Endless War and the Lack of a Progressive Critique of the Pentagon

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The Pentagon has won the war that matters most

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue the Pentagon has won the war that matters: the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of America.  Pentagon budgets are soaring even as wars in places like Afghanistan continue to go poorly.  Despite poor results, criticism of the Pentagon is rare indeed, whether in the mainstream U.S. media or even among so-called liberals and progressives, a point hammered home to me when I contacted my senator.  Here’s an excerpt from TomDispatch; you can read my article in full here.

A Letter From My Senator

A few months back, I wrote a note to one of my senators to complain about America’s endless wars and received a signed reply via email. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was a canned response, but no less telling for that. My senator began by praising American troops as “tough, smart, and courageous, and they make huge sacrifices to keep our families safe. We owe them all a true debt of gratitude for their service.” OK, I got an instant warm and fuzzy feeling, but seeking applause wasn’t exactly the purpose of my note.

My senator then expressed support for counterterror operations, for, that is, “conducting limited, targeted operations designed to deter violent extremists that pose a credible threat to America’s national security, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists.” My senator then added a caveat, suggesting that the military should obey “the law of armed conflict” and that the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that Congress hastily approved in the aftermath of 9/11 should not be interpreted as an “open-ended mandate” for perpetual war.

Finally, my senator voiced support for diplomacy as well as military action, writing, “I believe that our foreign policy should be smart, tough, and pragmatic, using every tool in the toolbox — including defense, diplomacy, and development — to advance U.S. security and economic interests around the world.” The conclusion: “robust” diplomacy must be combined with a “strong” military.

Now, can you guess the name and party affiliation of that senator? Could it have been Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake, Republicans who favor a beyond-strong military and endlessly aggressive counterterror operations? Of course, from that little critical comment on the AUMF, you’ve probably already figured out that my senator is a Democrat. But did you guess that my military-praising, counterterror-waging representative was Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts?

Full disclosure: I like Warren and have made small contributions to her campaign. And her letter did stipulate that she believed “military action should always be a last resort.” Still, nowhere in it was there any critique of, or even passingly critical commentary about, the U.S. military, or the still-spreading war on terror, or the never-ending Afghan War, or the wastefulness of Pentagon spending, or the devastation wrought in these years by the last superpower on this planet. Everything was anodyne and safe — and this from a senator who’s been pilloried by the right as a flaming liberal and caricatured as yet another socialist out to destroy America.

I know what you’re thinking: What choice does Warren have but to play it safe? She can’t go on record criticizing the military. (She’s already gotten in enough trouble in my home state for daring to criticize the police.) If she doesn’t support a “strong” U.S. military presence globally, how could she remain a viable presidential candidate in 2020?

And I would agree with you, but with this little addendum: Isn’t that proof that the Pentagon has won its most important war, the one that captured — to steal a phrase from another losing war — the “hearts and minds” of America? In this country in 2018, as in 2017, 2016, and so on, the U.S. military and its leaders dictate what is acceptable for us to say and do when it comes to our prodigal pursuit of weapons and wars.

So, while it’s true that the military establishment failed to win those “hearts and minds” in Vietnam or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, they sure as hell didn’t fail to win them here. In Homeland, U.S.A., in fact, victory has been achieved and, judging by the latest Pentagon budgets, it couldn’t be more overwhelming.

If you ask — and few Americans do these days — why this country’s losing wars persist, the answer should be, at least in part: because there’s no accountability. The losers in those wars have seized control of our national narrative. They now define how the military is seen (as an investment, a boon, a good and great thing); they now shape how we view our wars abroad (as regrettable perhaps, but necessary and also a sign of national toughness); they now assign all serious criticism of the Pentagon to what they might term the defeatist fringe.

In their hearts, America’s self-professed warriors know they’re right. But the wrongs they’ve committed, and continue to commit, in our name will not be truly righted until Americans begin to reject the madness of rampant militarism, bloated militaries, and endless wars.

A Perpetual War Machine

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Fighting in Kabul in August. The Afghan capital is increasingly under attack by militants, highlighting the lack of Coalition progress in the war (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

Scientists tell us a perpetual motion machine is impossible (that pesky 2nd law of thermodynamics about entropy), but America’s leaders are proving a perpetual war machine is quite possible, as events in Afghanistan prove.  The USA is now entering the 18th year of its Afghan war, with regress rather than progress being the reality of nearly a trillion dollars committed to this war.  At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes that “Though few realized it at the time [in 2001], the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military.”  At Slate.com, Fred Kaplan notes that the Afghan War

has been going on for 17 years now… making it the longest war in American history. Yet we are no closer than we have ever been to accomplishing our objectives, in part because those objectives have been so sketchily, inconsistently, and unrealistically defined.

In fact, the Taliban is gaining strength; other jihadist groups, including ISIS and a revivified al-Qaida, are joining the fight (against the Afghan government, Western forces, and the Taliban); the Afghan Army is suffering casualties at an alarming rate; the chaos is spiraling to unsustainable levels.

Nevertheless, the USA persists in its folly.  There are many reasons for this, but I’d like to focus on one: the warrior ethos in the U.S. military.  “Warriors wanted,” say new U.S. Army TV ads and web campaigns.  The warrior ethos, according to the Army, compels us to never accept defeat.  Check out goarmy.com/warriors to get your lesson on America’s warrior ethos.  The site says the Army must be “unbeatable.”  The site says “We never accept defeat.”

But this is ridiculous.  All armies lose battles.  The greatest generals of history suffered setbacks. In fact, it’s often wise to accept defeat or to make a strategic retreat.  And some wars aren’t worth fighting to begin with.

Apply the warrior ethos to Afghanistan: The USA will never accept defeat. Which means the war will go on forever, since it never was ours to win to begin with.

Waging a no-win war is not a measure of warrior toughness; it’s a sign of stubborn stupidity.

Afghan Parliamentary and Provincial Elections

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An idealized view of Afghan elections.  Reality is harsher.

By Pamela

Editor’s Note: Checking the news this morning, I saw the following report from Afghanistan:

“A suicide bomber blew himself up in the Afghan capital on Saturday, killing at least 15 people as voting concluded in parliamentary elections that were overshadowed by the threat of attacks and serious organizational problems.” Other attacks on a smaller scale killed or wounded dozens of others, noted the report. Meanwhile, the Taliban in Afghanistan called on people to boycott the elections.

Western efforts to bring (or impose) a semblance of democracy on Afghanistan have been deeply flawed from the beginning, notes Pamela in this article that she graciously agreed to write for this site. The Afghan people were told democracy would naturally follow from elections, but the reality has been far different and more tragic, notes Pamela based on her own experiences in observing prior elections. W.J. Astore

Today, October 20th, Afghanistan is to hold parliamentary and provincial elections which had been postponed since 2016. I’ve witnessed all the previous ones, with the local ones stirring more emotions among the population than the presidential ones.

The first one of these (in 2005) was very popular and people went to vote in droves. I worked then in Jalalabad, a rather traditional city close to the border with Pakistan. A colleague told me he was going to vote and what’s more, for a woman who had taught him in university ‘because women do not use guns to settle disputes and are not corrupted’ (the latter of course being debatable). Security was still reasonable; its abrupt decline did not start until 2006. As later became clear, however, that enthusiasm was the result of a misunderstanding.

People had been endlessly brainwashed that voting would bring ‘democracy’. And that in turn would miraculously produce the human rights, security & prosperity they were desperately yearning for after more than 25 years of wars and oppression. After all, if ‘democracy’ was to be judged by how well off its European and American adepts were, it clearly was worth voting for! Thus all these unfamiliar western concepts conflated in many people’s minds into a magic future of instant peace, security and prosperity.

It’s not like Afghans did not have their own forms of human rights and democratic ways of decision making including elected bodies who represented them, but our concepts as such were alien. Since 2005 even in rural areas the access to television and internet has increased tremendously, but in those days even in major cities electricity was rare and the internet hardly available and very expensive. Particularly illiterate persons (70% of the population) therefore had no way to supplement from public sources their limited understanding of what we proposed.

Our half-baked extension efforts led many people to believe that democracy and human rights were basically two terms for the same phenomenon and that to obtain that universal panacea, all they had to do is go and vote.

No wonder then, that by 2009 (presidential elections) and 2010 (parliamentary and provincial ones) they had realised that ‘democracy’ had not changed anything much and had not brought about the promised miracles, so enthusiasm for the elections was much less and so was turnout. Despite positive developments like more than 25 % of all seats in parliament being reserved for women, too many former warlords with blood on their hands were still ruling and there had been no accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes. Voting enthusiasm also waned because by then security had dramatically decreased as compared to 2005, so the risk of being maimed or even killed when voting for the democracy mirage was only too real. Billboards were supposed to ‘motivate’ people to go and vote in these ‘free and fair democratic elections’, as NATO was touting them.

Those presidential elections were the ones when the US openly repudiated the increasingly critical Hamid Karzai and then had to scramble to adjust the rhetoric when in spite of that he did win anyway. Interestingly, an amazing outsider came in third, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost. Amazing, because he is from the Hazara minority which always is at the bottom of the pecking order. But he inspired confidence as an honest person above corruption, he was no ancient warlord with blood on his hands, part of ‘the usual suspects’, or compromised with foreign powers. He would travel to election meetings in distant provinces by ordinary yellow taxi, as he had no limousine or other privileges.

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Bashardost (as usual carrying his documents under his arm) discussing with the audience after a theatre performance by and for war victims, ten years ago in the ruins of the Soviet cultural complex in Kabul

The next presidential election took place in the fateful year 2014 – the one in which the foreign armies were to withdraw, which prospect had in the years leading up to it caused corruption at all levels to skyrocket to cash in before the dollar manna would dry up. I only witnessed the start of the presidential campaign, but the result is well known: endless squabbling between the two ‘winners’ – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. John Kerry eventually brokered some sort of power-sharing compromise which created a government even more dysfunctional than the previous ones, which has been limping along ever since. Insecurity had again increased exponentially since 2009, which additionally demotivated voters.

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Tadjik ophthalmologist and close friend of Masood, Abdullah Abdullah the eternal loser, eventually thanks to Kerry becoming a ‘Chief Executive’

As for the parliamentary & provincial elections which were scheduled for 2016, they never materialised and will be held only now (and presidential ones next year).

So now it’s 2018 and yet another round of this futile exercise, whose purpose evidently is to flatter our conscience and embellish our annual reports rather than to improve Afghan lives. The last time I was in Afghanistan was three years ago, so I cannot vouch for the opinions and feelings of the Afghans, but I do follow what is happening there. Several coordinated deadly attacks on voters’ registration centres already had severely limited the number of registered voters. Governmental attempts to inflate their number by relaxing control of voter identities additionally undermined the population’s trust in the election’s transparency.

Last minute distribution of electronic voting equipment can be expected to add to the confusion. This is a far cry from the ballot boxes which during the 2005 elections were transported under UN supervision to remote mountains areas on donkey-back.

The expanding presence of ISIL and their ruthless readiness to kill random civilians (particularly those of the Shia Hazara minority) rather than the Taliban’s usual foreign, military and governmental targets, adds to the risk of any involvement with the elections, whether by organising & securing them or as a mere voter.

Ten local candidates have already been killed in terrorist attacks, as well as many more accidental bystanders and members of the police and army when trying to protect voter registration centres and election rallies. Only yesterday, three top level authorities were killed in Kandahar, including the provincial governor and the police chief who had been fiercely anti-Taliban and had managed to introduce a modicum of security and order in what used to be the most dangerous part of the country. Therefore, the elections will be postponed for a week in Kandahar. According to the Taliban, their target in fact was General Miller – who ‘strongly denies’ this.

How many Afghans will be willing to risk their lives to vote and how many will be maimed or dead by the end of the day? And maybe most importantly, what will it change for the better for the Afghans who have lived under armed conflict for 39 years already, with no end in sight?

Update by Pamela (10/21/18): Few people are interested in Afghanistan anymore and that is understandable with Yemen and Syria being much bigger crises.

And now all are absorbed by the Jamal Khashoggi case, which has the collateral advantage to finally shine the light on Saudi crimes, but otherwise is another dreadful example of western hypocrisy. Millions of starving Yemenis could not produce the outcry that one — evidently well-connected — only mildly dissident Saudi did.

I understand that media are outraged as it concerns one of their own and journalists are threatened world-wide. But that does not apply to governments.

‘Disappearing’, torturing and killing one’s own (in addition to foreign) citizens has been done by all the countries who now sanctimoniously shed crocodile tears while silently praying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo & Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) will manage to concoct an acceptable ‘explanation’, which will allow them to keep on selling arms to the Saudis and enjoy their investments.

A good example of that is the second part of a documentary about Qaddafi’s Libya, which highlights western collusion with him which led to rendition of Libyan dissidents including pregnant wives and children. Not to mention al Libi’s rendition to Egypt where this poor guy was tortured for six months until he agreed to sign a paper which stated that he had evidence of Saddam Hussein colluding with al-Qaeda, which ‘confession’ was used to ‘justify’ the war in Iraq in 2003.

After which he was sent back to Libya where he ‘committed suicide’ in prison, four days before the US reopened a consulate/embassy there.  I’ve been following these cases since long ago, but this documentary added some more info:

https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2018/02/libya-muammar-gaddafi-rendition-west-180206060413837.html

Pamela, a former aid worker with a decade’s worth of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, worked with the Afghan people in relationships characterized by trust and friendship.

America’s Unwinnable Wars

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River in rural Pennsylvania.  Do I hear banjos? (Author’s photo)

W.J. Astore

Back in January of 2010, I wrote the following article as a thought experiment on whether Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan would succeed or fail.  I bet on failure, which wasn’t much of a reach.  Why?  It’s not because U.S. troops weren’t brave or dedicated.  They sure didn’t lack weaponry.  What they lacked was the ability to enforce their will at a sustainable cost.  They were strangers in a strange land, among strange people, and the mission they were given was simply beyond them.  I tried to explain this with some role reversal.  Eight years later, the Taliban and similar forces are even stronger than they were at the start of 2010.  Surprised?

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge (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.

Afterthought (2018): I’ve done some hiking in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.  It can be tough terrain.  Heavily forested hills and valleys, rattlesnakes among the rocks (my wife walked past two of them, entwined), quite primitive in its own way.  I pity a foreign army trying to force its agenda on Appalachia and the people who live there.  My favorite t-shirt (sported by a native woman) read: “Hunting bucks, driving trucks: that’s what makes me roll.”  Good luck pacifying her and her kin, foreigner.

Winning the Afghan War

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Can we get 10-20 million Americans to settle here?

W.J. Astore

I was jesting with a friend the other day about how the U.S. could win the Afghan War. There were two ways, I suggested.  The first is to relocate about 10 or 20 million Americans to Afghanistan and declare it the 51st state.  Then wait a generation or two.  The second was to withdraw all American forces and declare “mission accomplished.”  Half-measures that fall in between these options are doomed to fail, which is what we’ve been witnessing since the fall of 2001.

In Afghanistan today, the Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is flourishing, government corruption is endemic, yet the U.S. military/government continues to speak of progress.  This “spin it to win it” approach to the Afghan War is nothing new, of course, which is why the following article that I wrote in 2010 is still relevant.

President Trump had a sound instinct in seeking to end the Afghan War.  He was talked out of it by the military.  For all his faults, Trump knows a loser policy when he sees it.  Will he have the moxie to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

No More Afghanistans (originally posted in 2010)

In grappling with Afghanistan, President Obama and his team of national security advisors reveal a tendency all too common within the Washington beltway: privileging fleeting and reversible signs of local success while downplaying endemic difficulties and larger patterns of strategic failure. Our latest intelligence estimates, we are told, show signs of progress. But of what sort? The Taliban appears to be extending its hold in the countryside, corruption continues to spread in the Karzai government, and the Afghan National Army remains unreliable, all despite (or rather because of) prodigious infusions of cash courtesy of the American taxpayer.

The president and his advisors would do well to toss aside the latest “feel good” intel and pick up a good book on war. I’d recommend Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, by Colonel (later, Lieutenant General) Dave Richard Palmer. “One of the essential ingredients of [national] preparedness,” wrote then-Colonel Palmer in 1978, “is a diligent and honest study of the past, an intellectual examination of historical successes and failures.” True to his word, Palmer quoted Major G.P. Baldwin, who wrote in 1928 of the Russo-Japanese War that:

The [Russian] government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about … Such support is necessary in any war … Unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated [setbacks] … no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.

Palmer cited these words at the end of his probing account of America’s defeat in Vietnam. Though I don’t agree with all of Palmer’s conclusions, his book is stimulating, incisive, and compelling in its concluding vow: “There must be no more Vietnams.”

Let’s consider the points that Baldwin and Palmer raise in light of today’s situation in Afghanistan. Are the American people enthusiastic for this war? Do they have a strong will to win it (assuming the war is winnable on terms consistent with our interests)? Do they know what the war is about (this seems unlikely, since nine out of ten Americans can’t seem to locate Afghanistan on a map)?

If the answer to these fundamental questions is “no,” and I believe it is, shouldn’t our government and our troops be withdrawing now? Because I don’t see that our government will seek to mobilize the people, mobilize our national will, tell us clearly what our cause is and why it is just, and persist in that cause until it is either won or lost. And if I’m right about this, our government had best work to “keep the peace.”

Some of the reasons Palmer cites for why Vietnam was such an “incomprehensible war” for the United States bear careful consideration for President Obama’s policy review. These reasons include that few Americans knew exactly why we were fighting in Vietnam; that it was a “limited war” during which most Americans “sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement”; that no “unifying element” was at work to suppress internal doubt and dissent, common elements in all wars; that the struggle was not only (or even primarily) a military one but one in which economic, political, and psychological factors often intruded; and that a cultural gap of great perplexity separated us from both our in-country allies and our enemy, a gap that “foment[ed] mistrust and misunderstanding.”

In light of these points, Afghanistan may qualify as a new “incomprehensible war.” Let’s not be distracted by the minutia of the latest intelligence reports and their uncertain metrics of “success.” Unless we can give convincing answers to General Palmer’s questions and points – and unless we can wage a war that doesn’t entail destroying the Afghan village in order to save it – our only sound course is expedient withdrawal, followed by a renewed vow: There must be no more Vietnams – or Afghanistans.

Reinforcing Failure in Afghanistan

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The Tough Terrain of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, as the Obama administration was ramping up its ill-fated surge in Afghanistan, I wrote the following article on the contradictions of U.S. military strategy in that country.  Like the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century, both defeated by the Afghan people as well as the harsh environment, the Americans in the 21st century are a foreign and invasive presence in Afghanistan that will ultimately be fought off and ejected.  (Interestingly, the U.S. military has it exactly backwards, seeing itself as antibodies to a foreign terrorist threat in Afghanistan.)  Despite the weight of history and the lack of U.S. progress in Afghanistan over the last two decades, the U.S. government in 2018 refuses to withdraw, wasting an additional $45 billion a year on a trillion-dollar campaign that’s gone nowhere.

Little did I know in 2009 that, nearly a decade later, the U.S. military would still be mired in that country, yet still be talking about some kind of victory in a war that retired General David Petraeus says will last for “generations.”  The British and Soviets learned their lesson and withdrew; when will the U.S. learn the lesson of Afghanistan and withdraw?

Why is the U.S. military still there?  If it’s to suppress terrorism or the Taliban, the exact opposite has happened: terrorism has spread and the Taliban has grown stronger.  The heroin trade has also accelerated.  Is it about gas pipelines?  Strategic minerals?  Bases from which Iran can be attacked?  Maintaining American “credibility”?  All of the above?  I would guess most Americans have no clue why the U.S. military is still in Afghanistan, other than some vague notion of fighting a war on terror.  And in war vague notions are a poor substitute for sound strategy and communal will.

Here’s my article from 2009:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government [now gone] in Kabul.

The conundrum is that any Afghan military created by outsiders — and America, despite our image of ourselves, is naturally seen by most Afghans as a self-interested outsider — is apt to be viewed as compromised and illegitimate.

Committing more American troops and advisors only exacerbates this problem. The more U.S. troops we send, the more we’re “in the face” of the Afghan people, jabbering at them in a language they don’t understand. The more troops we send, moreover, the more likely it is that our troops will take the war’s burdens on themselves. If history is any guide, we’ll tend to push aside the “incompetent” and “unreliable” Afghan military that we’re so at pains to create and celebrate.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

A little history. Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win. Nor is an Afghan army ours to create. Like the British, we might fine-tune Afghan physiques, but we won’t be able to instill high morale and staying power.

And if we can’t create an Afghan army that’s willing to fight and die for Karzai or some other government we consider worthy of our support, we must face facts: There’s no chance of winning at any remotely sustainable or sensible cost to the United States.

Nevertheless, we seem eager to persist in our very own Catch-22. We may yet overcome it, but only by courting a singularly dangerous paradox. In Vietnam, our military spoke of destroying villages in order to save them. Will we have to destroy the American military in order to save Afghanistan?

For that may be the ultimate price of “victory” in Afghanistan.

An Addendum (2018): This year, the Trump administration’s Afghan “strategy” seems to be to pressure the Pakistanis by withholding foreign aid, to bomb and drone and kill as many “terrorists” as possible without committing large numbers of American troops, and to “brown the bodies,” i.e. to fight to the last Afghan government soldier.  That’s apparently what the U.S. military learned from its failed Afghan surge of 2009-10: minimize U.S. casualties while continuing the fight, irrespective of the costs (especially to Afghanistan) and lack of progress.  So I was wrong in 2009: Unlike the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. military came close to destroying itself in a vain pursuit of victory, the Afghan War has been tamped down to a manageable level of effort, or so Washington and the Pentagon seem to think.

What Washington experts will never seriously consider, apparently, is withdrawal from a war that they already lost more than a decade ago.  Thus they commit an especially egregious error in military strategy: they persist in reinforcing failure.

Update (4/2/18): Just after I wrote this, I saw this update at FP: Foreign Policy:

“This is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing [in Afghanistan] for 17 years,” Gen. Joseph Dunford , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Washington Post. “This is a fundamentally different approach.”

That notes of optimism comes as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains, with the group now openly active in 70 percent Afghanistan’s territory. Afghan military forces, meanwhile, are taking casualties at a record level. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to drum up support for a peace initiative that would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but so far a a breakthrough appears far off.

David Petraeus: A Gold Medal Winner in Spin

Petraeus mufti

W.J. Astore

I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV, and the color commentators for NBC are typically athletes who’ve earned gold medals in the past, like Tara Lipinski in figure skating or Bode Miller in skiing.  Why is it, then, when NBC and other networks seek expert “color” commentary on America’s wars, they turn to retired generals like David Petraeus, who’ve won nothing?

I’m not dissing Petraeus here.  He himself admitted his “gains” in Iraq as well as Afghanistan were both “fragile and reversible.”  And so they proved.  The U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars for gains that truly were ephemeral.  Despite this disastrous and tragic reality, Petraeus remains the sage on the stage, the go-to guy for analysis of our never-ending wars on PBS, Fox News, and elsewhere.

But then I got to thinking.  Sure, Petraeus hasn’t won any wars.  But he’s earned a gold medal in public relations.  In spin.  In 2007 he spun the Surge as a major U.S. victory in Iraq.  (Temporary stability, bought at such a high price, did indeed prove fragile and reversible.)  A later surge in Afghanistan didn’t prove as spinnable, but in a strange way his adulterous affair, a personal failure, came to obscure his military one.  Now he regularly appears as a pundit, the voice of reason and experience, spinning the Afghan war, for example, as winnable as long as Americans continue to give the Pentagon a blank check to wage generational war.

In facilitating the growth of the national security state and ensuring it never takes the blame for its military defeats, Petraeus has indeed excelled in the eyes of those who matter in Washington.  He’s no Tara Lipinski on ice or Bode Miller on snow, but when it comes to spinning wars and gliding over the facts, he takes the gold.