A Thought Experiment for America’s Afghan War

President Obama with his chosen “surge” commander, General Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

The Afghan War is back in the news, mainly because of allegations that Russian entities offered a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.  Pulling no punches, Alternet used this headline: “The Pentagon leaks an explosive story of Trump’s dereliction of duty — widening the rift between the military and the White House.”

The U.S. military has been fighting the Taliban ever since 2001, so why the latter now needs bounties to motivate them is unclear.  Indeed, the original “bounty” story at the New York Times was thinly and anonymously sourced and has been denied by Russia and the Taliban.  Of course, in the past U.S. officials had their own bounties on various “terrorists,” and who can forget President George W. Bush’s appeal to Old West lore when he echoed those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in the search for Osama bin Laden?

President Trump has said he wants to end the Afghan War by November, but he is surprisingly weak in reining in the Pentagon.  At some level, Trump knows the Afghan War is unwinnable; it always has been.  It’s unjust as well, though Trump never uses that kind of language.  He sees it mainly as a business proposition that’s losing money bigtime.  Yet despite all his fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.

Back in 2010, I tried to point out the folly of America’s war in the following article.  At the time, President Obama was implementing a “surge” of troops that proved both unsustainable and unwise.  So I put together this thought experiment, putting my gun-toting neighbors and friends in the rugged hills of rural Pennsylvania in the role of an American Taliban responding to an invasive force.  A decade ago, I had no doubt who would prevail, whether in reality or in my experiment.

As the Afghan War approaches two decades, how will we ever end our folly when even so-called liberal media sources are waving red shirts and inflaming passions with talk of Russian bounties? (6/28/2020)

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge

(Written in January 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.

18 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment for America’s Afghan War

  1. I have not pursued details on these allegations of yet another evil by the Evil Russkies. A leak from a disgruntled element at the Pentagon, you say? I thought perhaps this had come from John Bolton’s book. I do see from CNN online that the Biden campaign has jumped all over this “story.” That may be a clue as to real motivation for the leak. I also had not heard–man, I’ve allowed myself to become pretty darned uninformed, eh?–that Trump says he’d like to “end” the Afghan War in time for Election Day! Good luck with that, ol’ ‘Bone Spurs’!! Despite a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars per minute–though I can’t spit out exact statistics, it surely must amount to this!–something tells me SOMEONE is profiting from this sordid, tragic affair. And I don’t just mean the “Defense” Industry. I mean the Heroin Industry. And candidate Biden’s plan to end the war is…what?? (cue the crickets)

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  2. “If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.” — Dr. Andanda W. P. Guruge, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States and France

    At Counter Insurgency School (Coronado Island, San Diego) back in 1967, we read in our assigned texts about the theory of “winning the hearts and minds” of the foreign peoples whose homelands we Americans had invaded and wrecked, killing millions and rendering more millions destitute refugees. We soon learned that the slogan, in practice, translated into military-speak as “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” If you want an accurate image of the U.S. military abroad in places like Korea, Southeast Asia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan try and picture big, hulking Americans (of several genders) dressed up like something from Mars shouting incomprehensible high-school English at the bewildered locals while chasing them around grabbing at their crotches. As Jack Paar (the original host of the Tonight show) used to say: “I kid you, not.”

    Anyway, something in memory of the late Dr. Guruge, my wise and witty former teacher:

    Boobie Counter Insurgency
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    If offered help you’d best refuse
    For if you should relent
    They’ll draw an arbitrary line
    Through problems transient
    And complicate them all so as
    To make them permanent

    They’d like to spend a “night,” they say
    To get inside the door
    But after years you’ll find them fast
    Asleep upon your floor
    In no apparent haste to end
    Their stay that you abhor

    Like suitors of Penelope
    They make themselves at home
    In yours – till you will marry them
    Or read to them a tome
    That ends when brave Ulysses comes
    From back across the foam

    They start with talking of a “race”
    But just as a pretense
    Once underway, the “journey” talk
    Begins to change the sense:
    “Accomplished” missions leading to
    No perfect in their tense

    A hanging concentrates the mind;
    No hangings, the reverse
    When no one hangs for screwing up
    Results become perverse
    Rewards buy more incompetence
    And gild the golden purse

    Incompetents attract their ilk
    They know no other kind
    And so they concentrate like sludge
    A residue refined
    To gum up all the moving parts
    And leave them in a bind

    The Law of Parkinson explains
    Bureaucracy’s demands
    Just make more room to make more work
    For still more willing hands
    There’s room enough for everyone
    When all the yeast expands

    The Peter Principle sets in
    And all float to the top
    The good get out; the bad stay on:
    Promotion will not stop
    It doesn’t matter what they do,
    Or how they fail and flop

    “You fuck up then you move up” goes
    The slogan of the day
    Republican philosophy
    For how to make some hay
    Insurgencies have payrolls that
    Would tempt a Kenneth Lay

    To “counter” the insurgency
    You first put on your crown
    And then “elect” your puppets till
    You start to spiral down
    To end up with the worst of all:
    George Bush and Michael Brown

    Great nations, so the saying goes,
    Cannot fight little wars
    It just makes them look little
    Like the whores that staff the bars:
    Those widowed native women folk
    Whose men died for our cars

    We had to have the oil, it seems,
    To make our gas and fuel
    No matter that the price has soared
    While Halliburton gruel
    Fed to the troops to keep them fit
    Has made them mean and cruel

    But when a bloated, idle firm
    Has little real to do
    It either lays employees off
    Or makes a pooch to screw
    Then buys up some screwdriver stock
    With options for a few

    And then consultants come to call
    To market mantras cool:
    Some jaundiced, jaded, jargon jive
    To mesmerize the fool
    Which Dick and Don have taught to George
    To make of him a tool

    The trophy chief executive
    Requires the use of sound
    A propaganda catapult,
    Some noise he needs to pound
    He doesn’t have to know “above”
    From “under” or “around”

    Deciding to decide he picks
    Decision as his guide
    He chooses choices chosen for
    The options that they hide
    He puts them “on the table” then
    Onto the floor they slide

    He turns both tides and corners and
    He chews gum as he walks
    Then chokes and stumbles, yanked by strings,
    As his bad puppet balks
    Refusing to “eliminate”
    The “enemy” he stalks

    Technology will save the day
    Or so we have been told
    Our vastly overpriced machine
    Will keep away the cold
    Although “insurgents” wreck it with
    “Improvisation” bold

    The war to have more war again
    Has made war without end:
    Careers for all the supple ones
    Whose rubber ethics bend
    Until their “honor” turns to rust:
    A blood-stain’s reddish blend

    But why not send some campaign staff?
    Those smarmy puerile jerks
    Who masturbate to thoughts of “war”
    With all its rank and perks
    Who find “good bidness” where it “is”
    And who cares if it works?

    They’ll camp inside the castle walls
    Some hamburgers to munch
    And never go outside the wire
    To brave the deadly crunch
    While talking tough about Tehran
    Where they’d be someone’s lunch

    The days and weeks and months go by
    With more excuses still
    For why the costs keep rising while
    The “enemy” we kill
    But, What the hell? It’s free-lunch war!
    The kids will pay the bill

    Republicrats can talk a fight
    Until the buildings fall
    They then attack the innocent
    And squawk a shrieking squall
    Producing only years of talk
    To cover for it all

    So “Hell is on the way,” alright,
    Dick Cheney’s vow fulfilled
    They fell asleep on watch and got
    Three thousand of us killed
    Then ran off half a world away
    To have some oil wells drilled

    In only six more months of this
    The numbers will accrue
    To show we’ve lost three thousand more
    With no apparent clue
    Explaining why we’ve spent more time
    Than fighting World War Two

    We used to have great enemies
    But now we’ve only small
    We shot a cannon at a wasp
    Collapsing hive and hall
    And now upon our bee-stung ass
    The insects swarm and crawl

    We’ve bought another cannon, though,
    Because it makes more bang
    And generates huge profits for
    The ones who hire the gang
    Who, when the sand gets in the gears,
    Ignore the clunk and clang

    The blowback, though, comes round in time;
    No one has yet escaped.
    Vietnamized; Iraqified;
    Corrupted like the raped:
    The vanquished “victors” limp back home,
    Their anal sphincters gaped.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2020


    1. And then we have the notorious American military concept of “fighting” now (some place called “over there”) in order to prevent future fights (some place called “here”) which predictably leads to endless fighting (anywhere) as a career bureaucratic entitlement which never has to conclude, wrap-up, terminate, stop, end, or . . . you know . . . finish. Preventing something by engaging in it: a U.S. military doctrine known among degenerate, inbred, formerly civilized (continental) islanders as . . .

      Boobie Exit Strategies
      (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

      A Boobie bungler president
      Earned fame as George the Worst
      Or, rather, notoriety
      As one whose bubble burst;
      Who thought he’d found a course to stay
      But only found it cursed

      His anti-intellectual
      Reactionary head
      Led him to play commander of
      Some troops who mostly bled
      He scanned a word spelled “Exit” but
      Read “Enter Here” instead

      Dyslexia had formed his brain
      Into a backward trance
      Reversing in him well-known facts
      Like “England isn’t France”
      Impelling him to proudly boast:
      “Our strength is ignorance!”

      He dove into a swamp to drain
      The fetid waters there
      But found some alligators bent
      On taking up his dare
      Who “brought it on” to have him for
      Their daily table fare

      His “higher father” told him what
      He wanted most to hear
      But left him in the lurch when things
      Turned out a bit unclear
      And so it fell to earthly dad
      To wipe away the tear

      His mom, his wife, his little dog
      And even his VP
      Supported him in his belief
      That one and one are three
      For all knew that his “sacred truths”
      Could stand no scrutiny

      For he had gone unbidden where
      The wise would leave some space
      Discovering no egress from
      His “long war” glacier race
      He tried to save his ass but then
      Confused it with his face

      So now he spins and stalls for time
      Each day means one less more
      In hopes that in about two years
      He’ll get to sell the store
      And all its empty shelves to some
      Investors — like before!

      Tomorrows like his missions creep
      And each day seems too full
      Of petty paces pushing on
      The string that he can’t pull
      Until the clock of time records
      It’s final syllable

      He wants to spend our money and
      He wants to shed our blood
      Designing lead balloons that sink
      Like rocks into the mud;
      Or flights to Mars that crash before
      They take off with a thud

      “Preventing” wars by having them
      Contains a fatal flaw
      Which stems from nomenclature meant
      To obfuscate and awe
      The Boobie mind accustomed to
      Debate with men of straw:

      Red Herrings begging questions of
      Ad Hominem Canard,
      A ruptured dialectic duck
      Seen quacking in the yard
      Discoursing with the chicken hawk
      Who glares and clucks so hard

      He means to cut the deficit
      “In half,” or so he says,
      By running up his spending
      On the toys with which he plays
      Deferring till some future time
      The payments he defrays

      Ostensibly, adults will come;
      Just when we do not know
      The little kid in power claims
      “Inheritance” to blow
      Which means that our posterity
      Will someday have less dough

      He tells us that the next six months
      (A “Friedman,” so it’s called)
      Will prove decisive in this “war”
      (Or, “occupation” bald)
      Although the last eight “Friedmans” seem
      To only have appalled

      A noted existentialist
      Once wrote a one-act play
      About three people trapped inside
      Forever and a day
      With each the others only there
      To torment and dismay

      The Shiites and the Sunnis have
      George Bush now in the game
      That Jean-Paul Sartre described for us
      To everlasting fame
      That “Hell is other people” and
      “No Exit” is its name

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006


    2. Notes from the Interesting Coincidences Department: Last night I screened Spielberg’s version of “War of the Worlds” to celebrate its 15th Anniversary. Earlier in the week a blog for cinephiles “woke” me to something I didn’t pick up on myself in two earlier viewings. In the introduction to the viewer of the film’s protagonists, we learn that the late-teens son of Tom Cruise’s character has a school assignment to write a paper about the French attempt to maintain possession of Algeria. Later, the nutty “survivalist” played by Tim Robbins, who has the delusional idea of waging successful guerrilla war against the alien invaders, observes “Occupations always fail. History provides hundreds of examples of that.” I suspect Mr. Spielberg and his screenwriters could not have imagined that 15 years later the US would still be attempting to control Afghan territory! Now here’s something that only occurred to me during last night’s viewing (I trust most folks are familiar with H.G. Wells’s tale, so I’m not dishing out a “spoiler” here): the invading aliens finally succumb to Earth’s germs, bestowed upon us “in God’s great wisdom” or words to that effect. And I flashed upon the realization that this virus pandemic has done as much damage to the US economy as the alien invaders did to the physical infrastructure with their disintegrator ray weapons. How lucky we are that “in God’s great wisdom” we’ve been bestowed possibly TRILLIONS of varieties of viruses! “Invisible enemy” indeed!


  3. “Yet despite all his [Trump’s] fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.”

    No President can. Not since Truman. Ike warned about it, but only on his way out. JFK tried imposing his will on the military, and six weeks later, he was dead.


    1. JFK reportedly said–I believe in the wake of “Bay of Pigs” disaster (for the US)–“THE MILITARY ARE MAD.” And he didn’t mean in the sense of “angry,” though of course they were that, too. The plan to invade Cuba was hatched by a certain Mr. Nixon and stupidly carried out on Kennedy’s watch.


  4. Just checking in with the alternate-reality media to get a sense of America’s current gullibility quotient (“left” ideologue tribal component) and I came upon the following headline:

    “Russia bounty shocker: Trump never cared about the troops — only racism and re-election.
    Trump harangued NFL players for kneeling, but did nothing about Russia paying bounties to kill American soldiers,” by Amanda Marcotte, Salon.com (June 30, 2020).

    I won’t bother supplying a link to this piece of utter “journalistic” garbage since the New York Times — original stenographers for this line of transparently leaked CIA/Pentagram propaganda — has already started trying to walk it back (without simply retracting it as comically indefensible) by substituting “criminals” for “Taliban” in their “story.” I only offer it as one example, because of the article’s truly bad and self-defeating “reasoning.”

    First of all: no Afghans would kill or wound US soldiers, associated dogs-of-war mercenaries, or corporate camp followers if the US government did not dispatch them to Afghanistan in the first place. Furthermore, President Trump’s recent withdrawal of approximately 4,000 US soldiers (if one can believe the Pentagram’s statistics for once) would seem to have saved them from getting killed or wounded in Afghanistan. This withdrawal of US targets from the Afghan imperial shooting gallery — with more promised “soon” — would seem to argue a concern by President Trump for their welfare. Ultimately, should President Trump withdraw all US military (and associate) forces from Afghanistan, none of them would get killed or wounded there and any “bounty” paid by “Russia” would end up good money flushed down the drain, presumably what anyone unfriendly to “Russia” or its interests would wish.

    Finally, should President Trump attempt to win re-election by saving the lives, limbs, and sanity of “all” remaining US forces in Afghanistan by withdrawing them prior to the first Tuesday in November, then I cannot think of a better reason for his wishing another term as US President. If only more candidates for the US presidency would make withdrawing America’s foreign legions from their exposed and indefensible imperial outposts the animating rationale for their wanting public office in the first place.

    Now, of course, elected Presidents typically campaign as if they actually wanted “world peace” and “national security” but, once in office, find themselves as politically addicted to imperial corporate “war posturing” as their predecessors. President Trump has proven no exception to this expedient practice. He talks a good game but lacks the courage, principled commitment, and management ability to make it happen. Still, if his thirst for re-election compels him to actually follow through with complete withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan — while his demented Democratic Party opponent tries to out-flank him on the right (as in 2016) by proposing an even “tougher” foreign policy — then he may have at least one good argument for his re-election.

    As my favorite Australian artist-journalist, Caitlin Johnstone, has truthfully written: “The second-to-last thing the world needs is political pressure placed on Donald fucking Trump to be more warlike. The very last thing the world needs is a US president who ends up being even more warlike than Trump.”

    The Salon article, like the New York Times article it so haplessly regurgitates, has only one purpose: namely, to bully (the easily bullied) President Trump into further imperial military blundering. And if he doesn’t cave in this time, a “less racist” “Democrat” will take his place and do the Global Corporate Oligarchy’s bidding instead. The merest suggestion on President Trump’s part that perhaps this “anti-Russian” thing has proven a real loser and that cutting America’s losses — human, financial, and material — might make good business sense has generated fierce opposition from all those “Swamp” denizens who have made quite a nice living for themselves deceiving and manipulating the easily frightened American public.

    I have many reasons for wanting to see someone other than Donald Trump become the next US President — actually, I would like to see ALL present national political incumbents unceremoniously flushed from their cushy sinecures — but I consider an even-further-right-wing warmonger (or whoever runs demented Joe Biden’s Twitter account) no improvement whatsoever: certainly not the kind of person who would “care” about our US military forces abroad where they should not find themselves marooned to no good purpose.

    Election prospects aside, I wish President Trump good luck getting even one more US soldier out of Afghanistan (followed by Iraq, Syria, and Libya). The more withdrawals — and the sooner — the better. That would constitute “caring” for these persons and their families (not to mention their foreign victims) in my book.


      1. I have an unpleasant intuition in pit of my stomach that SUSAN RICE will be Biden’s VP pick. A “woman of color,” but most importantly, coming straight from the heart of the National Security Apparatus. This is supposed to give her “credibility” and “gravitas,” but it just makes me wanna puke. It would also mean that if Biden ceases to function (or becomes too blatantly much worse than he appears now in mental faculties), this NSA “queen-pin” would step right into the top office. Biden is as piss-poor a candidate as Mrs. Clinton was four years ago, but a Biden-Rice ticket I would have to declare PURE TOXIC WASTE.


        1. Well, if Rice is picked, we both lose our “bet.” Our only recourse, Greg, is to drink heavily no matter what,


          1. Way to go, Colonel! Use Bracing Views to promote a healthy lifestyle!! Wow, if one was to take a shot of hard stuff every time Trump told a whopping lie in public, one would NEVER sober up! Today we “learned” from Fearless Bone Spurs that “Black Lives Matter” symbolizes “hate”!! And he “speculated” (translation: urged) NYPD cops would resist the alleged plan of Mayor De Blasio to officially sanction having “BLM” painted on the street near Trump Tower. Now, Donald has officially moved to Florida. Does this mean there will no longer be guards in body armor, toting machine guns, in front of that building?? Inquiring minds want to know!


  5. Addendum: Oops, I meant to also say that, in the Dick Cheney mode, Susan Rice would probably be running the show, anyway. Biden would be her Dubya, a sock puppet.


  6. Russia would have to pay Afghans to fight the Americans only if they didn’t care that the Americans were occupying their country, and they would do that only if virtually all Afghans didn’t care; if nobody was willing to fight the Americans. Then they might pay them to fight the Americans, but only if there was something to gain for them. What would be to gain Russia?

    How would Afghans killing Americans in Afghanistan benefit Russia? The presence of American troops in Afghanistan is of absolutely no consequence to Russia.

    In fact, Russia supported America in Afghanistan for many years, providing an overland supply route for our military into that country to supplant a difficult and hazardous route through Pakistan. It was closed only when Obama made too much trouble for Russia with sanctions, accused it of “invading” Ukraine, and imposed sanctions on Russia. But to respond by active hostilities against our troops would be insane.

    Even by the low standards of anti-Trump forces, this story is nonsensical.


    1. An article some time back (sorry, the details have eluded me), by someone pretty knowledgeable about Afghan culture, indicated their loyalties are determined by (in descending order of importance): 1.) ethnicity [multiple ethnic groups dwell there]; 2.) tribal identification; 3.) religion. I would have expected tribal to be #1. Islam is overwhelmingly the religion, regardless of ethnicity or tribe. Islamic cultures do not take kindly to occupation by “infidels,” and Afghanistan has never been conquered by any “advanced” nation. Indeed, it’s been called The Graveyard of Empires! But gee, with all the taxpayer dollars given away to US “intel” agencies, it’s clearly asking too much for US authorities to understand this, eh? I’m forced to believe US interest is motivated by the opium trade.


  7. Outstanding interview here with a Marine veteran who fought in Afghanistan and who is against the war:


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