The Ecology of War in Afghanistan

Too often for Americans, Afghanistan is simply a war. Here’s a pacific slice of life. Donkeys and horses are the main source of transport in the mountains (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

There are many ways of looking at war: as a continuation of politics by violent means, as a biological imperative, as the extreme end of a continuum of violence that defines human existence, morally as a sin that is only justified in self-defense, as a business in which profits are the main motive, as criminal activity writ large, as a response to human fears and memories of predation, as a mobilizing force that conveys meaning and a sense of belonging, as a practice that conveys masculinity, the list goes on.  War, in sum, is an ecology of death that is arguably as complex as the ecology of life.

But you wouldn’t know this from American commentators talking about war.  Consider the Afghan war, now in its sixteenth year and with no end in sight.  It’s termed a “generational” war by American generals, a long war, a war that may require a Korean-like commitment by the U.S. military, according to retired General David Petraeus.

A commitment to the “long war” in Afghanistan, seen by Washington as the height of sobriety, is taken apart by Major Danny Sjursen at  MAJ Sjursen, who saw combat in Afghanistan, has this to say about the latest mini-surge being contemplated by Washington:

One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or — dare I say — Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices — inside and outside the administration — are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).

The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies.  First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military.  That’s a nonstarter.  Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it?  Then there’s the question of longevity.  When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough?  …

And what could a new surge actually do?  The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured.  In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far. 

Now, zoom out again.  Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large.  Do the math.  The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments.  At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels?  I’ll tell you when — yesterday.

Yet U.S. military actions are worse than wheel-spinning.  To explain why, consider an article I wrote in 2014, when I called upon Charles Darwin’s wedge metaphor to explain how U.S. actions were hammering the “face of nature” of Afghan societal ecology, aggravating unrest and creating new enemies.

The U.S. military keeps hitting the terrorist “wedges” in Afghan society, without really thinking about the larger ecology and the ripple effects. In the violent struggle for existence in Afghanistan, the U.S. compounds the violence, serving to strengthen the very enemy we say we’re seeking to weaken. (Indeed, the Taliban is gaining strength, hence the call for more U.S. troops).  At the same time, the U.S. military’s foreign presence is serving to legitimate the indigenous enemy while simultaneously forcing it to learn and adapt.

By surging again and again, i.e. hitting the enemy harder, this is what the U.S. military has succeeded in doing:

1. The enemy has spread along new fault lines created by U.S. military-led hammer blows.
2. The enemy has adapted to force, becoming fitter in its struggle for existence against us.
3. The enemy has gained legitimacy from the struggle.
4. The wider societal ecology has become more radicalized as well as more unstable.
5. A complex and more chaotic ecology has become even less tractable in American hands.

Despite this, the U.S. military still thinks more hammer blows are the answer. The only answer that makes sense — withdrawal from Afghanistan — is the one that is not on that table in Washington where all options allegedly reside.

We’re already living in a new reality of alternative facts, so let’s just declare victory, America, and leave.  With or without the U.S. military, the Afghan people will find their own way.

9 thoughts on “The Ecology of War in Afghanistan

  1. My go to book has been Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy. Fall describes the dilemma the French tried to tackle in the first Indo-China War. Fighting an enemy that could appear and cause damage or trying to hunt them down in rain forests and become over extended. At the same the French tried to hold on to terrain and consolidate. The “rear” areas were infiltrated, small posts could be and were over run.

    The French were rightly perceived by the Vietnamese as invaders. We Americans had a vastly greater ability to project fire power and mobility vs the French. The same old song once in French, now in American English with it’s endless refrain of more training, more arms, less corruption, a stable puppet government, etc., etc.

    Even if the Trumpet gives the War Hawks a blank check in Afghanistan, with an all volunteer military the number of troops that can be committed are very limited. So, I suppose we will see more bombings, drone attacks and pronouncements of having killed some leader in Poopakastan Province.

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    1. Yes. My copy of “Street Without Joy” dates from 1964. Read it many years ago. A quick perusal reminded me of all the weaponry we provided to the French — to no avail. Indeed, a share of that weaponry went to the enemy, just as lots of American weaponry today ends up in the hands of ISIS or the Taliban … so we arm the enemy as well as our “allies.”

      Business as usual, I suppose. An incredibly wasteful business from the U.S. perspective. Looking at my globe, it’s really difficult to imagine a tougher country to wage war in for the USA than Afghanistan. Logistics alone should point out the folly of our intervention, its ultimate lack of staying power.

      But what do I know?

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      1. I wonder if a book like Street Without Joy can be considered by our Professional Military for it’s totality content as a description of the hazards, risks and futility of engaging a hostile population. The various “plans” by our generals and bogus think tanks focus on some tactical strategy. These “plans” remind me of these fantasy war games or books, that claim if only Lee had Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg, or Von Manstein would have commanded the German 6th Army instead of Paulus, the result would have been different. The presumption always is the enemy will do what you want him to.

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      2. Somewhere I once read where all military officers scheduled for deployment to Vietnam had to read Street Without Joy but I rather doubt that very many did. The general attitude among the Americans I met or served with was a sense of contempt for both the Vietnamese and the French. When someone would quote or paraphrase Bernard Fall or some other knowledgable person to the effect that “The French already did these things that you propose, and they still lost,” the American would typically and smugly answer: “We’re not the French.” To which any knowledgable Vietnamese would add: “No. You have more money and helicopters.”

        Speaking of required reading by the U.S. military officer corps and whatever good that might do, Scott Horton of conducted a radio interview on 4/10/ 2017 with the highly regarded former Marine Corps and State Department officer Matthew Hoh who had some relevant thoughts about this rumored, but seldom observed in practice, professional military literacy. See:

        4/10/17 Matthew Hoh on the Afghanistan quagmire and the individual costs of war

        Since the interview did not provide a transcript, I took the time to type a few excerpts of my own. Of particular interest in light of the present topic, Mr Hoh said:

        “[One should read] The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, and A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Shaheen, two of the best books about the Vietnam War, two of the best books about American government and American history, that describes so well the lies about the Vietnam War, about the decision-making process by the American government based on those lies that got us into Vietnm and which prolonged the Vietnam war, those were books which were on the Marine Corps required reading list for officers. This was stuff our generals were saying to us in the Marine Corps, that “We’re not going to make the same mistakes again. Don’t worry about it. We’re not going to make the same mistakes as Vietnam. You can trust us” Let alone society saying “We’re not going to do the same things to you that we did to Vietnam vets. We’re going to take care of you guys.” And, absolutely, we walked right back into it. I have to take some of the blame for being naïve enough to believe that but we walked right back into these same wars that are still going on and we trusted these people. And we trusted that they were going to take care of us. And guys are putting guns in their mouths and blowing the back of their heads off because they can’t deal with what happened in those wars. It takes 114 days to get in [to the VA] to see someone.”

        I can’t say how many Marine Corps officers actually read the recommended books in preparation for a tour in Afghanistan or believe for a second that they can trust their “kiss up and kick down” ticket-punching generals not to betray them, but whenever I see pictures on the Internet of U.S. Marines on patrol guarding heroin-producing poppy fields for boy-buggering Afghan warlords, I can only conclude that these military “professionals” can’t tell the time of day on a digital clock or read the writing on the wall that says simply: “Go Home.” As Private Forrest Gump would say: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

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  2. It’s hard to beat Orwell’s insight that “all that matters is that a war should exist” as a driver and enabler of authoritarianism.

    The U.S. is a nation blessed by two wide oceans and relatively peaceful and secure borders, yet we persist in profligate and prodigal expeditions against all sorts of “enemies” overseas.

    Why? Return to Orwell.

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