Meanwhile, unnamed “senior U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.