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james carroll

‘Guardian Angels’ won’t fix a flawed Afghan war policy

President Obama last week addressed the growing problem of “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, when members of Afghan security forces turn their guns on their Western partners. “We are concerned about this, from top to bottom,” the president said. In the two weeks before he spoke, there were seven “insider attacks,” killing nine Americans. About 40 coalition troops have been killed by Afghan allies this year. Addressing the unprecedented dangers trainers may face from their own trainees, the president went on to say, “We’ve got what’s called the ‘Guardian Angels’ program,” a stationing of armed NATO soldiers to monitor Afghans and protect Westerners.

This is worse than just another wrenching turn in a heartbreaking 11-year war. Last week saw the 2,000th US death. The coalition total is almost 3,000. A breakdown in trust between coalition troops and their Afghan partners cuts to the quick of the “surge” strategy Obama embraced in 2010. The time-limited escalation of the American effort was supposed to help Afghans summon the competence and will to secure their own country, enabling the NATO withdrawal in 2014. “As Afghans stand up,” Obama told the NATO gathering in May, “they will not stand alone.”

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Now, standing nearby will be a Guardian Angel — ready to shoot.

As the president spoke last week, news came of a Center for Army Leadership survey that showed three-fourths of US soldiers think the Army is “headed in the wrong direction.” Twenty percent of troops serving in Afghanistan reported serious psychological problems. This July, an all-time record 26 active duty soldiers committed suicide (plus another 11 Reserve or National Guard members). “That is an epidemic,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress.

Confronting such symptoms, the Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond T. Odierno, said, “It is very important for us to be introspective.” Yes, and with peer counseling and other psychological support the Army tries to help individual sufferers through deployment stress, mission drift, economic hardship, and war zone trauma. But an epidemic-scale collapse of morale is rooted less in personal problems than in bankrupt policy — the same bankruptcy that is being laid bare by the murderous behavior of Afghan allies. What’s needed here is the opposite of introspection. We must look outward at the shape of the world we are creating.

The broad American public can avert its eyes from this decade’s historic catastrophe, but uniformed men and women forcibly stare into its abyss — the actuality of the two unnecessary and unwinnable wars that the military has been required to fight. The absurdity of the now-concluded Iraq war is on full display as Baghdad, through its banks and oil markets, helps Iran avoid international sanctions. Americans fought and died to help Iran get nukes?

What more than 80,000 US troops see up close in Afghanistan is not only the futility of the present reconstruction and training mission, but its true character as a face-saving charade disguising blatant leadership mistakes — Bush’s in starting the war, and Obama’s in expanding it. “Insider attacks” puncture the fantasy that a stable and US-friendly Afghan government will ever “stand up.” The rationale for Obama’s war is phony, and the warriors know it.

Another profoundly upsetting phenomenon facing America’s service members is the nation’s refusal to reckon with the abyss into which they have been dumped. Support the troops? Ha! That neither Republicans nor Democrats see the crisis in Afghanistan as a fit subject for election-year discussion, much less debate, is salt in the wound. The president wants no attention drawn to the single largest misjudgment of his presidency, while Romney seeks to exploit voters’ subliminal unease about Afghanistan without offering any alternative strategy. In the face of this Democratic-Republican conspiracy of silence about the war, why shouldn’t Army morale be dropping like a stone?

Guardian Angels in Afghanistan now protect coalition troops from harm. But in biblical tradition, guardian angels have another equally important function, which is to protect from bad decisions. Guardian angels deployed in Washington would surely decry two more years of this.

For the record: In a recent column, I described General Norton A. Schwartz as calling to “sharply reduce” the nuclear arsenal. The Air Force says that “sharply” mischaracterizes his position — Schwartz had told the Globe that “there is probably room for reductions” — and that I am wrong to attribute to him the implication that our current posture is dangerous.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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