The scene is a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan. There, a group of the U.S. soldiers has just met with village elders about a cow the soldiers had killed. The cow had wandered into a barbed-wire fence surrounding the outpost and was inextricably caught up in the barbs. The soldiers killed it to put it out of its misery.
The elders demanded monetary compensation for the cow, but the soldiers were not authorized to pay them anything. They could only offer more food (rice and beans). The elders reacted with disgust, telling the soldiers to “forget the road,” which was one project the Army had been using to “win the hearts” of the locals.
“One step forward, two steps back,” said one of the soldiers after the meeting, which effectively summarizes the impact of that part of the current U.S. strategy in this war that will soon mark its tenth anniversary, thus becoming by far the longest war the United States has ever engaged in.
The film is “Restrepo,” a documentary by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, who spent ten months with these troops as they worked and fought in a part of Afghanistan that the Taliban has partially reclaimed since it was “evicted” in the early months of the war. Obviously, in the years since, the war has not succeeded in keeping these religious fanatics out, which raises one of the many questions a viewer is left with after watching the film.
If many parts of the country are now as dominated by the enemy as they were when the war started, what has the United States gained for its efforts?
For every question the film raises, it presents evidence of the tragic folly of this war. In another scene in which the troops interact with the local elders, the language barrier is laughingly depicted. The troops have an interpreter/translator when they meet with the elders to explain to them why it is important to cooperate (in identifying Taliban members among other things). A captain begins the “meeting” with a lengthy speech (in English). He goes on for over a minute and then defers to the interpreter to translate it for his audience.
It is immediately apparent that the elders get the “abridged version,” since the interpreter only speaks to them for about ten seconds. And the looks on the elders’ faces indicate that they are not at all impressed with whatever has been translated for them.
This month marks the end of combat operations in Iraq, which may be the kind of good news that a cancer patient receives when told the disease is in remission. Iraq is still a mess, but it’s not a mess we choose to put any more military effort into.
At least for now. In truth, no one knows what Iraq might become in the next few years, without an aggressive U.S. military presence there. (Approximately 50,000 troops remain, their mission allegedly limited to training and providing logistical support.)
The country is loosely governed by a corrupt administration that probably wouldn’t have survived to this point without the heavy arm of the U.S. military patrolling the “green zone” and keeping the peace in the more populated areas of the country. But the Sunnis and Shiites haven’t resolved their centuries-long differences, and the Iranians loom on the horizon. Whether al Qaeda might become active there is problematic, but either way, the country is hardly the beacon of democracy that a starry-eyed president predicted it would become when he ordered the invasion of it back in 2003.
In fact, evil man though he was, Saddam Hussein was the best assurance the U.S. could have had of an Iraq that would be free of Islamic terrorists. Saddam never would have tolerated their presence in his country, as they would have been a direct threat to his rule.
But that point has been made (by me and many others) for years. The fact is that the Bush decision to go to war in Iraq was stupid at best and criminally negligent at worst. Unfortunately, the adverse effects flowing from that decision are not limited to the continuing uncertainty of what a “free Iraq” will become.
By taking his country to war in Iraq at a time when the war in Afghanistan was actually going pretty well, President Bush lost the advantage he had there. Dismayed by the invasion of Iraq, the coalition of moderate Arab states that had been supporting the war withdrew that support, and in time, the Afghan war that had been all about defeating al Qaeda became a war that no one seemed to care about (least of all the president himself, who, it must be remembered, when asked where Osama bin Laden was, said he really didn’t care).
But the war in Iraq also gave the Taliban and al Qaeda a chance to regroup. And regroup they have. As is evident from the battles described in “Restrepo” (reason enough to see the film, with the similarities to the unwinnable war in Viet Nam all too obvious), the Taliban is newly empowered and every bit as committed to regaining control of the country, bit by bit, mountain village by mountain village.
And, as reported by the New York Times last weekend, al Qaeda and its many affiliates are now active in so many countries throughout the region that the United States has active secret missions of one kind or another in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Kenya, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Meanwhile, President Obama appears committed to correcting the errors of his predecessor in pursuing a victory in Afghanistan, even as he claims that U.S. forces will begin to scale back their offensive actions a year from now, a claim that sounded even more hollow this week after his newly-appointed commander, David Petraeus, said he doubted the scale-back could be started in any meaningful way that soon.
Whatever. See “Restrepo.” Decide for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll only be even more convinced that we have to end that war.