This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Going, going, gone! You can almost hear the announcer's voice throbbing with excitement, only we're not talking about home runs here, but about the disappearing date on which, for the United States and its military, the Afghan War will officially end.
Practically speaking, the answer to when it will be over is: just this side of never. If you take the word of our Afghan War commander, the secretary of defense, and top officials of the Obama administration and NATO, we're not leaving any time soon. As with any clever time traveler, every date that's set always contains a verbal escape hatch into the future.
In my 1950s childhood, there was a cheesy (if thrilling) sci-fi flick, The Incredible Shrinking Man, about a fellow who passed through a radioactive cloud in the Pacific Ocean and soon noticed that his suits were too big for him. Next thing you knew, he was living in a doll house, holding off his pet cat, and fighting an ordinary spider transformed into a monster. Finally, he disappeared entirely leaving behind only a sonorous voice to tell us that he had entered a universe where "the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle."
In recent weeks, without a radioactive cloud in sight, the date for serious drawdowns of American troops in Afghanistan has followed a similar path toward the vanishing point and is now threatening to disappear "over the horizon" (a place where, we are regularly told, American troops will lurk once they have finally handed their duties over to the Afghan forces they are training).
If you remember, back in December 2009 President Obama spoke of July 2011 as a firm date to "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan," the moment assumedly when the beginning of the end of the war would come into sight. In July of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of 2014 as the date when Afghan security forces "will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country."
Administration officials, anxious about the effect that 2011 date was having on an American public grown weary of an unpopular war and on an enemy waiting for us to depart, grabbed Karzai's date and ran with it (leaving many of his caveats about the war the Americans were fighting, particularly his desire to reduce the American presence, in the dust). Now, 2014 is hyped as the new 2011.
It has, in fact, been widely reported that Obama officials have been working in concert to "play down" the president's 2011 date, while refocusing attention on 2014. In recent weeks, top administration officials have been little short of voluble on the subject. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ("We're not getting out. We're talking about probably a years-long process."), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, attending a security conference in Australia, all "cited 2014... as the key date for handing over the defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves." The New York Times headlined its report on the suddenly prominent change in timing this way: "US Tweaks Message on Troops in Afghanistan."
Quite a tweak. Added Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller: "The message shift is effectively a victory for the military, which has long said the July 2011 deadline undermined its mission by making Afghans reluctant to work with troops perceived to be leaving shortly."
Inflection Points and Aspirational Goals
Barely had 2014 risen into the headlines, however, before that date, too, began to be chipped away. As a start, it turned out that American planners weren't talking about just any old day in 2014, but its last one. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the NATO training program for Afghan security forces, put it while holding a Q&A with a group of bloggers, "They're talking about December 31st, 2014. It's the end of December in 2014... that [Afghan] President Karzai has said they want Afghan security forces in the lead."
Nor, officials rushed to say, was anyone talking about 2014 as a date for all American troops to head for the exits, just "combat troops"—and maybe not even all of them. Possibly tens of thousands of trainers and other so-called non-combat forces would stay on to help with the "transition process." This follows the Iraq pattern where 50,000 American troops remain after the departure of US "combat" forces to great media fanfare. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was typical in calling for "the substantial combat forces [to] be phased out at the end of 2014, four years from now." (Note the usual verbal escape hatch, in this case "substantial," lurking in his statement.)
Last Saturday, behind "closed doors" at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Afghan War commander General David Petraeus presented European leaders with a "phased four-year plan" to "wind down American and allied fighting in Afghanistan." Not surprisingly, it had the end of 2014 in its sights and the president quickly confirmed that "transition" date, even while opening plenty of post-2014 wiggle room. By then, as he described it, "our footprint" would only be "significantly reduced." (He also claimed that, post-2014, the US would be maintaining a "counterterrorism capability" in Afghanistan—and Iraq—for which "platforms to... execute... counterterrorism operations," assumedly bases, would be needed.)
Meanwhile, unnamed "senior US officials" in Lisbon were clearly buttonholing reporters to "cast doubt on whether the United States, the dominant power in the 28-nation alliance, would end its own combat mission before 2015." As always, the usual qualifying phrases were profusely in evidence.
Throughout these weeks, the "tweaking"—that is, the further chipping away at 2014 as a hard and fast date for anything—only continued. Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian counterpart to US commander General David Petraeus, insisted that 2014 was nothing more than "an inflection point" in an ever more drawn-out drawdown process. That process, he insisted, would likely extend to "2015 and beyond," which, of course, put 2016 officially into play. And keep in mind that this is only for combat troops, not those assigned to "train and support" or keep "a strategic over watch" on Afghan forces.
On the eve of NATO's Lisbon meeting, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, waxing near poetic, declared 2014 nothing more than an "aspirational goal," rather than an actual deadline. As the conference began, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the alliance would be committed in Afghanistan "as long as it takes." And new British Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir David Richards suggested that, given the difficulty of ever defeating the Taliban (or al-Qaeda) militarily, NATO should be preparing plans to maintain a role for its troops for the next 30 to 40 years.
Here, then, is a brief history of American time in Afghanistan. After all, this isn't our first Afghan War, but our second. The first, the CIA's anti-Soviet jihad (in which the Agency funded a number of the fundamentalist extremists we're now fighting in the second), lasted a decade, from 1980 until 1989 when the Soviets withdrew in defeat.
In October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched America's second Afghan War, taking Kabul that November as the Taliban dissolved. The power of the American military to achieve quick and total victory seemed undeniable, even after Osama bin Laden slipped out of Tora Bora that December and escaped into Pakistan's tribal borderlands.
However, it evidently never crossed the minds of President Bush's top officials to simply declare victory and get out. Instead, as the US would do in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, the Pentagon started building a new infrastructure of military bases (in this case, on the ruins of the old Soviet base infrastructure). At the same time, the former Cold Warriors in Washington let their dreams about pushing the former commies of the former Soviet Union out of the former soviet socialist republics of Central Asia, places where, everyone knew, you could just about swim in black gold and run geopolitically wild.
Then, when the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003, Afghanistan, still a "war" (if barely) was forgotten, while the Taliban returned to the field, built up their strength, and launched an insurgency that has only gained momentum to this moment. In 2008, before leaving office, George W. Bush bumped his favorite general, Iraq surge commander Petraeus, upstairs to become the head of the Central Command which oversees America's war zones in the Greater Middle East, including Afghanistan.
Already the guru of counterinsurgency (known familiarly as COIN), Petraeus had, in 2006, overseen the production of the military's new war-fighting bible, a how-to manual dusted off from the Vietnam era's failed version of COIN and made new and magical again. In June 2010, eight and a half years into our Second Afghan War, at President Obama's request, Petraeus took over as Afghan War commander. It was clear then that time was short—with an administration review of Afghan war strategy coming up at year's end and results needed quickly. The American war was also in terrible shape.
In the new COIN-ish US Army, however, it is a dogma of almost biblical faith that counterinsurgencies don't produce quick results; that, to be successful, they must be pursued for years on end. As Petraeus put it back in 2007 when talking about Iraq, "[T]ypically, I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years." Recently, in an interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, he made a nod toward exactly the same timeframe for Afghanistan, one accepted as bedrock knowledge in the world of the COINistas.
What this meant was that, whether as CENTCOM commander or Afghan War commander, Petraeus was looking for two potentially contradictory results at the same time. Somehow, he needed to wrest those nine to 10 years of war-fighting from a president looking for a tighter schedule and, in a war going terribly sour, he needed almost instant evidence of "progress" that would fit the president's coming December "review" of the war and might pacify unhappy publics in the US and Europe.
Now let's do the math. At the moment, depending on how you care to count, we are in the 10th year of our second Afghan War or the 20th year of war interruptus. Since June 2009, Petraeus and various helpers have stretched the schedule to 2014 for (most) American combat troops and at least 2015 or 2016 for the rest. If you were to start counting from the president's December surge address, that's potentially seven more years. In other words, we're now talking about either a 15-year war or an on-and-off again quarter-century one. All evidence shows that the Pentagon's war planners would like to extend those already vague dates even further into the future.