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The Ugly Truth About Afghanistan

Ten years on and not halfway there. That was the assessment of the war in Afghanistan that was delivered last month by retired four star General Stanley McChrystal

In a speech, our "former top U.S. military commander in the war said the United States and its allies are only '50 percent of the way' toward achieving their goals," Yahoo News reported.

If it seems at odds with what our active duty senior officers and administration officials are saying, at least publicly, it’s because it is.

With a drawdown slowly beginning and plans for a complete handover in 2014, the general line of the generals has been “...it’s a tough road still but we’re making headway and things are improving.” That of course would be the appropriate spin for public consumption.

You want to know what our active duty leadership and folks in the White House are saying in private? I’ll bet it sounds a lot like McChrystal’s review. 

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that our politicians and senior military wouldn’t be operating off of two different scripts…one for general release, and one for private moments when reporters aren’t within earshot.

It’s refreshing to hear someone like McChrystal, with tremendous experience and understanding of the Afghan theater, actually speak his mind. Frankly it would’ve been more refreshing if he had done that while still in uniform and dealing with Afghanistan on a daily basis. However, stating your honest opinion when it runs counter to the desired spin is not something you see often, whether in the military or serving in a White House administration.

At least the general is alluding to what many have suspected or felt since roughly Spring 2002… this is a major goat rope with no real likelihood of leaving behind anything resembling a pseudo-stable democratic Taliban-free society.

We arrived in late 2001 with a clear mission, defined targets and a strategy. We should’ve made our point and moved on once we scattered Al Qaeda and overthrew the Taliban. But for the last nine and a half years we have failed to have an honest debate about exactly how our continued involvement in Afghanistan addresses our critical national security interests.

Enough with the usual line about “denying Al Qaeda a permanent base of operations”… Al Qaeda has long since moved on from Afghanistan and taken up residence in a variety of other unstable locales. 

Stop already with the nonsense about leaving behind a government, military and police capable of preventing the Taliban’s return to power… you think the Taliban has someplace else to go? You think they’re less patient than we are? The ten years we’ve slogged it out there equals about half a year in Taliban time. Not only do they have no place else to go, they’ve got all the time in the world to get there.

We honestly didn’t care about the Taliban ruling Afghanistan until they provided a permanent base of operations to Al Qaeda. Some argue that a Taliban led Afghanistan threatens the stability of Pakistan. Are you kidding? Pakistan has been playing with the Taliban ever since the days the Soviets dropped into Kabul. They’ll figure it out.

We seem to be the only ones at the table not acting in our own best interests. Karzai, the guy we’ve been backing all these years, has spent years hedging his bets for the day we walk out. 

The other day, during an interview on Pakistani television, Karzai said that in a conflict between Pakistan and the United States, Afghanistan would side with Pakistan. That sort of craven pandering to the Pakistanis may be disheartening, but it’s certainly understandable when put in the context of the real world.

The Pakistanis likewise have been doing exactly what you would expect…calculating what is in their best national interests and then acting accordingly. Karzai and the Pakistan government, military and intelligence service are like the Taliban…they have nowhere else to go. When we’re gone, they all have to continue dealing with each other. You think the Pakistan intelligence service wants a hostile Afghanistan as a neighbor? How likely is it that Karzai thinks he can hold on to power without cutting a deal with the Taliban?

Everyone is making pragmatic calculations except for us…we keep marching along, admittedly trying to do the right thing, while publicly talking about how things are slowly improving.

It’s only in private, or in retirement, when reality overpowers the spin. Ten years? Hell, we could stay in Afghanistan another decade and still be only halfway there.

Mike Baker is a former CIA covert operations officer. He is president of Diligence LLC, a global intelligence and security firm.

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