Somber Thoughts on Afghanistan


I get a certain amount of email saying that I am arrogant and dismissive of the intelligence and political knowledge of certain groups, most notably Tea Partyers and the audience of Fox News, but also of the American public in general. Supposedly I talk to them as if they were ignorant when in fact, I am told, they are not. Some critics have compared me to Mencken with his disdain for the Booboisie. Perhaps they are right, and I have underestimated the knowledge and attention span of the citizenry. I hate to admit it, but, well, truth is truth. With respect to the wars against Islam, I tend to think in military terms, and then write (I confess) in vague generalities. This may appear to be condescension to Sean Hannity’s viewers. If I have done them wrong, I apologize. All right. Let me try to discuss the wars intelligently, not giving ideological solutions but just stating the problems from the standpoint of those who actually have to fight and manage the wars. (1) The American command wants to run raids across the Afghan border into Pakistan and Tajikistan to attack Al Qaeda guerrillas who currently enjoy safe havens in those countries. This is needed, say officers, to save American lives. But in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto’s Falafel Party—she was assassinated, but the party lives on, as intensely nationalistic as ever—says it wants the Pakistani Army to fire on American troops if they “invade” the country. What now? While the Falafelists are not in power, they are strong in the military. Fighting very nearly broke out during a US helicopter raid against Herat in the Federated Tribal Territories. Do we pursue Al Qaeda at the possible cost of war with the Paki Army? Tough choice. (2) We are all familiar with the Predator and Raptor drones used to target Al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pentagon wants to replace the Hellfire missiles fired currently by the drones with the new Mk 48 ADCAP (“Advanced Capability”) missile which, while much more accurate, also has a larger blast radius—meaning that more civilians will be killed. Is it worth it, given the anger aroused among civilian populations by the extra deaths? This is the kind of question that commanders on the ground must decide. (3) Then there is the difficult question of cultivation of opium poppies. When the Taliban took over following the withdrawal of the Russians from Afghanistan in 1989, they forced farmers into the production of the drug, thus making the rural population dependent on the (small) profits the extremists allowed them. The Americans of course want to eliminate the poppies, but this would do nothing to win the hearts and minds of the growers. (What are the farmers doing to do? Grow potatoes instead? College kids won’t pay $500 an ounce for sin-semilla spuds.) So what does the military do about towns like Hecuba and Priam, in Sulawese Province on the southern border with Iran, which are transshipment points for drugs crossing Iran en route to European markets? Eliminate them, and lose the population? Or allow the traffic to continue in order to further the war effort? The present solution, if so it is, is to uneasily ignore the question. Somebody has to make a decision. And it will be denounced in the press as wrong, either way. (4) Apart from Black Hawk troop-carrying helicopters, the workhorse chopper of the war has been the AH-78 Commanche gunship, now equipped with the BQQ-6 submillimeter-wave radar for detecting the movement of metal armaments (e.g., rifles) at night. The radar is highly classified. The State Department wants to transfer six of the craft to the Afghan “air force” (actually a few helicopters) to show faith in the Karzai government. The Pentagon says the technology would be in Taliban, and thus Chinese, hands within a week. Worth it? Somebody has to decide, and both answers are wrong. The (accidental) damage to the Al Aqsa mosque in Kandahar by a drone strike aroused fury among the militant Sufi tribesmen of the region. These have a tradition of almost constant war, dating back to the rule of Peshmurga I, and of Sufi control over the silk trade through the Khyber Pass to Rawalpindi and on to Bukitinggi. Again, it’s hearts-and-minds versus military objectives. If you restrict bombing near mosques, you give Al Qaeda safe havens. If you damage (or, as some have proposed, even deliberately bomb) mosques, you infuriate the locals and, so say some commentators, produce recruits to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. A? Or B? (5) Iran. According to Infantry Weapons and Light Armor, the bible of the military small-arms world, Iran is making available to the insurgents the AK 16″-54 (the NATO designation of the long-barreled Iranian knock-off of the AK47, which fires a heavier and therefore longer-ranged bullet). This has long been known. More worrisome, some of the explosives used recently in roadside bombs show the chemical signature of manufacture at the Iranian arms complex at Bucephalus. These substances, used in shaped charges, can penetrate the side armor on M1 tanks. Tehran wants a stable environment for Bucephalis, since it derives considerable revenue from arms sales, and thus might stop shipping explosives under American pressure. So far it hasn’t. Should the US bomb the plant, widening the war? Or, instead, accept the additional losses in Afghanistan to avoid stretching forces already spread thin? Not an easy question. (6) Then there is the tricky matter of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president in Kabul. The US knows he is corrupt, but has to pretend that he isn’t. Such fictions are part of diplomacy. NATO would like to replace him if it could dig up a suitable candidate—Ahmad Shah Massoud is mentioned, though he is said to be good for splashy photo-ops and not much else. Another suggestion is Yusuf Sala al-Din, but despite his lack of recent political activity he is suspected of hostility to what bin Laden calls “Crusaders,” meaning European invaders of Islamic lands. Who, then? What it comes to is that Afghanistan is not brimming over with democratically-minded leaders. Anyway, how to get rid of Karzai? He could die in a car accident, but that would be a tad obvious even for the CIA. (7) Finally another, seemingly minor, instance of what many see as the military’s lack of concern for the feelings of Afghans: General Stanley McCrystal, before being fired by Obama, flew to the town of Augea in Helmand Province—in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargo plane. The Herc is designed for unimproved or nonexistent runways, which explains the choice—but it terrified the herds of the villagers, which stampeded into the countryside. Then McCrystal, walking through the town, said audibly that Augea was “full of shit.” True in a sense: any town relying on donkeys for transportation will fit the description. But the village headmaster knew enough English to understand the slur. Net result: another several hundred Afghans who don’t like the US. Solution? Enough. My point is that “the devil is in the details.” It is fine to denounce Islamofascism. Yet, while I do not doubt that the foregoing matters are understood by the better minds on Fox News, for example Bill O’Reilly and Saraa Palin, their viewers may have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction. I have not meant to talk down to them, and neither should the folk at Fox.

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