The recent unintentional Koran burnings and the mass anti-American demonstrations and killings of four American officers have occasioned not only abject apologies from President Obama and our military commanders but the usual excuses from the American State Department and their foreign policy think tank friends. “We must work harder to gain the trust of our Afghan allies” goes the chorus.
But what seems like a setback is not one — it is an opportunity for the United States to deliver a message to the Afghan government and, more importantly, the Afghan people.
Imagine if President Obama said the following:
These past weeks the American people have watched as thousands of Afghans have demonstrated against the United States and called for us to leave Afghanistan. These demonstrations have occurred with increasing frequency over the past several years and are often supported by government action or inaction. We have also watched as two American military officers were shot in the back in Afghan government headquarters. These killings of American and coalition personnel working with Afghan forces also have occurred with increasing frequency over the past several years. Over the last several years we have also watched while your government has wasted millions of dollars of American aid, issued anti-American statements and made unilateral demands for apologies and changes in our efforts to help you.
The reasons given for the recent demonstrations, killings and demands focus on the unintentional killing of Afghan civilians and the unintentional burning of Korans by American forces.
What the American people have not seen are any demonstrations against the Taliban for their entirely intentional killings of thousands of Afghan men, women and children, even though these intentional killings, according to the UN, outnumber the entirely unintentional killings by NATO forces by over three to one.
What the American people have not seen are any demonstrations thanking the United States for sacrificing over a thousand of our young soldier and Marine lives to free you from the Taliban. What the American people have not seen are any demonstrations thanking the U.S. and its coalition partners for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have contributed to help you set up a stabile, democratic government.
During the coming days the American government and people will watch to see what kind of demonstrations occur and listen to messages from the Afghan people and government on whether you want to see us continue our efforts in your country. If the answer continues to be “no”, we will not leave as planned in 2014; we will leave immediately.
We realize our immediate departure may well leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and we do not relish the terror that may follow. However, we live in the 21st century and all peoples must make their own choices. The choice is yours. We await your answer.
No one, least of all the Afghans, believes that President Obama will deliver such a message. And yet how refreshing it would be to hear our leader leave the diplomatic double speak aside and talk sense.
Twice before I have questioned, not our initial action in Afghanistan, but our staying, given the lack of Afghanistan’s strategic importance compared with other areas where our military may be more needed. We cannot afford to intervene everywhere for unending lengths of time. Events over the last several years have clearly shown two things: first, our mission of overthrowing the Taliban government and killing Osama bin Laden has morphed into a mission to create a stable, peaceful and semi-democratic government — what we call nation building; and, second, there is now no chance — assuming there ever was one — of achieving that mission unless there is a dramatic change in the attitude and cooperation of the Afghan people and government. There may be Afghan people and government officials who support our efforts but they have been silent.
In the coming days the American people undoubtedly will be fed much information showing that we are on the verge of succeeding in Afghanistan if only we “stay the course”. We must be careful of reports that are scrubbed up through the military command and then turned over to please the civilian overlords in DC. It is understandable that when you give the military a mission, it wants to succeed. And it is true that we are winning military skirmishes with the Taliban and “clearing” some areas, at least temporarily.
We go out of our way to credit Afghan forces for these successes but a different story emerges if you talk about Afghan forces with those who have fought and returned from Afghanistan, as I have. Then you will hear a different story about Afghan forces: about the diversion of our weapons to the Taliban, the rampant drug use and the continued desertions.
Our troops who are doing the fighting believe the Afghan security forces who we have been training for over ten years are worthless. Actually, they are worse than worthless. Ask a Marine who has served in combat and you will hear that a significant portion of the Afghan trainees are Taliban, which explains why Afghan troops sometimes do not direct their fire against the Taliban but against our own soldiers and Marines! This is not a prescription for success.
It is highly unlikely that President Obama will, or is even capable of, delivering the above message. Is there any chance of any of the Republican Presidential candidates urging such plain talk? It would be difficult for Ron Paul to credibly do so because he was against the original intervention and is on record as urging withdrawal no matter what the Afghan government and people do. It would be difficult for the other candidates as well, because while they have rightly criticized Obama’s apology, they are so eager to be “tougher” than Obama that all of them have argued for extending our commitment beyond 2014.
It would not take a Republican candidate great political courage to engage in such plain talk. An increasing majority of Republicans as well as all the American people do not like the way things are going in Afghanistan. Maybe on the Republican side, an Eisenhower who managed our withdrawal from Korea, will emerge. Maybe a Reagan who pulled our troops out of Lebanon, will emerge. But the aversion to changing policies when facts change remains strong, so don’t bet on it.
John R. Miller is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Governmental Affairs in Berkeley, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and a former U.S. Ambassador at large. His son has served in combat as a Marine in Afghanistan.