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January 2014

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Robert Gates Memoir and its Impact on America's Policy in Afghanistan
by Godfrey Garner

DutyThe week ending January 11th, 2014 brought with it a metaphoric retraction of the curtain that obscures the Great and Powerful Wizard. Robert Gates memoir, ‘Duty’ went a long way toward clarifying suspicions, long held by those soldiers and commanders closest to the knife’s edge in Afghanistan.

Rumors have swirled among men on patrols as well as command level battle planners, meeting in crude, makeshift, mud reinforced staff operation centers under the ever-present austere conditions that have characterized Operation Enduring Freedom. Rumors ranging from assertions of less than enthusiastic support for the troops, to an outright intent to abandon these same troops, and the people of Afghanistan have been passed from generation to generation of new recruit in Afghanistan, for months.

Such frustrating images of a dysfunctional clueless Washington originally spilled over in a 2010 Rolling Stones interview with General Stanly McChrystal leading to the resignation of one of the most respected military commanders in that country.  And now, the assertions of this revered military commander have been virtually confirmed by the revelations in Gate’s book.

Confounding and further confusing the issue is a more disturbing, widespread assumption among the rank and file troops on the ground in Afghanistan that, in addition to pursuing his verbalized pledge to ‘fundamentally transform America’, the President is additionally pursuing an unspoken intention to ‘fundamentally transform America’s military’. Most in the military see Obama’s idea of a successfully transformed America as one which more openly embraces Islam and much of the Muslim culture.

Many on the ground in Afghanistan see Obama’s view of a fundamentally transformed military as one which also, more openly embraces Islam and potentially the fringes of Muslim culture that, while possibly condemning terrorism, is more accepting of the feelings that inspire it.

The concern among the troops in light of this, is that in the process of such a forced metamorphosis within the military, soldiers will die for fear of violating new rules of engagement, that many see as enhancing the enemy’s ability to strike while mandating a less proactive posture for our troops, and a concern that Islamic terrorist the world over will be emboldened as a result.

While it is no secret that under President Obama, an inordinate number of our military’s leaders have been dismissed or demoted, the suspicion among America’s troops on the ground is that this is evidence of a transformation to a military in which Obama has more trust and more control. Such concerns and fears among our troops is exacerbated in light of the fact that many of these dismissed and demoted military leaders have been seen as taking a hardline against Islamic terrorism. For most, Robert Gates’ claims relative to the extreme lack of trust among Obama’s staff for many at the top of our military leadership, magnified by the fact that such suspicions were fueled and aggravated by Joe Biden and top Obama administration officials provide the type of thick smoke that leads to the proverbial fire.

Decisions which led in part to the frustration that contributed to McChrystal’s vent, which at the time he considered to be off the record, was an Obama dictated ‘lowering of expectations’ from ‘defeat the Taliban’ to, ‘degrade the Taliban.’  This obvious signal that the Obama administration had little faith in the military or in Operation Enduring Freedom and was intent on softening America’s stance against the Taliban, was coupled by an ill-advised withdrawal date, announcement from the White House.

Obama administration intentions in Afghanistan at the time were widely viewed by soldiers and commanders as fueled by political expediency rather than successful mission conclusion. Those most at risk in Operation Enduring Freedom additionally, saw it as total abandonment of them, their brethren who had made the ultimate sacrifice in that country and the people of Afghanistan who had risked all to support America and its allies. Many of the assertions of Robert Gates in ‘Duty’ will be widely accepted as verification of these rumors.

Adding extreme insult to injury is the revelation that key elements in the pursuit of this mission were dictated by national security aides with little or no experience in such matters, whose micro-managerial zeal Gates describes as, “uncivil, incompetent, hypocritical, egotistical and eager to put “their own interests and Barak Obama’s reelection ahead of America’s security interests.” 
While soldiers are cognizant of the fact that they will often be put in harm’s way by clueless politicians and their staff, they have always been able to harbor the slim confidence that in the end, though ‘politics’ and all the trappings thereof rule the day, someone in Washington still had their back. The allegations in Gates book have served to reduce that slim confidence.
Gates on the other hand will be remembered and revered by those same soldiers in light of the fact that he obviously chose to remain as long as he did to serve as much as possible as a buffer between them and an American leadership that had reached an all-time low in terms of character, honesty and dependability.

The assertions detailed in Gates book have also contributed to the increasingly deteriorating relationship between Karzai and Obama and will most assuredly serve to convince the petulant Afghan leader to resist any American security overtures. While Obama had an opportunity to exhibit stern leadership characteristics and establish a more cooperative relationship with Karzai soon after he took office in his first term, he choose, apparently as a result of his personal opinion that ‘this was not his war’, to ignore the need.

Karzai, ever petulant and spoiled, now has the upper hand and will surely dictate the specifics of any agreement should one emerge. President Obama has additionally failed to take notice at any point, of the fact that this is not, ‘Sergeant Smith, or Corporal Jones’ war’ either although they do not have the luxury of picking their fights or avoiding their duty as he apparently does.

One can only hope that Robert Gates is mistaken in some of his postulations and in fact that the Obama Administration is at least somewhat concerned about the outcome in Afghanistan. While troops are still in harm’s way America should not abdicate its role in this war or vacillate in its position on Afghanistan’s future, which has been bankrolled primarily by American citizens.

While these embarrassing allegations surfaced this past week, Karzai chose to double down in his posturing as the ‘one who pulls the strings’ by releasing 72 of the most dangerous Taliban terrorists in Afghan prisons, most of whom were in custody for their role in killing American troops. The lack of respect in Afghanistan for American leadership and strength, coupled with Obama’s now publicly disclosed, disdain for the Afghan president undeniably fueled Karzai’s anger and attempt at retribution.

America and Afghanistan are now much further apart in relation to the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and if this is not resolved, America will not only be forced to pull all troops out of that country, but will have to close their embassy, virtually severing all ties with a country so many young Americans have died for. It is beyond outrageous to consider the fact that the situation we are now in is rooted in a type of leadership that is characterized primarily by political posturing and made up of self-absorbed individuals who harbor a disdain for professional military commanders, whose expertise they could so easily have drawn upon.

And now, as the wizard’s curtain has been torn asunder and the Obama defenders and Gates detractors have joined ranks in preparation for a politically motivated battle in DC; yet another battle America doesn’t need or want, the only important question is, “What has happened to American foreign policy in Afghanistan?” Our troops are still there. Our troops are still carrying out their orders. And the Taliban is still doing what is in its nature.

Kabul Afghanistan’s American Embassy was attacked once again, early on the morning of December 25th. A small attack that apparently resulted in few casualties, it was yet another message from the Taliban to the people of Afghanistan that they, and not the Afghan government nor America are the new sheriff in town and that Afghanistan would reopen under new management very soon. All the while the Obama administration once again demonstrating little or no commitment, extended the deadline for Karzai to sign an the Strategic Partnership Agreement.

Even before the release of Robert Gates’ book it should have been painfully obvious to all, that political gamesmanship would continue to dictate the outcome of this back and forth tug on Afghanistan’s future and that the Obama administration was not serious about an agreement deadline. And now, with elections in both countries on the horizon, the deadline if it can be referred to as such, will apparently continue to be manipulated in order to get the most political advantage.

All the while, Hamid Karzai, currently the only adult in the room is enjoying the jerking motion his Obama puppet makes as he uses the delay on his end for his personal objectives. Meanwhile, the Afghan people who stood with us when we committed to Operation Enduring Freedom under much stronger American political leadership, and with a clear mission to defeat Al Qaida and deny a safe haven to terrorists in that country, will suffer the consequences.

Analogous to the dark cloud of an approaching dust storm, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan looms ominously, promising potential catastrophe which, unlike the dust storm will have generational consequences. All the while, poised close behind the storm’s darkness, ready to swoop in to fill the void, are all the evil forces America was once cheered for dispatching from the land.

Though America’s standing as a world leader has been seriously damaged by indecisiveness and weak leadership as of late, none can deny that we will always be looked to by virtually every other country in the world for guidance and leadership. For better or worse, America will always be expected to step in when people are oppressed and America will always be the safe haven others seek.

Even though Americans tire of being the world’s policeman or scream out in justifiable frustration that this, or that world calamity is not our problem, we will never be allowed to sit on the sidelines. Right or wrong, these expectations for America’s leadership will remain, and as we have proven throughout history, we are a great nation capable of filling this void. All we have to do as a nation is to assure that our country is led by individuals who make sound decisions, void of selfish political motives.

American’s need to accept the fact that America, is responsible for the future of Afghanistan. We chose to take on that burden in 2001. Our mission in response to the attack on 9/11, to defeat Al Qaida and terrorist support within the Taliban was and still remains a righteous one. As the heat of battle subsided, however, many in decision making positions within our government sought to seek personal or political advantage from a righteous mission and the result was an additional 13 years of mostly directionless, American occupation.

And now the fact that President Obama has long harbored a deep distrust for his military leaders, which has been fueled by the likes of Joe Biden and any number of young sophomoric staff, and apparently had little confidence in his own strategy for the mission, our position in Afghanistan is much more tenuous.

Today, Obama and his staff see one alternative to end this period in our history and that is to abandon the mission, the country, and every individual Afghan who supported us throughout this time. And as politicians are inclined to say, “Make no mistake..” when we leave, those Afghans who demonstrated loyalty to American efforts will suffer, and suffer severely.

Our country has once again suffered a blow to the faith Americans have in their leaders and some time will pass before this faith is restored, but the most immediate threat facing Americans and Afghans alike is our policy toward that country. Somehow our policy toward Afghanistan, in the midst of allegations that our president doesn’t consider it ‘his concern’, must emerge stronger and carry with it the commitment of, if not the president, at least the majority of America.

We cannot in good conscience allow devastation to follow on the heels of our withdrawal, regardless of how much political advantage some may enjoy as a result. America and American’s must shoulder this responsibility and do the right thing. Whether we choose the mantle or not, we are still the greatest nation in the world and we are still expected to do the things others are unwilling to do, and in the case of Afghanistan, we as a nation made the decision to take on this responsibility years ago. The old adage, “In for a penny..” has never been more applicable.

Recent intelligence reports, rightfully so, paint a dire picture of the future of Afghanistan once we withdraw. Predictions are that any gains of the past 13 years will erode by 2017, corresponding proportionately with gains by Taliban elements, and most experts believe this is a conservative estimate.

No one realistically expects a significantly different outcome, even if an agreement is reached with Hamid Karzai to leave a few troops in place, and though America may gain some intelligence value from a continued, albeit small occupation, few experts can point to a really positive result from such.

Compounding the ludicrous nature of pursuing this agreement and extended American troop presence is the fact that America will still be, for the foreseeable future pumping money into the government of Afghanistan and little if anything will have changed in the nature of corruption within the Afghan government.

It is thus futile to assume that the continued billions of taxpayer dollars contributed to Afghanistan’s welfare will somehow miraculously circumvent the web of government malfeasance and outright theft and provide any benefit to the Afghan people. In short, an American future in Afghanistan without a severe change in plans and mission will result in continued frustration in America and little else.

We must refocus our efforts in Afghanistan and commit to more time to see this through. We can consider the fact that most Afghan citizens want Americans to stay in their country, just not as occupiers. Those Afghans who struggle every day to feed their family, want a partner, not an occupier who spends 98% time in that country behind a wall associating with other Americans. Sadly, few Americans in Afghanistan have ever actually become acquainted with an Afghan other than the man who cleans the base or cooks for them.

The people of Afghanistan are no different from those of any other country when it comes to simple desires in life. They want to be able to take care of their family and have an opportunity to achieve simple life goals. They may or may not be enamored with a democratic form of government and they may or may not want the things they perceive Americans to have, but they do want a simple opportunity and Americans can give that to them, not through military means but through economic partnerships.

The upside of this for America is that Afghanistan is a virtual goldmine of opportunities for entrepreneurs willing to take part in the risk and reward scenario, which that country offers. The surplus of metal alone left over from decades of war, that litters the countryside would provide jobs and profits to anyone willing to invest in the recycling effort and though obvious obstacles exist, American entrepreneurs are famous the world over for overcoming such.

While there are obvious dangers associated with Europeans living in that country, these are manageable and are minuscule compared to dangers in other countries with thriving European populations.  Actually, Europeans have been living and working in Afghanistan for years.

Another American Homeland Security benefit to this direction in policy with Afghanistan would almost definitely be a greatly strengthened security alliance. A long term economic presence and partnership with Afghan citizens who have up until now been largely without a voice, would in and of itself provide a virtually impenetrable barrier to terrorists. Afghanistan’s strength comes from the Afghan citizen, not from a corrupt government or in fact from a warlord’s army.

Though providing a short term economic fix, Afghan citizens are also little impressed with handouts. Economic involvement in that country that is rooted in shared commitment, shared risk and shared reward, however is in itself culturally celebrated.

A political ‘quick fix’ in Afghanistan will most assuredly leave Afghanistan and America in the same place we were shortly before 9/11, and while such a move will benefit the many corrupt Afghan officials left in power, and provide political bragging rights to politicians instrumental in America’s withdrawal, devastation will follow. America cannot just walk away from Afghanistan.

We have once again come to a crossroad and this time it is in Afghanistan. The decisions we make today, in reference to our relationship with that country will have an immense impact on the future of Afghanistan and indeed on the future of America.  We must now make wise choices, completely void of the personal political goals of individuals. We do have a guide however, if only we have the will and wisdom to make a simple cursory examination of the past ten years.

We cannot leave a military presence small or not, in Afghanistan behind walls and concertina wire. That hasn’t worked. We cannot continue to allow a corrupt Afghan government unfettered access to American monetary support. That hasn’t worked. We cannot continue to funnel all our efforts through the government, nationally or locally. That hasn’t worked.

The Afghan parliament has shown a desire to work with America. Hamid Karzai however has not. Karzai and the Afghan parliament should be made to realize that American aid from this point forward will come with severely tightened strings and will be directly proportionate to that government’s progress against the Taliban and against the production and exportation of opium.

American withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014 should be postponed indefinitely. We as a nation must once again practice the strength and will of commitment for which we were known when our country was led by men of integrity. America must encourage and subsidize American entrepreneurial investment and partnership with the Afghan people, not the Afghan government. As economic partnerships develop and strengthen, the Afghan people will turn against terrorist ideology’s that threaten their economic security and any remaining American military presence can slowly diminish.

A quick fix in Afghanistan will serve only to benefit a handful of politicians and will do nothing but postpone necessary American military intervention there. We chose this path. We need a strong ally in Afghanistan, and we have paid the price.  Walking away now is nothing short of lunacy.

Time will tell how accurate or honest Robert Gates’ memoir is. Pundits on both sides will spin with all their might and when the dust settles, America will decide. Soldiers however, will fare better in this race to determine credibility. Soldiers instinctively recognize deceit in their leaders. Soldiers know, even now who is to be trusted.

In the end, all the arguments as to whether Gates should have waited to publish the book or whether he should have left the administration earlier are moot. The only real question is whether he was being honest and forthright in his observations. I think soldiers on the ground have a much better grasp on this, and since they are most affected by these allegations, such is just.bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Dr. Godfrey Garner holds a PhD in counseling psychology from Mississippi State University and is currently pursuing a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. Following two tours in Viet Nam and a lengthy break in military service, Dr. Garner rejoined and eventually retired from 20th Special Forces group in 2006. He completed two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan. His work in Afghanistan most recently has been as a counter-corruption analyst. He is published in Homeland Security Today and Foreign Policy Journal on issues relating to Afghanistan as well as other journals relating to higher education. He is the author of the novel Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar.

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