Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Robert Bales volunteered to join the U.S. Army. In the 11 years since then, he has served four overseas combat assignments, three in Iraq and the most recent in Afghanistan.
By last year, when orders came for that final deployment to Afghanistan, Bales did not want to go. The initial rush of patriotism after 9/11 had faded. He faced serious financial pressures, including the possible loss of his family’s home. His domestic life was apparently strained, in large part by his repeated deployments. But of course he went anyway, because what were his alternatives?
We all know how the story ends. For whatever reason, a “good soldier” whom others have described as calm, decent and level-headed apparently walked off his post in the middle of the night, entered a nearby Afghan village and killed 16 civilians, including nine children, before returning to post and turning himself in.
Bales will now have to face the full consequences of his actions. If the allegations are true, he brutally murdered 16 innocent people, and the backlash he provokes will probably end up costing American lives as well.
(It should be noted that the Afghan government and people do not accept that version of events, insisting that the killings were perpetrated by a squad of as many as 15 to 20 U.S. soldiers. Afghan army chief of staff Sher Mohammad Karimi, for example, has called it a pre-meditated massacre.)
As expected, the repercussions of the atrocity have been enormous. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is demanding that U.S. forces confine themselves to their bases. The struggle to win Afghan public support and turn its people against the Taliban has suffered another major, perhaps fatal setback to a goal that may have been unattainable anyway. And here at home, the tragedy has added to rising and widespread doubt about the wisdom of continuing military efforts in Afghanistan.
It is true, as some have pointed out, that one tragic incident should not be allowed to turn national policy. But it is also true that this is not one tragic incident; it is merely the latest indication of many that we are grasping for the unattainable in Afghanistan, and doing so at increasingly unacceptable cost. History tells us that Afghanistan has never been open to outside influence, and what little chance we may once have had to “win” there was probably lost when we diverted manpower, resources and attention away from that country in 2003 to concentrate on Iraq, an enterprise that our leaders deemed more important to our national interests.
Some, of course, remain unwilling to admit that reality.
Max Boot, an advocate of American empire and ardent supporter of our twin invasions, argues on behalf of an extended commitment to Afghanistan in the Weekly Standard, the house organ of the neocon movement:
“What, after all, is the alternative? Peace talks have scant prospect of success given that the Taliban are now betting—perhaps rightly—that they can simply wait us out. The likely result of a precipitous American pullout, which would trigger an equally hasty exit by our NATO allies, would be a major Taliban offensive in the east and south that would aim to take back Kandahar, Marja, and other population centers that have been secured at considerable cost over the past few years. The Afghan security forces would be likely to splinter along ethnic lines, and the entire country could well be plunged into a civil war as it was in the 1990s, when Kabul was regularly on the receiving end of artillery bombardments.”
Let me suggest two things:
1.) When your best argument for sustaining a decade-long war is “what is the alternative?”, I would suggest that your policy is strategically and morally bankrupt.
2.) The arguments made by Boot for sustaining our involvement in Afghanistan at current levels are the same arguments being made six years ago, four years ago and two years ago. And in those years, the lives lost, the resources invested and the sacrifices made by Bales and tens of thousands of others like him have brought us no closer to any definition of “victory” that Boot and others would be likely to accept.
Mitt Romney is also among those unwilling to accept that reality. As The Hill reports:
The former Massachusetts governor, appearing in an exclusive interview on Fox News Sunday, charged that Obama had failed to lead in Afghanistan, as well as with the intensifying situation between Iran and Israel.
Romney said the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan could be traced to “the lack of the leadership on the part of our president.”
Romney pointed to Obama’s “interaction with (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai and with leaders there, as well as his relative detachment from our military commanders there and the fact that he published a specific date for a withdrawal,” as leading to the increasing instability and violence in the country.
Romney also said Obama “did not oversee elections in Afghanistan that would have convinced the people there that they had elected someone that they could have confidence in, [and] did not put enough troops into the surge, as what’s requested by the military.”
However, when asked how he would have exerted leadership as president, Romney borrowed heavily from the approach favored by that well-known foreign policy specialist Herman Cain:
“Before I take a stand at a particular course of action, I want to get the input from the people who are there,” Romney said.
Yeah. That’s some leadership for you right there.
– Jay Bookman