for certain—U.S. troop strength in Iraq was dropping. In December 2009, 110,000 troops remained in Iraq. One year later the number was 48,000. A year later still and the number was zero, Iraqi authorities having torpedoed U.S. plans to retain a transitional force in country.
General Casey had hoped to wrap up the Third Gulf War by December 2005. His estimate was off by precisely six years.
Back in March 1973, at ceremonies marking the inactivation of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General Frederick C. Weyand, MACV’s last commander, told the American soldiers in attendance, “You can hold your heads up high for having been a part of this selfless effort.” As he prepared to leave Saigon, the general described a glass more than half-full. “Our mission has been accomplished. I depart with a strong feeling of pride in what we have achieved, and in what our achievement represents.”
Over thirty-eight years later, departing Baghdad in similar circumstances, General Austin offered an assessment mirroring Weyand’s. “What our troops achieved in Iraq over the course of nearly nine years is truly remarkable,” he declared. “They removed a brutal dictator and gave the Iraqi people their freedom.” In doing so, American soldiers had set the stage for “Iraq’s young democracy to emerge as a leader in what has been and what will continue to be a very dynamic region.”
Of course, preserving any gains U.S. forces had made in Vietnam by 1973 depended on the ability of the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves. So too with Iraq after 2011. Would Iraqis find it possible to manage on their own? Or, as with the South Vietnamese, would they succumb to a combination of internal and external pressures? Only time would tell. The real “clock” had just begun to tick.
By electing Barack Obama president, Americans once more entrusted the highest office in the land to a foreign policy neophyte. With the anomalous exception of George H. W. Bush, this pattern had prevailed throughout America’s War for the Greater Middle East.
All newly elected presidents promise a clean break from past troubles. Obama was no exception. With Russia, there was to be a “reset” and with China “rigorous and persistent engagement” to preclude the possibility of a second Cold War. To Iranians, he offered an “extended hand” in return for a willingness to “unclench their fist.” Transcending these country-specific initiatives in immediate importance was the new president’s vow to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” With this new beginning, “common principles…principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” would provide the basis for relations.
Goodbye conflict and suspicion, hello harmony and understanding. In effect, Obama began his presidency declaring that the War for the Greater Middle East had become redundant, as if the product of some unfortunate miscommunication. In practice, however, ending that conflict eluded his grasp, in no small part due to actions on his part that expanded and thereby perpetuated it.
The expansion began in Afghanistan. At the outset of its War for the Greater Middle East, the United States had sought to destabilize that country. Having succeeded, it tried to ignore the results. Then after 9/11, with regime change now becoming the favored American M.O., the George W. Bush administration toppled the government in Kabul, even as its fixation with Iraq soon thereafter provided an excuse to distance itself once more from the consequences. Loose ends in Afghanistan were not going to prevent the Bush administration from going after Saddam. Yet once begun, Operation Enduring Freedom refused to end. Less by intent than out of miscalculation, Bush found himself stuck with a two-front war.
During World War II, saddled with his own two-front predicament, Franklin Roosevelt had struggled to reconcile the imperatives of waging war against Germany with the imperatives of waging a simultaneous war against Japan. Bush was not into reconciliation. He established clear priorities and stuck with them: Iraq was the main effort and Afghanistan a subsidiary theater. And so it proved to be throughout his term in office. Admiral Michael G. Mullen, who followed Pace as JCS chairman, put the matter succinctly: “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.”
By “what we can,” Mullen meant “not much.”
It was a striking admission. During the eight years of the Bush presidency, U.S. military spending, easily the highest in the world, more than doubled from slightly above $300 billion to nearly $700 billion per year. Even so, the Pentagon found it impossible to adequately resource two moderate-sized conflicts. As the Third Gulf War all but consumed the Bush presidency, the Second Afghanistan War dragged on inconclusively, attracting little more than glancing attention.
Upon assuming office, President Obama wasted no time in reversing Bush’s priorities. In Afghanistan, he sought to do more with more while moving to get out of Iraq altogether. Escalating in Afghanistan enabled Obama to fulfill an imprudent campaign pledge. Yet doing so had this unintended result: It ensured that the War for the Greater Middle East was going to continue. It also ensured that the strategic void that Bush had bequeathed to Obama would remain intact.
As one facet of a much larger enterprise, Afghanistan was destined to become easily the longest war in American history, a fact difficult to square with that country’s modest geopolitical significance. In the wake of 9/11, Bush and his lieutenants had viewed Afghanistan as a strategic dead end. They were not wrong to do so. Eight years later, with President Obama intent on doubling down, the insight remained no less valid, but was now deemed irrelevant.
Indeed, as the fighting in Afghanistan entered its second decade with no end in sight, it was becoming ever more difficult to understand what the United States hoped to achieve by remaining in such a distant country about which most Americans knew little and cared even less. Save Afghanistan from the Taliban? What made Afghans worth the trouble? Why not save Mexico from predatory drug cartels? Why not save Haiti or Venezuela? Both were closer to home, equally in need, and arguably better able to absorb whatever benefactions Washington might be willing to bestow.
After toppling the Taliban, the United States military presence in Afghanistan qualified as hardly more than nominal. During the Bush era, U.S. troop strength had averaged fewer than eighteen thousand, never rising above one-fifth the total number of American military personnel committed to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In comparison to Iraq, casualties also occurred at a modest rate. U.S. losses in Afghanistan averaged fewer than eighty per year.
After the abortive fight at Tora Bora, with Afghanistan nominally liberated, Washington’s emphasis had shifted to state-building. The United States and its allies—to justify its existence, NATO was still keen to go “out of area”—set out to create a strong central government in Kabul exercising jurisdiction throughout Afghanistan and headed by the West’s chosen leader, the presumably accommodating Hamid Karzai. Such a government would ensure stability, prevent Afghanistan from once more becoming a terrorist safe haven, and create conditions for its long-term modernization.
Although holding the United Nations in generally low regard, the Bush administration looked to the UN and others in the “international community” to take the lead in this very ambitious project. The small contingent of U.S. combat troops retained in Afghanistan were to chase down Al Qaeda remnants along with any of the groups loosely referred to as the Taliban. Where there was fighting to be done, Americans would do it, leaving to others the tasks of occupation and reconstruction. This distribution of labor triggered a tsunami of well-intentioned governmental and nongovernmental organizations eager to respond to the plight of the Afghan people. In short order, twenty-six UN agencies set up shop in Kabul, and over forty countries contributed troops to what became known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Unfortunately, results achieved on the ground came nowhere close to meeting the expectations nursed in Western capitals. Despite formal progress made in erecting some semblance of a legitimate government—as in Iraq, interim institutions were created, a constitution was drafted, elections occurred—substantive improvements lagged. Derisively known as the “mayor of Kabul,” President Karzai exercised limited authority outside of the Afghan capital. In the countryside, a traditional politics of ethnic and clan identity prevailed. Although donor nations pledged billions in development assistance, some reneged on promises while funds that actually materialized were as likely to go to consultant salaries and corporate profits as to projects actually benefiting Afghans. Corruption was rampant.
Only one sector of the domestic economy boomed: opium cultivation and export. Occupied Afghanistan became the source of 90 percent of global opium production.
The disparity between what the occupiers promised and what they delivered created an opening for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to make a comeback. Particularly in the southern and eastern Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan, which had become a sanctuary for militant Islamists, violence intensified. By 2005, suicide bombings and IED attacks, mainstays of the Iraq insurgency, were making their appearance in growing numbers. Security was deteriorating. U.S. allies had imagined that they were signing up for an exercise in armed peacekeeping more or less comparable to Bosnia or Kosovo once aerial bombardment had ceased. The advent of a shooting war came as a disagreeable surprise.
An incident in Kabul itself—an Afghan counterpart to the bloody Fallujah schoolhouse confrontation of April 28, 2003—brought the dimensions of the problem facing the United States and its partners in Afghanistan fully into view.
On the morning of May 29, 2006, a truck driven by American soldiers, part of a U.S. military convoy moving through the crowded streets of the Afghan capital, plowed into roughly a dozen parked vehicles, killing several bystanders and injuring others. As the rest of the convoy tried to leave the scene, angry Afghans surrounded it and began pelting U.S. troops with rocks. Shots were fired, and a full-scale riot erupted. Rampaging through the streets, rioters sacked and burned buildings representing a foreign presence such as aid agencies along with a newly constructed five-star hotel. They angrily denounced the United States and mocked President Karzai as an American lackey. It took six hours for Afghan security forces to restore order. By then sixteen civilians were dead with more than a hundred others hospitalized, many with gunshot wounds.