America's longest war keeps getting longer, and despite the goal of a 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, its end is not in sight. The signs of a possible Vietnamization of Afghanistan, or at least of a replication of the Soviet Afghan experience, seem to be increasing.
The US had already set the goal for ending "combat operations" in Afghanistan by 2014 (the same semantic bait-and-switch that allows for 50,000 US troops to remain in Iraq, often still very much involved in combat) ahead of last week's NATO summit in Lisbon. The NATO consensus was similar, calling for a transfer of security responsibilities to Afghanistan in 2014, while NATO forces will remain in an advising and monitoring capacity.
That is all well and good, but does not actually suggest when the American public can expect the return of US troops and an end to the violence of our nine year war in this barren corner of the world. And in order to make a 2014 drawdown realistic, things may get worse before they get better. Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative in Kabul reminds us that "2014 is a goal and not a guarantee) and that events could conspire to push that date back. Furthermore, the war in Afghanistan could involve "eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards."
What that might entail is not clear, but the intent of the statement is. With Americans far more indirectly related to the goings on of the military--even with the modern media--than they were in the era of Vietnam conscription, the violent measures dictated by the situation on the ground are unlikely to receive the analysis of public discourse they are due. This is especially true as Americans become ever more war weary and the conflict in Afghanistan becomes more unpopular with time. The present state of affairs, where Americans are complacent with the fact that their country is involved in two, long-term, ongoing wars in distant countries is unprecedented in American history. That the state of the economy has completely overshadowed foreign policy concerns in a wartime country such that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in no way meaningfully factored into the recent Midterm elections would likely shock and possibly repulse previous generations of Americans.
It seems that complacency is likely to continue even as the level of violence in Afghanistan trends upwards, validating Mr. Sedwill's warning. For one, the air war--all but suspended by McChrystal due to its capacity for alienating local populations--has come back with a vengeance in Petraeus's Afghanistan. October was the most active month in the skies of Afghanistan for missile and drone attacks since the beginning of the war, with over 1,000 strikes. This air war and its undeclared extension into Pakistan (analogous to the secrecy of Operation Menu, though the massive air war in Cambodia remained obscured in the days before the 24-hour news cycle) has already created adverse side effects. Sixty-nine of the 223 civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces this year have been from air attacks, and the first six months of 2010 were the deadliest yet for Afghan civilians, up 31% (though most civilian deaths have been due to suicide attacks and IEDs; though sectarian violence may be a response to more intense coalition measures).
This rise in violence occurs as the posturing of American forces comes to resemble some of the measures that were denounced during Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Due to the sheer number of booby-trapped homes in Kandahar, NATO forces have taken to demolishing neighborhoods wholesale, compensating inhabitants whether or not they were interested in being relocated. The use of 16 M1 Abrams tanks in Helmand for "awe and shock" as much as for their military utility will be uncomfortably similar to lumbering Soviet armor to former mujahideen. As though these similarities weren't enough, the sheer amount of manpower--100,000 US personnel, roughly 130,000 in terms of all NATO forces--certainly echo the manpower used by the Soviets during their occupation. In fact, Defense Secretary Gates cautioned that we should avoid such similarities just a year ago: