This doesn't fit on a bumper sticker or in a 30-second TV spot or the cover of People or US Weekly, so you're not going to hear a lot about this over the next 57 days. But the next time you see John McCain and his lipstick-wearing pitbull and their shtick about their push for victory in Iraq, just remember this. McCain has spent the last six years pushing a policy that is causing America to do something that should no way be happening -- and that is to lose a war, if not in the conventional sense then surely for the hearts and minds of folks we need on our side to eliminate jihadism in Central Asia.
And the much ballyhooed "surge" is a huge part of this.
This is Afghanistan.
And from the day that John McCain and George W. Bush began scheming to make Iraq and not al-Qaeda-harboring Afghanistan their "central focus" in the war on terror -- at a time when the rubble from the World Trade Center was still smoldering -- they have been cooking a recipe for defeat in the shadow of the Khyber Pass. In early 2002, when al-Qaeda and the Taliban were on the run but not totally defeated, when Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar were still looking for a new cave to hang their turbans, we foolishly shifted our attention, then our elite forces and weapons, and finally our manpower toward the toppling of Saddam -- whom, you may have heard, had nothing to do with 9/11.
Since then, the Taliban has slowly regrouped, threatening the dream of a stable, Western-style democracy in the troubled region, and now casualties are increasing on all sides. Ironically, the resurgence of the anti-Western fighters in Afghanistan came at exactly the same time that Bush, again with the enthusiastic support of McCain, was surging some 30,000 additional troops into Iraq, all but ensuring that more U.S. forces could not be committed to saving the regime in Kabul. But don't take it from me, take it from the man who knows best, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here's what he said less than two months ago:
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, in an interview last night with PBS's "NewsHour," said he shares Obama's assessment that the situation in Afghanistan is "precarious and urgent." The 10,000 additional troops needed there, he said, would not be available "in any significant manner" unless there are withdrawals from Iraq.
For now, he said, "my priorities . . . given to me by the commander in chief are: Focus on Iraq first. It's been that way for some time. Focus on Afghanistan second."
That decision has huge consequences -- consequences that have caused innocent people to lose their lives. Quite simply, if NATO and its contingent of 18,000 American troops don't have enough boots on the ground to fight the Taliban, and they don't, then Plan B is to use our massive airpower. That is less effective, and lethal to civilians in the ground. Here is what Human Rights Watch reported today:
Civilian deaths in Afghanistan from US and Nato air strikes have nearly tripled over the past year, with the onslaught continuing in 2008 and fueling a public backlash, a leading human rights group says today.
The report by Human Rights Watch says that despite changes in the rules of engagement which had reduced the rate of civilian casualties since a spike in July last year, air strikes killed at least 321 civilians in 2007, compared with at least 116 in 2006. In the first seven months of this year at least 540 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting related to the armed conflict, with at least 119 killed by US or Nato air strikes, such as this July's attack on a wedding party which killed 47, says Human Rights Watch.
Some of the findings in the report are mind-boggling, including that fact that in June and July of this year the U.S. and NATO dropped as many tons of bombs on Afghanistan as in all of 2006, and that many of the civilian deaths come when lightly supported U.S. special forces missions fall under attack from the increasing number of insurgent fighters. The effect of this is unmistakable: Civilians who once were receptive to the removal of the Taliban are losing their loved ones and becoming more anti-American, the same failure to win "hearts and minds" that we've seen from the Mekong Delta to the Fertile Crescent:
"Mistakes by the US and Nato have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The report criticises the response given by US officials when civilian deaths occur. Before conducting investigations, US officials often immediately deny responsibility for civilian deaths or place all blame on the Taliban, the report says.
As you may have heard, such a tragedy is playing out this week in Afghanistan, big time:
The Afghan government says 90 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed in the attack on Azizabad, in Herat province, a figure backed by the UN. An initial US inquiry found that up to 35 suspected insurgents and seven civilians died.
But last night the military issued a statement announcing a review, after it emerged that film recorded on mobile phones showed rows of bodies of children and babies in a makeshift morgue.
A western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one video showed bodies of "tens of children" lined up. He described the footage as "gruesome".
Gruesome, but innocent civilians aren't the only ones dying in Afghanistan -- U.S. and coalition deaths are also up sharply this year, even as the president and McCain's eyes remained on the ball that they needlessly tossed toward Baghdad. In fact, in June there were 28 American troop deaths in Afghanistan, the most since the war began back in 2001. And so tonight, months after hearing from his generals that more troops were needed in the Central Asian conflict, President Bush is announcing tonight a plan to shift some troops away from Iraq and into Afghanistan, possibly too little, definitely too late.
And where was the leadership of John McCain on this? While McCain and his pitbull were delivering speeches last week blasting the Democrats for not talking "victory" in Iraq, McCain not only wasn't talking victory in Afghanistan, the real central front in a reality-based struggle with global terrorism, he didn't mention the word "Afghanistan" in his acceptance speech at all. Not once! When Barack Obama says that McCain claims he will follow bin Laden (also not mentioned by McCain) to the gates of Hell "but not to the cave where he lives" -- this is what he was talking about.
On Thursday, Obama and McCain will suspend politics and appear together to honor those who died on 9/11/01, and that is a very noble gesture. But at the end of the day, John McCain did not honor the innocents who died that day when he advocated a policy that keeps the masterminds of that attack still at large. And now for two years McCain has been pounding on the surge drums while Afghanistan burns and while the bin Laden-sheltering Taliban regains strength. And while hundreds more die.
So the next time that someone tells you that "the surge is working," you tell them this: Not in Kabul, my friends, not in Kabul.