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Resignation in and about Afghanistan

U.S. Army description: "A Soldier from Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), watches cattle run for their lives while a CH-47 helicopter prepares to land on Landing Zone Shetland during Operation Saray Has July 19 near Forward Operating Base Naray, Afghanistan."

The rather shocking and sudden way in which a recent Rolling Stone article brought about the forced resignation of the top U.S. general in Afghanistan has, together with other milestones, churned up some long-ignored questions about what allied forces are doing there in the first place. In recent weeks, the 1,000th U.S. soldier was killed there, as well as the 300th Brit, and the war became officially the longest in American history. More and more, mainstream voices are beginning to question what is now, fully, Obama’s war.

At the New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills writes that “McChrysal does not matter“; if there’s one take-away from the Rolling Stone piece, it isn’t the general’s insubordinate remarks but that the time has come to, as Wills puts it, “get out!”

The conflict around McChrystal will only matter if it is the occasion of recognizing what a fool’s errand he was sent on. Any military replacement will only repeat his calls for more time, more troops, more recognition of the failed policy of “counter-insurgency” (COIN). Hastings’s real point is signaled early in his Rolling Stone piece:

The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.

In June 11th’s New York Times, I was struck to see, on the front page, an article about Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s expression of doubt in the very foreign troops propping up his fragile regime, while on the back page columnist Bob Herbert argued that it is probably time for us to leave. Then, two days later, the newspaper reported on a treasure trove of mineral deposits in the country—which, it turns out, isn’t really news at all, but seems to have been re-announced in order to appeal to resource-hungry cynicism in the hopes that it might renew people’s commitment to the war effort.

From McChrystal’s insubordinate remarks to the new-old minerals, there is a campaign afoot to distract the conversation from the basic questions toward which more and more observers are beginning to drift: Are the foreign troops fighting in Afghanistan doing any good? Have they ever? Do we have any idea what they’re really supposed to be doing there in the first place?

The danger is that people will—they already have—become simply resigned to an endless and pointless war because they don’t know any better or feel they have any choice. There is a choice. We have to begin devoting ourselves to developing practical, realistic, nonviolent strategies for how foreign troops can withdraw from Afghanistan with a minimum of cost to the people who live there, as well as for how a political arrangement can be brokered that will finally bring some stability to the region. This is not a utopian, unrealistic proposal. What’s utopian and unrealistic is the combat mission that has been dragging on there, continually firing the coals of radicalism since 2001. Finally the mainstream is beginning to come around to the fact that a non-military resolution—rather than military resignation—is the only sensible way forward.