Mission accomplished? What mission, exactly?
It’s fitting that the aimless, pointless Afghan War is being wound down according to a timetable drawn up in a White House backroom.
Facing the nation last week, US president Barack Obama almost seemed triumphant. The 10-year-long conflict in Afghanistan is, he asserted, ‘coming to a responsible end’.
Given that for its entire duration the US-led war in Afghanistan has been singularly without an end, responsible or otherwise, this seemed like big news. But don’t get out the Stars and Stripes bunting just yet. What Obama was actually talking about was nothing so earth-shattering as the achievement of a big objective, let alone a good old-fashioned Victory. No, what he meant was that everything was running according to the Afghanistan War Timetable, that strangely unreal schedule for this hitherto intractable conflict dreamt up in the White House just under two years ago.
As he summarised it last week, the timetable dictated that the US send 33,000 troops over to Afghanistan in January 2010 to join up with the 60,000-odd US troops already there. With counterterrorism positioned as the ever-elusive Reason For Still Being In Afghanistan, these extra troops were there to help check the supposedly terrorist-sheltering Taliban’s momentum, assist and train the Afghan security services, and do some damage to al-Qaeda. And how’s it all going? Well, according to Obama on Wednesday, it’s all running like clockwork – just as the timetable indicated it would in fact. ‘The tide of war is receding’, he declared proudly, as if talking about a natural disaster that befell the US, rather than a war it has actively and consciously pursued alongside its NATO allies since 2001.
As a result of the scheduled successes, the scheduled withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops will start taking place from around about now – bang on time as it happens – with the remaining troops all due to return by 2014. So there you have it: the war in Afghanistan is approaching its preordained end. And so the focus of the US administration will shift, suggested Obama: ‘America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.’
This fully timetabled end to the war in Afghanistan, with troop withdrawals and tasks-achieved pencilled into the military equivalent of Microsoft Outlook, has not been without criticism. For some senior figures in the US military, there is a sense that in lieu of actually achieving something, indeed anything, in Afghanistan, withdrawal, whether the calendar says so or not, looks a little too much like weakness. It might even look like defeat, although no one says that out loud of course. Either way, it certainly suggests that the US’s position as the leading world power is not what it was. ‘What I worry about is the message that is going to be taken away by our allies and potential allies about America’s orientation in the world’ said Lieutenant General David Barno, a former senior commander in Afghanistan. ‘[Obama’s address] sounded an awful lot like an “America come home” speech.’
Obama’s Republican rivals have also been quick to seize on what looks like an admission of American weakness. ‘We shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan’, said prospective presidential candidate Mitt Romney, before suggesting that to do so was to admit that those soldiers who have perished in Afghanistan have died in vain: ‘America’s brave men and women in uniform have fought to achieve significant progress in Afghanistan, some having paid the ultimate price.’
As a columnist at the Financial Times points out, Obama’s determination to get the troops out really will not look like a US triumph to its Afghanistan-based opponents. ‘From the Taliban’s perspective, the withdrawal is a sign of US weakness and their impending victory… [They and others will] see a weak America that roars but retreats when the going gets tough.’
Yet although it is partially correct to see the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, justified not by victory but by a timetable, as a sign of America’s present impotence, this is not simply a practical issue. If the US was instead to persevere with operations in Afghanistan without withdrawing its troops, that would not somehow equate to strength. No amount of bombing, sniping or drone attacks will create the victory or cap the supposed progress that the US military’s supporters demand.
And that’s because, as we have pointed out time and again on spiked, the war in Afghanistan suffers from a single, profound lack: a lack of a purpose. Waged as the first battle in the grand, globe-encompassing ‘war on terror’, the Afghanistan conflict was never motivated by a strategic interest specific to Afghanistan. Those that were subsequently invented, from the liberation of women to a determination to end drug trafficking, were no more than retrospective attempts to fill the void. And if there is no consistent objective behind a war, if its reason for being fought remains stubbornly out of reach, there can be no realisation of an objective and no victory.
What drove the war in Afghanistan was an interest specific to the governments of the US and its allies. That is, it was a war designed to show some kind of purpose, a war to demonstrate authority to domestic publics rather than to win the submission of foreign peoples. And for as long as it did that, for as long as a foreign venture could be considered a Fight for the Good – in this case, against terror – then Obama, like Bush and Blair before him, was happy to pursue it. Hence, as Sean Collins has noted on spiked, when Obama opposed the war in Iraq in 2004, he did so while promising to provide far more resources for the war in Afghanistan. Next to the bloody, unpopular mess of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan appeared to Obama as fully justified, a genuine chance for the US government to show its moral authority on the world stage. When running for president in 2008 he adopted a more militarily aggressive posture towards Afghanistan than even his right-wing Republican opponent, John McCain.
What has changed Obama’s position, what has dampened his warmongering enthusiasm, has very little to do with failures or successes in Afghanistan. Rather, as a war for the hearts and minds of a domestic public disenchanted with their purposeless governments, it was worth fighting for as long it looked like it might serve its domestic function. But the war is now so denuded of reason in the eyes of Western audiences that its continuation has become counterproductive. As defence secretary Robert Gates put it, it is ‘not only the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’ that determines the withdrawal, ‘but also political sustainability here at home’. The former British chief of defence staff was more openly cynical: ‘The date of summer next year [for troop withdrawal] does seem on the face of it to be more closely related to political and electoral timescales than actually to phased handover to the Afghan security forces.’
Indeed it does. But then, when the war being fought has so little to do with any strategic or material interest in the country in which it is being conducted, it is hardly a great surprise that domestic concerns rule the day. And so it is with the war in Afghanistan, a war so arbitrary in its objectives that its length and intensity can be governed by a timetable drawn up in a backroom in the White House.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.