The journalist Michael Kinsley defines ‘gaffe’ as that which occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Reacting to the latest bad news coming out of Afghanistan — an American soldier in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province went on a rampage, killing 16 civilians in cold blood — the presidential candidate Newt Gingrich committed a gaffe of the first order. Appearing on Fox News, the former House Speaker had this to say:

Look at the things that are going on around the region and then ask yourself, ‘Is this, in fact, a harder, deeper problem that is not going to be susceptible to military force, at least not military force in the scale we are prepared to do?’

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron may have insisted this week that there would be ‘no rush to the exit’, but even they must see that the woes besetting Nato in Afghanistan have piled up. Prior to the Panjwai massacre, there was the burning of the Korans — desecration in the eyes of Muslims — which triggered large-scale Afghan protests and retaliatory attacks against US troops. Before the burning of the Korans, there was the video of US Marines urinating on corpses, alleged to be insurgents. This too caused widespread outrage. Then just two days before the incident at Panjwai, Afghan officials charged Nato helicopter gunships with firing on civilians in Kapisa province, killing four and wounding three. This provoked more demonstrations still.

In Washington and in Brussels, high-ranking officials insist that these episodes by no means represent the overall character of Nato forces. This is no doubt true. At the same time, those officials acknowledge that incidents of this kind make mission accomplishment — now defined as getting out without leaving Afghanistan in outright chaos — all the more difficult. In that regard, whether we attribute Nato’s mishaps to honest mistakes, intentional misconduct or individual madness hardly matters: the effect is to poison relations between western forces and the Afghan people precisely at the moment when ‘trust’ is said to constitute the essential prerequisite of success.

No reason exists to doubt the sincerity of Nato commander General John Allen when he offers his ‘profound regret and deepest condolences’ to those affected by the Panjwai massacre. Likewise, we should take seriously his ‘pledge to all the noble people of Afghanistan’ that anyone ‘found to have committed wrongdoing [will be] held fully accountable’. (That said, students of comparative justice will want to assess accountability as it applies to the unnamed American staff sergeant now accused of killing 16 Muslim Afghans with the accountability awaiting Major Nidal Hasan, an American soldier facing trial for killing 13 non-Muslim Americans at Fort Hood in 2009. Any bets on who spends more time in jail?)

Perhaps apologies and investigations, along with money, can repair some of the damage done in recent weeks to relations between Nato and the Afghan people. Yet in a larger sense this latest abomination affirms what all but the most committed dead-enders already know: this latest attempt by outsiders to pacify Afghanistan won’t end any more successfully than previous ones. The military enterprise known as the global war on terror — beginning in Afghanistan in 2001 and returning there once again after an unhappy detour to Iraq — is doomed. As western troops begin heading to the exits, the best outcome we can expect will be one that disguises a collective failure stretching back well over a decade.

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This is why Gingrich’s off-the-cuff remark deserves greater attention than it is likely to receive. After all, Gingrich is a Republican and the GOP ranks as the more hawkish of America’s two thoroughly militarised political parties. These days the typical Republican (Ron Paul excepted) is keen to bomb Syria or to have a go at Iran — perhaps both simultaneously — while castigating President Obama as a weakling for his (apparent) reluctance to do so.

Yet leave it to the thoroughly unpredictable Gingrich to pose the larger question that neither his fellow Republicans nor anyone in the administration shows the slightest inclination to consider: has it not long since become self-evident that the whole ‘war on terror’ is a misbegotten project?

Granted, Gingrich attaches a qualifier, suggesting that success might theoretically be possible were the West prepared to commit vastly larger forces and spend vastly greater sums of money. Yet the qualifier is meaningless: the troops to prosecute war on a larger scale don’t exist. Nor does the treasure. The cupboard is bare. Nothing testifies to that sad reality more eloquently than the unnamed staff sergeant’s own record of active service: four combat tours in the past decade, three in Iraq prior to his deployment to Afghanistan.

Indeed, as Gingrich implies, if we look at ‘the things that are going on around the region’ — not only events in Afghanistan but the disappointing outcome of allied exertions in Iraq — an irrefutable verdict presents itself: whatever ails the Islamic world, force wielded by western intruders isn’t making things any better. There is indeed, as Gingrich suggests, a ‘harder, deeper problem’ at hand. Perpetuating the war on terror is far more likely to exacerbate than to solve that problem.

Of course, the skilful statesman knows that hidden within any problem is opportunity. The essence of statecraft lies in converting crisis into hitherto unseen solutions to otherwise intractable difficulties.
The problem confronting Nato is plain to see: mounting evidence suggests that we are unwanted in Afghanistan. The opportunity comes from recognising that we don’t belong there.

The solution to whatever bedevils the peoples of the greater Middle East will come from within, not from without. The events of the Arab Spring provide hope that the capacity of Muslims to break free from their past and determine their own future is more than theoretical. Whether that future conforms to Western practices and preferences is for them to decide.

For the overextended West, the strategic imperative is to get out of the way, taking care in the meantime to erect effective defences needed to deflect any further mischief plotted by al-Qa’eda and its affiliates. Self-defence is not a trivial task and is not without risks. Yet it promises to yield better results at far less cost than the perpetuation of misguided war will produce.

Reports indicate that, contrary to what they say in public, Obama and Cameron are preparing for an earlier-than-planned termination of the allied combat role in Afghanistan, while continuing to advise and train local security forces. No half measures, gentlemen. Afghans say we are not wanted. It’s time to take them at their word.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is editor of a new book, The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just out from Harvard University Press. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated