Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

Khanabad 08-04-2008 carpenters
Afghan carpenters: the peaceful, “normal,” Afghanistan that Americans rarely see, because “Afghan” and “War” are always co-joined in our minds (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.

Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure.  The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops.  Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.

The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists.  First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged.  We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw.  Smart, right?

Second is the domestic political scene.  Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.”  Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?

Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war.  Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism.  They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.

Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling.  The refusal to admit defeat.  Domestic politics.  War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism.  Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S.  Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.

Two comments.  First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war.  Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time.  Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.

It’s been sixteen years and counting, but we still don’t see the light. Maybe in another sixteen years?

Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:

Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military.  Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.

chick pea
Afghan Chick Pea Vendor (Anna M.)

That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan.  We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.

Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan.  I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness.  That it made him think of Biblical times.  So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?

3 thoughts on “Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

  1. Concerning the reference to the Vietnam War, I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam ( 31 May 1967 – 31 May 1968 ). And all I learned in Vietnam was: Never trust the brass and even more so the suits that sent us there. Just as only a medical corpsman listening to the wounded grunts on the ward talking about the war, that is, being far from the reincarnation of the great German military theorist General Karl von Clausewitz, I knew when the Boy Emperor and his crazy Uncle Dick marched this country off to war after the 9/11 attacks for some payback, we would repeat the painful but forgotten lessons of the Vietnam War. The wounded grunts were always joking, “Payback is a motherfucker.” And we live in “the United States of Amnesia” as the late Gore Vidal was always lamenting in his interviews and his essays. But these failed wars, including the one under discussion in Afghanistan, have been handed off now to a third president. And no president wants to go down in history as having failed to win a war as part of his historical legacy. Just ask the ghosts of Ike, JFK, LBJ and “Tricky Dick.” They also handed off the Vietnam War to each other starting with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954. Saigon fell to the NVA in April, 1975. So you can do the math of in years of this series of successive failures. And we eventually still lost that war, which was until the Global War On Terror, our country’s worst foreign policy debacle. So this issue goes far beyond partisan politics even though WJ is still correct in pointing out that it’s now “Trump’s war” to lose. But the American people have the attention span of children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) when it comes to understanding or remembering even a bare modicum of their past history. And it’s even worse for them now that our country has only a volunteer armed forces. Barely 1% of our soldiers and their family members back home have any skin in the game. Everyone else is sitting in the bleacher watching the game. And I avoid talking to civilians about my experiences in Vietnam. Their eyes usually gaze over. It’s ancient history to them. I might as well be talking about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The only wars which have historical longevity for them are the Civil War, our bloodiest conflict in lives lost and property destroyed, especially so for Americans in the South who were on the receiving end, and the Second World War, which was our last “good war,” that is necessary to fight in order to save our republic, which we actually won against Germany and Japan. And that’s it as far as it goes for the American people. Now we did win the First Gulf War Under George H. W. Bush but that was a historical anomaly in our recent wars and only laid the ground work for the subsequent debacle under his son who marched us into this Orwellian cul-de-sac of unwinnable wars. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again.” But I’m not laughing. In fact, in the autumn of my years, I’m actually beyond tears when I look ar what has happened to our country since the end of the Second World War. ( I count the Korean War as a tie. )

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