America’s Unwinnable Wars

River in rural Pennsylvania.  Do I hear banjos? (Author’s photo)

W.J. Astore

Back in January of 2010, I wrote the following article as a thought experiment on whether Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan would succeed or fail.  I bet on failure, which wasn’t much of a reach.  Why?  It’s not because U.S. troops weren’t brave or dedicated.  They sure didn’t lack weaponry.  What they lacked was the ability to enforce their will at a sustainable cost.  They were strangers in a strange land, among strange people, and the mission they were given was simply beyond them.  I tried to explain this with some role reversal.  Eight years later, the Taliban and similar forces are even stronger than they were at the start of 2010.  Surprised?

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge (2010)

Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?

My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.

Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.

As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.

Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?

And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?

Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?

I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.

Afterthought (2018): I’ve done some hiking in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.  It can be tough terrain.  Heavily forested hills and valleys, rattlesnakes among the rocks (my wife walked past two of them, entwined), quite primitive in its own way.  I pity a foreign army trying to force its agenda on Appalachia and the people who live there.  My favorite t-shirt (sported by a native woman) read: “Hunting bucks, driving trucks: that’s what makes me roll.”  Good luck pacifying her and her kin, foreigner.

4 thoughts on “America’s Unwinnable Wars

  1. I would suggest “Red Dawn” as a training film for these “planners” except they would miss the message. Same idea with a little more cheese and popcorn. But fun.


    1. “Wolverines!” Yes, “Red Dawn” (1984) was seriously cheesy, but it did capture the difficulty that any foreign army has in enforcing its will as an occupying force. The beginning of the movie is quite powerful; I still remember the scene of the paratroopers landing, the classroom teacher going outside to check what was happening, and the horror of the students as their teacher is slain.


  2. Why did it take the mighty US military, the world’s premier fighting farce, four years to pacify Baghdad? Why has that same farce been stymied in far-away, mountainous Afghanistan full of tribal, illiterate people for sixteen years? Why has the US not won any of its wars in places including Vietnam, Somalia and Syria (to name a few) in the last fifty years?

    One day while I was in a bunker in Vietnam, a sniper round went over my head. The person who fired that weapon was not a terrorist, a rebel, an extremist, or a so-called insurgent. The Vietnamese individual who tried to kill me was a citizen of Vietnam, who did not want me in his country. This truth escapes millions. –Mike Hastie, U.S. Army Medic, Vietnam 1970-71


  3. The US Military has since 1945 relied on newsreels showing liberating GI’s being kissed, hugged and offered sips of wine by the French and Benlux people.

    Fast forward to March 1965 and the landing of the Marines near Da Nang – On the beach, the commander of I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), General Thi, and the Mayor of Da Nang welcomed General Karch while a group of Vietnamese university students led by a vanguard of pretty girls holding leis of flowers greeted the Marines.** Vietnamese troops secured the beachhead and the route to the airfield. The first echelons of Company L moved out from the beachhead at 0945. Banners in both Vietnamese and English were strung along the route of march welcoming the troops; Vietnamese children lined both sides of the road, waving and shyly smiling at the Marines.
    You can see a picture of a dour General Karch with a garland of flowers around his neck.
    Feb 2003 On The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Defense Secretary Donald
    Rumsfeld predicts that American forces will be welcomed as liberators
    by the Iraqi people: “There is no question but that they would be
    welcomed… Go back to Afghanistan, the people were in the streets
    playing music, cheering, flying kites, and doing all the things that
    the Taliban and the al-Qaeda would not let them do.”

    On September 25th, Rumsfeld was asked about the surging resistance to
    the US occupation of Iraq. One news anchor, as a prelude to a
    question, said that “Before the war in Iraq, you stated the case very
    eloquently and you said . . . they would welcome us with open arms.”
    Her question remained unasked, as Rumsfeld cut him off. “Never said
    that,” he said. “Never did. You may remember it well, but you’re
    thinking of somebody else. You can’t find, anywhere, me saying
    anything like either of those two things you just said I said.”

    Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, he is on record as saying exactly those
    things. For example, before the invasion, on February 20, he answered
    a question on whether US troops would “be welcomed by the majority of
    the civilian population of Iraq.” He was quick to reply: “There is no
    question but that they would be welcomed.”
    Vice President Speaks at VFW 103rd National Convention August 26, 2002:
    The combination of advantages already seen in this conflict (Afghanistan)– precision power from the air, real-time intelligence, special forces, the long reach of Naval task forces, and close coordination with local forces represents a dramatic advance in our ability to engage and defeat the enemy.

    But we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we’ve gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors — including Saddam’s own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam’s direction. Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.

    Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.

    Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.
    I suppose back in 1964 when the Gulf of Tonkin Incident happened or didn’t most Americans might have naively believed our government would not lie to us about something so important.

    By 2002, most Americans after Watergate, the Vietnam War and numerous other investigations should have been on guard against war mongering hype and outright lies.

    Just to make a point on your thought experiment if the invading Taliban were like “us” the River in rural Pennsylvania, would be polluted by Agent Orange and the forest would be dead or dying from being sprayed. That area would be a free fire zone, move to Scranton behind barbed wire fences or else.


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