Avoiding Hard Truths
Well, it’s official. We have reached the nadir of our public, official analysis of the decade-old Afghan conflict.
WASHINGTON (AP) — “American and Afghan officials are expanding the range of explanations for a surge in ‘insider attacks’ on U.S. troops, adding on Wednesday the theory that the burden of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan combined with the summer heat may have prompted more Afghan soldiers and police to turn their guns on their American partners. … The top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, said Thursday that while the reasons for the killings are not fully understood, the effect of Ramadan fasting is likely among the causes. ‘The idea that they will fast during the day places great strain on them,’ Allen said, adding that the stress may have been compounded by Ramadan falling during the heat of summer and the height of the fighting season.”
Before this astonishing suggestion, one could have bestowed this unwelcome award on a range of assertions. You could hark back to 2005 claims from Rumsfeld et al. that everything was fine. You could point to March 2009 statements from the Obama team promising a (fairly) comprehensive counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign to win in Afghanistan—when the same administration was realizing it had no intention of doing any such thing. You could point to years of avowals from leaders of the U.S. training command about the extent and quality of the Afghan security forces it was producing. You could point to recent assurances that, against all hope and experience, the $16 billion pledged at the Chicago aid conference was this time going to arrive in full, on time, and make a critical difference on the ground.
But all of those marketing ploys—some more forgivable than others, depending on the degree of mendacity involved—must give way to the new champion.
Maybe there is a shred of evidence backing the claim. In fact there must be. General Allen is no fool and would likely not have said such a thing without some basis. Reports have indicated that some fifth columnists have been captured; possibly they offered testimony about malnutrition, and heatstroke.
But still: Is it now the official U.S. position to suggest a link between horrific violence and the holiest month of the Muslim year—a month devoted to spiritual renewal and self-reflection, to charity and kindness? Don’t point me to studies suggestingn that crime inches up here and there in Muslim nations during Ramadan. The issue is the motives of individuals. Why have dozens of specific Afghans turned their weapons, in tragic fashion, upon often defenseless Americans?
Many of the attackers, we must presume, have been put in place, and given marching orders, by the Taliban. This was an obvious worry in 2009-2010: The “great recruitment drive” for the ANSF was an obvious invitation to the insurgents to feed dozens or hundreds of fifth columnists into the intake valve.
Evidence certainly exists that some are motivated by jihad. Such was apparently the goal of the 15-year-old “tea boy” of the Garmsir police chief, Sarwar Jan. After killing two Americans earlier this month, the boy proclaimed, “I just did jihad.” The Post story on the incident quoted a “Western official” as saying, “These were jihad-motivated executions. To suggest otherwise would be profoundly distasteful and insulting to the Marines who died.” (In yet another example of refusing to admit reality, Jan had been fired from his police job in Now Zad for his penchant for young men, but merely transferred to Garmsir and allowed to persist in his habit.)
Others are presumably drawn to these dreadful attacks because of a generalized resentment. One controversial 2011 study into the causes of insider attacks, now widely disseminated online, conducted focus groups with over 600 ANSF soldiers as well as interviews with many U.S. trainers. It found substantial mutual misunderstanding and lack of respect. Many Afghan soldiers described Americans as arrogant, overbearing, pushy, violent, and disrespectful of Afghan cultural traditions.
This is hardly true everywhere. Many trainers work well with Afghan counterparts. Probably most American troops go out of their way to show respect. But there can be no denying the undercurrent of cultural tension that has shot through the U.S. mission from the start, and the grievance and disputes it provokes. To write off evidence of widespread and sometimes bitter Afghan antipathy toward U.S. behavior and attitudes is to live in a world of self-justifying fantasy. But this is, by all accounts, what the command has done with the study—belittling its methodology rather than taking seriously its warning.
Some senior officials, starting with President Obama, have been willing to confront hard truths in Afghanistan. (Bob Woodward made this bracingly clear.) This is why we now have a strategy of transition rather than “stay and fight forever.” Obama looked into the abyss, saw only crippling constraints, and chose to narrow his goals and cobble together an exit strategy.
And yet it was, in the end, a halfway move, because the changed definitions of “victory” remained vague, because it was not clear what “breaking momentum” really meant, because no one really knows what it will take to build an Afghan government and security force able to stand on their own. We are left with an administration disengaged from an all-out commitment while using a good deal of rhetoric commensurate with an actual “war”—and a massive government and military bureaucracy largely on autopilot, still trying to “win.”
So we have a war we cannot seem to win, a White House that has given up trying to win in traditional terms, and yet a military and government machinery that continues clanking and wheezing along in just such a direction because it doesn’t know what else to do. You just can’t operate this way. And when you try, you become a factory of half-truths, misleading claims, and outright lies.
The parade of officials telling us how wonderful the next aid program will be in Afghanistan, how fully our dedicated allies will fulfill their aid commitments, how badly we have punished the enemy, how well the latest anti-corruption program is doing, is no longer merely an understandable folly. It has become a pitiable charade.
At some point, a nation, a government, a people must come to grips with reality—with the unavoidable truth that what it wants to tell itself, and what is actually true, are two different (and sometimes diverging) qualities. This is not because the goal it has set for itself is wrong. It is not because its enemy is morally equivalent. It’s not because its troops and civilians have failed to do courageous and terribly hard work.
But only in accepting the responsibility to tell ourselves the truth, at every level of policy and action, can we build the foundation for success. The hallmark of America’s vilest debacles—the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, dismal covert adventures gone wrong, Iraq—has been a stubborn unwillingness to make ourselves the servants of facts. We go off the rails when we become enthralled with what “must” happen, what some abstract conception of our interests (or “moral obligation”) demands.
For a country that would lead the world, this habit will prove especially perilous. A hard confrontation with reality, a willingness to engage in critical analysis including self-criticism—these qualities represent the foundation for effective strategy, and the respect of others. And at least in the way the United States is dealing with the Afghan conflict, we are, in important ways, failing this test.