Storm Clouds Gathering Over There…and Back Home

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A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter lands near Baghlan in northern Afghanistan March 28.

The disasters over the last three months — including American troops urinating on Afghan corpses, burning Qurans, and the massacre of Afghan civilians, including women and children, by at least one American soldier — have morphed into a grand strategic debacle.

Why do I say grand strategic? Because these disasters have (1) increased the moral strength of the Afghan insurgents by handing them a moral coup to rally supporters, and attract the uncommitted to their cause.  And (2), these atrocities are visibly weakening the increasingly shaky solidarity at home and the increased the mismatch between who we profess to be and what we do weakens us morally.

Recent polls in America, for example, suggest a growing and already overwhelming majority of Americans and a growing number of politicians think it is now time to begin our exit from the Afghan adventure.

Make no mistake about it, these shifts at the moral level are about as bad as it gets in grand strategy and the moral problem goes beyond trite comments about war weariness.  We are leaving, the only question is how soon?  This dispatch addresses two essays that relate to the implications of this question:

The first is an op-ed, “Why the Military needs to leave Afghanistan, and Soon,” by Phil Sparrow in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Sparrow explains why people who argue we should stay in Afghanistan, because the Afghan people don’t want us to leave, simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Sparrow demolishes this argument, and it is written by a man who has lived in Afghanistan in local housing since 1999.  He explains why the time to leave has arrived, and the sooner we depart the better. It was sent to me by a highly-educated Afghan friend from a distinguished old Pashtun family. My friend is a avid admirer of the United States and its moral values. At the same time, he is an ardent Afghan patriot who is working for the restoration of a multi-cultural neutral Afghanistan, sans warlords, be they Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, or Hazara. He prefaced it by saying, “Finally, the truth.”  Read it and make your own judgement (compare it to other points of view that can be found here and here).

Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace” is a deeply troubling essay by Neal Shea in the current issue of the American Scholar.  Shea has been writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006, where he has been spent most of his time embedded with NATO units.

He paints a grim picture of how the confrontation dynamics of Afghan guerrilla war are evolving a violent psyche in the troops who are being subjected to the unfocused violence and dehumanization resulting from the endless patrols and night raids, in a strategy that is clearly devolving into an unfocused and a futile effort to kill the insurgents faster than the local population can create them.

You may hear about winning hearts and minds and calls for more time from the lounge lizards from inside-the-Beltway think tanks, but if Shea is right, the reality at the pointy end of the spear is very different. Read it and judge for yourself.

More to the point, Shea raises the disturbing question of what is happening to the hearts and minds of our own troops, while they are being acculturated by the pointlessness of the targeted killing strategy.

Left hanging, but implicit in the title of his essay, is the question of what this menacing acculturation implies for the future of America when the afflicted troops return home, with no wars to expend their aggressive energies on.  Add in the numbers of returning American mercenaries paid by American contractors, and the prospect becomes scary indeed.

To be sure, Shea is only one observer at the microscopic level of organization, but he has been around, and if his question is close to being right, the leaders of our military and government who are debating when to leave had better start thinking about how to cope with this kind of problem, whatever its size.

But that is not going to happen.  The politicians and generals too busy scrambling to save their reputations by devising some kind of face saving exit strategy (remember “peace with honor”?) from a quagmire of their making.  They are not thinking of how to handle this potentially explosive social consequences of their reckless adventurism — a problem for another day, and it will be made worse by the dismal employment prospects awaiting these men.

History has seen this kind of unemployment problem before — for example, the unemployed Hoplites in ancient Greece, selling their killing services to the highest bidder, or the unemployed German soldiers after World War I wearing the brownshirts — and the results are never pretty.