By Bill Boyarsky
After last week’s two-day congressional hearing on the Afghanistan war, I have two questions: One, why did Gen. David Petraeus faint under questioning? Two, why are we still in Afghanistan?
“I just got dehydrated,” Petraeus said after he returned to face the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday shortly after collapsing while answering questions from Sen. John McCain. That could happen. He was jetting across continents the day before. He skipped breakfast. It wasn’t just a case of his dozing off during McCain’s questioning, although that is a possibility.
But there was no answer to the second and much more important question of why we are in Afghanistan. Americans are left with the explanation that President Barack Obama gave in his speech at West Point last November:
“Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
“To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
At the hearing last week, McCain, committee Chairman Carl Levin and the other senators accepted Obama’s rationale at face value. They discussed details of the Afghanistan operation, such as the training of Afghan forces, but little else. The only question was whether Obama should have set a July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
The deadline looks phony and the national commitment open-ended. Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, told The New York Times after the hearing: “We hope conditions are such that we can draw down a large number of forces. But it is premature to assess that now. We have a lot of work to do between now and then.”
According to reports from Afghanistan, the work isn’t going well.
In fact, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, does not think the United States and NATO can accomplish the Obama goal of stopping the Taliban, according to a report June 11 by Dexter Filkins, a respected New York Times reporter.
Filkins quoted Amrullah Saleh, the Afghanistan intelligence director dismissed by Karzai, and other officials as saying Karzai “has been pressing to strike his own deal with the country’s archrival, Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime supporter. … According to a former senior Afghan official, Mr. Karzai’s maneuverings involve secret negotiations with the Taliban outside the purview of American and NATO officials.”
Asked by the Senate committee about the reports of secret negotiations, Petraeus said it was “very unlikely” they took place. In fact, he said, “Afghan forces are very much in the fight throughout the country … their losses are several multiples of our losses.”
This is counter to journalists’ reports from Afghanistan. The Afghanistan police and armed forces appear to have been dragged into combat and law enforcement details. Some won’t even refrain from drug use while on duty. We’re unwelcome occupiers in an increasingly unfriendly country.
Getting stuck in Afghanistan was always a danger under an Obama presidency. During his presidential campaign, he pledged to end the unpopular war in Iraq. But he also promised to step up the game in Afghanistan, a move that served to protect him from Republican charges that he was soft on defense and national security.
While hoping he would win, I feared that once he was in Washington he would be co-opted by the defense and intelligence establishment and other so-called foreign-policy wise men floating around town. And that’s what happened. As Tom Engelhardt, author of the forthcoming book “The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s,” wrote in his TomDispatch blog:
“In the midst of the Great Recession, under a new president with assumedly far fewer illusions about American omnipotence and power, war policy continued to expand in just about every way. The Pentagon budget rose by Bushian increments in fiscal year 2010; and while the Iraq War reached a kind of dismal stasis, the new president doubled down in Afghanistan on entering office—and then doubled down again before the end of 2009.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing provided no evidence to support the president’s contention that al-Qaida’s terrorist activities would be stopped by defeating the Taliban, the evil fundamentalist organization that Karzai now may want to bring into his government.
And what if the Taliban is defeated? Petraeus told the senators of an incident in which 80 of them, hands raised, surrendered their arms and joined our side. What if that were repeated throughout the country? The shadowy al-Qaida would survive somewhere else, maybe within the borders of our “ally” Pakistan, where they may be already operating.
There were no relevant answers to such questions in the Senate hearing. It was as pointless as the war in Afghanistan.
Flickr / U.S. Army
Sgt. David M. Pooler patrols the Kunar River in the Noorgal district of Afghanistan’s Konar province on May 1.