Why All the President’s Afghan Options Are Bad Ones

Another brilliant essay by Tom Englehardt — attempting to describe the insanity that is our Afghanistan policy.  All this are just warm-ups for Obama’s big moment in Oslo, collecting the Nobel Peace Prize just after (or before) signing orders to expand the war in Afghanistan (a moment of irony on which historians will lavish much attention).

Too Big to Fail?

Why All the President’s Afghan Options Are Bad Ones
By Tom Engelhardt, posted at TomDispatch, 1 November 2009 — Posted in full with permission.

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 4 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.


  • the US 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, 3 US 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);
  • US 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

Have you noticed, by the way, that the worse Afghanistan gets, the more the pundits find themselves stumbling helplessly into Vietnam? Analogies to that old counterinsurgency catastrophe are now a dime a dozen. And no wonder. Even if it’s obvious that Vietnam and Afghanistan, as places and historical situations, have little in common, what they do have is Washington. Our leaders, that is, seem repetitiously intent on creating analogies between the two wars.

What is it about Washington and such wars? How is it that American wars conducted in places most Americans once couldn’t have located on a map, and gone disastrously wrong, somehow become too big to fail? Why is it that, facing such wars — whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican — Washington’s response is the bailout?

As things go from bad to worse and the odds grow grimmer, our leaders, like the worst of gamblers, wager ever more. Why is it that, in obscure lands under obscure circumstances, American administrations somehow become convinced that everything — the fate of our country, if not the planet itself — is at stake? In Vietnam, this was expressed in the absurd “domino theory”: if Vietnam fell, Thailand, Burma, India, and finally California would follow like so many toppling dominos.

Now, Afghanistan has become the First Domino of our era, and the rest of the falling dominos in the twenty-first century are, of course, the terrorist attacks to come, once an emboldened al-Qaeda has its “safe haven” and its triumph in the backlands of that country. In other words, first Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then a mushroom cloud over an American city.

In both the Vietnam era and today, Washington has also been mesmerized by that supposedly key currency of international stature, “credibility.” To employ a strategy of “less,” to begin to cut our losses and pull out of Afghanistan would — they know with a certainty that passeth belief — simply embolden the terrorist (in the Vietnam era, communist) enemy. It would be a victory for al-Qaeda’s future Islamic caliphate (as it once would have been for communist global domination).

By now, the urge to bail out Afghanistan, instead of bailing out of the place, has visibly become a compulsion, even for a foreign policy team that should know better, a team that is actually reading a book about how the Vietnam disaster happened. Unfortunately, the citizenry can’t take the obvious first step and check that team, with all its attendant generals and plenipotentiaries, into some LBJ or George W. Bush Rehabilitation Center; nor is there a 12-step detox program to recommend to Washington’s war addicts.

And the “just say no” approach, not exactly a career enhancer, has been used so far by but a single, upright foreign service officer, Matthew P. Hoh, who sent a resignation letter as senior civilian representative in Zabul Province to the State Department in September.

“To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war… The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.”

More or Less More?

In this context, despite all the media drama — Is Obama “dithering” or not? Will he or won’t he follow the advice of his generals? — we already know one thing about the president’s upcoming Afghan War decision with a painful degree of certainty: it will involve more, not less. It will up the ante, not cut our losses. As the New York Times put it recently, “[T]he debate [within the administration] is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed.” In other words, we know that, in response to a war everyone on all sides of the Afghan debate in the U.S. now agrees is little short of disastrous, he will, in some fashion, feed the flames.

Admittedly, President Obama himself has offered few indications of what exactly he plans to do (if he even knows). It’s now being said, however, that, at the end of a highly publicized set of brainstorming sessions with his vice president, top advisors, generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congressional representatives, and cabinet officers, he may (or may not) announce a decision before he sets out for Tokyo on November 11th.

Nonetheless, thanks to an endless series of high-level Washington leaks and whispers, beginning more than a month ago with the leaking to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward of Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal’s report to the president, we do know this: Every option Obama is considering has the word “more” (as in the Vietnam-era term “escalation”) attached to it. There isn’t a “less” (a de-escalation) option in sight. Withdrawal of any sort has, so press reports tell us, been officially taken off the table.

The most publicity has gone, of course, to the “counterinsurgency” or COIN option put forward by General McChrystal and clearly backed by George W. Bush’s favorite Iraqi “surge” general and present Centcom commander, David Petraeus. According to this option, the president would significantly increase the number of American boots on the ground to “protect” the Afghan people.

The actual numbers of extra troops urged on Obama have undergone a strange process of growth-by-leak over the last weeks. Initially, as the New York Times reported, the general was supposedly recommending three possibilities:

  • a low figure of 10,000-15,000 (“a high-risk option”),
  • an in-between figure of 25,000 (“a medium-risk option”), and
  • a top figure of 45,000 (“a low-risk option”).

More recently, it’s been suggested that McChrystal’s three choices are: 10,000, 40,000, and 80,000 (or even possibly 44,000 and 85,000) — his preference, for now, reportedly being 40,000. These new American troops would, of course, be over and above the approximately 70,000 already slated to be in-country by the end of 2009, more than a doubling of the force in place when the Obama administration came into office. The striking increase to almost 70,000 has, so far, led to a more intense but less successful war effort.

In a recent grimly comic episode, a meeting of NATO defense ministers put its stamp of approval on General McChrystal’s robust COIN option — despite the fact that their governments seem unwilling to offer any extra soldiers in support of such an American surge. (The only exception so far has been British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who agreed to send a paltry 500 more troops — with hedges and escape clauses at that.)

Beyond General McChrystal’s ultimate “more” option, at least three other options are reportedly being considered, all representing “less”; think of these as “less more” options. They include:

* An option to significantly bulk up the training of the Afghan army and police force, so that we might hand our war off to them ASAP. This is, in reality, another “more” option, since thousands of new U.S. trainers and advisors would be needed. It has reportedly been favored by Senator Carl Levin and other Democrats in Congress fearful of major Vietnam-style troop escalations and the ensuing fallout at home.

* An option to leave troops numbers in Afghanistan roughly at their present level and focus not on counterinsurgency, but on what’s being called “counterterrorism-plus.” This, in practical terms, means upping the use of U.S. drone aircraft and Special Forces teams, while focusing less on the Taliban in the Afghan countryside and more on taking out al-Qaeda and possibly Taliban operatives in the Pakistani tribal border regions. This option is said to be favored by VP Joe Biden, who also reportedly fears (perfectly reasonably) that a larger American “footprint” in Afghanistan might only turn Afghans even more strongly against a foreign occupation. This option is, in turn, often discussed by the U.S. media as if it were a de-escalatory approach and the next thing to an antiwar position. It, too, however, represents more.

* An option recently put forward by John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for what Jim Lobe of Interpress Service has termed “counterinsurgency lite.” This would, according to the senator, involve more training of Afghan troops and the commitment of perhaps 10,000-15,000 additional American troops immediately. (In his typical way, however, Kerry managed to stop short of mentioning actual numbers.) Meanwhile, we would wait for other factors considered crucial for a successful counterinsurgency campaign to kick in: “enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops,” “local leaders we can partner with,” and “the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population.” Wielding a classic image of imperial control, the senator claims to want to put an “Afghan face” on the Afghan War — that is, though no one ever says this, an Afghan mask over the American war. (Since the crucial factors he lays out for a successful counterinsurgency campaign are never likely to come into being, his, too, is a “less more”-style option.)

Quagmires, Then and Now

It’s quite possible, of course, that the president will choose a “hybrid strategy,”, mixing and matching from this list. He might, for instance, up drone attacks in Pakistan, raise troop levels “modestly” à la Kerry, and send in more U.S. trainers and advisors — a package that would surely be presented as part of a plan to pave the way for our future departure. All we do know, based on the last year, is that “more” in whatever form is likely to prove a nightmare, and yet anything less than escalation of some sort is not in the cards. No one in Washington is truly going to cut U.S. losses anytime soon.

In the Vietnam era, there was a shorthand word for this: “quagmire.” We were, as the antiwar song then went, “waist deep in the Big Muddy” and still wading in. If Vietnam was, in fact, a quagmire, however, it was so only because we made it so. Similarly, in changed circumstances, Afghanistan today has become the AIG of American foreign policy and Obama’s team so many foreign policy equivalents of Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. And as with the economy, so with the expanding Af/Pak war: at the end of the day, it’s the American taxpayer who will be left holding the bag.

Let’s think about what this means for a moment: According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the cost of keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan is $1.3 million per year. According to Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, it costs the Pentagon about $1 billion per year to station 1,000 U.S. troops in that country. It’s fair to assume that this estimate doesn’t include, among other things, long-term care for wounded soldiers or the cost of replacing destroyed or overused equipment. Nor do these figures include any civilian funds being spent on the war effort via the State Department, nor undoubtedly the funds being spent by the Pentagon to upgrade bases and facilities throughout the country. In other words, just about any decision by the president, including one simply focused on training Afghan soldiers and police, will involve an outlay of further multi-billions of dollars. Whatever choice the president makes, the U.S. will bleed money.

Let’s say that he makes the Kerry choice — “just” perhaps 15,000 troops. That means at least $15 billion for starters. And there’s no reason to believe that we’re only talking a year here. The counterinsurgency types are talking 5-10 years to “turn the tide” of the insurgency. Those who are actually training the Afghan military and police, when quoted, don’t believe they will be capable of taking what’s called “responsibility” in a major way for years to come, if ever.

Throw in domestic politics where a Democratic president invariably feels safer kicking the can down the road via escalation than being called “weak” — though Obama is already being blasted by the right for “dithering” — and you have about as toxic a brew as can be imagined.

If the Afghan War is already too big to fail, what in the world will it be after the escalations to come? As with Vietnam, so now with Afghanistan, the thick layers of mythology and fervent prediction and projection that pass for realism in Washington make clear thinking on the war impossible. They prevent the serious consideration of any options labeled “less” or “none.” They inflate projections of disaster based on withdrawal, even though similar lurid predictions during the Vietnam era proved hopelessly off-base.

The United States lived through all the phases of escalation, withdrawal, and defeat in Vietnam without suffering great post-war losses of any sort. This time we may not be so lucky. The United States is itself no longer too big to fail — and if we should do so, remind me: Who exactly will bail us out?

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

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To read other articles about these things, see the following:

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Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  2. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
  3. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  4. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009
  5. Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian, 25 September 2009
  6. A General explains how the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics will bring us victory in Afganistan, 27 September 2009
  7. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest  “>Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009
  8. The three kinds of advocacy for the Af-Pak War, 15 October 2009


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14 thoughts on “Why All the President’s Afghan Options Are Bad Ones”

  1. I, too, am mystified by our refusal to cut our losses and get out of conflict that no longer serves our national interests. To an extent, I can understand the institutional bias of the armed forces to continue the conflict; they do not want a “defeat” attached to them, another Vietnam. Some current/ex-military members are using a variant of the stabbed in the back theory favored by interwar German militarists, namely that “they” (the traitors to Germany) lost the war, we (the professional military) did not. Even if I do not agree with this perspective, I can at least understand its origins. But why are civilian political leaders so reluctant to cut their losses? Can they not see the ghost of LBJ before them, a man whose domestic agenda was and is overshadowed by the war that came to define his term in office? And what of Bush, whose legacy remains unsettled but probably deeply damaged due to his incursion into Iraq?

    The only answer is that egos are so big in Washington, that admitting a mistake and then making amends are passe. Few would deny that professional politics attracts alpha personality types, folks used to getting their way, and not accustomed to defeat in their endeavors. Perhaps there is a sort of cognitive distortion in play that blinds them to the reality unfolding before them, what you call a broken OODA loop, FM. One of the characteristics by which human beings acquire wisdom is by experiencing failure, and setbacks, and having to deal with their consequences. Many high-powered people have not been so tempered, and thus lack the humility which should accompany leadership, and which is a prerequisite of wisdom. Last, of course, the unending debacle speaks to what the late Michael Crichton used to call “thintelligence” – a neologism he coined to describe people whose knowledge is a mile wide but an inch deep, in this case policymakers who have not studied history, nor the fate of all great nations that over-reach their power. Lastly, the blindness of our leaders shows the extent to which they are poor judges of risk. We are running after tribesmen who have suddenly morphed into an existential threat called terrorism, but ignore the much greater but prosaic hazards here at home, an economy being hollowed out by Goldman Sachs, rapacious government spending us into the poor house, unemployment rising and much more. I’m wisecracking of course, but more than once I have pondered that the real way to cripple and defeat our enemies is to somehow air-drop our dysfuctional system inside the beltway onto our enemies. We cold throw in Wall Street too in the bargain.

  2. Yes, if only we could airlift wall street to the Afghan plains, maybe Goldman Sachs would buy it for us. Ha Ha! That very same joke has also been in my thoughts.

  3. I think the problem is that mr Boyds OODA loop has been so watered down and then mis-applied, that it has become nothing more than a talking point, a sound bite, something to say to make certain folks sound clever and informed. When you pick it apart you realise that it is devoid of any intellectual content. The very point of what Boyd was talking about has been cut out and filled with hot air. Add in a dose of blindness to history and foreign cultures, a firm belief that events happen in isolation with no ability to impact on the future. Garnish heavily with vested interests and you have a quagmire pie. Serve with a side dish of pride and some kool-aid in a tall glass.

    Eat in moderation as too much of it does tend to cause gas and reflux

  4. It is called the Superpower Collapse Soup.


  5. 5 Brits , 4 Afghans shot dead , several badly wounded , a couple of days ago by an Afghan policeman they were training .
    Another Brit dead today in Sangin . Which seems to be a theatre of trench warfare without the trenches.

  6. Time perhaps for a ” pre-mortem ”
    It is x months down the line , we have sent 100, 000 more troops and the project has failed . Why did it fail ?
    I think most of us have plenty ideas on this .

    Suppose its x months down the line ,but we had brought all the troops home for good , Feb 2010 . The project has failed. Why did it fail ?
    Now I havent a clue . But I bet Obama has a lot more information clamouring at him on this subject , maybe not available to the public . Lets rule out ego for the moment .
    What is the *real* project , that is worth so much money ?
    Home security has prevented further terrorism .
    Heroin is no longer the ace of drugs .
    The military industrial complex does not need to fight abroad , it could be fed fois gras at home .
    The war is not uniting the populace .
    Revenge was had at Tora Bora .
    There are other pipelines , other oilfields , other energy sources .
    Russia still licks its Afghan wounds .
    China will be there with chequebook , whoever is in power .
    India has its own problems.
    What else is there , what are we missing ?

  7. Some things we may be missing:

    The emotional content. The military is honor bound to kill every Taliban and Al-Quada alive, and won’t leave until they do, or a generation has past.

    It is INCONCEIVABLE, to the military mind, that the country that attacked us does not undergo a change of government, to a more parlimemtary form. Letting the Taliban back in is INCONCEIVABLE. It would be utter defeat, unlike Vietnam, which had an ulterior victory. It would mean, that the military had failed us twice, and this, emotionally, would be unbearable.

    Afghanistan is a nation, and our military understands nation on nation war. The new war, the war against terrorism, it does not understand. So it gravitates to the familiar.

    In addition, the collapse of the Soviet Union, was supposed to setlle the matter, of which form of government, was superior, Communism, or some form of representational parlimentarianism. But, someone forgot to tell the Chinese, who, inconviently, are still Communist! Thus, there is a great benefit, (in the view of those who decide such things) to having a base so close to them, right in the middle of all the action.

    As I write, news of the attack in Texas comes in. How will this affect the decision on troop committmtnet to Afghanistan? Will this attack make it politicaly impossible to withdraw, at this time? Gee, who woulda thunk it.
    FM reply: Nobody from Afghanistan attacked us. Esp nobody from the Taliban attacked us. {the same is true for Iraq}. I don’t see your point.

    Nor are the Chinese Communist in any meaningful sense.

  8. Al Queda sleeper ? High school nutter ? Someone who just wondered what it might feel like to gun down everyone in sight , like he might wonder what it would feel like to jump off the Pulpit rock into the sea ,bungee jump or put his finger in a fan ? ( Temptation in the wilderness )

  9. The “best man” does not always “win.”

    I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
    –Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (King James Version)

  10. “Nor are the Chinese Communist in any meaningful sense.”

    Well, the British are not Monarchist in any meaningful sense. But, you might ask the Chinese Communists, just how meaningless they are, before drawing conclusions.

    I see no rule in history, that precludes Communism from changing with the times.

    “Nobody from Afghanistan attacked us. Esp nobody from the Taliban attacked us.”

    If we wish to end this war, or change the nature of it, this denial of reality will not help our cause. We must figure out what is to be done with a country that attacked us, and the government of that country that attacked us. If we engage in simple denial, our efforts will be in vain, we will be dismissed as not serious.

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