Our des­per­ate quag­mire in Afghanistan

The Covington News - - OPINION - RICHARD CO­HEN COLUM­NIST Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group and can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

While watch­ing the ut­terly grip­ping movie “Lone Sur­vivor” re­cently, I com­forted my­self by not­ing that the four Navy SEALs en­gaged in a des­per­ate fire­fight with the Afghan Tal­iban were all vol­un­teers. They asked for this, I told my­self. They were not draftees yanked out of civil­ian life and com­pelled to fight a war they could nei­ther un­der­stand nor win. They had asked for this, I in­sisted, but I knew all the time that this was a lie. They had vol­un­teered, but cer­tainly not to die and cer­tainly for no pur­pose.

OK, I know this is only a movie. But it is faith­ful to the book of the same name, which is faith­ful to the 2005 mis­sion called Op­er­a­tion Red Wings that was in­tended to take out a Tal­iban com­man­der. The ti­tle “Lone Sur­vivor” pretty much says what hap­pened, but you owe it to the SEALs and to their fam­i­lies to see the movie. The end­ing is not in doubt, but the rea­son for their sac­ri­fice un­doubt­edly is. Afghanistan is a war search­ing for a rea­son.

All through the movie, I kept ask­ing my­self, “Why?” What are th­ese men fight­ing for?

Once, I knew the an­swer.

Af­ter Sept 11, 2001, I wanted to wipe out al-Qaeda and kill its Afghan hosts, the Tal­iban. Even be­fore the ter­ror­ist at­tack, re­ports of the Tal­iban’s treat­ment of women — ston­ings, pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions in the soc­cer sta­dium, etc. — and the be­head­ings of men con­vinced me they sim­ply had it com­ing: Send in the Marines.

But Amer­i­can fight­ing units have been there since 2001. The ini­tial mis­sion, the de­struc­tion of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was com­pleted long ago. The Tal­iban and their al­lies re­main, but un­like al-Qaeda, they are in­dige­nous and, seem­ingly, un­de­terred. They ap­par­ently have an un­lim­ited sup­ply of sui­cide bombers (who are th­ese peo­ple?) and they con­tinue to in­flict may­hem on Afghans and for­eign­ers alike. Ear­lier this month, the Tal­iban struck a Kabul restau­rant with a western clien­tele and killed at least 21 peo­ple. The at­tack by gun­men was pre­ceded by a sui­cide bomb­ing.

Bob Gates, in his mem­oir “Duty,” de­picts Barack Obama as a com­man­der -in-chief whose pol­icy in Afghanistan was to do as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, si­mul­ta­ne­ously or­der­ing a surge and an­nounc­ing a pull-out date. Gates, then the sec­re­tary of de­fense, was ap­palled. “The pres­i­dent doesn’t ... be­lieve in his own strat­egy and doesn’t con­sider the war to be his.”

Well, the war is not Obama’s. It is Ge­orge W. Bush’s — one he in­ter­rupted to mind­lessly chase af­ter Sad­dam Hus-

“All through the movie I kept ask­ing my­self, ‘Why?’ What are th­ese men fight­ing for? Once, I knew the an­swer. Af­ter Sept 11, 2001, I wanted to wipe out al-Qaeda and kill its Afghan hosts, the Tal­iban. ”

sein. But Obama em­braced the Afghanistan mis­sion and then, ap­par­ently, never knew what to do with it. I don’t blame him. Afghanistan is an arid Viet­nam, a quag­mire presided over by the petu­lant and un­pre­dictable Hamid Karzai. For Obama, Gates wrote, “it’s all about get­ting out.”

The quote is pithy, but the ob­ser­va­tion is ba­nal. It was clear back in 2009 when Obama or­dered his surge in Afghanistan that he had no stom­ach for con­tin­u­ing the war.

The war goes on and on, and has now be­come fused with the fu­til­ity of Iraq: 2,307 Amer­i­can dead in Afghanistan, 4,489 dead in Iraq, an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble waste of lives.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion wants Amer­i­can troops to re­main in Afghanistan (the Pen­tagon has sug­gested 10,000). It has its rea­sons. The coun­try was once a ter­ror­ist base and could re­vert. The nec­es­sary pur­suit of the re­main­ing Sept. 11 ter­ror­ists is best based in the re­gion — as are Amer­i­can drones — and with­out an Amer­i­can spine, the Afghan army could col­lapse. That would per­mit the re­turn to power of the Tal­iban and the aban­don- ment of women and girls to fren­zied misog­y­nists. That, though, has noth­ing to do with re­alpoli­tik, just real life. Soon, the mu­sic will die and we will have to avert our eyes.

But as Gates in­sists, Obama has failed to make th­ese or other ar­gu­ments. “He needed to say pub­licly why the troops’ sac­ri­fices were nec­es­sary,” Gates says of the pres­i­dent. Gates makes that point sev­eral times, and he is right. Maybe, though, Obama is cau­tioned by the ex­pe­ri­ence of Lyn­don John­son. On July 28, 1965, LBJ be­gan a news con­fer­ence by ad­dress­ing the ques­tion of “why we are in Viet­nam.” He never sup­plied a sat­is­fac­tory an­swer.

In the movie the­ater, I watched two films at once: “Lone Sur­vivor” on the screen and Viet­nam in my head. On the screen as in re­al­ity, men fought and died — and, as with Viet­nam, I no longer knew why. One man sur­vived the bat­tle. The rest were lost, as is the rea­son for the war it­self.

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