Too Big to Fail?

Why All the President's Afghan Options Are Bad Ones


| by Tom Engelhardt


This piece was originally published by TomDispatch.

In the worst of times, my father always used to say, "A good gambler cuts his losses." It's a formulation imprinted on my brain forever. That no-nonsense piece of advice still seems reasonable to me, but it doesn't apply to American war policy. Our leaders evidently never saw a war to which the word "more" didn't apply. Hence the Afghan War, where impending disaster is just an invitation to fuel the flames of an already roaring fire.

Here's a partial rundown of news from that devolving conflict: In the last week, Nuristan, a province on the Pakistani border, essentially fell to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrew its forces from four key bases. Similarly in Khost, another eastern province bordering Pakistan where U.S. forces once registered much-publicized gains (and which Richard Holbrooke, now President Obama's special envoy to the region, termed "an American success story"), the Taliban is largely in control. It is, according to Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, now "one of the most dangerous provinces" in the country. Similarly, the Taliban insurgency, once largely restricted to the Pashtun south, has recently spread fiercely to the west and north. At the same time, neighboring Pakistan is an increasingly destabilized country amid war in its tribal borderlands, a terror campaign spreading throughout the country, escalating American drone attacks, and increasingly testy relations between American officials and the Pakistani government and military.

Meanwhile, the U.S. command in Afghanistan is considering a strategy that involves pulling back from the countryside and focusing on protecting more heavily populated areas (which might be called, with the first U.S. Afghan War of the 1980s in mind, the Soviet strategy). The underpopulated parts of the countryside would then undoubtedly be left to Hellfire missile-armed American drone aircraft. In the last week, three U.S. helicopters -- the only practical way to get around a mountainous country with a crude, heavily mined system of roads -- went down under questionable circumstances (another potential sign of an impending Soviet-style disaster). Across the country, Taliban attacks are up; deadly roadside bombs or IEDs are fast on the rise (a 350% jump since 2007); U.S. deaths are at a record high and the numbers of wounded are rising rapidly; European allies are ever less willing to send more troops; and Taliban raids in the capital, Kabul, are on the increase. All this despite a theoretical 12-1 edge U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have over the Taliban insurgents and their allies.

In addition, our nation-building "partner," the hopeless Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- known in better times as "the mayor of Kabul" for his government's lack of reach -- was the "winner" in an election in which, it seemed, more ballot boxes were stuffed than voters arrived at the polls. In its wake, and in the name of having an effective "democratic" partner in Afghanistan, the foreigners stepped in: Senator John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and other envoys appeared in Kabul or made telephone calls to whisper sweet somethings in ears and twist arms. The result was a second round of voting slated for November 7th and likely only to compound the initial injury. No matter the result -- and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's opponent, has already withdrawn in protest from the runoff -- the winner will, once again, be the Taliban. (And let's not forget the recent New York Times revelation that the President's alleged drug-kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whom American officials regularly and piously denounce, is, in fact, a long-term paid agent of the CIA and its literal landlord in the southern city of Kandahar. If you were a Taliban propagandist, you couldn't make this stuff up.)

With the second round of elections already a preemptive disaster, and foreigners visibly involved in the process, all of this is a Taliban bonanza. The words "occupation," "puppet government," and the like undoubtedly ring ever truer in Afghan ears. You don't have to be a propaganda genius to exploit this sort of thing.

In such a situation, even good imperial gamblers would normally cut their losses. Unfortunately, in Washington terms, what's happened in Afghanistan is not the definition of failure. In the economic lingo of the moment, the war now falls into the category of "too big to fail," which means upping the ante or doubling down the bet. Think of the Afghan War, in other words, as the AIG of American foreign policy.

Playing with Dominos, Then and Now






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