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.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution: How about ending America’s quagmire wars?
There are many reasons why Afghanistan, Iraq, and similar countries will always be quagmires for the U.S. military. U.S. troops have difficulty identifying friend from foe, and indeed “friendly” troops and police sometimes turn on their U.S. counterparts. U.S. troops will always be a foreign presence, heavily armed and invasive, often (mis)guided by incomplete or misleading intelligence. Almost inevitably, they are seen as backing corrupt and kleptocratic governments, whether in Kabul or Baghdad. At the same time, U.S. bombing and search and destroy missions kill innocents even as they generate refugees—and new enemies. Under such violent and tumultuous conditions, you can forget about winning hearts and minds or creating lasting political stability.
Facing this no-win scenario, savvy U.S. leaders would pull troops out immediately, but of course pulling out is never an option. Whether it’s Bush or Obama or Trump, the preferred “solution” to unwinnable quagmires is to “surge” (more troops, more airpower, more “advisers,” more weaponry) or to dither with tactics. Old theories are trotted out, such as pacification and counterinsurgency and nation-building, dressed up with new terms and acronyms such as asymmetrical warfare, the gray zone, MOOTW (military operations other than war), and VEOs, or violent extremist organizations, known to most people as terrorists.
The mentality among America’s generals is that the war must go on. There must be a can-do way to defeat VEOs in the grey zone using asymmetrical warfare while engaged in MOOTW. Thus B-52s, those venerable strategic bombers from the early Cold War era, are now being used in Afghanistan to “asymmetrically” destroy drug laboratories associated with Taliban funding, yet another instance of the U.S. military swinging a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.
After 16 years, if you’re calling in B-52s to flatten small drug labs, this is not a sign of impending victory. It’s a sign of desperation — a sign of a totally bankrupt strategy.
The same is true of the use of MOAB in 2017. It’s not a sign of strength to use such blockbuster bombs on an undeveloped country like Afghanistan. It’s a sign of desperation. Of having no coherent strategy. Of throwing munitions at the wall and seeing which one makes the biggest boom.
Of course, a key aspect of this is domestic politics. The target of B-52s and MOABs isn’t always the Taliban and similar VEOs. It’s American public opinion. For Trump, it’s like, “See? We used MOAB. We’re using B-52s. Obama didn’t do this. We’re tougher–better–stronger. We’re taking the gloves off.”
When America’s military is not taking metaphorical gloves off, it’s learning to eat soup with a knife. That’s the title of Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency, abbreviated as COIN in military circles. A decade ago, Nagl worked with General David Petraeus to rewrite the book on COIN, which enjoyed a brief renaissance during the Iraq and Afghan surges. But COIN methods (the idea of killing or otherwise neutralizing guerrillas/terrorists/VEOs while winning the hearts and minds of the people) haven’t worked to clean up American-made messes in those countries, a result contained within the metaphor. For if you really want to eat soup, best to put away military knives, pick up the soup bowl, and slurp away.
But America’s warfighters, with their affinity for knives, persist in efforts to develop new and “better” ones (spoons are for wimps!) as they flail away in various soup bowls (or, if you prefer, Petri dishes, which was General John Nicholson’s, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “bowl” of choice to describe the Af-Pak region in his testimony to Congress in 2017).
To use a different soup metaphor, too many cooks spoil the broth. The U.S. military’s interventions—its various and varying recipes for success, the ingredients of which are almost exclusively violent—never add up to a palatable product.
William S. Smith put it well in a recent article for The American Conservative. American military interventions, Smith notes, driven in large part by COIN theory, mostly ignore local history, religion, and culture. The resulting quagmire, according to Smith, is predictable:
The fact is that all political order at all times and everywhere emerges from an extremely complex set of unique symbols, practices, and beliefs that are rooted in history, culture, and religion. Political order does not merely flow from safety and the protection of property but out of a cultural inheritance that provides citizens with a sense that their society embodies something larger than themselves. To them, the symbols and traditions of their society reflect a certain divine order. An invading army from a foreign civilization will always be seen as a threat to that order whether citizens embrace violence or not. Without a major revolution in culture an occupying army will be in no position to generate more than a skin-deep and transitory political reconciliation. (Emphasis added)
Call it COINfusion followed by defeat. The U.S. military tried the “occupying army” part of this with its various surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political results were as Smith says: skin-deep and transitory. The “new” American approach seems to be a variation of Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization policy of turning the fight over to the “indigenous” peoples, whether Afghans, Iraqis, etc. while continuing to bomb, to supply weaponry, and to provide training and “advice” with U.S. boots on the ground. Such an approach is sold to the American people as staying the course to victory, with the exact terms of “victory” left undefined.
But what price “victory”, even an illusory one? A staggering one. By the end of fiscal year 2018, America’s post-9/11 wars will have cost the taxpayers nearly $5.6 trillion, notes the “Cost of Wars” project at Brown University. With U.S. generals speaking of “generational” wars, this enormous burden will only continue to grow in the future—unless we wise up.
So my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is simple. End quagmire wars. Bring the troops home. After all, what’s wrong with saving blood and treasure?
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
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’sThe 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.