U.S. Folly in Afghanistan and Media Complicity

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Gen. Mark Milley argues America’s Afghan War has been “successful to date”

W.J. Astore

On NBC News today, I came across the following, revealing, headline:

The U.S. is eager to end its longest war. In interview, Taliban gives little sign it’s ready to change.

Aha!  The U.S. military is allegedly seeking an end to its Afghan war, but it’s being stopped in its tracks by stubbornly uncompromising Taliban forces.  So, it’s not our fault, right?  We’re trying to leave, but the Taliban won’t let us.

I’ve been writing against the Afghan war for a decade.  It was always a lost war for the United States, and it always will be.  But the U.S. military doesn’t see it that way, as Andrew Bacevich explains in a recent article on America’s flailing and failing generals.  These generals, Bacevich notes, have redefined the Afghan war as “successful to date.”  How so?  Because no major terrorist attack on America has come out of Afghanistan since 9/11/2001.  As Bacevich rightly notes, such a criterion of “success” is both narrow and contrived.

So, according to Mark Milley, the most senior general in the U.S. Army, soon to be head of the Joint Chiefs, America can count the Afghan war as “successful.”  If so, why are we allegedly so eager to end it?  Why not keep the “success” going forever?

Back in November of 2009, I wrote the following about America’s Afghan war.

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.”

Pulling out an old encyclopedia, I then added 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.

I stand by that last sentence.  Your “successful to date” war has been nothing but folly, General Milley, a reality mainstream media sources are determined not to survey.

Citizen-Soldiers and Defending the Constitution: The Ideal versus the Reality

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The Minuteman Ideal (Photo by Sean Kraft)

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal.  As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.

My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section.  Thanks.

 Today [2009] I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.

The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart.  Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.

Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.

How have we drifted from that ideal?  In six ways, I think:

  1. Burden-sharing and lack of class equity

Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”

Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?

All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments.  (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)

With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.

Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses

“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.

Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”

“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops?  Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?

  1. Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military

If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.

Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.

Is our professional military a society within our larger society? 

  1. Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.

Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.

Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons.  You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.

In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home.  Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.

  1. Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.”  It’s a disturbing change in terminology.

I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?

But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.

We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers.  And note how the word “citizen” comes first.

Aside:  Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.

  1. Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch.  Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.

Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress.  Our country is founded on civilian control of the military.  But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.

Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.”  Why?  “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war.  And militaries seek military solutions.

So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:

In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

  1. Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans.  But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals?  Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?

Breaking News:  President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years.  In other words, this is not a temporary surge.  [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]

So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?

  1. Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
  2. Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military.  To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
  3. Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
  4. Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.”  Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
  5. Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
  6. Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution?  How are we defending ourselves?

Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution.  He noted in 1795 that:

“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War?  What is our exit strategy?  Do we even have one?

Thank you.

The Absurdity of America’s Afghan War

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W.J. Astore

The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed.  Here’s the first:

NEWS ANALYSIS
Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean
By MARK LANDLER, HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT
A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.

Think about this.  What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months?  The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?

Here is the second headline:

To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction
By MUJIB MASHAL
A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.

So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation.  Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?

No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement.  That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.

Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles.  And we should keep doing this?

From the SIGAR report (RS is Resolute Support, ostensibly a NATO mission to support the Afghan government, but of course commanded and driven by the U.S.):

— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.

— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.

— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.

— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.

— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.

— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.

Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?

The U.S. Military: Overfunded, Overhyped, and Always Over There

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Don’t blame “our” troops (Shutterstock image)

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat.  What follows is an excerpt from my article.

A Sustained Record of Losing

During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.)  The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”

Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.

Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).

Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.

Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.

Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.

America’s post-9/11 crop of generals like Mattis, H.R. McMasterJohn Kelly, and especially Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have been much celebrated here in the mainstream media. And in their dress uniforms shimmering with colorful ribbons, badges, and medals, they certainly looked the part of victors.

Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”

Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.

For the rest of my article, please visit TomDispatch.com.

Trump, Troop Withdrawals, and Winning the 2020 Election

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President Trump with Defense Secretary Mattis

W.J. Astore

Good news: President Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan.  While the President’s stated reason for the Syrian withdrawal — that Isis is totally defeated in the region — is dubious, it’s hard to tell how the presence of a couple of thousand U.S. troops is either needed or desirable for counter-terror operations there.  In Afghanistan, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of seven thousand U.S. troops, or roughly half the force there.  One can only hope he’ll withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2019.

Trump’s moves are consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful overseas wars.  Despite this, he’s being castigated by Republicans and Democrats for putting America at risk by leaving Syria and preparing to leave Afghanistan.  Ostensibly, the U.S. has two major political parties, but they often act together as a single war party.  Trump knows this and is unafraid (so far) to confront them.

Indeed, it’s possible Trump won in 2016 because he outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars.  Evidence suggests that pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique: by people who’d either served in these wars or whose sons/daughters had served.

Compare this to the Clintons and mainstream Democrats (and Republicans), who’ve worked hard to suppress anti-war forces, the McGovernite wing of the party, so to speak.  Recall that it was Hillary the Hawk who warmly and proudly embraced Henry Kissinger in 2016, and look where that got her.

Adding further intrigue and disruption is Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s announcement of his resignation, effective in February 2019.  I never thought Mattis was the right candidate to serve as America’s civilian Secretary of Defense; Trump apparently sees him as too conventional in outlook (almost a Democrat, Trump has said).  Mattis has disagreed with Trump’s boorish treatment of America’s allies, especially of NATO, and there’s no doubt that Trump has been crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, as we used to say as teenagers.  But that is Trump’s prerogative.  The Americans who elected him, after all, knew they weren’t getting a glad-handing soft-talking diplomat.

Finally, Trump is still fighting for five billion dollars to extend the wall along the southern border with Mexico.  He’s threatening to shutdown the government for a very long time and (at least partially) to own the blame.  It’s a waste of money, of course, though $5 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Pentagon’s budget of roughly $716 billion.

I’m a huge Trump critic (I was very critical of Obama as well), but I give him credit for taking unpopular stances even as he tries to honor campaign promises.  Pulling ground troops out of Syria and Afghanistan is the right thing to do.  The wall is a ridiculous boondoggle, but even here, Trump is willing to fight for it.  Would that Democratic leadership show similar resolve over issues like affordable health care, a living wage, and climate change.

Bring the troops home, Mister President.  End the wars and reinvest in America.  If you do these things, it’s likely you’ll be reelected in 2020.  It pains me to write that, because I’m no fan of Trump’s mendacity and greed, among his many other faults, but I think it’s true.

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

river
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.