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The Politics of (Ending) the Afghanistan War

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vince Gill (left) gives a casualty report to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. David Gillingham after an improvised explosive device detonates on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, Dec. 05, 2010. The explosion wounded 7 U.S. service members and killed 2 others. (source: USAF Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert at DVIDSHUB via Flickr

We understand that when it comes to making policy around, say, health care, it’s a show. But War? War we have trouble with. According to what we the mainstream media tells us, the image that most Americans get of war, the whole thing just appears confusing and frustrating.

Now there’s even more heavy stuff going down in Washington dealing with the war in Afghanistan, and if we don’t understand the politics behind it, it’s going to be just as confusing and frustrating as the mainstream media makes it appear. If we can see ourselves with the same clarity that we see Afghans however, the whole Beltway affair will make a lot more sense.

Politico lays out the story for us:

As the Obama administration prepares to release its third strategy review of the war in Afghanistan, discussion of U.S. policy focuses on three conflicts. First, the actual military campaign against Afghan and Pakistani insurgents. Second, the political jockeying among Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his countrymen and international groups attempting to get a handle on massive corruption and poor governance. And third, the Washington shadowboxing between factions supporting “double down” or “out now.”

Meanwhile, a growing progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement has emerged. This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that share a stunning amount of agreement. As a group, they offer a way forward that could be effective, affordable and sustainable.

How do you like that phrase, “progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement”? It’s like someone disemboweled Morning Joe and bled out all the undigested bullshit buzzwords onto the screen.

Beyond that awful phrasing, there’s a lot to take note of here. For one thing, this is now the third strategy review of Afghanistan. Obama will have only been in office two years next month. What could be forcing the Commander in Chief to review his own strategy publicly three times in two years? It’s because we’re making him do that. The majority of Americans have turned against the war, and the funding is only squeaking through in congress. Obama has to constantly come forward and justify himself, answer our questions, and show what he’ll do differently.

In that context, the review is not really a review of the military strategy, it’s an act of political theater. This is not the Commander in Chief and his generals tallying up their data and fine-tuning their tactical approach, this is the whole class turning in a book report so they get an A. That’s not cynicism, that’s really what’s happening. Accordingly, if you’re in the media, you can call it what it is: A defensive president desperately spinning his deeply unpopular war. It’s not a strategy review, in fact, it’s totally disconnected from the actual military campaign (more on that later).

And next we have that list of think tanks, experts, and journalists. This is your “axis of agreement”, the progressives, realists, and centrists in Washington who just so happen to, magically, coincidentally, totally-been-sayin-this-the-whole-time – agree with the prevailing Washington spin. Wow, that is news!

What are some other ways to describe an “axis of agreement”? Sycophants maybe? Groupthink? How about “Conventional Wisdom”?

Of course they all issued reports that say the same thing. If CNAS met the president’s weak defensive spin with a report that said “triple the troop numbers and spend, spend, spend!”, one or both of them would look ridiculous. Either the president looks like a wuss for ignoring the advice of experts, or the experts look like lunatics out of touch with Washington. Either way, Andrew Exum won’t get invited to as many cocktail parties anymore, and that makes everyone sad.

They have to say whatever the conventional wisdom is, their livelihoods depend on it. This year it’s “effective, affordable and sustainable”, last year it was counter-insurgency (COIN), before that it was the surge, and in between those it was some variation on “bribe the tribes” or “roads, roads, roads” (perennial favorites!). The think tanks aren’t separate from the politics of the war. As members of the status quo, they have to tow the same line as politicians, and this year’s line is “effective, affordable, and sustainable”. That means 30,000-ish troops, training police, drones ‘n Pakistan ‘n stuff, and also negotiating with the Taliban (ooh, controversy!).

And then we have the two factions in Washington: “double down” or “out now”. More simplistic nonsense. Who is the “double down” faction? Well, that’s CNAS, CFR, and all the other Beltway insiders who still support the occupation. And they aren’t saying “double down” are they? They’re making huge concessions, offering lower troop numbers, negotiations, etc. But concessions to who? Who is the “out now” crowd? That’s the American people, the people who have to fight and die and pay for these little foreign policy projects the experts dream up.

And even though the war is incredibly unpopular, most Americans have also made big concessions to the so-called “double down” crowd. President Obama has had two years, three by the time we’re done with this, to do what he could, and he somehow managed to screw it up even worse than the last guy. Now we’re ready to go. Pull back to the bases, negotiate some kind of compromise with the Taliban, start pulling out in July 2011 and be out by December. That’s where the majority is right now. It’s a little different from “out now”.

Granted, there are some in the antiwar movement who take a harder line, and they are quite effective. Obama will only be able to squeeze another one or two funding bills out of congress before the hardliners de-fund the entire occupation. This would not be the best outcome for the President though, and that’s why you have the White House and the entire Washington establishment walking back their war to just 30,000 troops, just training the police, just getting Pakistan to do more.

It doesn’t meet the majority of Americans’ demands, it’s not a firm commitment to the original July 2011 date, but it’s inching its way there. Hopefully, Washington will come around to the majority sooner rather than later, as the longer they drag on with these theatrical reviews, the more enticing the real “out now” crowd looks.

Put it all together and what do you have? This is a bargaining process between the warmakers in Washington and the American people, played out in real time on our TV and laptop screens.

The problem is that we’re only understanding this on very simple levels, we only see “strategy reviews” and “effective, affordable and sustainable”. We don’t see the negotiating, the giving and taking, and that’s why it just results in the same old confusing and frustrating experience for anyone who still bothers to pay attention. It’s just “this year’s strategy”, same old, same old.

The media, President Obama, and the Washington elite won’t tell you this, but this war is going to end. We are bargaining over the specifics of when and how, but the clock is ticking, faster and faster, every single day.

Failing to end this war will result in the complete destruction of the Democratic party, the Obama presidency, the US economy and armed forces, and any and all hopes for a solution to our broken government. A lot of the people who are turning against the war and forcing this bargaining process don’t even realize the stakes are that high, but it’s true. Continuing the occupation is absolutely not an option.

But there is one party to all of this who is definitely not remotely confused about that timeline: the US military. General Petraeus has pretty much lost his damn mind, and his strategy now consists of a two-pronged approach. One, beg and plead and whine and stamp his feet for more time. And two, pulverize the shit out of Afghanistan.

I won’t really get into the first one, you’ve seen Petraeus on TV every other day saying exactly the opposite of whatever Obama said the day before. We’re leaving in July 2011. We’re not leaving in July 2011. July is the start of a process. July is not the start of a process. The guy just doesn’t quit.

But the second one is really worth noting. No matter what the Washington experts are saying in their book reports about “reduced footprint” and “building governance capacity”, Petraeus couldn’t care less. He has upped the night raids and drone strikes, removed many of their rules of engagement, he’s sent in tanks (yes, tanks!), and he’s tripled the air war in Afghanistan. Wired headlines this as “Afghan Ultraviolence“. Petraeus knows he’s on borrowed time, and he’s using that time to burn Afghanistan to the ground. The numbers of dead Americans and Afghans are skyrocketing. Petraeus is throwing everything he’s got into the grinder and it’s failing.

Here’s the facts about what’s happening:

My colleague Derrick Crowe wrote this a few weeks back:

President Obama and his administration will likely never say anything like, “Man, you anti-war activists really shut me down. Good job. We’re ending combat operations because I can’t sustain political support if I keep pushing policies in opposition to you.” What he will say is something like, well, what he’s saying right now. It will be something along these lines:

“Thanks to the outstanding performance of our troops and General David Petraeus, our assessment shows we’re making sufficient progress to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, if not before, and we’ll end combat operations by [insert end date here].”

That’s what we’re witnessing with this phony strategy review, and all their spin about “sustainability” and the axis of circle jerks or whatever. They know that the deadline is going to come, they’re going to wrap it up, the think tanks will miraculously agree with them, and Petraeus will present the oozing, scorched carcass of Afghanistan as, duh, progress!

So once you really understand the politics that are truly driving the war in Afghanistan, it’s not confusing or frustrating. It makes sense, right?

Now there’s two ways to look at it. One way is it’s a positive sign that the antiwar movement is having great effect and forcing the Beltway machine to slowly bend to our demands. That can make you happy, which is good, because another way of looking at it will really piss you off.

A lot of people are going to die for no reason between now and the final pullout. A lot of Afghan civilians are going to be shot up and blown to pieces while waiting for the next CNAS report, for the fourth Afghan strategy review. A lot of our soldiers will be blown up by IEDs and gunned down by angry police recruits so that Obama and Petraeus can figure out how to get the  best “optics” out of their withdrawal. A lot of cold, brutal murder will be going down while we have these fake strategy shows in DC.

Keep this in mind over the next few days as the generals, politicians, and Beltway insiders parade across your TV screen touting their strategy review and their signs of progress. It’s all fake, there is no review. What’s driving it is the antiwar politics of the majority of Americans. They’re wasting time lying when the popular support for it has all but completely dried up.

Sooner or later anyone in Washington who continues to support the occupation, in any form – large or small, COIN or offshore, will be caught between an angry constituency who wants out and the truly “out now” hardliners. And that’s when the war ends.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed here are my own.

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Josh Mull

Josh Mull

Josh Mull aka “Ultimate Josh” is the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation/The Seminal as well as Community Director for Small World News (Alive in Baghdad, Alive in Afghanistan).

He is also a contributor to Enduring America, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and Politics in the Zeros, focusing on Politics, Energy and World Events in the 21st Century.

In his spare time, he manages a comic book store, Haven Comics, in Madison, AL.