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Shifting War Strategy Smacks of Desperation

Posted on Aug 3, 2010
U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail

By William Pfaff

The first decision made by Gen. David Petraeus, the successor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commandant of international forces in Afghanistan, has been to abandon the policy he himself drafted in order to win the war and rebuild Afghan stability and government.

He has done so because it has not worked. It has failed to “clear” Taliban guerrilla forces from the areas taken by international security troops. The guerrillas leave when the foreign troops launch an offensive. They inflict casualties on the invaders as they go, leaving behind mines, roadside bombs, booby-trapped roads and houses, intending to harm apprehensive peasants and townspeople as well, who know that the Taliban will eventually return, and that those Afghans who have collaborated with the foreigners will be punished or killed.

The prospect of giving Afghanistan a functioning and competent democratic government and a new army capable and willing to defend its countrymen is slight. Such was what the counterinsurgency doctrine drafted by Petraeus was supposed to do. It was based on past efforts by America and its allies to re-establish order and good government in revolutionary or war-ravaged societies. The policy has rarely succeeded, but is now, or at least briefly was, standard operating procedure, as set forth in the Army Field Manual that Petraeus wrote.

Minimize artillery use, rockets and airstrikes to spare civilians, even when this makes the troops angry because they believe they are put at risk. Win hearts and minds; drive away the guerrilla activists; establish good government for the rest.

A new policy was made known in Kabul last weekend. It is selective assassination, “targeted killings” of Taliban leaders, making use of airstrikes and drones, the latter often controlled from bases in the United States, plus midnight raids and snatch missions by helicopter-borne special operations troops. Leaders of the insurgency are targeted. U.S. military sources in Afghanistan say they now have evidence that Taliban fighters are reluctant to be promoted to leadership posts out of fear of being made the target of these “personalized” American killings.


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While the U.S. command in Kabul currently warmly promotes this policy to the press, there is an air of desperation to it. Insurrections, guerrilla movements of any kind, like armies, never lack for ambitious men ready to step into the posts of lost leaders. Men at war, especially this kind of war, become habituated to casualties, and successful leaders are inclined to believe in their own invulnerability.

The second problem with such a policy is that there are a great many potential Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. There are well over 31 million Afghans, according to the latest population projection. Setting aside the children and the women and girls in their burkas, that still leaves a lot of potential Afghan insurrectionary leaders for targeted assassination. (A New York Times report quotes a military spokesman as saying that the U.S. now has killed more than 130 of them. Not an encouraging start.)

The final problem with this policy is typically American—it doesn’t reverse-think. It assumes that others are not like us. The logic of a policy that says killing leaders will make the Taliban surrender implies that if the Taliban successfully introduce bombs into the various American military headquarters and the embassy in Kabul, and kill the senior American leaders in Afghanistan (blow up the Green Zone, so to speak), the Americans would go home. Would they? I think not. And the Taliban, even if they were leaderless, are already at home.

In what would seem an excess of optimism, U.S. officials in Kabul, “judging that they have gained some leverage over the Taliban” because of the targeted killings, now are supposedly debating “when to try to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to end the fighting.” They are “robustly” arguing with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai about this, according to a New York Times report published Sunday. As Karzai recently was at odds with the U.S. over talking with the Taliban—which he wanted to do and we disapproved—this adds to the confusion, and suggests that American policy in Kabul is stalemated, and that officials are whistling in the dark.

My own belief is that we are far from the endgame in Afghanistan, so long as the American ambition is, as it seems to be, to maintain a lasting presence there. For that matter, I think we are far from seeing the end to the American combat engagement in Iraq.

President Barack Obama told the world Monday that his promise to end the Iraq war is fulfilled. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is successfully concluded. Iraq has held national elections, although it has as yet no agreed-upon prime minister or government. American “combat troops” will be out by the end of this month—except for the 50,000 American soldiers who will stay. They will help with development, governance, training—and anti-terrorism or combat. Whatever.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for information on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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JimBob's avatar

By JimBob, August 4, 2010 at 10:09 pm Link to this comment

I don’t understand how the term “insurgency” applies to Afghanistan. The Taliban was in de facto power when we invaded. They were, for better or worse, the government of the country. America invaded and has been trying to destroy the Taliban. If the Taliban fights back, does that really constitute an insurgency, which is commonly defined as an attack, from within, on a sitting government? I think this term is just one more example of semantic spin being used to justify a bloody and wasteful invasion.

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By Aarky, August 4, 2010 at 7:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The “Rise of the Phoenix”. In this case our military is dusting off the old Phoenix program from 40 years ago and Viet Nam and transporting it to Afghanistan. It’s purpose was to capture/kill Viet Cong Cadre, preferably to kill them. It’s estimated that 50,000 persons were killed, but how many were really Viet Cong Cadre is unknown since there were no trials. Since someone at high levels finally realizes that the much hyped “take and hold” projects for Marjah and Kandahar have been a political and military failure, they have decided on the next military blunder. I can hear the Phoenix flapping it’s wings already.

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By balkas, August 4, 2010 at 7:13 am Link to this comment

“Targetting leaders”, oh how nice that sounds! And with certainty targetting only the leaders. Which would mean firing one bullet right thru the heart of a pashtun leader.

But, wait, firing a bullet at one man is not ever mentioned. So what is said? Drone firing one missile at one house or one man.
In that order? And with the leader never sleeping in the same hill or cave twice.

But even killing a leader may backfire. His sons take up his resistance to the occupation, but become obssessed with killing his killers! tnx

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By eir, August 4, 2010 at 5:07 am Link to this comment

....We now believe that we may also be right on (and right on the cusp of) another impending catastrophe of even wider scope — Iran — on which another President, you, are not getting good advice from your closed circle of advisers.

They are probably telling you that, since you have privately counseled Prime Minister Netanyahu against attacking Iran, he will not do it. This could simply be the familiar syndrome of telling the President what they believe he wants to hear.

Quiz them; tell them others believe them to be dead wrong on Netanyahu. The only positive here is that you — only you — can prevent an Israeli attack on Iran.

Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

Ray Close, Directorate of Operations, Near East Division, CIA (26 years)

Phil Giraldi, Directorate of Operations, CIA (20 years)

Larry Johnson, Directorate of Intelligence, CIA; Department of State, Department of Defense consultant (24 years)

W. Patrick Lang, Col., USA, Special Forces (ret.); Senior Executive Service: Defense Intelligence Officer for Middle East/South Asia, Director of HUMINT Collection, Defense Intelligence Agency (30 years)

Ray McGovern, US Army Intelligence Officer, Directorate of Intelligence, CIA (30 years)

Coleen Rowley, Special Agent and Minneapolis Division Counsel, FBI (24 years)

Ann Wright, Col., US Army Reserve (ret.), (29 years); Foreign Service Officer, Department of State (16 years) is a product of The Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc.

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By eir, August 4, 2010 at 5:02 am Link to this comment

Here’s another, rather large problem as reported at on August 3, 2010:


FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

SUBJECT: War With Iran
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We write to alert you to the likelihood that Israel will attack Iran as early as this month. This would likely lead to a wider war.

Israel’s leaders would calculate that once the battle is joined, it will be politically untenable for you to give anything less than unstinting support to Israel, no matter how the war started, and that U.S. troops and weaponry would flow freely. Wider war could eventually result in destruction of the state of Israel.

This can be stopped, but only if you move quickly to pre-empt an Israeli attack by publicly condemning such a move before it happens….

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By Hammond Eggs, August 4, 2010 at 12:00 am Link to this comment

The prospect of giving Afghanistan a functioning and competent democratic government and a new army capable and willing to defend its countrymen is slight. Such was what the counterinsurgency doctrine drafted by Petraeus was supposed to do.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was and is primarily about money.  Oil, natural gas, heroin, minerals, whatever is there that’s worth a buck, that’s what we’re doing there.  Not to mention another round of imperial bar brawling to show the world who’s capo di tutti capi.

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By Old Man Turtle, August 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The “black hole” image presented by the commenter “samosamo” below is a lot more literally accurate than it is merely metaphorically apropos.  There are in-fact masses of “money” that’ve become so dense now they’re sucking the stuff still circulating in the world irretrievably into that null-point of ‘no-return’ the other side of their ‘event horizon.’  Why else all the pictures on TV of the fed’s printing presses running 24/7/365 trying vainly to prop-up the illusion of “liquidity” a little longer?

There’s a lot else disappearing from the virtual world of the “civilization” fever-dream, as well.  The last pitiful shreds of U.S. “credibility,” for instance, are vanishing into another kind of “black hole” known as “the graveyard of empires.”  Despite Mr. Pfaff’s and others’ expressed belief that “There must be some way out of here,” even if not for a long time, us old ‘jokers’ and ‘thieves’ can see plainly fundamental physics at-work in “the situation,” and all the fire-power in the world can’t overcome the pull of such an implacable singularity.

“So let us not speak falsely now.”  Let’s just be quiet and listen, instead.  “Hey, Children, what’s that (“sucking”) sound?”

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By gerard, August 3, 2010 at 8:55 pm Link to this comment

Negotiating with the Taliban are code words for saving face.  Saving face is the one politically sellable reason for remaining at war, all other reasons having defeated themselves, and saving face being an important ingredient of national prestige.

The $64 question is, will the Taliban permit us to save face? I deeply fear it has come down to that. Military forces that are “winning” a war are not concerned about “winning hearts and minds.” When that enters the picture, “they” have already “won.”
It is code for “let’s talk.” 
  “Let’s talk” offered BEFORE shooting up the country usually works better and sooner than “let’s talk” after everything else has been tried and failed and relationships have completely soured.
  All this is completely obvious to anyone who has watched wars since WWII and beyond. We need now to attach this knowledge to the future:  Don’t start wars because it is almost impossible to end them without lots of agony, guilt, regret and loss of face.  After Vietnam, we called it a “syndrome” in order to deny its vaiidity.  But again it rears its head to say “I told you so!”
  War is in its death throes, and one can expect a lot of transvaluations. The same kind of wiggling and shifting will occur with the death of uncontrolled capitalism.  Fasten your seatbelts!

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By samosamo, August 3, 2010 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment


“”““Winning” is going to require a substantial and very costly
presence in Afghanistan for decades.”“”“

Winning would require nuclear a carpet bombing of the whole
country and that still probably wouldn’t work.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, August 3, 2010 at 8:21 pm Link to this comment

This is what we are left with after entrusting our country to 8 years of GWB.
Unfortunately, Americans wanted this fight. Now that the ugly reality of an endless war
is here, everyone wants to be a critic.

Face it, we have proven ourselves unworthy of own values.

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By pragmatic realist, August 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“When the enemy advances, withdraw;
when he stops, harass;
when he tires, strike;
when he retreats, pursue.”
- Chairman Mao Zedong

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By glider, August 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm Link to this comment

This policy of “targeted killings” of Taliban leaders further begs the question as to how the American Military knows the identity of these 2000 Taliban Leaders on their target list.  Just how many on this hit list are simply personal vendettas of the informants?

The claim that “Taliban fighters are reluctant to be promoted to leadership posts out of fear of being target by Americans” is pure propaganda. That is something the American Military would not be privy to beyond an anecdotal level.  Nor do the strategies being used against our military require much in the way of high level leadership posts.

“Winning” is going to require a substantial and very costly presence in Afghanistan for decades.  If we leave there will be civil war.  That is what Obama and our military leaders are not being honest about.  It is highly likely that somewhere down the line this war will become politically unsustainable and we will be compelled to leave.  Leaving now will save a lot of blood and treasure.

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By samosamo, August 3, 2010 at 7:13 pm Link to this comment


So in essence, nothing changes but there will be a lot of moving
around?  Invade a sovereign country, no matter how scattered
the government structure, kill the civilians(men, women,
children) tear up the land, if tearing up a desolate bunch of dirt
accomplishes anything and protect the poppy crops and plug
the black hole all that freshly printed american money keeps swirling into.

Goddamn this plan has just got to work this time because o’s
pet traeus is in charge and things will get done

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