The Highly Profitable Racket of Building Foreign Militaries

W.J. Astore

Is building effective security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere really what the U.S. military and government is about? Given the total collapse of the Iraqi military in 2014 and its Afghan equivalent in 2021, I’d have to say no. What are these efforts really all about? A few heretical thoughts:

  1. The top priority is profits for America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex. Foreign military forces are always provided with loads of U.S.-built weaponry, much of it unneeded or inappropriate to their capabilities and missions. When these forces collapse, as they did in 2014 and this summer, enemies such as ISIS or the Taliban are the recipients of plenty of new weapons funded by the American taxpayer. In short, the U.S. arms its (failed) proxy armies and its enemies as well, which almost guarantees more fighting and/or bombing in the future. Call it a win/win for weapons makers even when the U.S. loses.
  2. If profit-making is the top priority, so too is making it last. Until they utterly collapse, often without much combat, America’s proxy militaries are never fully ready to stand on their own. They always require more U.S. training and funding, that is until the lie is exposed.
  3. Along with profit-making, it’s important for the U.S. military to look good while providing the training. Looking good requires lying about progress. And so America’s proxy militaries are always making progress (on paper, if nowhere else) which helps everyone involved get promoted while keeping the money flowing.
  4. Along with perpetual profits and promotions, these proxy militaries must never be allowed to become independent from the U.S. military. Sure, the U.S. government says it’s seeking “standalone” forces, but in practice Iraqi and Afghan forces were always dependent on U.S. logistical support as well as air power. Which is just the way the U.S. government wanted it and wants it. Dependency ensures pliability and control (until the inevitable collapse, that is).
  5. In sum, one must always follow the money and ask, who is profiting the most from these “training” efforts? Most of the billions and billions spent on training and equipping these militaries goes to the military-industrial complex and to local warlords. It sure didn’t go to Iraqi or Afghan foot soldiers. Again, failure here is its own success; the longer it takes to build “reliable” proxy armies, the longer the money flows to military contractors in the USA. And if your proxy military collapses, maybe you can even rebuild it (at ever higher costs) or at least fight the enemy that captured the expensive high-tech weapons funded so generously by the U.S. taxpayer.

I hope this list is useful as one reads an article at Foreign Affairs, “Why America Can’t Build Allied Armies,” sent to me by a friend. It’s not that America can’t build them. It’s more that we really don’t want to build them; indeed, that there are perverse incentives to do a half-assed job, making money all the while, until the rot can no longer be hidden.

Allow me to explain. The author of this article assigns blame mainly to the “partner” militaries, suggesting these “partners” in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t interested in building effective militaries: they’re interested in money and power instead. Displacing blame onto our “partners” is always good fun, but shouldn’t the U.S. government have recognized this dynamic instead of feeding it? (Let’s face it: the U.S. is driven by money and power as well.)

In fairness to the author, she does advise that maybe the U.S. government should smarten up and stop throwing money at foreign militaries. Here’s an excerpt:

But the United States also has another option: it could scale down its train-and-equip efforts altogether. Rather than using advisory missions as the preferred option for addressing local security threats, it could instead reserve such programs for states with strong national institutions and a demonstrated interest in building better militaries. This pathway would lead to the termination of most U.S. security assistance projects, including the ongoing effort to build the Iraqi security forces.

Too often, the United States’ efforts to train and equip foreign militaries have been motivated by bureaucratic logic rather than sound strategy. The fall of Kabul exposed more than the rot within the armies the United States builds. It also exposed the rot within the United States’ approach to building them.

Sound advice, except the author doesn’t discuss how much these “train-and-equip efforts” are really money laundering operations for the military-industrial-Congressional complex. War is a racket, as General Smedley Butler taught us, and building hollow legions overseas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or earlier in Vietnam, is a racket that pays very well indeed.

Leave Afghanistan Now (Repeat)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2010, I wrote the following article for Huff Post. The title was “Leave Afghanistan Now.” It was obvious to me, and of course to many others, that the U.S. military/governmental mission to Afghanistan was a failure. And here we are, eleven years later, finally leaving (I hope), though who knows with all those U.S. troops deployed there to protect U.S. nationals? Anyhow, here’s what I wrote in 2010. Will we ever learn?

Winston Churchill’s memorable quotation, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” captured the nobility of the RAF’s performance protecting free people from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler during World War II.

An irreverent paraphrase of this quotation, however, captures the Afghan war as it stands at this moment: Never was so much squandered by so many for so few.

The United States is currently spending $7 billion a month on the Afghan war, yet progress remains elusive and the end nowhere in sight. Just read General Stanley McChrystal’s own bleak assessment (which may have been a factor in his firing); several sobering metrics stick out:

  • Counterinsurgency (COIN) is about securing population centers from violence. But of the 116 Afghan population centers assessed, 40 (or more than a third) were considered “dangerous” or “unsecure,” with only five being judged “secure.”
  • A key element to the Afghan war is the span of control of the central government (led by Hamid Karzai). Remarkably, only five areas of Afghanistan (out of 122) are under the “full authority” of the Karzai government. In 89 areas, Karzai’s authority was judged “non-existent,” “dysfunctional,” or “unproductive.”
  • Of vital importance to an eventual American withdrawal is the viability of Afghan national military and police forces. Here again, according to McChrystal, progress is feeble, with less than a third of the Afghan military and only 12 percent of its police forces rated as “effective.”

So, despite nine years of American involvement and $300 billion dollars spent, key elements of our strategy in Afghanistan are not close to being achieved. We’re failing at COIN, the Karzai government remains corrupt and ineffectual, and the Afghan military and police forces, which we’ve expended eight years and $10+ billion training and equipping, are still unready to fight or provide security.

Of Rifles and Fighting Effectiveness

A question that rarely gets asked in the mainstream media is why, despite all our money and training, the Afghan national army and police remain unreliable and ineffective, whereas Taliban fighters on shoestring budgets are tough, resilient, and effective.

We can’t place all the blame on our Afghan allies. As Ann Jones has noted, much of our training and equipment is haphazard, insufficient, or inappropriate. To cite one of her examples, Americans provided M-16 rifles – precise but overly sensitive and prone to jam in the pervasive dust of Afghanistan – to Afghan army trainees, when Taliban fighters get by with Soviet-era AK-47s or even SMLEs (the British Lee-Enfield of World War 1 vintage).

Taliban fighters armed with century-old bolt-action rifles are giving us fits; our Afghan allies armed with M-16 automatic rifles are giving us fits for an entirely different reason. Such vivid discrepancies on the micro scale are sadly consistent with the failures of our strategy on the macro scale. They are both indicative of a war gone very wrong.

Changing the general in charge and tinkering with the controls will not bring victory in Afghanistan. “Victory” will come when we face up to our own limitations — and leave.

If We Lose Afghanistan, You’re to Blame

W.J. Astore

In my CNN news feed for today, I came across a warning from Army General Austin Scott Miller about Taliban advances in Afghanistan as U.S. troop withdrawals proceed. Conditions are deteriorating (not for the Taliban, obviously) and CNN cautioned that the Biden administration has yet to put together a plan to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan after the troop pullout is completed.

And I thought to myself: yet more evidence of the U.S. military covering its collective ass, for when the Taliban does take over, which it has been doing over the last decade, America’s generals can say, See, we told you so. We told you not to pullout too quickly. We told you this would happen, despite all those hard-fought gains we’d secured (always “fragile” and “reversible,” though, in the words of General David Petraeus). So when the “loss” does come (Afghanistan was never ours to “win” to begin with), it’ll be Biden’s fault, not ours.

In short, if we lose Afghanistan, we in the military are not to blame. You’re to blame.

Of course, this is patently ridiculous for so many reasons. I’ve written a lot about the Afghan war, and read more, so in a nutshell here’s why General Miller and Company are full of it:

  1. The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and billions and billions in resources to train, equip, and field an Afghan military, yet all those efforts gained little.
  2. The U.S. military had nearly 20 years and a trillion dollars in resources yet failed to defeat the Taliban.
  3. Before Biden ordered the troop pullout, the Taliban had already secured most of the country. This was also true when Trump as president considered withdrawing but was talked out of it by his generals.

As the saying goes in Afghanistan, the Americans have the fancy watches but the Afghan people have the time. Afghanistan never was America’s to win. And with respect to terrorism, the presence of U.S. and allied troops there only served to exacerbate the conflict. More and more military hammer blows only shattered the country further, causing more devastation, more desperation, and more extremism. The U.S. military seemed to specialize in killing the second- or third-ranked “terrorist” leader, over and over again, only to see a generally younger, more extreme leader rise to take his place. It was a terrific tactic for perpetual war, but it was hardly one suited to producing victory, whatever that might look like.

So American troops are leaving places like Bagram like thieves in the night, leaving behind lots of junk and a legacy of violence and destruction. If one photo can serve to sum up our withdrawal, consider this one of an Afghan girl at work carrying scrap metal (Made in USA!) for money:

In this picture taken on June 17, 2021, a girl carries a metal box she collected from a junkyard near the Bagram Air Base in Bagram. – The Pentagon is evacuating Bagram airbase as part of its plan to withdraw all forces by this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US, taking military gear home or given to Afghan security forces, but tons of civilian equipment must be left behind. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP) / TO GO WITH ‘Afghanistan-USA-conflict-Bagram’ FOCUS by Anne CHAON and Mushtaq MOJADDIDI

Well, that makes me proud to be an American.

Update (7/9/21):

Biden’s speech yesterday on Afghanistan was the usual claptrap. He claimed the U.S. didn’t go to Afghanistan to nation-build, even though the Afghan surge was all about defeating the Taliban while installing a “government in a box” for the Afghan people. All that effort by so many agencies to create an Afghan justice system, security forces, and so on so as to create the fundamentals of a government — all forgotten now because they failed. Meanwhile, the Afghan forces the U.S. military “trained” are folding quickly, flooding Afghanistan with even more weaponry.

I got this in my news feed from the New York Times: 

In Forceful Defense of Afghan Withdrawal, Biden Says U.S. Achieved Its Objectives

By Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
The president insisted that the United States had done more than enough to empower the Afghan police and military to secure the future of their people.

Look at the way this is structured. First the lie that we achieved our objectives. Then the idea that the way to “secure the future” is to create strong police and military forces. That is surely an idea that’s made in militarist America — that you secure the future through strong police and military forces. It’s the very opposite of what a democratic society would argue. But it is the approach of an authoritarian empire.

Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Today, I’d like to revive an article I wrote in July of 2010 about America’s folly in continuing its war in Afghanistan. Here we are, a decade later, and the Biden administration is contemplating continuing that war. Stupidity is obviously unbounded.

Anyway, as Julian Assange rots in prison for the crime of doing journalism, it behooves us to recall that WikiLeaks provided convincing evidence of America’s Afghan folly. Obviously, Assange the messenger must be shot, or at least punished severely for daring to air America’s dirty laundry.

Here’s my post from 2010. Does it make any sense in any universe to keep this going?

What WikiLeaks Reveals: We’re Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

07/27/2010

Perhaps the most predictable, as well as the most maddening, headline to emerge from the latest WikiLeaks controversy is this one from the Washington Post: “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War.”

Doubtless this “stay the course” approach will be spun as a sign of American resolve and tenacity. Of course, it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Naturally, there’ll be some who’ll say that Obama and General Petraeus have new cards up their sleeves, so perhaps they’re not “insane.” But they (and we) sure are looking more and more like fools.

Partly this is because President Obama and his advisors are still looking at Afghanistan as a problem to be solved, a war to be won, a situation to be handled. Or they see it as a high-stakes poker match, a deadly game of raises and bluffs, of gambling at long odds, but a match we can ultimately win as long as we keep playing and pumping in more chips.

But what if Afghanistan is none of these? What if we’re playing the fool?

Recall how proud we were, in the 1980s, at providing arms and aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters” who were then fighting the Soviets. It was the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, we said, the final nail in the coffin of Soviet communism, and we congratulated ourselves on our own cleverness.

Fast forward two decades, and now we’re the ones bogged down in Afghanistan, yet we still think we can “surge” or escalate or otherwise rescue a faltering and untenable war effort.

Faltering? Untenable? Few people will dispute the following facts, many of which are now further supported by the WikiLeaks documents:

1. We’ve already spent $300 billion on our war in Afghanistan with very little to show for it.

2. Year after year, we’ve been training the Afghan National Army and police, with very little to show for it.

3. We’ve almost completely eliminated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the immediate cause of our intervention in 2001, yet we continue to send more troops and more money there.

4. We’ve allied ourselves with a corrupt government and leaders who are enriching themselves at our expense.

5. We pay bribes to protect our convoys, and some of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban.

6. We’re working with a regional ally, Pakistan, whose interests are often contrary to our own, and yet whose allegiance we attempt to buy with more military aid.

7. In trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, we’ve largely looked the other way with respect to the opium and heroin trade. The result? A drug-based Afghan economy.

8. In fighting an American-style war, we’ve relied on massive firepower, often from the air, that inevitably results in civilian casualties that undermine our counterinsurgency efforts.

9. At a time when we’re still trying to create jobs and pull ourselves out of a Great Recession, we continue to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to a seemingly endless war, with Congress currently preparing to approve yet another $33.5 billion for Afghanistan.

10. While largely ignoring civilian casualties in Afghanistan, we also downplay the cost of constant warfare to our troops, not just those who are killed or wounded in action (horrible as that price is), but to those who are brutalized by war, those whose families are destroyed or damaged by constant deployments, by domestic violence, and by suicides. Yet we reassure ourselves this price is bearable since our troops are “all volunteers.”

These are hard facts, and the WikiLeaks evidence has only made them harder. Only a fool refuses to face facts, and hardheaded Americans are not fools.

Or are we?

America’s Endless Afghan War

09-02-2014 passage - 1
The rugged face of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

News this week that 300 Marines have returned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan recalls the failed surge of 2009-10, when roughly 20,000 Marines beat back the Taliban in the region, only to see those “fragile” gains quickly turn to “reversible” ones (to cite the infamous terms of General David Petraeus, architect of that surge).

While fragility and reversibility characterize American progress, the Taliban continues to make real progress.  According to today’s report at FP: Foreign Policy, “the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began.”  Meanwhile, in January and February more than 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, notes Foreign Policy, citing a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  That’s a high figure given that fighting abates during the winter.

Besides committing fresh U.S. Marines to more Afghan security forces “training,” the U.S. military has responded with PR spin.  For example, when friendly Afghan forces abandoned a district and police headquarters, a U.S. spokesman claimed it had been “repositioned.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “U.S. forces helped in ferrying [Afghan] government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.”  Literally, the old district center and its resources had to be destroyed, and a new one created, for the Afghan position to be “saved.”

Destroying things to “save” them: Where have we heard that before?  The Vietnam War, of course, a lesson not lost on Aaron O’Connell, a U.S. Marine who edited the book “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”  O’Connell’s recent interview with NPR cites the Vietnam example as he explains the one step forward, two steps back, nature of America’s Afghan War.  In his words:

So we’ve spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 – things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.

So it’s – really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable.

Americans have spent an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan without thinking about how to sustain the improvements we’ve funded.  Meanwhile, as O’Connell notes, the security situation (as in lack of security) in Afghanistan undermines those infrastructure efforts.

With respect to U.S. efforts to create a viable Afghan Army, O’Connell doesn’t mince words about its failings:

[T]he massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear [with their guns].

Here’s the grim reality: U.S. military efforts to take charge and win the war, as in “winning hearts and minds” (known as WHAM) in 2009-10, proved unsustainable.  Follow-on efforts to turn the war over to the Afghan government (analogous to LBJ and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy in the waning years of the Vietnam War) are also failing.  Yet America’s newest commanding general in Afghanistan wants yet more troops for yet more “training,” effectively doubling down on a losing hand.

Wissing
Required reading for those with eyes to see and ears to hear

The logical conclusion – that’s it’s high-time U.S. forces simply left Afghanistan – is never contemplated in Washington.  This is why Douglas Wissing’s book, “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan,” is so immensely valuable.  Wissing is a journalist who embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013.  His book consists of short chapters of sharply drawn vignettes focusing on the street and grunt level.  Its collective lesson: Afghanistan, for Americans, doesn’t really exist as a country and a people. It exists only as a wasteful, winless, and endless war.

What is Afghanistan to Americans?  It’s an opportunity for profit and exploitation for contractors.  It’s a job as well as a personal proving ground for U.S. troops.  It’s a chance to test theories and to earn points (and decorations) for promotion for many officers.  It’s hardly ever about working closely with the Afghan people to find solutions that will work for them over the long haul.

A telling example Wissing cites is wells.  Americans came with lots of money to drill deep water wells for Afghan villagers and farmers (as opposed to relying on traditional Afghan irrigation systems featuring underground channels that carry mountain water to the fields with minimal evaporation).  Instead of revolutionizing Afghan agriculture, the wells drove down water tables and exhausted aquifers.  As the well-digging frenzy (Wissing’s word) disrupted Afghanistan’s fragile, semiarid ecosystem, powerful Afghans fought to control the new wells, creating new tensions among tribes.  The American “solution,” in sum, is exacerbating conflict while exhausting the one resource the Afghan people can’t do without: water.

Then there’s the “poo pond,” a human sewage lagoon at Kandahar Air Field that was to be used as a source for organic fertilizer.  I’ll let Wissing take the tale from here:

But instead of enriching Afghan soil, the U.S.-led coalition forces decided to burn the mountains of fertilizer with astronomically expensive imported gasoline.  The [U.S. air force] officer reminded me that the Taliban got $1500 in protection money for each U.S. fuel tanker they let through, so in the process the jihadists were also able to skim the American shit [from the poo pond].

Walking back, I spot a green metal dumpster stenciled with a large sign that reads, “General Waste Only.”  At that moment, it seems to sum up the whole war.

Wissing’s hard-edged insights demonstrate that America is never going to win in Afghanistan, unless “winning” is measured by money wasted.  Again, Americans simply see Afghanistan too narrowly, as a “war” to won, as a problem to be managed, as an environment to be controlled.

Indeed, the longstanding failure of our “answers” is consistent with the military’s idea we’re fighting a generational or “long” war.  We may be failing, but that’s OK, since we have a “long” time to get things right.

After sixteen years and a trillion dollars, the answer in Afghanistan is not another sixteen years and another trillion dollars.  Yet that’s exactly what America seems prepared to do in the endless war that to us defines Afghanistan.

Update (5/5/17):  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “‘More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,’ said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.”

I love that word: thicken.  The general refuses to say “improve.”  And that’s probably because more U.S. troops really won’t improve training, in the sense of enhancing Afghan forces’ effectiveness.  As FP reports, “Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in.”

But not to worry: More “thickening” is coming in the form of more U.S. troops and money.

Insanity: repeating the same course of action again and again and yet expecting different results.