Andrew Bacevich on Afghanistan

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Historian, international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich returned to the Journal to discuss America’s long war in Afghanistan. 


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. The war in Afghanistan has claimed more than one thousand American lives and in the last two years alone the lives of more than four thousand Afghan civilians. It’s costing American taxpayers over three-and-a-half billion dollars every month—a total of some $264 billion so far. But for all that, in the words of one policy analyst quoted by the New York Times this week, “there are no better angels about to descend on Afghanistan.”

The news from that torturous battleground continues to dismay, discourage and enrage. America’s designated driver there, Hamid Karzai, is proving increasingly unstable behind the wheel. The United States put Karzai in power and our soldiers have been fighting and dying on his behalf ever since. Despite widespread corrupton in his government. Now he’s making threats against the western coalition that is shedding blood and treasure on his behalf.

Even more disturbing,for the moment, are the civilian deaths from nighttime raids andaerial bombings by American and other NATO troops. Just this week, we learned of an apparent cover-up following a Special Forces raid in February that killed five civilians, including three women, two of whom were pregnant. It’s believed bullets were gouged from the women’s bodies to conceal evidence of American involvement.

This slaughter of innocents has led the pro-American “Economist” magazine to question whether our entire effort in Afghanistan” has been nothing but a meaningless exercise of misguided violence.”

With me is a man with first-hand experience of war. Andrew Bacevich served 23 years, some of them in Vietnam, before retiring from the Army. He’s now professor of history and international relations at Boston University. Just this week he was at a US Army War College symposium on the highly pertinent question, “How do we know when a war is over?” His book, “The Limits of Power,” was a best-seller and his latest, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” comes out this summer. Andrew Bacevich, welcome back to the Journal.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: These civilian casualties that we’ve been hearing about, they’re inevitable in war, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Sure they are. But I think that what’s particularly important about the incidents that we’re reading about is that they really call into question U.S. strategy. I mean, when General McChrystal conceived of this counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan, one of the, sort of the core principles is that we would act in ways that would demonstrate our benign intentions. We’re supposed to be protecting the population. And when it turns out that U.S. forces are killing non-combatants, and there are repeated incidents that have occurred, I think it calls into question the sincerity, the seriousness of the strategy. Or it calls into question the extent to which McChrystal is actually in control of the forces that he commands.

There doesn’t seem to be any noticeable change, and any noticeable reduction in the frequency with which these incidents are occurring. So, I mean, were I an Afghan, I think I would not place a whole heck of a lot of credibility on the claims that, you know, “We’re here to help.”

BILL MOYERS: That nighttime incident in February that I referred to, you know, one woman killed was a pregnant mother of 10 children. Another was a pregnant mother of 6 children. And our people peddled the story at the time that they had been stabbed to death by family members on an otherwise festive occasion. Was that a lie, do you think, a deliberate lie?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Based on the reports that we read in “The New York Times,” yes, it was a deliberate lie. I mean, I think one of the hidden issues here, and it’s one that really needs to be brought to the surface, is we have two kinds of forces operating in Afghanistan. We have conventional forces.

BILL MOYERS: The Marines and infantry.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Right. And they are accompanied by reporters. We get at least some amount of information about what these forces are doing and how they’re doing it. But in a sense, we have a second army. And the second army are the units that comprise Special Operations forces. They exist in secrecy. They operate in secrecy. Clearly there was a violation of some kind in that incident in February that killed the pregnant women.

The question is, are they being held accountable? Who’s being fired? Who’s being disciplined? What actions are being taken to ensure that incidents like that will not occur again? And again, this secrecy, the fact that they operate behind this black curtain, I think, makes it more difficult for that kind of accountability to be asserted.

BILL MOYERS: To whom are they responsible behind that black curtain?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, presumably they’re responsible to General McChrystal, who is the senior US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. And McChrystal himself comes out of the Special Operations community. That’s his entire background is in Special Operations. And you might wonder whether or not that gives him a better understanding of Special Operations to enable him to use that capability more precisely. Or you might wonder if it makes him too sympathetic to Special Operations. They’re his guys, so give them a break.

BILL MOYERS: General McChrystal himself has said that we’ve shot – and this is his words not mine—an amazing number of people over there who did not seem to be a threat to his troops.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think that is—that’s clearly the case. When McChrystal was put in command last year, and devised his counterinsurgency strategy, the essential core principle of that strategy is that we will protect the population. We will protect the people. And the contradiction is that ever since President Obama gave McChrystal the go-ahead to implement that strategy, we have nonetheless continued to have this series of incidents in which we’re not only not protecting the population. But indeed we’re killing non-combatants.

BILL MOYERS: Given what’s happening in the killing of these innocent people, is the very term, “military victory in Afghanistan,” an oxymoron?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, this is—yes. And I think one of the most interesting and indeed perplexing things that’s happened in the past three, four years is that in many respects, the officer corps itself has given up on the idea of military victory. We could find any number of quotations from General Petraeus, the central command commander, and General McChrystal, the immediate commander in Afghanistan, in which they say that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, that we will not win a military victory, that the only solution to be gained, if there is one, is through bringing to success this project of armed nation-building.

And the reason that’s interesting, at least to a military historian of my generation, of the Vietnam generation, is that after Vietnam, this humiliation that we had experienced, the collective purpose of the officer corps, in a sense, was to demonstrate that war worked. To demonstrate that war could be purposeful.

That out of that collision, on the battlefield, would come decision, would come victory. And that soldiers could claim purposefulness for their profession by saying to both the political leadership and to the American people, “This is what we can do. We can, in certain situations, solve very difficult problems by giving you military victory.”

Well, here in the year 2010, nobody in the officer corps believes in military victory. And in that sense, the officer corps has, I think, unwittingly really forfeited its claim to providing a unique and important service to American society. I mean, why, if indeed the purpose of the exercise in Afghanistan is to, I mean, to put it crudely, drag this country into the modern world, why put a four-star general in charge of that? Why not—why not put a successful mayor of a big city? Why not put a legion of social reformers? Because the war in Afghanistan is not a war as the American military traditionally conceives of war.

BILL MOYERS: Well, President Obama was in Afghanistan not too long ago, as you know. And he attempted to state the purpose of our war there to our troops.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our broad mission is clear. We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear. We’re going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We’re going to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. We’re going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people.

BILL MOYERS: That sounds to me like a traditional, classical military assignment, to find the enemy and defeat him.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, but there’s also then the reference to sort of building the capacity of the Afghan government. And that’s where, of course, the president, he’d just come from this meeting with President Karzai. Basically, as we understand from press reports, the president sort of administered a tongue-lashing to Karzai to tell him to get his act together. Which then was followed by Karzai issuing his own tongue-lashing, calling into question whether or not he actually was committed to supporting the United States in its efforts in Afghanistan. And again, this kind of does bring us back, in a way, to Vietnam, where we found ourselves harnessed to allies, partners that turned out to be either incompetent or corrupt. Or simply did not share our understanding of what needed to be done for that country.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you as a soldier that our political leaders, time and again, send men and women to fight for, on behalf of corrupt guys like Karzai?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we don’t learn from history. And there is this persistent, and I think almost inexplicable belief that the use of military force in some godforsaken country on the far side of the planet will not only yield some kind of purposeful result, but by extension, will produce significant benefits for the United States. I mean, one of the obvious things about the Afghanistan war that is so striking and yet so frequently overlooked is that we’re now in the ninth year of this war.

It is the longest war in American history. And it is a war for which there is no end in sight. And to my mind, it is a war that is utterly devoid of strategic purpose. And the fact that that gets so little attention from our political leaders, from the press or from our fellow citizens, I think is simply appalling, especially when you consider the amount of money we’re spending over there and the lives that are being lost whether American or Afghan.

BILL MOYERS: But President Obama says, our purpose is to prevent the Taliban from creating another rogue state from which the jihadists can attack the United States, as happened on 9/11. Isn’t that a strategic purpose?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow and achieve in Afghanistan all the purposes that General McChrystal would like us to achieve, would the Jihadist threat be substantially reduced as a consequence? And does anybody think that somehow, Jihadism is centered or headquartered in Afghanistan? When you think about it for three seconds, you say, “Well, of course, it’s not. It is a transnational movement.”

BILL MOYERS: They can come from Yemen. They can come from—

ANDREW BACEVICH: They can come from Brooklyn. So the notion that somehow, because the 9/11 attacks were concocted in this place, as indeed they were, the notion that therefore, the transformation of Afghanistan will provide some guarantee that there won’t be another 9/11 is patently absurd. Quite frankly, the notion that we can prevent another 9/11 by invading and occupying and transforming countries is absurd.

BILL MOYERS: In this context, then, what do we do about what is a real threat, from people who want to kill us, the Jihadists. What do we do about that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: First of all, we need to assess the threat realistically. Osama bin Laden is not Adolf Hitler. Al-Qaeda is not Nazi Germany. Al-Qaeda poses a threat. It does not pose an existential threat. We should view Al-Qaeda as the equivalent of an international criminal conspiracy. Sort of a mafia that in some way or another draws its energy or legitimacy from a distorted understanding of a particular religious tradition.

And as with any other international criminal conspiracy, the proper response is a police effort. I mean, a ruthless, sustained, international police effort to identify the thugs, root out the networks and destroy it. Something that would take a long period of time and would no more succeed fully in eliminating the threat than the NYPD is able to fully eliminate criminality in New York City.

BILL MOYERS: You participated this week in a symposium at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on the subject, “How will we know when a war ends?” So, the boots are on the ground there. The troops are there, committed, at least through 2011. What do we do?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I have to say, and I mean, I’m sure this sounds too simplistic. It would be way too simplistic for people in Washington. But if you want to get out of a war, you get out of a war. I mean, you call General McChrystal and say, “Your mission has changed. And your mission is to organize an orderly extrication of US forces.”

You know, if it were me, I’d say, “General McChrystal, call me back in two weeks and tell me what the plan is and how long it’s going to take.” But war termination for us has come to be very difficult, because of our inability to understand the war that we undertake.

We are now close to a decade into what the Pentagon now calls, “The Long War.” And it is a war in which one-half of one percent of the American people bear the burden. And the other 99.5 percent basically go on about their daily life, as if the war did not exist.

I mean, the great paradox of the Long War, is that it seems the Long War consists of a series of campaigns with Iraq and Afghanistan being the two most important, although one could add Pakistan and Yemen to the list, in which there seems to be no way to wind down the campaign.

Or to claim from the campaign some positive benefit that allows us to say that the end date of the long war is any closer. And we do find ourselves in this circumstance where permanent war now seems to have become the norm. And we don’t know what to do about that.

BILL MOYERS: There’s something else that President Obama said when he was in Afghanistan. Take a look at this:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. You don’t quit, the American Armed Services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.

BILL MOYERS: How do you read that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the president has, he’s placed down this enormous bet. A bet involves 100 thousand American soldiers.

And the deterioration of circumstances, for example, if Karzai turns out to be an unreliable ally, even that will make it extraordinarily difficult for the president to now say, “Well, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to take that, I’m going to take that bet off the table.” So in that sense, the rhetoric is not at all surprising, I think. And of course, it’s historically incorrect. We quit after the Mogadishu firefight in Somalia. I think that it probably was prudent to quit. That doesn’t make Somalia a great place today. We quit in Vietnam, having paid an enormous cost, to try to maintain the viability of South Vietnam. So there are times actually when it makes sense to quit.

BILL MOYERS: Should we quit in Afghanistan?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think so. I mean again, I believe that ultimately, a sound foreign policy should be informed by an enlightened understanding of one’s own interests. That’s what we pay people like President Obama big money to do, to advance our collective interests, what’s good for this country, this people. And the perpetuation of the war in Afghanistan is not good for this country and for our people.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Because we are squandering our treasure. We are losing lives for no purpose. And ultimately, the perpetuation of this unnecessary war does, I think, serve to exacerbate the problems within the Islamic world, rather than reducing those problems.

BILL MOYERS: Andrew Bacevich, thank you for joining me on the Journal. And we’ll continue this conversation on our website at

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