Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
"We are spending $10 billion a month that we can't even pay for," said Congressman Walter Jones, that rarest of birds, a Southern Republican dove. "The Chinese Uncle Chang is lending us the money to pay that we are spending in Afghanistan."
On Tuesday morning, members of the House Armed Services Committee tried to grill Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan who succeeded David Petraeus, about the state of the mission.
The impossible has happened in the past few weeks. A war that long ago reached its breaking point has gone mad, with violent episodes that seemed emblematic of the searing, mind-bending frustration on both sides after 10 years of fighting in a place where battle has been an occupation, and preoccupation, for centuries.
Afghan security forces cold-bloodedly murdered some American troops after Korans were burned by military personnel. Then an American soldier walked out of his base early one morning and began cold-bloodedly murdering Afghan innocents, leaving seven adults and nine children in one small village dead.
There was an exhausted feel to the oversight hearing, lawmakers on both sides looking visibly sapped by our draining decade of wars. Even hawks seem beaten down by our self-defeating pattern in Afghanistan: giving billions to rebuild the country, money that ends up in the foreign bank accounts of its corrupt officials.
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican from California, made a pro forma complaint that the administration is "heading for the exits."
But most of the politicians seemed resigned to the fact that President Obama is resigned to settling for a very small footprint and enough troops to keep terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S. or our allies.
The White House seems ready to forget eliminating the poppy trade and expanding education for girls. We're not going to turn our desolate protectorate into a modern Athens and there's not going to be any victory strut on an aircraft carrier.
When you're buried alive in the Graveyard of Empires, all you can do is claw your way out.
Congressman Jones directly confronted General Allen on the most salient point: "What is the metric?" How do you know when it's time to go?
"When does the Congress have the testimony that someone will say, we have done all we can do?" he asked. "Bin Laden is dead. There are hundreds of tribes in Afghanistan and everyone has their own mission."
Jones was once so gung ho about W.'s attempts to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan that, after the French opposed invading Iraq in 2003, he helped lead the effort to rename French fries "freedom fries" and French toast "freedom toast" in the House cafeteria.
But now he thinks that both wars are sucking away lives and money, reaping only futility, and that he was silly about the fries. He said he's fed up with having military commanders and Pentagon officials come to Capitol Hill year after year for a decade and say about Afghanistan: "Our gains are sustainable, but there will be setbacks" and "We are making progress, but it's fragile and reversible."
He said he had recently visited Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to see wounded troops: "I had a young Marine lance corporal who lost one leg," in a room with his mother.
"My question is," the Marine asked him, "Why are we still there?"
Jones also read an e-mail from a military big shot whom he described as a former boss of General Allen's, giving the congressman this unvarnished assessment: "Attempting to find a true military and political answer to the problems in Afghanistan would take decades. Would drain our nation of precious resources, with the most precious being our sons and daughters. Simply put, the United States cannot solve the Afghan problem, no matter how brave and determined our troops are."
Jones agreed, noting mordantly: "I hope that sometime in between now and 2014, if things are not improving or they are fragile like they are now, somebody will come to the Congress and say the military has sacrificed enough. The American people have paid enough. And somebody would shoot straight with the American people and the Congress."
He concluded: "We can declare victory now. But there's one thing we cannot do, and that is change history, because Afghanistan has never changed since they've been existing."
The epitaph of our Sisyphean decade of two agonizing wars was written last year by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to send a big American land army into Asia, or into the Middle East or Africa, should have his head examined."
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