The invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of Libya’s Qaddafi are supposed by liberal interventionists to have been good wars. Most of them have by now had their fill of Afghanistan and want out, but getting out is likely to be a nightmare. The Libyan adventure is still quite popular, when it is remembered, but is well on the way to becoming a classic case study in blowback. A recent story in Foreign Affairs magazine, the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, named some of the harsh consequences of the war for nearby countries and Libya herself.
First, there are the weapons: The neighborhood, especially Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger, was always uneasy about Libya’s civil war. Many feared that it would pry the lid off Tripoli’s sizeable weapons cache and lead to the dispersal of arms across the region. It turns out that they were right to be worried. Then, there is the money: Locating Libya’s financial assets after the war has been another complicated matter. Members of Qaddafi’s inner circle who know where the money is stashed are missing or unidentifiable. Basically, billions of dollars might wind up in the hands of individuals who could use the cash to sponsor terrorism or otherwise destabilize Libya. And finally, there are the refugees: Tens of thousands of Africans, no longer welcome in Libya, returned home this year. Besides the fact that many of them are ripe for jihadi infiltration, they will further strain the region’s weak economies. Already, food security is becoming a major issue and famine looms.
In Mali, Tuareg soldiers fighting with Qaddaffi brought their Libyan weapons and other military hardware home with them after he fell and seized several provinces from the Mali government, which has since been overthrown in a military coup. In Algeria, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, portable air defense systems and other Libyan weapons have been turning up in anti-government hands. In Tunisia, a refugee crisis and the interruption of trade with Libya is eroding the economy and the country’s post-revolution stability. And in Libya …
In Libya, militias, which amassed vast quantities of weapons during the war, are refusing to relinquish them to the interim government. Some groups, including the one that conquered Tripoli (Al Qaeda supporting NATO), are comprised of jihadists. Meanwhile, other groups — tribes and private citizens — are building their own arsenals against a background of resurgent tribalism and regionalism. The Misratans and the Zintanis, for example, have established domination over resource-rich areas. Some in Cyrenaica, which boasts most of the country’s oil reserves, are threatening to secede from Libya. Meanwhile, the Toubou tribe is fighting the Zwei in Kufra and Sebha, near the borders with Niger and Chad; the Toubou have also threatened to secede. The Amazigh tribe is taking on the Arabs in the west, near the Tunisian border. And Libyan Tuaregs are locked in battle with Zintans in Ghat, near the Algerian border. Any of these conflicts could spill over soon.
So a year after the end of the bargain-basement good war, things are looking a bit dicey. And as a bonus, President Obama used the exercise to icepick the War Powers Act, declaring that presidential military adventures posing little risk of of US casualties are beyond the purview of Congress. It’s a formulation that leaves open the possibility of a president unilaterally nuking a country so long as it’s one that can’t fight back.
Maybe not such a good war after all.
The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, continues its sad journey toward becoming the longest war the US ever lost. We’re at 11 years now and even if we started getting out tomorrow, which of course we won’t, it’ll take a good two years to bring out or blow up everything we don’t want to leave behind.
For some time a lot of people, most of them Obama supporters, believed that 2011 would mark the beginning of the end. As I noted a couple of years ago, that date was always vaporware and by the end of 2010 had been formally replaced by the new, equally nebulous 2014 deadline.
Obama first mentioned the 2011 “deadline” in a December, 2009 speech at West Point, and he reiterated it with a drive-by reference in his 2010 State of the Union address. But the deadline was neither a deadline nor a commitment, hedged as it was by the inevitable bow to “conditions on the ground,” and in the event that anyone misunderstood, which many people did, a parade of administration officials and military types have been not at all subtly walking back the imaginary deadline since War Department honcho Bob Gates kicked off the festivities in January of 2010.
“[W]hat the president has said is, he expects that we will be in a position to begin turning over certain districts and provinces in Afghanistan to provincial or district Afghan control beginning in July of 2011. There is no end date on that. And the — and the turnover of control to the Afghans will be based on conditions on the ground.”
How fucked up is this war? Some unknown percentage of our manpower there is now dedicated to keeping an armed eye on our allies, so as to shoot them down before they shoot our people down. In a macabre turn of phrase the bodyguards are known as “guardian angels,” but the situation is reminiscent of the final scenes in the Quentin Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs.
Tom Engelhardt, whose observations on American stupidities abroad are almost always depressingly acute, wrote yesterday that the increasing pace of assaults on US troops by those ostensible allies might hasten the day of our departure. I doubt this, in part because I doubt that President Obama is capable of resigning himself to losing the war; among all the issues on which he campaigned, I think getting the war in Afghanistan “right”—proving that he does indeed have better judgement than his predecessor, that the US can win a war if we’re just smarter about it, that military force need not be a last resort—may have been the one in which he was most personally invested.
Regardless when we decide to leave, we have very limited options with respect to how. The military can drive out through Pakistan and leave by road and rail through the north into the former Soviet states. Both routes are congested, slow and not what one could call safe at the best of times. We can safely speculate that our departure won’t be the best of times; the temptation for the insurgents to harass us on the way out will be strong. Air transport is an option, but one that costs about 10 times as much as driving even allowing for the extortionate safe conduct rates we’ll be paying the various ‘stans.
Also regardless when we leave, we’ll be leaving a mess. The central government’s role outside the capital city is most often described in terms of waxing and waning influence rather than control. The prospects for its survival without a large number of US troops seem dim. The likelihood that it can on its own protect the US embassy there, now second in size only to the swollen monstrosity in Baghdad, seems close to nil.
US officials, military and otherwise, in two administrations have dismissed comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. That’s wishful thinking. I recently reread Neil Sheehan’s book about Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie; among the things that struck me was his brief mention of the oil-spot strategy, originally conceived by the French and adopted by the Americans in Vietnam in the form of the spectacularly unsuccessful Hamlet Pacification Program.
I didn’t recall the reference from the first time I read the book. The first time I remember hearing it was in 2004 or 2005 in connection with Iraq and, shortly thereafter, with Afghanistan. The strategy is one in which the occupying army seizes control of strategic areas and then extends it into the countryside, gradually starving the enemy of resources, territory and civilian support.
It didn’t work well in Vietnam, it didn’t work well in Iraq and it isn’t working well in Afghanistan. It turns out that without enough troops, enough being about 600,000 in Afghanistan according to the counterinsurgency bible midwifed by military holy man David Petraeus, it’s more of a water balloon strategy.
The US hopes to make up for the dearth of our troops by building up the local army and other security forces to around 500,000, but that remains a problematic enterprise. No one is saying how a country with an economy that consists mostly of foreign aid and proceeds from the drug trade will maintain a massive army and national police force.
We were able to leave Iraq with a certain measure of dignity, in that we weren’t literally chased out. There were no ragged final days, no last chopper lifting off from the embassy roof with desperate dependents clinging to the struts. Maybe we’ll get lucky and avoid a repeat in Afghanistan too, if we actually get to the point of leaving; maybe the Taliban will be preoccupied with other concerns. But don’t count on it.
Afghanistan was never going to be the good war. Possibly it could have been won, in some sense, for a while, but the US was never going to make the kind of military and social commitment necessary to do that even absent Iraq. The social commitment is one our leaders won’t even make to us. The military commitment can’t be made without a draft even if we wanted to make it: we don’t have anywhere near enough people with guns. Not for Afghanistan, and probably not for anyplace else that really matters to the people who run our country. Power has limits even if it’s super.
We could probably still kick the shit out of Grenada, though, and with any luck that’ll be the sort of place the next president with a hard on decides to prove herself. Luck for us, of course; not for our victims.
The good wars … liberal interventionists still believe in them. There was some sentiment toward intervention in Syria, but fortunately that clusterfuck is playing out slowly enough to make clear that good guys are in short supply on both sides of the conflict, and most of them aren’t armed. If we do parachute in on it, the move won’t be widely seen from here as a romantic gesture. Perhaps that’s why the specter of unconventional weapons is being inserted into the narrative.
Liberals have gotten tangled up in war during the past four years more than they ever were, which was always more than they wished to admit. The Pentagon campaign to rebrand soldiers as the more exalted “warriors” has been extraordinarily successful. “Thank you for your service” is required, even though that service often enough consists of killing people or blowing up things that might just as well have been left alive and intact. People who walk into bullets or bombs are automatically heroes, regardless the circumstances.
I’ve seen President Obama compared to James Bond in the wake of the bin Laden assassination. I was coincidentally reminded of Dalton Trumbo’s terrifying novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and in particular one monologue from the book:
“Already they were looking ahead they were figuring the future and somewhere in the future they saw war. To fight that war they would need men and if men saw the future they wouldn’t fight. So they were masking the future they were keeping the future a soft quiet deadly secret. They knew if all the people all the little guys saw the future they would begin to ask questions. They would ask questions and they would find answers and they would say to the guys who wanted them to fight they would say you lying thieving sons-of-bitches we won’t fight we won’t be dead we will live we are the world we are the future and we will not let you butcher us no matter what you say no matter what slogans you write.”
You can’t read those things and understand them and internalize them, and send someone off to die and someone off to kill. You can’t set poor man against poor man. You can’t even write stupid shit boasting about the James Bond president assassinating Osama and knocking off Gadaffi and blowing up some schmoes in Somalia who likely as not took to piracy when they lost their fishing grounds to foreign fleets.
But we’ve moved way beyond Johnny Got His Gun. The men who make wars aren’t any longer masking the future or keeping it secret. It’s so far out in the open now that a good liberal, a good Democrat, can write a mash note praising the style of her warrior, her man, her murderer, over that of the last one without even questioning the underlying premise. It’s so far out in the open that it has become the open, just as have the astonishing acts of thievery and greed that characterize this country’s rulers.
The good wars. Let us all thank our liberals for their service.
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis is off to the Gulf four months early.