Does Robert Gates need his head examined?

 In Afghanistan

Flickr photo via Medill DC.

The New York Times reports today that the US military has begun pulling back from the Pech Valley, an area they once considered crucial to their counterinsurgency strategy. At least 103 American soldiers have been killed in the area, and many more wounded. While the piece doesn’t include statistics on Afghan deaths and injuries, one can only assume they were also significant. While American officials are portraying this step as a natural evolution of their counterinsurgency strategy and a move that allows them to better protect Afghan civilians, one American official questions the reasoning behind expending time and resources in the valley in the first place (emphasis mine):

Ultimately, the decision to withdraw reflected a stark — and controversial — internal assessment by the military that it would have been better served by not having entered the high valley in the first place.

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, a former commander of the region’s Afghan Border Police, agreed with some of this assessment. He said that residents of the Pech Valley bristled at the American presence but might tolerate Afghan units. “Many times they promised us that if we could tell the Americans to pull out of the area, they wouldn’t fight the Afghan forces,” he said.

It’s tragic to think of the many lives lost in pursuit of a strategy that was doomed to fail. And even more so that this tragedy continues to play out on a larger scale as Americans and Afghans are still sacrificing their lives with little to show for it almost ten years into the war in Afghanistan.

As Stephen Walt points out in response to the allegations that a general wanted to perform “psychological operations” on visiting senators, it is almost impossible for us to get a realistic sense of how things are going on the ground in Afghanistan since the people in a position to report on the conditions have a vested interest in portraying the war as successful. However, Bing West, a former infantry officer in Vietnam and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, embedded with troops in Afghanistan to bring a very different perspective on the strategy. In reviewing West’s book, “The Wrong War,” Dexter Filkins of the New York Times describes it as a “seemingly irrefutable critique” of the plan in Afghanistan and the “new religion” of counterinsurgency:

Time after time, West shows the theory of counterinsurgency scraping up against the hard and jagged ground of the real Afghanistan. In one instance, he examines the work of a group of American soldiers and civilians, known as a provincial reconstruction team, whose job was to provide development assistance to Afghan locals in Asadabad (A-Bad to the Americans) in eastern Afghanistan. It was overseen by a battalion known as the 1-32 and commanded by a lieutenant colonel named Mark O’Donnell. In June 2009, after the reconstruction team had been working there for three years, an American supply truck blew a tire on the main road. A crowd of Afghans gathered, and then suddenly a grenade exploded, killing and maiming several Afghans. A riot ensued. “Kill the Americans!” the Afghans shouted. “Protect Islam!” Only later did a videotape of the incident show clearly that an Afghan had tossed the grenade.

About this, West writes:

“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”

This reality does not seem to have hit the major decision makers on US Afghanistan policy. President Obama has reiterated his promise to begin a troop withdrawal in July, but has given no indication whether that withdrawal will be a meaningful step toward winding down the war. It appears that Defense Secretary Robert Gates doesn’t view the withdrawal that way. He sees the promise as more of a Jedi mind trick on unsuspecting Taliban fighters:

First, Gates believes there may be a “payoff” when the July 2011 deadline passes without any substantial drawdown of US troops. The idea, apparently, is that the Taliban will have the rug pulled out from under them when our troops aren’t gone by August. As Secretary Gates puts it:

“The Taliban were messaging that we were leaving in July of ‘11. It seemed to me that if we were willing to be patient we could do some judo on them. Because if the Taliban were all persuaded we were going to be gone by the end of July ‘11, they were going to be in for a really big surprise in August, September, October, November and so on, because we are still going to have a huge number of forces there.”

This certainly would be news to anyone who is taking President Obama seriously about viewing July as a significant milestone. And as Will Keola Thomas points out, the Taliban’s ranks have increased, along with American, NATO and civilian casualties, cost to taxpayers and corruption. Robert Gates is going to need more than judo moves to turn this failing war around.

Apparently, Gates at least understands, like the American military official commenting on Pesh Valley offensive, that the major mistake is starting wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here.

Does his recommendation apply to defense secretaries who insist on continuing deadly, costly wars in the face of mountains of evidence that the strategy has no hope of succeeding?

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