Slinking Away from Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

I retired from the U.S. military in 2005. I had no direct role in America’s Afghan war, which means I have no personal stake in trying to justify it or defend it. I never understood how invading and occupying portions of Afghanistan made any sense.

In re-reading a few of my articles against the Afghan war, I came across this email from a dear friend who put it better than I ever could:

I feel sometimes like our military leaders don’t really think of the human cost [of war], even today. I went to church today and I wiped away many tears as they told the story of a member’s son whose legs were recently blown off in Afghanistan, and of a chaplain in Iraq who was there with dying soldiers. These stories, and working and living with military families for all these years has really humanized war and made it so personal to me — but I don’t think most Americans have this personal connection.

Personal email to author, 2012.

For me, my friend’s words sum up the great tragedy of this war. So many lives lost or damaged, most of them not American, and for what? What were America’s leaders thinking? What were they feeling, or failing to feel?

Obviously, the Afghan war was never America’s to win. Young troops were sent there on a fool’s errand. They may have tried hard — real hard — but they failed. Yet that failure wasn’t their fault. That failure was Bush’s and Obama’s and Trump’s. That failure was shared by a Congress that refused to exercise true oversight. That failure was aggravated by all those who profited from a doomed effort. Small wonder that Americans put so little faith and trust in their government today. We’ve been lied to so often by callous politicians with no skin in the game.

As the Taliban consolidates its control over much of Afghanistan, the entire U.S. and Coalition war effort stands in high relief as a debacle and disaster. Just as South Vietnam’s quick fall in 1975 revealed the dishonesty of U.S. government officials (along with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and so many other events), the ongoing collapse of America’s position in Afghanistan highlights a system that lacks integrity and honesty.

We lose because we’re craven and dishonest. We lose because we forget the personal costs of war. We lose because we fail to pay attention. We lose because we’re greedy and stupid.

Yes, I’m angry. I’ve written far too many articles against America’s Afghan war. Of course, they changed nothing. Even now, as the evidence is all around us of how much we’ve been lied to about “progress” in Afghanistan, there are still officials who argue we should stay and fight. For what reasons? To what end?

As journalist Megan Stack put it in a recent article in The New Yorker,

As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press blackout on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embeds, denied pleas for even perfunctory interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct the public’s view of the United States pulling up stakes … the obfuscation was predictable. Leaving a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat … [T]he outcome in Afghanistan was ignominious. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than a hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, counting Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and contractors. That figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. troops and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed at its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, who are now surging back to seize control of districts and, according to human-rights groups, carrying out organized revenge killings.

Will anyone in the U.S. government be held accountable for this “ignominious” debacle? This disaster?

Isn’t it sad that we already know that “Not only no, but hell no!” is the answer here?

Update: For what it’s worth, this was my original opening to this article: As the Taliban quickly expands its control over Afghanistan, the dishonesty of the U.S. military and government is revealed. More than a trillion dollars spent over two decades, all those reports of progress in creating Afghan security forces and a centralized government, all the lives lost, and for what?

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

new camera 007
My old chess clock.  Time has run out, America.

W.J. Astore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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