The Collapse of America’s Position in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

It didn’t take long, did it? The Taliban are already in Kabul and the American-supported central government has scattered to the winds. What happened? What can we learn from this dramatic collapse?

Images of Saigon in 1975 keep appearing in minds and on TV screens, but let’s not forget the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi military in 2014. It turns out that a special product of America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is junk militaries, whether in Vietnam in 1975 or Iraq in 2014 or Afghanistan in 2021. As I wrote about in 2014 at TomDispatch.com, the U.S. really knows how to invest in junk armies. And when they inevitably collapse, no one is held responsible, whether in the military or in Congress or in the various mercenary corporations that ostensibly trained and equipped Afghan security forces.

What follows is an excerpt from my article written in 2014 when Iraqi forces collapsed. The lessons I drew from that collapse are applicable to the latest one in Afghanistan. Just substitute “The Taliban” for ISIS and Afghan security forces for Iraqi ones in the paragraphs below.

A Kleptocratic State Produces a Kleptocratic Military

In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:

1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government.  So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders.  Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point.  In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training.  That’s already been tried — and it failed. 

3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army.  On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper.  For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”

When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:

“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”

Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.

Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.”  U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”    

4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results.  Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison.  As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society.  We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated.  In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy.  But they are now.”

Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation.  He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves.  A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State.  For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.”  In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support.  In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors. 

The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealed hardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.   

What Next?

The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”

Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam.  After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy.  It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing.  Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.

To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed.  This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State.  Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies.  Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.

And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.

47 thoughts on “The Collapse of America’s Position in Afghanistan

  1. Really, is anyone surprised by this? When I saw the Chinook lifting off with the president of Afghanistan on board, the only thing I could think of was how much gold and other loot is the dude taking with him.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Every index finger within The Beltway is pointing at someone, but no one is looking in a mirror.
      Also, The Prez is already taking a beating for not listening to “the experts” and “the intelligence community.” I’m not a Biden apologist, but Sweet Mother of Babbling God, what person in their right mind would?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Here’s a couple more for the “Hot Wash and Wax” list.
    1—-Stop allowing our Corporately Elected Leaders
    to implement their latter day Corporate Colonialism on the backs of the servicemen and the country’s tax based privately procured independent fighting forces.
    2—-Stop allowing these Corporate Creeps and their MIC to manipulate the above mentioned personnel (who do all the heavy lifting) and the citizens of this nation with the propaganda and hoodwinking; thus into becoming Israel’s Strong Armed Nuclear Terrorists inside the region that has only been inflamed by the policies of said Israeli leadership.
    Never forget that we have only brought back a paltry sum of our global military presence. Such a meager beginning should never be touted by our country’s leadership as an act to be proud about.
    The fortunes have been made…. NEXT!
    Good God in Heaven! I’m sure your shoulders are shrugging and your hands are lifted by their side, palms facing up toward the far reaches of the infinite universe …. and your thought cloud above your furrowed brow is filled with letters arranged in military formation….
    Marching through the mists like a well trained band at halftime…. in the pattern of… I TOLD YOU SO!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I added some “wax” for this review; because they are going to have to polish this explanation to a brilliant sheen….
      This ensuring the faithful are blinded by our excellence.

      Like

  3. Actually we are getting better at “fixing”
    countries. Back in the Justice Powell days it took a couple years for the opposition’s plans to unfold. Now Corporate America can turn one over in a matter of days…. now that’s improvement one can bank on.

    Like

  4. “Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense — that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization — begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity? “
    Howard Zinn

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clarke oh dear! Easy for her to say eh?

    Afghanistan needed to be a “long term project”, she said, akin to the commitment to the United States made after the Korean War, deploying 50,000 soldiers in the country for decades. “I don’t think it needed a very big international force.”

    She said she had no regrets about making the call to send New Zealand troops to Afghanistan in 2001, though the Provincial Reconstruction Team deployed to the Bamyan province was a commitment that “probably stayed on longer than New Zealand could sustain”.

    Like

    1. Helen Clark ( I spelled her name incorrectly) resigned from the NZ Parliament in April 2009 to become the first female head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She was a big shot at the United Nations. A policy maker. In 2016, she stood for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations, but was unsuccessful.

      For her now to be saying the US needed to deploy 50,000 soldiers to Afghanistan for decades, like the US has in Korea, is mind boggling! What a complete and utter US sock puppet! It shows you what sway the US State Department has over its allies. (NZ was also shamelessly sucked into the Vietnam and Iraqi wars over the objection of many New Zealanders.)

      And the other thing I could never figure out about the US military they never realized the most simple and obvious truism. For very terrorist or Taliban you kill, you great 3-more. For every bomb you drop on their villages’ you create a dozen more enemies. They live there, are not going away, and from their point of view are defending their homeland.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. After I read the first post that shared HC’s ideas, I cringed. I had some of the same thoughts you just shared and wondered how many lives on both sides of her equation were just expected to fall in line with her dreamscape for a better future. I’m sure the view from her end of the telescope would have been positioned in an extremely comfortable suite. How can it be so easy to use other people’s time and energy to support such continuous failure?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. During the American Revolution if it weren’t for the French we would have lost badly. Now imagine what would have happened if the French had said something like “You backward Americans need an enlightened culture to show you how to govern yourselves. We will occupy your lands and set up a government for you and shoot anyone who objects.”

    Would the Americans have gratefully accepted such guidance from foreigners? Hell no.

    So how is it that we expect people in other countries to accept our arrogant attempts at nation-building.

    I am so frustrated, saddened and demoralized at watching such idiocy cause terror, destruction and death, and having no power to stop it.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I listened to an NPR interview a few days ago with Ailsa Chang talking to Rangina Hamidi, the acting education minister for Afghanistan. Ms Hamidi was born in Kandahar, came to the US when she was 11, went through school and college here then returned. Her father was a mayor who was killed by the Taliban in 2011. She is married and has two small children. She gave a really heartbreaking prognosis about what will happen, especially to women and school children under the Taliban. The edited on line interview left out what I think were the most revealing things she said in the interview. She and her husband have resources, they could leave, so she said she had a talk with him and asked if they should leave. He replied what makes us any better the 35 million other Afghanis? Ailsa then asked Ms. Hamidi what the US and allies should do now. Ms Hamidi said there is no role for the US or any foreign country, these are issues that Afghanis have to work out for themselves. It was heartbreaking and impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your observation that: “1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause. Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.”

    Belief in a cause -Washington crossing the Delaware. “These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” Thomas Paine

    In 1970 I was sent to Vietnam as a combat infantryman and assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division just north of Saigon near the Cambodian border. We spent our time patrolling the rain forests in that area, to this day I have no desire to go “camping” outdoors. We would come across from time to time North Vietnamese and VC base areas.

    Where we had wooden barracks. The NVA and VC used bamboo. Bamboo is remarkable for it’s strength and malleability as a building material. Plus it had the added advantage of camouflage. The NVA and VC used modified bikes to transport their logistics.

    The difference between the NVA-VC and American and ARVN troops was shocking. Even though I was only a Spec 4, it was quite clear anyone who would live out in the rain forests had a “cause” worth fighting for. By contrast our rear areas where there were cities and small towns had all the trappings and relative wealth that capitalism could deliver. Once our company was rewarded with an in country R&R to Bien Hoa AFB. The AFB was like Little America.

    There is an very good article in The Guardian:
    A tale of two armies: why Afghan forces proved no match for the Taliban
    Poorly led and riddled with corruption, the Afghan army was overrun in a matter of weeks.

    It is a tale of two armies, one poorly equipped but highly motivated ideologically, and the other nominally well-equipped, but dependent on Nato support, poorly led and riddled with corruption.

    At the outset, the US began transforming the Afghan National Army from a light-infantry force to a combined-arms service with army, air force, and special forces element.

    The Sigar report found that from 2005 the US military had been seeking to evaluate the battle-readiness of the troops they had been training, but by 2010 acknowledged that its monitoring and evaluation procedures “failed to measure more intangible readiness factors, such as leadership, corruption and motivation – all factors that could affect a unit’s ability to put its staffing and equipment to use during actual war-fighting”.

    The report also found a disjunction between what generals told Congress and what lower level officers reported.

    In a 2012 Armed Forces Journal article, Lt Col Daniel Davis, who spent a year in Afghanistan speaking with US troops and their Afghan counterparts, wrote that his observations “bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by US military leaders about conditions on the ground”.

    “In the words of one former senior military official: ‘As intelligence makes its way up higher, it gets consolidated and watered down; it gets politicised. It gets politicked because once policymakers get their hands on it, and frankly, once operational commanders get their hands on it, they put their twist on it.

    “Operational commanders, state department policymakers and Department of Defense policymakers are going to be inherently rosy in their assessments. They will be unaccepting of hard-hitting intelligence.’”
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/15/a-tale-of-two-armies-why-afghan-forces-proved-no-match-for-the-taliban

    Like God in the Old Testament we created the ARVN and then the Afghan Military in our own image. When we invaded Afghanistan we allied our selves with drug lords and/or war lords, bullies and thugs without a “cause”, except to make money.

    The Afghan President has fled the country. My guess is he has tidy nest egg of funds to draw on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I foresee a visit to the US of A (no visa problem, natch), talk show guest spots, sucking up to Congressional leaders, speeches @ fundraisers to “Free Afghanistan” groups, before settling in … Switzerland? Paris? London? Too close to the old sod for comfort, I think. I suspect he’ll be yet another “guest” of the government, maybe even become a CNN expert on the Taliban, ISIS, and all things tarred by the brush of radical Islam. A hard life, but someone has to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The Graveyard of Empires…Afghanistan: W— U.S.A.: L— Afghanistan: W— U.S.S.R.: L Afghanistan: W—U.K.: L Afghanistan: W— Alexander the Great: L

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ultimately its their Fight, and if they won’t Fight for their Country— they deserve the Gov’t they get… Yes “Bug Out, and lets just call it even” As Pvt. Hudson says in Aliens. A Grunt knows the Score not some Ret. Gen. like Patraeus minus the scandal.

      Like

  10. It’s hard to avoid the phantasmagoric influences when watching the play of forces that have most recently performed their dance on Afghanistan’s stage, for all our eyes to see. Today as I drove through the early morning smokey mists that gripped the mountains of WNC, I indulged the gossamer phantasies to chip away at more concrete rational thoughts. I pondered if this “pull out” zephyr wasn’t all discussed months ago; over tea and backroom diplomacy crumpets: and it’s all just flowing out according to their chosen plan, quickly and efficiently. All the while, coordinated narrations ping ponging historical comparisons, blame, and manufactured reasonings before our eyes, that are so often today, enraptured by our plasma screens,from the micro to the macro…..ensnaring hearts and minds in their traps of complacent acquiescence. Have I been played by the play I just dreamed…. or were they actually always just, as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade asked with a wry smile upon his blinded face, “Are you phucking with me.?????” As I descended through the cloud bank and settled into my parking space along the small town main drag that brought an end to my trip …..there were no conclusions drawn about the fact or phantasy of it all. Either way I take it in…. neither phantasy or reason hides the damage done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s blowing my mind today UTEJACK is all the western mainstream media portraying this as a failure by the “civilized” western nations to save the Afghanis from themselves. Like it was our job to save all Afghani women and children from the Taliban “head choppers”. As if that was in anyway true, or even our job!
      Surely it’s up to the Afghan people to sort this all out. They don’t need our “help”.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If U.S. leaders are so concerned with women’s rights, how about starting in the USA?

        1. Equal pay for women in all jobs. (Women earn roughly 75-80% of what men make for the same work.)
        2. Leave women alone on abortion and contraception; provide better health care for women in tune with what’s provided by Planned Parenthood. A woman’s body is her own, end of story.
        3. A $15 minimum wage will disproportionately benefit women, esp. women of color.

        Pass these three items and maybe I’ll believe there’s some real concern for women’s rights.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. It should also be noted that back before we decided to “give the USSR their own Vietnam” the regime that was in power in Kabul with Soviet support did not discriminate against women, just as was the case in the dreary and oppressive to all USSR.

          Great power is heedless to the “once burned twice shy” lesson. The only lesson Vietnam taught power was to get rid of the draft.

          As for a native army, one would expect motivation such that young men would be fighting with whatever weapons they could obtain, just as does the Taliban. They would not need to be recruited, trained and equipped because they would be dedicated to their cause. We are fools to ever believe our interventions will prompt local motivation.

          And there lies the real success of Afghanistan that will not be discussed, a whole lotta people and big companies made a whole lotta money in the last 20 years and stripped of rhetoric that tells the story: America is the For Profit Nation. Just as in Iraq (read this book) money poured in like water and the challenge was to spend it on anything, no matter how absurd and unproductive.

          The 1% won in Afghanistan and they’re the Americans that count in both our domestic and foreign policies. Now finally, financially it can truly be said: Mission Accomplished.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. I like this sentence is a comment by a commenter on Matt Taibbi’s article:

    They made a fortune on the Afghani occupation, a war otherwise of so little importance to Congress that they never bothered, as the Constitution requires, to declare war, but allowed president after president to use the military like a play toy. And nobody cared.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “U.S. CUTS RED-HEADED STEPCHILD LOOSE!”
    1. Biden, as current resident of The Big Chair, has to take the heat for the fire started by Bush and stoked by Obama & Trump.
    2. The military says it’s not their fault and could have been avoided if they’d had their way (there is no evidence to suggest they didn’t).
    3. Congress, having long ago ceded the power to declare & wage any and all military action to the White House & Pentagram, sits back, goes “tsk! tsk!” and claims their hands are as blood-free as Pilate’s as they approve the next military budget.
    4. The public doesn’t care as long as no one they personally know gets whacked in the process.

    Q1. From all indications, most everyone within spitting distance of Area Code 202 knew Afghanistan was as stable as a two-legged chair so who, ultimately, is to blame for a 20-year travesty?
    Q2. Is there any reason to believe The Pentagram is nothing less than a rogue operation with unlimited funds?

    Liked by 3 people

  13. The United States still has not learn that they are not the world policeman. It is not their responsibility to instruct or encourage other nations to follow their way of life. It is the responsibility of other nations to determine their own political or economic system. If the people of other nations are not happy, then they will have to make the effort to change it, not the United States through a regime change approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Since WWII, the US adopted an America 1st attitude long before Trump.

    In all that Time, the US has invaded and bombed only poor, 3rd World Countries, no match for the most expensive Military any Nation produced in Human History, and couldn’t get a win in any of them.

    Americans never did see anything wrong with that picture, brainwashed into the delusional belief of American exceptionalism.

    Even most Christian America can’t see Divine Justice and Judgment at work in this Material World, with this latest humiliation of US Pride of Power.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s