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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Afghanistan—It Isn't Just About Us

From a newspaper article we have these figures on those who have died in Afghanistan since 2001,
Usually a number is mentioned: the 221 British troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, the roughly 850 Americans, 131 Canadians, 36 French soldiers, 34 Germans, 21 Dutch, 22 Italians, 26 Spaniards, 15 Poles and others.
Yes, the largest number is for US war dead, but the overall number is over 1350 and includes 352 from the British Commonwealth.

The expression "US and NATO forces" bugs me.  The US is part of NATO.  Remember the three purposes of NATO?  Keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in.  No one wanted a repeat of the 1920s and 30s, when the US withdrew back into splendid isolationism.  And remember the dust-up about General Stanley A McChrystal talking in London a couple of weeks ago?  He had his NATO hat on and was talking in a forum in a NATO nation.  He not only has to keep President Obama happy, he has to keep Gordon Brown and Nikolas Sarkosy and Angela Merkel and a host of others happy.

The author of the piece, in The Washington Post, Ms Anne Applebaum, asks important questions.  Here is her summation:
There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces: Most of the war's European critics want to know why their boys are fighting "for the Americans," not for NATO. Most of the American critics dismiss the European contribution as useless or ignore it altogether. As Jackson Diehl pointed out Monday, the central debate about future Afghanistan policy is taking place in Washington without any obvious contributions from anybody else. I'm not going to blame the U.S. administration alone for this: It's not as if Europe has put forward a different plan -- and there was certainly a moment, back at the beginning of this administration, when that would have been very welcome.

The fact is that the idea of "the West" has been fading for a long time on both sides of the Atlantic, as countless "whither-the-Alliance" seminars have been ritually observing for the past decade. But the consequences are now with us: NATO, though fighting its first war since its foundation, inspires nobody. The members of NATO feel no allegiance to the alliance, or to one another. On its home continent, NATO does precious little military contingency planning, preferring to hold summits. Above all, there is no recognizable alliance leader who is willing or able to engage in the national debates of the various member countries, to argue in favor of the Afghan mission or any other. President Obama could in theory do this, but I'm guessing the idea doesn't fill him with inspiration.

None of this might matter much in Afghanistan, since the outcome of current deliberations may well be some version of the status quo. But the next time NATO is needed, I doubt whether it will be there at all.
Frankly, Afghanistan is too important for President Obama to rush to a conclusion about troop strength.

One thing I would hate to see is a lot of our service members pour out time, sweat and blood and then have Congress, six or eight years down the road, tell us that this was, in fact, a bad idea, and then have them cut off all the money for Afghanistan, including money to help the central government and the people of Afghanistan.  We have done it before.  Ask one in five people in Lowell.  To paraphrase our (senior) Senator, John Kerry, how do you ask some man or woman to be the last person out for a mistake of many years ago?  How do you ask them to be the last person out and then not apologize to them with all the humility possible, from the well of the US Senate, with all the other Senators (and other members of Congress) present?  In a very important way this is not about President Obama, this is about Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Regards  —  Cliff


Craig H said...

I find troop casualty counts without mention of collateral civilian dead to be patently offensive. If this thing ever devolves to where it's only about the soldiers, then we all need to leave. Period. (And I'm not saying it's not already there).

The UN-acknowledged Afghan civilian death toll in 2007 alone (1523) exceeds the total military toll since 2001 by over 10%. 2008's toll of 2118 exceeds it by over 50%. And these are just single year totals. And they don't include 2009, which is again shaping up to include a bumper crop of civilian caskets.

If the strategy is "hearts and minds", we cannot ever fail to include count of those hearts and minds that are no longer.

C R Krieger said...


I take your point about civilian death toll, but there are several things about these counts that bother me.  We now equate casualty with dead.  It didn't used to be that way and it distorts the numbers.  A lot of service members survive their wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan who would have been dead in Viet-nam or Korea.  Then, of course, there are the US and allied civilian casualties, where the numbers are more sketchy and the sources less reliable.  Best I can tell, if the news doesn't catch it, the USG fails to report the US (and allied) civilians who die or are injured.  I have been reviewing the DoD EMails for a couple of years and they never mention civilians.  Don't know of one from Dep't of State.  Be a Foreign Service Officer doing your duty in Helmand Province and get shot and killed and only your family and associates mourn your passing.

Then the local nationals.  We don't get much on their forces who are killed.  And not much on the enemy.  And, then there are the non-combatants, which Kad mentions.  All in all a rum job of doing the numbers.

But, in this case, I wasn't doing dead for the sake of making a point about the war, but for the sake of making a point about our failure to understand that this is a big deal for NATO and we seem to not realize it.  And that isn't good for us or for them.

Regards  —  Cliff

ncrossland said...

Only a commentary and not a critique of comments made. First and foremost, though it IS a big deal for NATO, I have never gotten the impression that there is a lot of NATO energy behind the big deal. Perhaps our aura eclipses that of the European side of the alliance...or maybe its in reality NOT a big deal for NATO.

Counting civilian casualties is a messy business and highly dependent on who is doing the counting.....and of equal importance...why. Harkening back to the "good old days" of SEA, there was scant discernable difference between an innocent bystander and an enemy their very actions could get you just as killed as the guy with the bad guy clothes. In the words of someone......."You had to be there"......