Declaring Victory and Coming Home

The story went largely unnoticed, what with the coronavirus and the Democratic primary race and the latest celebrity scandals, but President Donald Trump has announced an end within 14 months to the longest war America ever fought.
American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since shortly after the deadly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, yet it’s gone largely unnoticed. The war was launched with bipartisan support and widespread public approval, as Afghanistan’s sternly Islamic Taliban government was giving sanctuary to the al-Qaeda terror group that had so viciously attacked America, and a relative handful of badass Special Forces quickly toppled the Taliban government with help from some formidable Islamic but anti-Taliban Afghan militias that American intelligence agencies had wisely built a relationship with. Casualties were relatively low by the brutal standards of war, elections were held for a new government, and over 19 long years of propping up that government the troop deployments were relatively light and casualties were relatively low by war standards. There were mass shootings in places all across America that were deadlier, so it wasn’t front page news.
A war in Iraq that was less clearly tied to the Sept. 11 attacks proved far more controversial, and Afghanistan became the “good war” that even the most peacenik Democratic politicians didn’t dare criticize. The Iraq war started with the “shock and awe” of the full might of America’s military quickly toppling the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, then holding elections for a new government, but propping up that attempt at democracy in the Islamic world turned out to be costlier than expected, and even after a “surge” of American forces largely pacified the country the effort was widely unpopular.
President Barack Obama supported the war in Afghanistan but ran on his from-the-start opposition to the Iraq War, and after sending more troops to Iraq he kept a campaign promise in 2011 by withdrawing all forces from the country. A rise of such radical Islamist groups as the Islamic State soon followed in the region, and troops were sent back to various countries in the region to fight against that. Trump has now claimed victory in that fight, because the Islamic State has lost its territory even if it retains its terrorism capabilities, and he’s happily ceding the region to the Russians and Iranians. He’s declaring victory in Afghanistan, too, as he agrees to a deal that seems likely to put the Taliban back in charge of the country.
According to the deal the Taliban promises a cease-fire with the Afghan government that has so far been propped up by the American military, and that even if does wind up in charge again it won’t have anything to do with with the likes of al-Qaeda. There’s no reason to believe this, and much reason to doubt it, but Trump is keeping a campaign promise to end America’s endless Middle East wars, and he’s already calling it the best deal ever. He’s also said that if the Taliban reneges we’ll be back with shock and awe like nobody has ever seen, and even if he loses to any old Democrat that’s what we expect will eventually happen.
At this point both parties want America to withdraw from its leading role in global affairs, and it’s harder than ever to make the case for these seemingly endless wars. We’re well past draft age and don’t have any moral standard to say this, but even after so many years we think there’s something to be said for American resolve. The radical Islamist portion of the Islamic world has been decimated by a couple of unpopular wars and such unpopular legislation as the Patriot Act, and despite public opinion we’d like to keep up the good fight.

— Bud Norman

The Afghanistan War Goes On

America has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years long years, and after President Donald Trump’s nationally televised address on Monday it’s clear the fighting will continue for a while. That’s not good news, of course, but it could have been a lot worse.
It would have been worse news if Trump had announced he was keeping his oft-repeated campaign promise to concede defeat and allow the Taliban to reassume control of the country where their al-Qaeda allies planned and trained for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Trump admitted in a fairly well-written speech that doing so remains his instinct, so it’s very good news that he allowed the more carefully reasoned and far-sighted analysis of his far more experienced advisors to dissuade his instincts for a change.
It’s also as good a bit of news as one can hope for at this point that Trump didn’t make any characteristically grandiose promises about how America’s going to be winning so much you’ll get bored with winning and that it’s going to be so quick and easy your head will spin. Winning in Afghanistan won’t require leaving a fully westernized and modern country, a far-fetched fantasy that Trump effectively ridiculed on the campaign trail, but any semblance of victory does require a reasonably sane Afghan government that can defend itself against the inevitable attempts to once again turn the country into a training ground for future Islamist terror attacks on America, and we are reassured that Trump has been made to realize even that more modest goal is still necessary and that even after 16 long years it still can’t be done quickly or easily. Trump didn’t give a Churchillian sort of speech to prepare the people for the long struggle ahead, but at least he overcame his instinct to make promises that can’t be kept.
There was the usual lack of any specificity in Trump’s address, but that’s probably good news as well. He hinted that more troops would be deployed, although probably not as many as his generals had requested and surely not enough to turn Afghanistan into a thoroughly modernized and westernized country, but at this point there’s no reason for us or the enemy to know with any more specificity that at least the fight will continue. He hinted that America would prosecute the war with more ruthlessly self-defensive rules of engagement, which we think wise, but the fairly well-written script didn’t include any historically unfounded talk about summarily executing prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, as Trump recently advised the Spaniards to do after a recent Islamist terror attack, and these days we also have to count that as good news.
Aside from the life-and-death consequences of war there are also political implications to be considered, and we expect Trump handled those well enough for a change.
If you’ve been following the Trump presidency reality show so far you know that he recently accepted the resignation of “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, a longtime champion of the inaptly named “America First” non-interventionist school of foreign policy that so aligned with Trump’s instincts, who had famously been feuding with the more experienced and knowledgeable and far-sighted and hawkish generals who were serving as Trump’s Defense Secretary and national security advisor and chief of staff, so that’s a big sidebar story that won’t amount to much. Bannon has returned to the editorship of the news site, which did much to promote Trump’s candidacy and presidency among a certain readership, and is already running articles of the newly stated Trump policy, but at this point we don’t expect that Trump will lose the support of many of its readers.
The rest of the media probably won’t manage to do much harm, either. When America went to war in Afghanistan those 16 long years ago it was in response to that country providing haven for the planning and training of an attack on American soil even worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor that had forced America into World War II, and Republican President George W. Bush was authorized the use of military force with bi-partisan support. Although Democratic President Barack Obama had been a strident critic of America’s war in Iraq he also deployed more troops to Afghanistan, even if he did so at lower levels than the generals recommended and with ludicrous timelines and rules of engagement, and his congressional authorization also won bipartisan support. Even Trump can expect to get the same benefit of the doubt, and he won’t suffer any significant loss of support from the far-left and despite Bannon’s best efforts only a slight loss on the far-fight.
Besides, there’s bound to be a solar event or sports competition or debt ceiling debate or Russia revelation to divert the public’s attention coming soon. After 16 long years the public has become accustomed to waging war in Afghanistan, and has largely come to realize there are no quick paths to anything resembling a victory but no available way out of getting out that wouldn’t be disastrous, so its hard to fault Trump for overcoming his simultaneously noninterventionist and militaristic instincts and being led to the same conclusion.
Over the past long 16 years the war in Afghanistan has claimed more than 2,400 American lives, with far more life-altering casualties, and although each of them is a tragedy that should be honored and mourned and carefully considered there’s a ruthless mathematics to war that publics have always also acknowledged. At this rate the war will have to carry one for another century or so before it reaches the death toll that caused America to exit the shorter Vietnam War, and hardier previous generations sacrificed as many of their children on a bad afternoon at Gettysburg or a rough morning on the beaches of Normandy, so except for the occasional desultory address on national television by Republican and Democratic presidents alike the Afghanistan war will probably go on unnoticed by all but those few unlucky patriots who have to fight it.
We’ll hope for the best, though, and begrudgingly admit that at least Trump didn’t it make any worse.

— Bud Norman

A Bad Deal Back in the News

The American public’s memory is short, and until Wednesday it had likely forgotten the name of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
He was briefly a celebrity last year when he was released from Taliban captivity in exchange for five high-ranking terrorists being held at the Guantanamo Bay in a deal brokered by President Barack Obama, complete with a Rose Garden news conference featuring Bergdahl’s teary-eyed parents and assurances from the White House that the freed prisoner had “served his country with honor and distinction.” There was a brief controversy about it, given that the five high-ranking terrorists were certain to return to their murderous ways, the teary-eyed father’s remarks in English and Arabic and Pashto at the news conference revealed he was a Taliban-sympathizing nut, and the soldiers who served with Bergdahl were telling anyone who would listen that he was a deserter and collaborator, and the Government Accountability determined the president’s deal had violated federal law, but it soon passed.
Until Wednesday, when the Army announced that Bergdahl would be court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Even Bergdahl’s brief celebrity is enough to interest the media in a trial, so we can expect extended coverage of the evidence brought against him, and one can only hope that it will rekindle some of the public outrage that attended his release. Five high-ranking terrorists were released for him, a trade that looks even worse as the tide of war continues to not recede, Bergdahl’s Taliban-sympathizing nut of a father will likely become an annoying presence on the nation’s newscasts, and the president’s tendency to go beyond the traditional legal restraints on executive power has continued to prove troublesome, so perhaps the outrage will be even greater this time around. Should one of those five released high-ranking terrorists be able to claim credit for notably deadly attack Americans might grow greater yet, although the scant coverage of the terrorism committed by other prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay suggests it will have to be something spectacular.
There’s no getting those terrorists back, and little hope of persuading the current administration to capture and incarcerate any more of them, but the public outrage might do some good. The Bergdahl trade was one of several briefly outraging stories over the past many years that have steadily eroded the president’s support on foreign policy, and the public’s discontent has emboldened members of both in Congress in to resist the president’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. So far the administration has declined to offer any details about what they’re offering, asking that the public trust its good intentions and expertise, but it’s hard to trust anyone who would swap five high-ranking terrorists for a deserter to make a deal with the likes of the Iranian government.
Much of the media will be looking for something else to talk about other than nuclear bombs and what might happen if Iran gets some, and the Bergdahl story could prove a distraction, and there will certainly be some stories about the poor young man caught in George W. Bush’s war who reached out to the enemy, but it won’t help with the president’s public relations efforts.

— Bud Norman

Talking Peace Talk Blues

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” according to a famous Winston Churchill quotation, so perhaps we should welcome the news that the United States will soon be sitting down to peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban. With all due respect to Sir Winston, though, negotiating with this particular enemy looks like a mug’s game.
The much-ballyhooed “breakthrough” comes at a time when most Americans have plumb forgotten that there is a war going on in Afghanistan, and only a few months before the date that the United States has already announced it will declare victory and quietly pull its last few troops out of the country, so it is difficult to ascertain what the point of the negotiations might be. An America already on the way out of the country will be in a weak bargaining position, the Taliban will have no incentives to make any concessions, and our nominal partners in the Karzai government will have ample reason to agree to any number of crazy Islamist nutcase ideas that they’ve probably long for all along. There is little reason for hope that the peace talks will yield anything resembling peace and no hope at all that they will result in something that can be considered victory.
After so many years of indecisive battle, and especially after the national media decided to stop paying attention to the casualties because Barack Obama had become the Commander in Chief, it has been largely forgotten that the reason we went in to Afghanistan in the first place was to destroy the Taliban. The Taliban had not only imposed a medieval tyranny on its own people but had given aid and refuge to al-Qaeda in its war against the United States and the rest of the western world, and after the organization’s Afghanistan-based terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killed more than 3,000 Americans the country was unusually unified in its support for a retaliatory war. Even the peacenik Sen. Barack Obama supported the war as necessary and justified, calling it the ball that the inept Bush administration had taken its eyes off of to fight an unnecessary and unjustified in war in Iraq, and as president he kept a campaign promise with a “surge” of troops that were promised to turn the tide.
President Obama then quickly began a draw-down, keeping an implicit campaign promise to be a peacenik president, and at this point it all seems to have accomplished little. The Reuters news service giddily announces in its headline that “Taliban is Ready to Talk Peace,” but paragraphs that follow offer little hope that the peace won’t be on the Taliban’s terms. They note that the Taliban has recently opened a new office in the Qatari capital of Doha, where they made their peace talk announcement in front of a flag for “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and they can’t seem to muster any pacifistic quotes from Taliban officials. An understandably unnamed official of the United States government is quoted as hoping that the Taliban will at least slow its recent offensive, lest America cease the peace talks.
Winston Churchill was even more famous for saying “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,” and that seems the more appropriate advice regarding the likes of the Afghanistan Taliban. America and the rest of the western world don’t seem to have much stomach for that sort of rhetoric, however, so the likely outcome will be the same as it was for Sir Winston: A lot of jaw-jaw, followed by more and bloodier war-war.

— Bud Norman

Bad News and the War

For the past several weeks the news from Afghanistan has all been bad.

The latest reports tell of a stolen truck and a flaming driver crashing into a landing area where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was arriving to give a speech to a group of Marines, who were required to go unarmed to the speech. The unprecedented disarmament might or might not have had anything to do with the killing spree allegedly committed by American soldier a week earlier that left 16 Afghan civilians dead. That deadly incident followed widespread rioting and the killings of six Americans in supposedly safe zones after the accidental burning of some Korans that had been desecrated by prisoners. There are also the more quotidian casualties of war, such as the nameless Afghan soldier who died Tuesday when militants attacked a memorial service for the victims of the earlier rampage.

The tone of the stories is strikingly dispassionate. Most of the reports necessarily come from the traditional news media that still have the resources to send reporters and photographers halfway around the world to a war zone, and they don’t seem to muster the same level of outrage that attended the Abu Ghraib scandal and other setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan during the previous administration. Instead they regard the latest difficulties as regrettable but largely unavoidable, an attitude neatly summed up by a quote from Panetta offered without comment at the end of the New York Times’ story: “War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war, they’re terrible events, and this is not the first of those events, and is probably will not be the last.”

While the news reports don’t offer the usual defeatist bias, neither do they offer a clear explanation of what the troops are doing there, nor any hope that their goals might be achieved by the time a long-planned withdrawal occurs in 2014. Even the stories filed from the relative safety of Washington, D.C., filled with the official pronouncements of proponents of the war, provide little encouragement.

The Commander in Chief has given only three presidential speeches on the war, and made few other public comments about it, but when announcing the draw-down of forces and promising a complete withdrawal he said his goals were to “refocus on Al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country.” The opportunity to kill large number of Al-Qaeda was never accepted by the press as a rationale for the war in Iraq, and there is no evidence offered by the press that the current effort has proved any more successful. The Taliban’s momentum is such that the United States is hoping to negotiate a new role for it in the Afghan government. It was members of the Afghan Security Forces who killed six Americans in their supposedly secure areas.

All of which makes it seem unlikely that the American military can achieve its stated goals according to its schedule, yet there is little public clamor for speeding up the withdrawal. There remains a bipartisan consensus for the war in Congress, where Republican members are the most outspoken advocates for the effort, and for the past three years or so there has been a conspicuous lack of anti-war demonstrations on the streets, where the only protestors on display are more angry about their student loans or a rich man’s tax rates than some soldier’s fate in Afghanistan. Conservatives don’t want to be seen as weak in their support of the troops, liberals don’t want to be seen as weak in their support of the president, and the rest have apparently grown tired of the 10-year-old war and are eager to ignore it.

Another spate of unhappy headlines could force the war back into the forefront of the political discussion, however, and a new bipartisan consensus could emerge. The conservatives might well conclude that the troops are being used for political rather than sound military purposes, the liberals might demand that Obama prove his peacenik credentials by an early withdrawal, and the rest will want the war to be over regardless of the consequences. Neither the president nor his Republican challengers have anything to gain at the moment by drawing attention to the Afghanistan, but it’s likely they’ll be forced to address the issue soon.

— Bud Norman