America’s Endless Afghan War

09-02-2014 passage - 1
The rugged face of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

News this week that 300 Marines have returned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan recalls the failed surge of 2009-10, when roughly 20,000 Marines beat back the Taliban in the region, only to see those “fragile” gains quickly turn to “reversible” ones (to cite the infamous terms of General David Petraeus, architect of that surge).

While fragility and reversibility characterize American progress, the Taliban continues to make real progress.  According to today’s report at FP: Foreign Policy, “the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began.”  Meanwhile, in January and February more than 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, notes Foreign Policy, citing a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  That’s a high figure given that fighting abates during the winter.

Besides committing fresh U.S. Marines to more Afghan security forces “training,” the U.S. military has responded with PR spin.  For example, when friendly Afghan forces abandoned a district and police headquarters, a U.S. spokesman claimed it had been “repositioned.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “U.S. forces helped in ferrying [Afghan] government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.”  Literally, the old district center and its resources had to be destroyed, and a new one created, for the Afghan position to be “saved.”

Destroying things to “save” them: Where have we heard that before?  The Vietnam War, of course, a lesson not lost on Aaron O’Connell, a U.S. Marine who edited the book “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”  O’Connell’s recent interview with NPR cites the Vietnam example as he explains the one step forward, two steps back, nature of America’s Afghan War.  In his words:

So we’ve spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 – things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.

So it’s – really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable.

Americans have spent an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan without thinking about how to sustain the improvements we’ve funded.  Meanwhile, as O’Connell notes, the security situation (as in lack of security) in Afghanistan undermines those infrastructure efforts.

With respect to U.S. efforts to create a viable Afghan Army, O’Connell doesn’t mince words about its failings:

[T]he massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear [with their guns].

Here’s the grim reality: U.S. military efforts to take charge and win the war, as in “winning hearts and minds” (known as WHAM) in 2009-10, proved unsustainable.  Follow-on efforts to turn the war over to the Afghan government (analogous to LBJ and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy in the waning years of the Vietnam War) are also failing.  Yet America’s newest commanding general in Afghanistan wants yet more troops for yet more “training,” effectively doubling down on a losing hand.

Required reading for those with eyes to see and ears to hear

The logical conclusion – that’s it’s high-time U.S. forces simply left Afghanistan – is never contemplated in Washington.  This is why Douglas Wissing’s book, “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan,” is so immensely valuable.  Wissing is a journalist who embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013.  His book consists of short chapters of sharply drawn vignettes focusing on the street and grunt level.  Its collective lesson: Afghanistan, for Americans, doesn’t really exist as a country and a people. It exists only as a wasteful, winless, and endless war.

What is Afghanistan to Americans?  It’s an opportunity for profit and exploitation for contractors.  It’s a job as well as a personal proving ground for U.S. troops.  It’s a chance to test theories and to earn points (and decorations) for promotion for many officers.  It’s hardly ever about working closely with the Afghan people to find solutions that will work for them over the long haul.

A telling example Wissing cites is wells.  Americans came with lots of money to drill deep water wells for Afghan villagers and farmers (as opposed to relying on traditional Afghan irrigation systems featuring underground channels that carry mountain water to the fields with minimal evaporation).  Instead of revolutionizing Afghan agriculture, the wells drove down water tables and exhausted aquifers.  As the well-digging frenzy (Wissing’s word) disrupted Afghanistan’s fragile, semiarid ecosystem, powerful Afghans fought to control the new wells, creating new tensions among tribes.  The American “solution,” in sum, is exacerbating conflict while exhausting the one resource the Afghan people can’t do without: water.

Then there’s the “poo pond,” a human sewage lagoon at Kandahar Air Field that was to be used as a source for organic fertilizer.  I’ll let Wissing take the tale from here:

But instead of enriching Afghan soil, the U.S.-led coalition forces decided to burn the mountains of fertilizer with astronomically expensive imported gasoline.  The [U.S. air force] officer reminded me that the Taliban got $1500 in protection money for each U.S. fuel tanker they let through, so in the process the jihadists were also able to skim the American shit [from the poo pond].

Walking back, I spot a green metal dumpster stenciled with a large sign that reads, “General Waste Only.”  At that moment, it seems to sum up the whole war.

Wissing’s hard-edged insights demonstrate that America is never going to win in Afghanistan, unless “winning” is measured by money wasted.  Again, Americans simply see Afghanistan too narrowly, as a “war” to won, as a problem to be managed, as an environment to be controlled.

Indeed, the longstanding failure of our “answers” is consistent with the military’s idea we’re fighting a generational or “long” war.  We may be failing, but that’s OK, since we have a “long” time to get things right.

After sixteen years and a trillion dollars, the answer in Afghanistan is not another sixteen years and another trillion dollars.  Yet that’s exactly what America seems prepared to do in the endless war that to us defines Afghanistan.

Update (5/5/17):  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “‘More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,’ said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.”

I love that word: thicken.  The general refuses to say “improve.”  And that’s probably because more U.S. troops really won’t improve training, in the sense of enhancing Afghan forces’ effectiveness.  As FP reports, “Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in.”

But not to worry: More “thickening” is coming in the form of more U.S. troops and money.

Insanity: repeating the same course of action again and again and yet expecting different results.

6 thoughts on “America’s Endless Afghan War

  1. I was a combat infantryman back in Vietnam (draftee type). The US taught the ARVN how to fight our style of war: massive firepower, delivered through the air or via artillery, with aerial and land vehicles providing the ability to maneuver. Now our method of war was effective in WW 2, when we fought a conventional enemy. I knew once the USA left Vietnam the ARVN would not last long. The ARVN simply did not have our expertise or our bottomless pit of material advantages.

    There was the continuous story line of how the ARVN needed better training, a motivation to fight, more weapons, less corruption and good leadership.

    Mao’s ideas are still effective and work: The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.

    Then there is The Young British Soldier By Rudyard Kipling
    If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
    Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
    So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
    And wait for supports like a soldier.
    Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
    Go, go, go like a soldier.


    1. Yes, that old British imperialist, Rudyard Kipling, certainly did know his Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires since Alexander the Great. I certainly learned to appreciate Kipling’s insights during my own eighteen months in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72). Among my favorite lines:

      It does not pay for the Christian white
      To hustle the Asian Brown
      For the Christian riles and the Asian smiles
      And weareth the Christian down.
      At the end of the fight lies a tombstone white
      And the name of the late deceased.
      Its epitaph drear: “A fool lies here
      Who tried to hustle the East.”

      In addition to Mao’s principles of asymmetric warfare, I always liked Ghandi’s four stages of revolutionary change: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

      Between Mao and Ghandi, the Afghans will eventually win back their independence from imperial invaders like the clueless and inept United States military. Then they will go back to fighting among themselves. They have always done that. Best not to interfere. As the Afghans like to say:

      “It’s me against my brother.
      Then its me and my brother against our cousin.
      Then its me and my brother and our cousin against the other Afhans in the next valley.
      Then its me and my brother and my cousin and the other Afghans in the next valley against the foreign intruder.”

      I think that the U.S. military probably realizes all this by now, if it realizes anything, but has its own problem with just wanting to fight someone, somewhere, just to keep in practice and ensure institutional budgets at current, if not expanding levels. The U.S. military functions like the Irishman who walks by a pub and sees two drunks brawling in the gutter. “Is this a private fight,” he inquires,” or can anyone join in.” The U.S. military just wants to join in the fighting. Any fighting. Considerations of When, Where, Why, and How really don’t enter into “The Big Picture.” As George Orwell wrote in 1984: “All that is necessary is that war should exist.” So it does.

      As the career lifers in the U.S. Navy taught me fifty years ago during my first years in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club: “Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.” No one needs to know anything more about the U.S. military than this. Kipling understood the “professional soldier” mentality and accepted it. Americans never have understood it, although they’ll passively accept it if they don’t have to look at too many pictures of bloated dismembered corpses, theirs and ours. If someone could only bottle the smell and release it every time one of our medal-encrusted, ticket-punching generals opens his mouth and starts flapping his lying lips about “progress” and stuff like that. As for the draftees and other unenthusiastic enlisted types, we got through it all by repeating to ourselves a few simple mantras:

      “We are the unwilling led by the unqualified to do the unnecessary for the indifferent.”

      “We’re here becaause we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

      “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.”

      I don’t know if Kipling would have agreed with those sentiments, but I think he would have understood.


Comments are closed.