Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore
Now in its 15th year, the US war in Afghanistan continues to go poorly. The drug trade is up, the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghan security forces are weakening. Nevertheless, as Dan White notes below, Americans are told by their leaders in Washington that progress is steady, even if the usual Petraeus caveats (“fragile” and “reversible”) are thrown in about that “progress.” White recently had the chance to hear Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the US, speak about the war and his country’s relations with the US. What he heard was not encouraging. Sadly, the policy among America’s leaders is never to hear a discouraging word – or, never to share such a word with the American people.
Looming Failure in the Afghan War: It’s All Out in the Open
A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t. She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad. Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said. The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus. Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on. She’s right about that. Not just in love, but in world events, too.
The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan. That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began. But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.
Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event. Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social security age or thereabouts. (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)
I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat. We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’s The War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62. This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history. Ambassador Jawad nodded politely. He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.
The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes. His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays. I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity). But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.
Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years. This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary. He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success. Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage. The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL. The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.
One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces. This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily. I’d never heard this one before. 7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year. The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.
Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long. I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate. This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon. There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this. If they did, they were too polite to say anything.
The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day). Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line. No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.
After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again. He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney. I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:
Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country. Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?
And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation. It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid. That’s peanuts and you know it. You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid. And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?
Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems? Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead. We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts. Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?
Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’. Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen? Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them? Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?
The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechette about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to. I thanked him and left.
So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it. We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon. Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
8 thoughts on “The Afghan War: Questions Unasked, Answers Unsought, Victory Unattainable”
I appreciate the author’s sharing of his experience asking questions of a foreign ambassador. Such people usually have fine educations, speak multiple languages, and make the typical monolingual American diplomat — usually appointed as a reward for making large campaign contributions — seem pathetically ignorant and parochial by comparison. I once had the priviledge of taking some graduate courses in Buddhism and Sanskrit from the late Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge, formerly ambassador from Sri Lanka to both France and the United States. He described himself as “an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” But the thing I most fondly remember him telling me concerned his country’s decision to decline the U.S. military’s offer of assistance with the Tamil insurgency then raging in his little island country. “If the Americans come,” he said simply, “they will draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.” What timeless wisdom. Rest in Peace, Ambassador Guruge.
The author of this article, Daniel N. White, properly does two important and necessary things as an active and critical listener. 1) He takes note of some war-related statistics provided by the former Afghan ambassador. 2) He performs a simple arithmetic analysis of these figures and draws some straighforward conclusions as a result. An experienced consumer of official government (mis)statements — especially those concerning yet another endless, debilitating “war” ostensibly happening somewhere over the horizon — will always keep two clarifying aphorisms uppermost in mind:
“There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.”
“Figures don’t lie, but liars often figure.”
In the present case, Mr White simply takes the figure of 7,000 Afghan soldiers killed in a year; then multiplies that number by 3 (something called a killed-to-wounded ratio) which gives 21,000 Afghan soldiers wounded; then he adds the two numbers together to get the total number of 28,000 Afghan army casualties — meaning soldiers no longer able to fight. Mr White then compares this number to the announced number of Afghan army soldiers: namely, 150,000, and concludes; “Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long.” Obviously. In five years at 30,000 causualties per year, the Afghan army would not have a single soldier left to fight anyone. And yet the U.S. military keeps blathering on about a “generational” war in Afghanistan, one that will take … you know … probably … another twenty years. Or something like that.
I make note of Mr White’s absolutely germane analysis here because it reminds me of a similar one performed by Arthur Goldberg several decades ago upon hearing a U.S. military briefing asking for 200,000 additional American troops for Vietnam following the Tet offensive in early 1968. As related by David Halberstam in his classic study of American governmental bureaucracy, The Best and the Brightest:
“At one of the briefings of the Wise Men it was Arthur Goldberg, much mocked by some of the others, who almost single handedly destroyed the military demand for 205,000 more troops. The briefing began with the military officer saying that the other side had suffered 45,000 deaths during the Tet offensive.
Goldberg then asked what our own killed-to-wounded ratios were.
Seven to one, the officer answered, because we save a lot of men with helicopters.
What, asked Goldberg, was the enemy strength as of February 1, when Tet started?
Between 160,000 and 175,000, the briefer answered.
What is their killed-to-wounded ratio? Goldberg asked.
We use a figure of three and a half to one, the officer said.
Well, if that’s true, then they have no effective forces left in the field, Goldberg said. What followed was a long and very devastating silence.”
Like Mr White’s treatment of official Afghan causualty figures above, Arthur Goldberg simply applied the following arithmetic formula:
45,000 dead + 3.5 X 45,000 (wounded) = 45,000 + 157,500 = 202,500 total casualties, a number far greater than the U.S. military’s estimate of hostile Vietnamese forces available to fight anyone. So why does a non-existent “enemy” force require another two-hundred thousand more American troops?
In other words: one can dismiss as utter horsehit official figures announced by the U.S. military, whether in Southeast Asia forty years ago, or in Afghanistan over the past fifteen years. Or the next twenty.
Good for Mr White in recognizing a load of official crap when he hears it, but it depresses me greatly to also understand how few Americans can perform the simplest of arithmetic operations: ones that would reveal to them in a heartbeat how utterly insane and detatched from reality the American government, its bungling behemouth military, and its lacky proxy vassals have become.
As much as I admire Daniel White’s analysis of the Afghan Ambassador’s lecture, I wished he had used the incisive term “body count” to cut through the fog of vapid, banal statistics normally used by official spokesperson to anaesthetize American brains. As we ought to have learned four decades ago in Southeast Asia:
“Most Americans in Vietnam automatically discounted the ARVN “body counts” as fabrications, but they were not so willing to admit that the American tallies often reflected no more than Vietnamese dead and Vietnamese houses ruined – if that. The system put pressure on all military men to exaggerate or falsify statistics. Furthermore, as the only “indicator of progress,” it suggested that death and destruction had some absolute value in terms of winning the war. That the enemy might continue to recruit, rearm, and rebuild (often with the help of people enraged by the American destruction) did not seem to enter into the calculations.” — Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam
Mr White does an admirable job of skewering the meaningless official statistics — i.e., “damned lies” — regarding the human attrition suffered by America’s so-called Afghan “allies.” I wish, however, that he had asked the Afghan ambassador to supply some figures estimating the annual growth of “enemy” forces due to the fury and hatred that American military bungling always induces in the foreign populations subject to our hyper-armed benevolence. We have heard — for fifteen years now — endless body-count reports of “number one” or “number two” or “senior” or “militant” or “military age” Afghans that we have murdered by the thousands, but why have these numbers not reduced the total number of “enemies” who continue to gain territory and followers in Afghanistan? Shouldn’t their losses trend to zero fighters remaining after only a few years? I wish that Mr White or someone else had asked the Afghan ambassador to compare the losses on “our” side with the gains on “their” side, together with an estimate of how soon the growning imbalance will induce the Ambassador and his family to relocate to somewhere in the United States before the collapse occurs in Kabul.
Excellent points, Mike.
Oh, and I liked that phrase: “Hyper-armed benevolence.” How true!
I was astonished when I finally got around to reading “The Ugly American” 20 years ago: such in-your-face reality, well-written and edited. I felt it should be required reading for every American. I am also astonished (TRULY astonished) at our country’s, certainly our country’s leaders’ lack of integration of the lessons of Vietnam (but then, they then hadn’t integrated the lessons of Santo Domingo, among others). I was raised with abuse, and it taught me to look ahead and prepare for the future – the alternative was literally death. I was subsequently informed enough (I had formed the very good lifelong habit of studying and finding things out) that on 9/1/1, upon being informed of an air attack upon the WTC, knew instantaneously who did it and why. My 2d thought was, “Come to think of it, what took them so long?”.
An earlier mentor of mine from the Middle East passed along this old saying from that region: “You don’t know what hatred is until you’ve hated someone for at least 500 years.”. I REALLY don’t think we’re going to change that quickly over there – their culture seems quite heavily invested in manifesting that hatred upon anyone & everyone they can find as an outlet. One would have to wean them from that very dynamic state to one of compromise, tolerance, and negotiation, is my guess. Tricky at best: a reversal of MILLENNIA of hatred (not all, of course, but a serious general tolerance of active psychosis; mustn’t also forget the quite pervasive element of absolutist religious dogma).
The degree of surprise in this country relative to terrorist attacks, to my way of thinking, is directly proportional to the degree of respect for the lessons of history and effective psychology. I would say that we still have a ways to go.
Comments are closed.