Just coincidence?: Mid-term elections and good news from Afghanistan

Have you noticed that with ten days to go until the mid-term elections everything is coming up roses in Afghanistan? Yes, on the eve of the vote, General Petraeus’s Afghan surge is suddenly and magically producing positive results. He and other senior U.S. and NATO officials are pumping out stories about: “We know bin Laden is living in a house and is not on the run;” the “success of drone strikes;” “promising peace negotiations” with the Taliban; and the “unstoppable Kandahar offensive.”

Now, the question is: Can this be a true case of coincidence, or is it all manufactured and transparent hooey meant to keep the Afghan war off voters’ minds until after November 2nd? My guess is that it is the latter.

  • The announcement that Osama bin Laden is living safely in a house in Pakistan — which misleadingly suggests NATO has his location — is important only because it destroys the deception long practiced by presidents Bush and Obama which claims that because of U.S.-NATO pressure bin Laden is running from rock-to-rock and cave-to-cave and so cannot communicate with and command al-Qaeda. This has always been untrue; if bin Laden was frequently moving, he would have been killed or captured long ago because constant movement under pressure produces mistakes that yield precise targeting data.
  • The drone strikes are killing Islamist field commanders because there are far more drone attacks than ever before and because the insurgent commanders lead from the front, not from bunkers in Tampa or Qatar. (NB: It always seems astounding that when missiles are fired from 20,000 feet into enemy-controlled territory, the military is instantly able to tell the media precisely which important commander was killed and exactly how many casualties were inflicted.)
  • Regarding “negotiations” with the Taliban and other insurgents, the Taliban are talking — if they are talking — because they have seen the U.S.-led coalition run from Iraq without victory, and because they sense Afghan victory as they see Washington and the U.S.-NATO coalition preparing to leave once Obama gets past the mid-terms and begins preparing for the 2012 presidential election. At day’s end, the U.S. and NATO are seeking terms from the Taliban and its allies, not the other way about.
  • The U.S.-NATO Kandahar offensive is a “success” because generals McChrystal and Petraeus gave the Taliban eight months warning that the offensive was coming and so insurgent commanders moved fighters and ordnance out of the way. Worth noting also is that Petraeus delayed the offensive’s start for six weeks so his Potemkin campaign would give mid-term voters a Clintonesque “don’t worry, be happy” feeling about the Afghan war.

Also adding to the idea that the “positive” Afghan trend my not be mere coincidence is that it sounds familiar to what happened in Iraq before the 2008 presidential election. Petraeus used his much ballyhooed counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) to produce enough security in Iraq to get that war off 2008’s political center stage because neither Obama nor McCain wanted it to be a central issue.

As we are seeing today, the COIN approach did little in Iraq except delay U.S. defeat and ensure Shia supremacy. Petreaus and his COIN theorists took temporary advantage of the anti-al-Qaeda sentiment produced in Sunni Iraqis by the indiscriminate killing conducted by al-Qaeda forces under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. U.S. forces deftly hired, trained, and armed these anti-al-Zarqawi Sunni fighters and teamed with them to reduce violence.

But the success was tactical and, as we are seeing, transitory. The U.S. military has been directed to abandon its former “allies” in the what was called the “Sunni Awakening,” and in the wake of that abandonment the Sunnis see civil war ahead as they watch U.S. combat forces withdraw; U.S. diplomats help install a Shia regime; and Iran’s clear intent to aid Iraq’s Shias against Sunni Iraqis. And, naturally enough, Iraq’s Shia regime would be crazy to maintain or absorb an armed Sunni force as it is preparing to exact vengeance from Iraq’s Sunni community after U.S.-led forces depart.

In addition, after al-Zarqawi was killed, bin Laden sent new, more politically adept, and less bloodthirsty leaders to rebuild al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, as well as to begin mending ties to Sunni “Awakening” fighters who fought al-Zarqawi. Even though the replacement for al-Zarqawi was killed in 2010, he and other al-Qaeda commanders have put the group on the road to recovery in Iraq; this success, of course, was helped by a pro-Shia U.S. policy that makes Iraq’s Sunnis amenable to taking aid from any quarter. Indeed, so successful is this comeback that both Iraqi officials and U.S. generals admit al-Qaeda is again an effective component of the Sunni insurgency and is operating in rural and urban environments.

Quite predictably, therefore, Petraeus’s so-called COIN “success” in Iraq is fraying and appears headed down the road to ultimate collapse and sectarian civil war. But the Iraq surge did do its job: It allowed Obama to avoid appearing as a “surrenderista” during the presidential campaign, and permitted McCain to avoid too frequently reminding voters that his party started and lost the insane Iraq war. And all this “political success” cost America was tens of billions of U.S. dollars, thousands of U.S. casualties, and ultimate defeat.

If recent events in Afghanistan are staged and not coincidental, they may well produce — at the same costs as in Iraq — a similar “political success” in Afghanistan. If this comes to pass, Petraeus will again have done what was demanded by his political masters, and our soldiers and Marines will once again have played a part Bob Dylan long-ago described as being “only pawns in the game.”

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.