Winning the Afghan War — In Hollywood

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W.J. Astore

A new movie, “!2 Strong,” is opening on January 19th.  I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs.  It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.”  Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback.  The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:

“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” U.S. troops prevail.

Watching the trailers on TV is a surreal experience.  You get the impression the U.S. cavalry sounded the charge and won the Afghan war in 2001.  You’d never know U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan in 2018, facing a “stalemate” and a resurgent Taliban that controls vast swaths of territory, and that U.S. forces face a “generational” slog to an endpoint where victory is indeed ill-defined.

Even though America is treading water in the Afghan war, Hollywood has cherry-picked an episode from the early days of that war, in the tradition of a John Wayne movie (like “The Horse Soldiers“).

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The Wild West has been reset to Afghanistan with U.S. troops as the new sheriff in town, with the Taliban serving as the “savages” in the old Western tradition.

It’s the U.S. cavalry to the rescue, in the wild Afghan mountains.  Yet highlighting this one episode in America’s quagmire war in Afghanistan is more than misleading.  It’s as if the Japanese made a film about World War II that began and ended with Pearl Harbor.

Remember when Candidate Trump boasted that, when he became president, Americans would win so much, we’d get bored with winning?  “Believe me,” he said.

Maybe this is believable … at the movies.

New Year’s Resolution: End America’s Quagmire Wars

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B-52s against drug labs.  Really?

W.J. Astore

Here’s a New Year’s resolution: How about ending America’s quagmire wars?

There are many reasons why Afghanistan, Iraq, and similar countries will always be quagmires for the U.S. military.  U.S. troops have difficulty identifying friend from foe, and indeed “friendly” troops and police sometimes turn on their U.S. counterparts.  U.S. troops will always be a foreign presence, heavily armed and invasive, often (mis)guided by incomplete or misleading intelligence.  Almost inevitably, they are seen as backing corrupt and kleptocratic governments, whether in Kabul or Baghdad.  At the same time, U.S. bombing and search and destroy missions kill innocents even as they generate refugees—and new enemies.  Under such violent and tumultuous conditions, you can forget about winning hearts and minds or creating lasting political stability.

Facing this no-win scenario, savvy U.S. leaders would pull troops out immediately, but of course pulling out is never an option.  Whether it’s Bush or Obama or Trump, the preferred “solution” to unwinnable quagmires is to “surge” (more troops, more airpower, more “advisers,” more weaponry) or to dither with tactics.  Old theories are trotted out, such as pacification and counterinsurgency and nation-building, dressed up with new terms and acronyms such as asymmetrical warfare, the gray zone, MOOTW (military operations other than war), and VEOs, or violent extremist organizations, known to most people as terrorists.

The mentality among America’s generals is that the war must go on.  There must be a can-do way to defeat VEOs in the grey zone using asymmetrical warfare while engaged in MOOTW.  Thus B-52s, those venerable strategic bombers from the early Cold War era, are now being used in Afghanistan to “asymmetrically” destroy drug laboratories associated with Taliban funding, yet another instance of the U.S. military swinging a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

After 16 years, if you’re calling in B-52s to flatten small drug labs, this is not a sign of impending victory.  It’s a sign of desperation — a sign of a totally bankrupt strategy.

The same is true of the use of MOAB in 2017.  It’s not a sign of strength to use such blockbuster bombs on an undeveloped country like Afghanistan.  It’s a sign of desperation.  Of having no coherent strategy.  Of throwing munitions at the wall and seeing which one makes the biggest boom.

Of course, a key aspect of this is domestic politics.  The target of B-52s and MOABs isn’t always the Taliban and similar VEOs.  It’s American public opinion.  For Trump, it’s like, “See?  We used MOAB.  We’re using B-52s.  Obama didn’t do this.  We’re tougher–better–stronger.  We’re taking the gloves off.”

When America’s military is not taking metaphorical gloves off, it’s learning to eat soup with a knife.  That’s the title of Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency, abbreviated as COIN in military circles.  A decade ago, Nagl worked with General David Petraeus to rewrite the book on COIN, which enjoyed a brief renaissance during the Iraq and Afghan surges.  But COIN methods (the idea of killing or otherwise neutralizing guerrillas/terrorists/VEOs while winning the hearts and minds of the people) haven’t worked to clean up American-made messes in those countries, a result contained within the metaphor.  For if you really want to eat soup, best to put away military knives, pick up the soup bowl, and slurp away.

But America’s warfighters, with their affinity for knives, persist in efforts to develop new and “better” ones (spoons are for wimps!) as they flail away in various soup bowls (or, if you prefer, Petri dishes, which was General John Nicholson’s, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “bowl” of choice to describe the Af-Pak region in his testimony to Congress in 2017).

To use a different soup metaphor, too many cooks spoil the broth.  The U.S. military’s interventions—its various and varying recipes for success, the ingredients of which are almost exclusively violent—never add up to a palatable product.

William S. Smith put it well in a recent article for The American Conservative.  American military interventions, Smith notes, driven in large part by COIN theory, mostly ignore local history, religion, and culture.  The resulting quagmire, according to Smith, is predictable:

The fact is that all political order at all times and everywhere emerges from an extremely complex set of unique symbols, practices, and beliefs that are rooted in history, culture, and religion. Political order does not merely flow from safety and the protection of property but out of a cultural inheritance that provides citizens with a sense that their society embodies something larger than themselves. To them, the symbols and traditions of their society reflect a certain divine order. An invading army from a foreign civilization will always be seen as a threat to that order whether citizens embrace violence or not. Without a major revolution in culture an occupying army will be in no position to generate more than a skin-deep and transitory political reconciliation. (Emphasis added)

Call it COINfusion followed by defeat.  The U.S. military tried the “occupying army” part of this with its various surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political results were as Smith says: skin-deep and transitory.  The “new” American approach seems to be a variation of Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization policy of turning the fight over to the “indigenous” peoples, whether Afghans, Iraqis, etc. while continuing to bomb, to supply weaponry, and to provide training and “advice” with U.S. boots on the ground.  Such an approach is sold to the American people as staying the course to victory, with the exact terms of “victory” left undefined.

But what price “victory”, even an illusory one?  A staggering one.  By the end of fiscal year 2018, America’s post-9/11 wars will have cost the taxpayers nearly $5.6 trillion, notes the “Cost of Wars” project at Brown University.  With U.S. generals speaking of “generational” wars, this enormous burden will only continue to grow in the future—unless we wise up.

So my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is simple.  End quagmire wars.  Bring the troops home.  After all, what’s wrong with saving blood and treasure?

The Afghan War Isn’t a Stalemate: It’s a Defeat

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My old chess clock.  Time has run out, America.

W.J. Astore

Stalemate: That’s the word of choice being used by U.S. generals to describe the Afghan War.  What, exactly, is a stalemate?  I played chess at an early age, caught up in the Bobby Fischer craze of the early 1970s, and I still play occasionally.  In chess, a stalemate is a special kind of draw, and an often frustrating one.  Put concisely, “Stalemate is a situation in the game of chess where the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move.”

For example, I may be winning decisively, with only my opponent’s king left on the board.  But if I carelessly put my opponent’s (unchecked) king in such a position that his only move is into harm (or “check”), the position is stalemated.  My decisive material advantage makes no difference: the game is over, it’s a draw.  In effect, given my material advantage, it’s a win for him and a loss for me.

Is the Afghan War “stalemated”?  Not according to the U.S. military, since it believes the “stalemate” can be reversed, that the U.S. can still “win.”  Indeed, President Trump has already gone on record last week as saying his administration is winning in Afghanistan.  No stalemate here.

A stalemated chess match is simply a bad metaphor for the Afghan War.  It’s not that one side can’t make a legal move, therefore the game is over.  (Would that the war could end so easily and cleanly!)  The situation today in Afghanistan is that the Taliban continues to tighten its grip on the country, or, in chess terms, it’s enlarging its span of control over the board, even as U.S. and Coalition forces send more troops, expend more munitions, and issue more reports about how they can still win — as long as U.S. generals get exactly what they want.

So, if stalemate is the wrong word, what is the right one?  I have one: defeat.  U.S. and Coalition forces have been fighting the Afghan War for 16 years.  Surges have come and gone.  More than a trillion dollars has been spent.  Yet the enemy retains the initiative and largely dictates the terms of the conflict.  Whatever this is, it isn’t “victory”; it’s not “progress”; nor is it “stalemate.” It’s a lost position, a defeat, pure and simple.

There’s nothing wrong with defeat.  The very best chess grandmasters lose; and when they do, they almost always tip their king and resign before they’re checkmated (defeated utterly).  By doing so, they conserve their energy for the next opponent, even as they study the lost game so they can learn from their mistakes.

Isn’t it time the U.S. did the same in the Afghan War?  Admit a lost position, resign, and withdraw?  Then learn?

Trump, of course, says he’s all about winning.  He’ll continue to push pieces about the board, despite the lost position.  This is not reversing a stalemate (which, by the rules of chess, can’t be done).  It’s only delaying defeat – at a high cost indeed to all those “pieces” being shunted about and sacrificed on the chessboard that is Afghanistan.

One Grizzled Veteran’s Dream

W.J. Astore

Today I saw this bulletin from FP: Foreign Policy: 

OUTSIDE THE WIRE: Several years after pulling back, American troops will head outside the wire to battle the Taliban and turn up the air war, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce report.

America’s wars never end.  So much for Armistice Day of 99 years ago.  In place of Woodrow Wilson’s eternal peace, we now have eternal war.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We have a choice, as this article, that I wrote for Veterans Day in 2009, suggests.

Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.

Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.

At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)

Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.

It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.

As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.

Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.

Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago?

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Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?

Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.

Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.

On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?

Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?

Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?

I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.

The Definition of American Insanity

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There’s always money for more nukes

W.J. Astore

Here are two items this morning from FP: Foreign Policy (foreignpolicy.com), which provides a daily summary (Situation Report, or SITREP) of news items related to the U.S. military and foreign policy.  Together, they represent the very definition of insanity.

Item 1The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. That huge number takes into account the replacement of nuclear-capable submarines, ICBMs, and new aircraft for the Air Force.

The budget office warned that the projected costs would muscle out some conventional weapons programs in the coming years unless the Pentagon’s budget is increased substantially. The CBO identified some cost savings however, saying the Pentagon could save as much as $139 billion if it delayed production of a new ICBM, stalled a secretive new nuclear-capable bomber called the B-21, and reduced the number of ICBMs and missile-carrying nuclear submarines than planned. 

All of those plans are carry-overs from the Obama administration, as the Trump team has yet to articulate a nuclear weapons strategy. 

Item 2War in Afghanistan, redacted. The Afghan government is losing control of more and more territory to the Taliban, according a grim new report from the congressionally-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes spiked by 52 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year, the report notes. 

In response to those unfriendly stats, the U.S. military has started to withhold information from the American public, refusing to report figures related to the size and success of Afghan security forces — which the U.S. taxpayer has spent tens of billions to build and sustain.

“The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told the New York Times. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

In sum, the American people will possibly pay more than a trillion dollars in the next three decades for more nuclear weapons (when the stated goal of leaders like Obama had been to eliminate them), even as information about the never-ending war in Afghanistan is withheld from the American people (especially the jaw-dropping waste of billions of dollars on Afghan security forces that can’t or won’t fight).

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico languish in the dark, the victims of a U.S. government that seeks to punish the island for its debt to various financial institutes and power brokers.

What madness!

With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton

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More alike than we knew?

W.J. Astore

Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars.  He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target.  He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way.  He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration.  Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously.  Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.

President Trump is a different man.  “His” generals have brought him under control.  Criticism of the F-35 has gone away.  Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it.  Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia).  More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does.  Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State.  Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump.  McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.

In short, the generals have won.  Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton.  Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”

I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.

Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence.  His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission.  Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.

Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light.  We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity.  There may even be some truth to this.  But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton.  He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.

As Trump himself might tweet, “Sad.”

Trump’s Afghan War Speech: More of the Same, With More Killing

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Trump, surrounded by troops and patriotic bunting, defines his “new” Afghan strategy (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

W.J. Astore

As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war.  A waste, he said.  Americans should withdraw, he said.  But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors.  The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.

What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war.  Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:

  1. “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”

It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices.  By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on.  Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?

  1. “Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”

Actually, the consequences of an American withdrawal are both unpredictable and (most probably) acceptable.  Sure, terrorist organizations may gain impetus from an American withdrawal.  It’s also possible that a notoriously corrupt Afghan government might finally negotiate with the Taliban and other organizations, and that regional power brokers like Pakistan and Iran, who have their own interests in regional stability, might broker a settlement that Americans could live with.

Trump further argued that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to “hard-won gains slip[ping] back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.”  The truth is far more complex.  The prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq helped to create ISIS in the first place, and failed American efforts to create and train reliable Iraqi security forces contributed to easy ISIS victories after U.S. forces left in 2011.

  1. “Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”

Isn’t it remarkable that, after sixteen years of sustained effort by the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region is now home to 20+ terrorist organizations?  The “highest concentration” in the world?  Is this not an admission of the utter failure of U.S. policy and actions since 2001?  How is this failure to be rectified by yet more U.S. attacks?

Trump said the new American goal is to kill terrorists.  This is not a strategy.  It’s a perpetual and deadly game of Whac-A-Mole.  That’s what Trump’s vaunted new strategy boils down to, despite the talk of economic pressure and working with Pakistan and India and other regional powers.

On Afghanistan, Trump should have listened to his instincts and withdrawn.  Instead, he listened to “his” generals.  With Trump, the generals won this round.  What they can’t win, however, is the war.