The Absurdity of America’s Afghan War


W.J. Astore

The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed.  Here’s the first:

Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean
A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.

Think about this.  What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months?  The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?

Here is the second headline:

To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction
A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.

So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation.  Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?

No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement.  That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.

Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles.  And we should keep doing this?

From the SIGAR report (RS is Resolute Support, ostensibly a NATO mission to support the Afghan government, but of course commanded and driven by the U.S.):

— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.

— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.

— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.

— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.

— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.

— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.

Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?

26 thoughts on “The Absurdity of America’s Afghan War

  1. I recall these same types of statistical analysis being performed when McNamara was in charge of the DOD, during the Vietnam War. Let’s face it an honest report could not be written as you never really know what is in the “hearts and minds” of people. Furthermore a negative report would probably have a career ending result for some field grade officer. Colonel Negative instead of another medal and an office in the Pentagon, would be assigned to some base in Alaska.

    As books later written by the NVA or VC confirmed the government controlled areas were riddled by “moles”. Further what we we all knew back then was the South Vietnamese Government and Military were corrupt. Now in Afghanistan we have a similar corruption of War Lords or Drug Lords. Failures by the Afghan Security Forces are excused by a lack of good leadership, lack of training, lack of weapons etc.

    What we have done as we did with the ARVN in South Vietnam is created a military force in our own image. The Afghan Security Forces lack the mobility, communications, and fire power, or the ability to maintain these complex systems.

    The US response to this deterioration or stalemate has been similar to the Vietnam War- Drop more munitions.

    However, as long as the Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex can continue to profit we will remain “over there”. Congress has shown no willingness to question this failure, since they have no clue what “Victory” looks like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. And at the same time everyone fears being blamed for “defeat,” when the war was lost long ago. Put differently, the war was never ours to win.


  2. Yes, the absurdity is not abating. As for corruption, as the US are its biggest provider, there little hope of it disappearing any time soon. I hugely admire Mr Sopko’s stamina in what must be an increasingly hostile environment in the US government. USAID is another agency which direly needs its own ‘SIGAR’, as it wastes just as many billions disguised as ‘development’ cooperation. Just came across this ad (posted one day before deadline for applications, which in itself is a sure indicator of lack of transparency) on the UN humanitarian website. A USAID financed project implemented by a commercial outfit, which demands ‘superior writing skills’ from applicants while it is not even capable of drafting a proper ToR without blatant shortcomings itself. Judge for yourselves.
    I won’t comment on the merits of project itself, it is not my professional background.

    We now in addition have seemingly serious ‘peace talks’ in Qatar with the taliban claiming that they do not want to take over power, just share it. Which sounds reasonably honest and no doubt would be inevitable in any peace scenario.
    The first outcome of those ‘breakthrough’ Qatar talks, however, is as absurd as can be.
    The US withdrawing from Afghanistan in 18 months would be relatively simple and verifiable – apart from inevitable secret services presence – provided proper criteria are defined and their implementation verified. Would it only mean withdrawal of troops or include their sprawling military bases to be closed down or handed over to the Afghan government?
    I very much doubt that will ever happen – unless concrete rot makes it inevitable.

    What the taliban would have to achieve – guaranteeing the absence of any terrorist outfits in Afghanistan – is an entirely different kettle of fish which in fact is impossible to achieve.
    The taliban are well known for hating ISIS and the like and for fighting them, but obviously cannot completely eliminate them on their own (if that is possible at all). And even if they could, history provides ample proof how easy it is for third parties in whose interest it is to preserve the present status quo, to (re)introduce and support terrorist cells. Which then will be the umptiest justification for continuing presence of US/NATO. This apart from the problem what criteria to apply and how to verify the ‘absence of a threat’. Afghanistan was considered a ‘terrorist threat’ well after Bin Laden had left the country and before the taliban became terrorists themselves. So it rather looks like a non-starter on both sides …


    1. Declare “victory” and leave should be the U.S. tactic; let the Taliban declare “victory” and stay. And let people get on with their lives without U.S. weaponry raining down from the sky.


  3. Mr Astore, look at this ludicrous Lockheed Martin JSF/F-35 party being held in Fort Worth, Texas this week. It was held to celebrate the third JSF ready for Dutch use. I saw it yesterday on Dutch evening news. Its the epitomy of the glorification of warfare if you ask me. I instantly had to think of you, you always write about that, how warfare is deified. Look at these people dancing to a dj, when kids in Yemen are being killed by jets like these! The Dutch government wasted 8,000 million by participating in its development. This decision to participate was made all the way back in 2002. A guy in the news segment said that it is hard to say whether the JSF will be succesful or not, just like when the F16 just launched nobody knew whether it would be succesful or not. However, what I am thinking is: arent fighter jets useless in this day and age with drones performing the assassinations?


    1. Good gawd. Now we’re corrupting the Dutch. 🙂

      Seriously, it’s weapons porn. Good thing the F-35 didn’t start firing its internal 25mm cannon at the crowd. Maybe when they automate it. Or when a hacker takes over.


      1. Those systems would have to function, first.

        The only reason anyone is buying the things is to get access to the tech. Mark my words – when operating costs continue to rise, and nobody can keep more than 50% of the fleet operational at a given time, and advancements in computing/sensor integration undermine the stealth, orders will suddenly dry up, right when everyone who invested in the development has about a squadron under their colors.

        The math on the F-35 does not add up for any Air Force, especially when you consider that the design is already 20 years old. Upgraded Gen 4.5+ aircraft 80% of the capabilities and 50% the cost are a much, much better option – that’s why both Russia and China are heading in this direction in their new aircraft.

        The F-35 should receive no further funding or support until all flaws are remedied AND the aircraft can win a fair fly-off competition open to all entrants. Make Lockheed prove it can do what it says it can, and if not – interim solution, and a new open design competition.


      2. “Good thing the F-35 didn’t start firing its internal 25mm cannon at the crowd. Maybe when they automate it.”

        Automating yet another malfunctioning US corporate-welfare weapons-systems boondoggle. What a thought! It reminds me of that scene in Robocop where the ED [Enforcement Droid] 209 riddles a hapless junior executive during an Omnicorp board meeting. Prophetic and priceless: Robocop – Mr Kinney VS Ed 209.


    2. Unbelievable! What happened to Dutch commercial common sense ?
      First the Betuwelijn (underground railway), then the even bigger financial miscalculation of the NZlijn subway segment in Amsterdam which ended up costing five times as much as promised in 1997, and then this doomed F35.
      None of these several billion Euro projects will ever contribute to mitigating global warming impact, which seems to me to be the biggest imminent threat to your coastal country.
      I remember the 1953 mid-winter sea water flood in Walcheren where I then lived and nothing similar should ever repeat itself. Do hope the F35 adventure was the last one of this kind.


      1. @Pamela

        Thanks for your comment. 1953 must have been horrible! The Noord-Zuidlijn in Amsterdam took us 15 years to build. The Chinese would have built it in 15 days probably! 😉
        (Sorry if the comments below are not related to the main article, but I feel like responding)

        We are one of the worst performing countries in Europe regarding climate change efforts. Yet the prime minister has the audacity to appear on CNN and reiterate his commitment to the Paris Accords! The Dutch state has been sued over its climate policy negligence and one of the arguments it used to respond was: The Netherlands is responsible for 0.35% of the world’s carbon emissions. It has been calculated that if the government’s efforts to reach the targets of 49% CO2 emission reductions by 2030 in comparison with 1990 levels will succeed, this would only decrease the world’s temperature by 0.0003 degrees Celcius. So essentially, the insignificance of our contribution to fight global climate change is used as an argument why the government is negligent. This is a ludicrous argument, because who is to tackle climate change, when one of the richest countries denies it should take action?

        It simply depends on where your priorities are. Our prime minister recently wanted to repeal the dividend tax, which would have cost 2 billion euros a year, merely benefitting foreign shareholders. The entire country was opposed to this measure and still he used the argument that Shell and Unilever might leave this country and relocate elsewhere if the tax would not be repealed. Luckily at the end, due to domestic pressure, he changed his mind. Remember that post-2008 we have suffered under severe austerity measures, involving cuts on healthcare, culture, elderly care and many other public services.

        Noteworthy is the scientific article “Why Have Climate Negotiations Proved So Disappointing?” (Barrett, 2014) which argues that 1) the prisoner’s dilemma exists in global climate change attenuation, where each individual country will intentionally decrease its sacrifices so as to free-ride while abusing the global commons, 2) the lack of a critical threshold where the earth’s ecological systems will collapse (somewhere between 350 and 500 ppm CO2) makes sure that government’s can rely on the uncertainty argument and 3) the lack of an enforcable climate change treaty means non-compliance cannot be fined. Even though Kyoto and Paris are legally binding, they do not punish a state for non-compliance like the Montreal Protocol did. In other words, there is little incentive to adhere to the targets.


        1. That’s one of the areas where I agree with mainstream environmental economics – all countries have a strong incentive to defect/renege whenever their individual contribution is minor relative to the whole, and therefore effectively invisible.

          I’m afraid that the only way to tackle a complex global problem is absolutely rigorous institutions that punish defectors. But there’s no State on this Earth that will agree to that, and building some kind of powerful World-State is probably impossible and undesirable. Canada, otherwise seemingly so eco-friendly (compared to the US, it’s probably hard to appear otherwise) and progressive, is aggressively pushing exploitation of oil shale production which is ecologically catastrophic and in terms of global net energy gain almost idiotically self-defeating, but contributed to Canada’s GDP so… oh well!

          If world military spending was cut in half, and the $1 Trillion annually saved put into development projects and clean development in the Global South, climate change *could* be managed while improving the lives of billions.

          The tragedy of our species is that we’ve not figured out a way to collectively organize on a global scale. Some sort of alternative structure to the global State system is vital to our survival. But building that… well, that’s why I harp on the waste that is global military spending.


        2. Your global warming comments may be more related to the subject than might seem at first glance. How much CO2, methane and other dangerous gasses are produced during the development, production and explosion of all those bombs, mines and other ordnance? What was – in addition to the intended destruction – the ecological ‘footprint’ of the MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) detonation in Afghanistan? Or the production and future use of the F35 for that matter?


          1. The U.S. military is an enormous consumer of fossil fuels. Think of all the tanks, vehicles, aircraft, helicopters, etc., all burning fossil fuels. But, as they say in America, “Jet noise is the sound of Freedom.”


  4. Well, I mean, when your “allies” at the start are a bunch of warlords chased out of the bulk of the country by people you yourself backed when they were shooting at the Soviets…

    17 years is long enough that all foreign military involvement is to Afghanistan is a funding spigot straight to a few elites in Kabul. Similar situation prevails in Somalia, according to research I’ve been assisting with recently. There too, the US has been dicking around for years, dropping bombs on insurgent “fighters” who are often enslaved child soldiers.

    Apparently, the USA kicked the Vietnam syndrome by just doing it half a dozen more times, realizing that the American people won’t do anything about it. A sustained national strike or three might get their attention, but who is trying to coordinate anything like that?

    What would be funny is if someday China just parked a million troops in Afghanistan (which is what it’d require) for a few years, turned the place into a police state, and that actually improved the situation. ‘Course, India would have a fit.

    Has any Democratic candidate come out against the endless wars? Harris doesn’t seem to emphasize it at all in her early campaign materials. And Sanders – well, he’s got his F-35 base, so he’s happy with the status quo.


      1. Forgot about that, though she did stray a little too much into pro-Assad rhetoric at one point, I get why.

        I sincerely doubt she’ll make it far in the Dem primaries, though. They’re setting up for a clown-car primary reminiscent of the GOP’s in 2016. Everyone clearly believes that if they win the DNC nomination, they’ll be a shoe-in to win. But there’s going to be a *lot* of cash entering the field, and that’s what will buy the ground game needed in the newly front-loaded primary schedule.

        Someone like Gabbard needs a standout agenda and some backers with deep pockets to have a shot. And a message that resonates, doesn’t sound like another focus-group approved corporate slogan. The lesson of Trump should be that the political process is ripe for disruption, and that both the GOP and DNC are fracturing – as they should, because both (like DC) run too many wires through too small a port, so to speak.

        But I’m afraid that there isn’t room for creative thinking in modern American political campaigns. Everyone is so damned caught up believing the media narratives about everything, desperate to get free media coverage by sucking up to some special interest or another, that I’m not hopeful they’ll perceive the deeper nature of the present crisis.

        The only real solution may be a 3rd party bid *just* strong enough to force a contingent election.

        Here’s a 270towin map with Trump’s basic map for victory, assuming Dems manage to pull off a replay of 2016 (which I believe ought to be our default assumption, due to the Wisconsin GOP’s push to restrict their new Democratic governor’s powers to roll back Scott Walker’s shenanigans)

        Given this map, how could Trump be stopped? Well, if you look at actual turnout, Trump’s support even among Republicans declined precipitously relative to Romney’s in much of the US West.

        So, what if a 3rd party ticket focusing on the rural US West could peel away voters from both parties? Say a Gabbard-O’Rourke ticket, that aims to make this happen:

        *IF* this could be achieved, there is almost no chance Trump could reach 270 in the Electoral College.

        Better, if the Dems actually *do* stop sucking and expand their voter base, this map still lets them win (despite my throwing Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico to a 3rd party) if they win Florida and Michigan.

        And if they don’t – well, then the House of Representatives gets to make a choice: Trump, the Democrat, or Gabbard-O’Rourke.

        Hey Beto, I hear you’ve got like 90 million in the bank, wanna give me a bit to do more research? 🙂


      2. Yeah, the pretty girl from Hawaii is all’s that’s left. HORRAY! I quit Democrats Abroad when they stole my vote for Bernie Sanders. I worked hard though for Barak Obama: nomination, 1st & 2nd election. OK, not the best, but beating McCain & idiot Romney gave me some some justification for FREE work for Obama.
        I was an Independent for years; only switching to Democrat so I could vote in a very important election in Connecticut – locally. The system is rigged. Maybe Gabbard knows that; she’s a VERY SMART PERSON! AND YOUNG!
        Joe Biden? Whitened teeth & hair plugs? Billary with fabulous wigs & professional make-up artists? Who WANTS these narcissistic characters?
        If America is lucky Tulsi Gabbard will be their next President!


        1. Heh. Speaking of the rigged system, where I live comes so late in the Democrats primary schedule my vote is irrelevant. And because of Oregon state politics, my impact on the electoral college is irrelevant because we’ll send our EC votes to the Democrat, even if Genghis Khan himself rose from the grave to claim the DNC nod.


    1. Re the definition of US ‘withdrawal’ from Afghanistan, including the future of their countless military bases there, this from today’s news : “I think the president is […] taking the opportunity to see if we can get a new structure in Afghanistan, if we can get a peace agreement,” Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told Al Jazeera. No mention of any withdrawal, just a ‘new structure’.


      1. Maybe we westerners should all realize that the pretty borders we draw on maps don’t mean all that much.

        Maybe Afghanistan should be balkanized into several successor states.

        Why is the full range of possibilities never publicly discussed? And what do people living in Afghanistan want – beyond, of course, not getting killed in the fighting.


        1. I would suggest that if one views the world through a “if you aren’t winning, you’re losing” lens, there are no other possibilities. And you can’t discuss publicly what, in your mind, doesn’t exist.
          As for what the Afghans want, who cares? Deals will be cut, promises will be made, assurances will be given, and a lot of money will no doubt change hands. The British Empire may be long gone but its practices are still employed – with some refinements – by its former North American colonies.


          1. The American Empire is the British Empire with the capital shifted from London to DC/New York. Set aside the nationalist myths the atrocious American education system inculcates, and the basic continuity becomes all too clear.

            I hope colonialism is on its last legs, but I suspect it has merged with the scions of neoliberal economics, who will try to sustain the thing until the planet is wrecked for all but the few with the $ to pay for local mitigation.

            A tenured professor at an institution I’ve worked for recently published an peer-reviewed paper arguing that colonialism was (is) beneficial for subject populations. A firestorm ensued, and the paper was retracted – but the racist (and it was, I read the piece before it was pulled – the arguments veiled an assumption of white/European society as fundamentally superior/more advanced) professor retains his tenured position, and continues to teach courses, despite being wholly unapologetic about the affair.

            So long as the enablers of colonialism remain in positions of authority, the thing will never die.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. LOL AT! Just last week a ‘Brit’ from my building I invited over for a drink. No boozer, it just took a few sips to get the lowdown on how “Great” Britain still is. Kept my mouth shut: I’m a polite host. But had trouble, after my stiff scotch, keeping a straight face. She’s 60, I’m 73, but got the full story, (unasked for) of how genius was Thatcher. Steam ship buffs, I delicately reminded her Thatcher had to send 2 luxury liners* to Falklands War – as troop carriers – because the British Navy no longer had any. (*Privately owned by Cunard, QE2, and P&O, ssCanberra) after she left I thought: “What a strange way to advocate ‘privatisation!'”
    QE2 now rusts in Dubai, a hotel gone wrong, Canberra maybe your toilet flusher, long ago scrapped. But in our short lives, they were dubbed: “The ships that shape the future”, and in Canberra’s case: “The last gasp of the British Empire”. So true!
    On mundane subjects, America never being a great maritime nation, (didn’t need to; we had a continent and needed railroads) I’m mostly worried about America’s water table, being poisoned by fracking; a short term gain. Frackers have 300BIL$ in debts! with short life wells. This could blow up in our faces – right here at home – and it’s no Afghan’s fault, or horrors! “Socialist” in S. America.
    Much as I like your post AT, maybe Colonialism is already dead: you know it, I know it, millions know it, except the dreadful (tiny) elite that keep beating that old dead horse, under the new phrase of ‘NeoLiberalism’. This dreadful term will not save us if water tables become poisonous, and the yuppies can’t pay their enormous debts.
    Not even – stealing – Venezuela’s oil…..


  6. And the absurdity just keeps getting back behind the wheel of Mr Toad’s wild ride, drunk and delirious, without a license to drive or even the intention to obtain one:

    Trump Backtracks on Syria, Afghan Withdrawals, Facing Growing Senate Pressure. Trump now wants to keep ‘smaller number’ of troops in Afghanistan, by Jason Ditz, (February 3, 2019)

    Trump: US Troops Must Stay in Iraq to ‘Watch Iran.’ Says they might ‘do nuclear weapons’ if US troops aren’t there, by Jason Ditz, (February 3, 2019)

    So the American voters apparently have the “choice” of maintaining the Republican billionaire Donald Trump in office so that he can not do what he said he would — i.e., get the U.S. out of these pointless, ruinous military quagmires — or elect a corporate-owned Democrat to replace him who will also not get the U.S. military out of these bottomless-pit money-laundering fiascos. There you have your “democratic choice,” America. Take it or take it.


Comments are closed.