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No More Fantasy

The guys we didn't use at Tora Bora.

I posed it as a question: Did we just lose a war? The post went up first at Sideways Mencken then, in somewhat expanded form at Donklephant. It was picked up all over the place, including Winds of Change and Reddit. So lots of people -- some of them very smart people -- have read it.

What I expected when I wrote the piece was a hundred voices telling me no, we didn't lose, you're wrong, you've misunderstood this whole thing, and here's why. That's not what happened. I got a lot of people agreeing. I was disappointed. I was hoping I was wrong.

The contra point of view coalesced around various notions of a secret plan, a master manipulation, which would somehow translate into our having cleverly mousetrapped the Taliban in Waziristan where we could wipe it out. This is a fantasy.

Armies don't make deals with insurgents unless they're beaten. A beaten army returned to its barracks in exchange for empty promises from the tribal leaders, that's what happened here. How can I be certain they're empty promises? Because you don't make concessions to guys you just beat. And how can I be sure the Pakistani army was in fact beaten? Because the winner is the guy who still occupies the disputed territory and the loser is the guy who goes back to the barracks to watch soap operas.

A second fantasy has some people excited: body count. The thinking here is that we're killing a lot of Taliban over in Afghanistan, and a lot of Jihadis, and they're going to run out of guys. Here I have a serious question, and since many of you know more history than I do, I'd love an answer: have we ever won a war simply by depleting enemy ranks?

When we started in Afghanistan and Iraq we said we wouldn't do body counts. The reason we said we wouldn't is that the practice became a joke in Vietnam. If you believed the Vietnam era body counts we killed every Vietcong and NVA soldier ten times each and twelve times on weekends. And yet, somehow, there they were waving goodbye to the Americans as our last guys helicoptered out.

Now we're indulging in the fantasy that the Afghan enemy will run out of fighters. No. They won't. The enemy have the strategic initiative now: with sanctuary inside Pakistan they can choose the time and place of battles, commit as many or as few men as they like. That means they'll never "run out" of men.

Which brings us to the "nuke 'em all," fantasy.

I wrote a piece here and here that asked the question whether we were still prepared to fight total war. The response I got was, in effect: no, we're not. So I wrote this piece not exactly bemoaning the fact that we were no longer capable of exterminating large numbers of enemies, but recognizing that our rejection of massacre meant we were doomed to fight asymetric warfare on the enemy's terms.

Some commentors have even put forward the idea of taking harsh action against the Musharraf government. Fantasy. Musharraf is bad, but there's much worse to be found in Pakistan. It's a bit like when we let the Shah of Iran slip away and ended up with the Iranian Mullahs. Bad can get worse. And Pakistan is a nuclear power, so bad can get a whole lot worse.

So, summarizing the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation: No, it's not some brilliant masterstroke by Musharraf. No, it's not a deal the tribes will honor. No, it doesn't mean it will be all that much easier to bleed them to death. No, it's not a prelude to exterminating them all.

It's a beating, that's what it is. We just took a beating.

Now let's talk about the future. If someone can explain to me what we're doing in Afghanistan right now, I'd appreciate it. The original premise of this war, a war I supported enthusiastically, was to deny safe haven to Al Qaeda. If you'd asked me a week ago what I thought we were doing in Afghanistan I'd have said that we were keeping the Taliban out of Afghanistan and working (not very effectively) with Pakistan to squeeze the Taliban and Al Qaeda down out of the mountains.

What are we doing now? What is our plan? What do we hope to accomplish? Most importantly, how do we somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? If you have an answer let me know. But please, no fantasies.

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“No More Fantasy”

  1. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    We're flailing around, in over our heads and incapable of finding dry land.

    And even if there was dry land, we know damn well it could get engulfed by the ocean at any moment.

    Too much analogy?

  2. Anonymous Kevin Says:

    I've been wondering lately, is it the WW1,2 level of masacre that we're unwilling to engage in? or the WW1,2 level of commitment? Would our leaders, the current crop and whoever we get later this year and in 2008, have the stomack to ask for that kind of sacrifice? and would we as citizens be willing to accept it? To get back on topic, I'm asking because I think that's what's going to be required at this point to turn things around. Otherwise, it will be US soldier getting sent back to the barracks next.

  3. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    I thought you quit this racket, man.

  4. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    Actually, I think the problem is that the people don't really buy this war as being apocalyptic. Maybe it was the fact that all they got was rhetoric followed by no reinstatement of the draft, no call for sacrifice, a great big tax cut, and an adminsitration that immediately began exploiting terrorism as a partisan political issue.

  5. Blogger David Billington Says:


    There has been some discussion of whether Musharraf cut a truce in order to free troops to deal with the growing Baluchi insurgency. But I don't think the Baluchis will be any easier to deal with than the Taliban, so I would read this as you have.

    The problem with US strategy is that a war needs finite ends so that means and ends can be aligned. Our aims in the war on terror are open-ended in the sense that we want changes that could take decades and we have no clear idea of how intensively and extensively they need to go. Such a strategy is highly vulnerable to short-term setbacks.

    To get out of this bind, we need to be more willing to think more concretely about the very long-term future. Our commitments tend to become long and vague when they cannot be resolved in engagements that are specific and short. We need a middle path.

  6. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    I think you have it exactly right. "War" is short, sharp, violent then over. We need a new conceptual framework here to explain what will be another long, twilight struggle like the cold war. We won the cold war with containment and economic growth relative to the USSR.

    I don't know what the framework is for this struggle, but I'm pretty sure that half-assed invasions followed by ill-planned occupations and confused nation building aren't going to be the answer.

    I have this longing for a summit of the grown-ups: Kissinger, Scowcroft, Zinni, Wes Clark, Biden, McCain, people like that, to start working on a long-range plan in a situation apart from politics. Then again, I'd like to see pigs fly, too.

  7. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    M. Tak.

    I took a small hiatus. There's no quitting this racket. Only pausing for a breath.

    In fact, I'm back and arguing with posters on my site -- some guy thinks I'm morally defecient for having been enraged on 9/11. And he claims that many on the left understood all along that Bush would screw Afghanistan up. Of course, that ignores the fact that almost everyone left-of-center suppoted the invanstion and, had we listened to the few far-leftists who opposed invasion, we'd all be growing our beards out or wearing Burkhas by now.

    But I don't mention all this to pollute your blog with my blog's fruitless discussions. I mention it because I think the BIGGEST problem in Afghanistan is that it's ignored by critics because it's the "good war" and the vast majority of us supported it when it started. The media and citizen activists focus a lot of energy on Iraq but give Afghanistan a pass. The Bush administration, of course, has been ignoring Afghanistan since it decided to invade Iraq.

    Much like with Iraq, the time has come with Afghanistan for us all to forget whether or not we supported the initial invansion and start focusing on what we do now. There is probably a lot of things we could do to improve the situation in Afghanistan--if anyone gave the opperation serious thought. Now, serious thought is not my thing, so I don't have the answer.

    But the first step is exactly what you're doing here: admitting we have a serious problem.

  8. Anonymous Kevin Says:


    I cant argue with you on the admin's handling of things post 9/11. I look at the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as Bush's only chance to mobalize support for the kind of total war effort you've pointed to in previous posts. Without a 9/11 type shock to the system though, I don't think any politician could rally the general public behind a total war effort. I don't think any would dare try.

    A small tangent here but Imagine that Bush was the evil genious that conspiracy nuts try to paint him as. If some Bismark / Machievelli clone were president, with a rabid base of about a third of the population and then given something like 9/11 to work with? We'd all be goose-steping to work by now.

  9. Blogger The probligo Says:

    Much as I might like to, this is not the place for "this is what America did wrong".

    Can I just say that no one other than the Taliban is going to win in Afghanistan until such time as we, the rich, start finding solutions to problems such as -

    "Why is it that the only profitable "agricultural" product in Afghanistan is opium?"

    "Why is it that large areas of Afghanistan, fully capable of growing grain such as rice and wheat, are used only to plant mines?"

    For as long as we, the rich, think in terms of slaughtering as a solution to the world's problems, we will continue to grow terrorists.

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