Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

Khanabad 08-04-2008 carpenters
Afghan carpenters: the peaceful, “normal,” Afghanistan that Americans rarely see, because “Afghan” and “War” are always co-joined in our minds (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.

Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure.  The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops.  Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.

The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists.  First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged.  We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw.  Smart, right?

Second is the domestic political scene.  Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.”  Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?

Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war.  Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism.  They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.

Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling.  The refusal to admit defeat.  Domestic politics.  War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism.  Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S.  Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.

Two comments.  First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war.  Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time.  Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.

It’s been sixteen years and counting, but we still don’t see the light. Maybe in another sixteen years?

Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:

Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military.  Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.

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Afghan Chick Pea Vendor (Anna M.)

That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan.  We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.

Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan.  I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness.  That it made him think of Biblical times.  So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?

The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

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Money isn’t always the answer …

W.J. Astore

Last week, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on the Afghan war.  You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.

Some Excerpts

America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history.  The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation.  Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban.  Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama.  To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…

Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee].  (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.)  A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…

Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure.  With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge?  How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish?  (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)

That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners.  They represent an invasive presence.  For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us.  We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again).  In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.

In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception.  Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.

After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.

Some Afterthoughts

There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S.  We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe.  And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case.  The wars matter little to us.  Why?  Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).

There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.”  Lines don’t move on maps.  Enemies aren’t truly defeated.  Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror.  So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war.  And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.

Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us.  But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs.  More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not an expert on Afghanistan.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me.  My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit.  Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.

What I do know is my own country and my own military.  I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.

As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan.  We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.

America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars.  When we do think about them, they’re all about us.  They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever.  They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us.  We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.

Concluding Thought

Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image.  It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.

Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan?  To let its peoples find their own path?

State of (Military) Failure

turse

Tom Engelhardt

Reposted from TomDispatch.com and used by permission.

Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure.  After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban’s Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their “withdrawal” halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.

Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State.  With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria.  And if you haven’t been counting, that’s three wars gone wrong.

Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq.  Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there.  Toss in as well Washington’s never-ending drone war in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing.  In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.

It’s not as if Washington doesn’t know this. It’s quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What’s strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed!

Be sure to read Nick Turse on how U.S. military efforts in Africa show more regress than progress.

A Few Comments on Jeremy Scahill’s Article on the Attack Near Gardez

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W.J. Astore

In a notorious night raid near Gardez in Afghanistan in February 2010, a US Special Ops team apparently hit the wrong suspect’s house, resulting in the deaths of innocents to include pregnant women.  It was further alleged that US troops dug bullets out of the bodies of these women.  Jeremy Scahill’s recent article at The Intercept reviews the US military’s investigation into these allegations, an investigation that cleared the troops involved of any wrongdoing.  Scahill’s article is here and warrants careful reading.

I want to focus on a piece of evidence that Scahill obtained: the U.S. military’s evaluation of the Afghan province and its after-action report about the failure of its IO (information operations) “battle.”  Here is the document in question:

docs-bleed1

First, I want to focus on the BLUF at the bottom right.  In the Army, it stands for bottom line up front.  Most senior commanders will read this first; in some cases, the BLUF will be all they read (and remember).  What does the BLUF conclude?

It says the US military “lost the IO battle in our silence,” and that it’s only getting worse as the military remains silent.  It sounds vaguely reassuring: at least the military realizes it bungled the “information operations” job.  But it’s a bureaucratic message in bureaucratic language.  It reduces the objective to winning the “information” war, which the military says it’s not winning because of poor coordination with Afghan and other forces, lack of responsiveness, and so on.

How about some honesty?  Here’s my BLUF:  The US military is losing because it often misidentifies the enemy and misunderstands the culture, leading to the deaths of innocents and the estrangement of even those Afghans who are initially open to American influence.  And no matter how hard you try to spin those facts, you can’t hide that cold truth from the Afghan people.  (You can hide it from the American people, but that’s another story.)

As General Stanley McChrystal himself said about Afghanistan in 2010:  “We have shot an amazing number of [Afghan] people [often at checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

Tell me again how you win “information operations” by shooting “an amazing number” of innocent people?

I want to focus on a second aspect of the US military’s document from Scahill’s article: the illusion of data substituting for real knowledge.  Here’s the document again:

docs-bleed1

Look at the left column.  It has “atmospherics” for the province, to include percentages for literacy, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as if those are fixed in place), access to radio and telephone, and so on.  Is this knowledge?  Or a masquerade for it?

Interestingly, a quarter of the people are viewed as hostile to the USA.  One assumes this percentage went up significantly after the raid in question.

My point is these maps and charts and slides give an illusion of data-driven competence, but when you read Scahill’s article, you realize American forces were totally ignorant of basic Afghan customs, such as rituals to prepare bodies for burial.  That ignorance seems to have driven the initial confused and inaccurate account of honor killings of females, an account that was repeated widely (and wrongly) in the Western media.

Another minor yet telling point: An unnamed Ph.D. describes some of the Afghan peoples of the region as “great robbers” and “utter savages.”  Think about how that description would color the attitudes of US troops assigned to the region.  “Here we go, men.  Time to kill us some robbers and savages.”

Scahill’s article and the document he provides is a microcosm of the wider failure of US operations in Afghanistan.  The war, already in its 15th year, promises to be never-ending unless and until the US finally withdraws.  In a profile not of courage but of pusillanimity, Obama has punted the decision to the next president, which doubtless means another 2-4 years of war, mistakes and misunderstandings and more deaths of innocents included.

When will the madness end?

 

 

The Afghan War: Questions Unasked, Answers Unsought, Victory Unattainable

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Said Jawad, formerly Afghan Ambassador to the US

Daniel N. White.  Introduction by W.J. Astore

Now in its 15th year, the US war in Afghanistan continues to go poorly.  The drug trade is up, the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghan security forces are weakening.  Nevertheless, as Dan White notes below, Americans are told by their leaders in Washington that progress is steady, even if the usual Petraeus caveats (“fragile” and “reversible”) are thrown in about that “progress.” White recently had the chance to hear Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the US, speak about the war and his country’s relations with the US.  What he heard was not encouraging.  Sadly, the policy among America’s leaders is never to hear a discouraging word – or, never to share such a word with the American people.

Looming Failure in the Afghan War: It’s All Out in the Open

Dan White

A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t.  She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad.  Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said.  The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus.  Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on.  She’s right about that.  Not just in love, but in world events, too.

The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan.  That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began.  But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.

Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event.  Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social security age or thereabouts.  (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)

I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat.  We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’s The War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62.  This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history.  Ambassador Jawad nodded politely.  He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.

The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes.  His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays.  I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity).  But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.

Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years.  This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary.  He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success.  Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage.  The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL.  The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.

One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces.  This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily.  I’d never heard this one before.  7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year.  The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.

Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long.  I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate.  This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon.  There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this.  If they did, they were too polite to say anything.

The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day).  Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line.  No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.

After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again.  He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney.  I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:

Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country.  Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?

And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation.  It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid.  That’s peanuts and you know it.  You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid.  And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t  the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?

Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems?  Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead.  We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts.  Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?

Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’.   Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen?  Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them?   Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?

The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechette about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to.  I thanked him and left.

So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it.   We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon.  Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

Lying and Deception in the Iraq War – and Today

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Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand (Arendt Center, Bard College)

W.J. Astore

(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers.  For part 1, click here.)

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war.  Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004.  The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable.  In Rove’s words:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003).  Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development.  These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion.  That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to  “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004.  In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.

Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces.  Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate.  Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier.  Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.

Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed.  Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded.  Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.

Lying and Self-Deception Today

How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today?  Consider the war in Afghanistan.  Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground.  The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable.  Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.

Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops.  Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread.  Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003.  More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.

Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war.  Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.

Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation.  Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism).  It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons.  So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory.  Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.

One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths.  Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.

More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics.  But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.

What’s the U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan?

poppy
A poppy field in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Afghanistan that opened like so:

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 in Kabul.

What has changed since 2009?  Karzai is gone, but corruption remains endemic.  The U.S. military is still there, at least until 2017 and likely for far longer.  And drug money!  In a searching summary of the opium trade in recent Afghan history, Alfred McCoy at TomDispatch.com shows convincingly that the drug trade has flourished despite, or rather because of, American efforts to block it or control it.  In his words:

In the almost 15 years of continuous combat since the U.S. invasion of 2001, pacification efforts have failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency largely because the U.S. could not control the swelling surplus from the county’s heroin trade. As opium production surged from a minimal 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s soil seemed to have been sown with the dragon’s teeth of ancient Greek myth. Every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban’s growing guerrilla army.

At each stage in Afghanistan’s tragic, tumultuous history over the past 40 years — the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the U.S. occupation since 2001 — opium played a surprisingly significant role in shaping the country’s destiny. In one of history’s bitter twists of fate, the way Afghanistan’s unique ecology converged with American military technology transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world’s first true narco-state — a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices, and determine the fate of foreign interventions.

McCoy’s article, which you should read here in its entirety, raises many questions, but for me the obvious one is this: What is the U.S. military doing in Afghanistan?  What is its strategy?

If it’s trying to win Afghan hearts and minds, you can’t do that by destroying the main cash crop of so many people.  If it’s trying to create a measure of stability, you can’t do that by mounting destructive military operations that spread chaos.  If it’s trying to interdict the drug trade, you can’t do that successfully while maintaining the support of powerful interests in Afghanistan that profit so heavily from that trade.

After nearly 15 years, a sensible person would conclude that American interference in Afghanistan is only making matters worse.  Afghan drug wars are a no-win scenario for U.S. troops.  Lacking a coherent and sensible strategy that is attractive to Afghan power brokers, American forces should smarten up, load up, and pull out.

A sensible strategy in three words: Yankee come home.