The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

250 000 dollar - 50
Money isn’t always the answer …

W.J. Astore

Last week, I wrote an article for on the Afghan war.  You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.

Some Excerpts

America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history.  The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation.  Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban.  Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama.  To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…

Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee].  (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.)  A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…

Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure.  With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge?  How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish?  (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)

That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners.  They represent an invasive presence.  For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us.  We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again).  In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.

In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception.  Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.

After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.

Some Afterthoughts

There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S.  We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe.  And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case.  The wars matter little to us.  Why?  Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).

There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.”  Lines don’t move on maps.  Enemies aren’t truly defeated.  Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror.  So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war.  And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.

Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us.  But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs.  More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not an expert on Afghanistan.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me.  My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit.  Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.

What I do know is my own country and my own military.  I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.

As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan.  We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.

America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars.  When we do think about them, they’re all about us.  They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever.  They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us.  We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.

Concluding Thought

Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image.  It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.

Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan?  To let its peoples find their own path?

24 thoughts on “The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

  1. I am a follower and appreciate your views and insights. This is just a thought that ran through my head when reading your essay. I would ask that you turn your clear laser like vision in the direction of acting out ones’ Second Amendment rights and how that creates terrorism* (the existence of we are supposed to ignore) here at home, at the Thanksgiving table, in schools and restaurants or Walmarts around the country, and then how that mentality of “even though I carry a lethal weapon into mostly innocuous situations, but my mind thinks that’s normal”, gets spread around the world to fight their mental state of “terrorism” in these other countries, but then when it comes back home as TV “terrorism vs terrorism”, ours becomes completely invisible. The legal definition of terrorism is ” the unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion* “. If you carry a gun into the relative safety of most mundane everyday tasks here in America, and unarmed others are made aware of it’s existence while in these previously pastoral settings, is not the specter of “the threat of violence” now raised? And the rationalizations of (possible) self defense or maybe (more so) protecting the public, but by an untrained individual (by FBI or police standards anyway), of unknown mental status (which I would beg needs to be determined by the initial act of carrying in pastoral settings in the first place), and of varying degrees of skill, we are asked to put the blinders on and remain fear-less. In other words if the person carrying the weapon of terrorism looks and acts like me, anything that person does is perfectly acceptable. Like we are moving the clock here at home so that our actions abroad seem defensible. I have no idea if any of that makes sense, and I might be pushing two things into one, but there is always the sub-conscience behind every action, and I guess I’m wondering if we are nationally manipulating our own in a very dangerous way. By the way, I am a legal gun owner, but prefer to keep it where my own insufficiencies will be least noticed.


    1. A complex issue. Like you, I’ve been a legal gun owner and shot everything from a BB gun and .22LR to a .44 magnum. I have friends who own guns and they are perfectly sane and law-abiding citizens.

      I don’t think guns per se are the problem. Fear is the problem. Racism. Ignorance. Bias.

      Also, our ideas about war are problematic. I’ve been meaning to write on this, so if you don’t mind, I’ll “paste” some thoughts I’ve had:

      We think about war and killing as “making us safe.” Increasingly, our video game generation sees war as a game. It’s bad enough recruits in the Vietnam War often thought of GI Joe or John Wayne. Nowadays, they probably think of “Call of Duty” or superhero action movies. It’s hard to compete with those for excitement.

      The awful truth is that war sucks. War is state-sanctioned murder. In war, you see your buddies blown up even as you have to kill people who are often younger than yourself. There may be rare occasions when we have to fight, but the key word is “rare.” Most wars can and should be avoided. Why? Because of what General William T. Sherman famously said: “War is all hell.”

      Young men think war is “manly,” but killing other people doesn’t make you a hero. Being a hero means saving lives, not taking them.

      This is where guns enter the picture. They are tools designed to take life. Sure, gun owners see their guns in terms of hunting, or a hobby, or self-protection, and so on, but we must recognize their deadly purpose. That’s why a responsible gun owner always assumes a gun is loaded, never points a gun at anyone, keeps his or her guns in a secure place, etc.

      What disturbs me is there’s too much hype about guns nowadays as “keeping you safe” from the bad people. Fear and bias and ignorance are bad enough, but fear and bias and ignorance armed with a gun is an explosive mix, as we’ve seen far too often in American society.

      Meanwhile, as you say, all this emphasis on guns and killing the bad guys as the way to win (whether on America’s streets or in foreign alleyways) can’t help but to contribute to violence and its perpetuation.


  2. Interesting link about dehumanization, which is what enables otherwise ‘normal’ people to kill or torture. While I do not consider myself to be a racist or otherwise discriminating person, I am aware of negative pavlovian reactions to ‘others’, such as this hypothetical example : If I have a sick child and need a really good doctor and the hospital has two available at that moment, one white and one black (as a random not relevant distinction) and there is no way I can objectively check their professional standard, will I not automatically be tempted to choose the one who is part of the same group I belong to, therefore somehow more familiar, seemingly more trustworthy ? But if I’m aware of that and acknowledge that first reaction for what it is – a pavlovian result of the society in which I grew up – I can move beyond the prejudice and make a rational decision.

    It’s tougher in situations in which one feels insecure or even threatened and in such a – real – case I resorted to a stratagem which a psychologist might actually term as dehumanizing in the sense that I was not capable of accepting someone as a person I could relate to, but I’m only human 🙂 and it did help to difuse the situation.
    Alone at the very end of a subway compartment in Amsterdam (Holland) on a long stretch, when three male teenagers walked in – one ostentatiously smoking a cigarette – and sat down opposite me, in fact between me and the exit, evidently hoping to provoke me and have some fun.
    How to adress them in a way that is neither aggresive, nor condescending or patronising, while in fact I feel worried but do not want to show it?
    I decided to imagine they were someone else – could be anyone, an elderly gentleman in a three piece suit, a woman brimming with motherliness or whoever else, as long as it was a grown-up who evidently was not agressive and did not need to be feared. The result was a natural “Excuse me, but smoking is not allowed here, would you mind putting it out or moving somewhere else ?” They clearly were taken aback by this unexpected civility, the smoker made a futile attempt at arguing but one of the others (incidentally the only black boy of the three, contradicting another prejudice) said “Come on, if it bothers the lady we can go and sit somewhere else.” And so they did …


    1. Years ago, being an elderly duffer in rural Virginia, I developed Coronary Artery Disease and my PCP sent me to see a cardiologist. The cardiologist was from India. My wife, a nurse of long experience, told me “you don’t want this guy”. I said I did. I’ve worked with indians (from India) and recruited many into high-tech jobs and I know the ones that are able qualify for visas to come to the USA are absolutely the cream of a very competitive crop. Long story short I still have CAD, I’m still alive, the Indian doctor is still my cardiologist and my wife thinks he’s great. What’s more she decided a few years ago to try indian food and now she thinks that’s great too! We have curries at least twice a week!

      You just never know; but it’s no help to make your mind up ahead of time. BTW the worst surgeon she ever worked with was an american from an excellent med school.


  3. Funny. Reading the excerpts from the piece on Afghanistan, a couple distinct thoughts crossed my mind. What’s funny is that it seems similar thoughts occurred to you as well? First, these so-called war’s in Afghanistan and ‘greater’ Iraq are nothing more than a distant concept in the minds of most –maybe 95%– Americans. There is no skin in the game, so to speak, for too many. I’d also argue that many of those who do care, or at least have an opinion, –minus those who’ve served– are woefully misinformed and/or suffering from a case of “exceptionalism.”

    For context, my initial contact with Afghan ground was Nov2001. After 10 months in country we were shipped out to refit for Iraq. One anecdotal contact that stands out happened early on. Upon contact with several new villagers, we were asked, “are you Russian?” In my opinion, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc, these are simply stones we crudely use to keep our forces sharp, funded and not forgotten. Nobody with any sense would claim anything more, especially regarding Afghanistan. It’s like a self-licking ice-cream cone. Or the preverbial hammer? Pick your favorite maxim.

    The thing is, virtually everything you said about Afghan in those excerpts is unimpeachably true. It’s reality meets common sense meets history meets…yeah. All true and doesn’t matter even a little bit. If we make it that far, there will be a deluge of “it’s been 20 years…” articles published. And the only one’s reading will be those who already know.

    It’s a brutal, brutal world. My last hope of making any sense out of it all, my participation in, was to write about it. I’ll be reading Mr. Astore. Cheers.


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