Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Today, I’d like to revive an article I wrote in July of 2010 about America’s folly in continuing its war in Afghanistan. Here we are, a decade later, and the Biden administration is contemplating continuing that war. Stupidity is obviously unbounded.

Anyway, as Julian Assange rots in prison for the crime of doing journalism, it behooves us to recall that WikiLeaks provided convincing evidence of America’s Afghan folly. Obviously, Assange the messenger must be shot, or at least punished severely for daring to air America’s dirty laundry.

Here’s my post from 2010. Does it make any sense in any universe to keep this going?

What WikiLeaks Reveals: We’re Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

07/27/2010

Perhaps the most predictable, as well as the most maddening, headline to emerge from the latest WikiLeaks controversy is this one from the Washington Post: “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War.”

Doubtless this “stay the course” approach will be spun as a sign of American resolve and tenacity. Of course, it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Naturally, there’ll be some who’ll say that Obama and General Petraeus have new cards up their sleeves, so perhaps they’re not “insane.” But they (and we) sure are looking more and more like fools.

Partly this is because President Obama and his advisors are still looking at Afghanistan as a problem to be solved, a war to be won, a situation to be handled. Or they see it as a high-stakes poker match, a deadly game of raises and bluffs, of gambling at long odds, but a match we can ultimately win as long as we keep playing and pumping in more chips.

But what if Afghanistan is none of these? What if we’re playing the fool?

Recall how proud we were, in the 1980s, at providing arms and aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters” who were then fighting the Soviets. It was the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, we said, the final nail in the coffin of Soviet communism, and we congratulated ourselves on our own cleverness.

Fast forward two decades, and now we’re the ones bogged down in Afghanistan, yet we still think we can “surge” or escalate or otherwise rescue a faltering and untenable war effort.

Faltering? Untenable? Few people will dispute the following facts, many of which are now further supported by the WikiLeaks documents:

1. We’ve already spent $300 billion on our war in Afghanistan with very little to show for it.

2. Year after year, we’ve been training the Afghan National Army and police, with very little to show for it.

3. We’ve almost completely eliminated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the immediate cause of our intervention in 2001, yet we continue to send more troops and more money there.

4. We’ve allied ourselves with a corrupt government and leaders who are enriching themselves at our expense.

5. We pay bribes to protect our convoys, and some of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban.

6. We’re working with a regional ally, Pakistan, whose interests are often contrary to our own, and yet whose allegiance we attempt to buy with more military aid.

7. In trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, we’ve largely looked the other way with respect to the opium and heroin trade. The result? A drug-based Afghan economy.

8. In fighting an American-style war, we’ve relied on massive firepower, often from the air, that inevitably results in civilian casualties that undermine our counterinsurgency efforts.

9. At a time when we’re still trying to create jobs and pull ourselves out of a Great Recession, we continue to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to a seemingly endless war, with Congress currently preparing to approve yet another $33.5 billion for Afghanistan.

10. While largely ignoring civilian casualties in Afghanistan, we also downplay the cost of constant warfare to our troops, not just those who are killed or wounded in action (horrible as that price is), but to those who are brutalized by war, those whose families are destroyed or damaged by constant deployments, by domestic violence, and by suicides. Yet we reassure ourselves this price is bearable since our troops are “all volunteers.”

These are hard facts, and the WikiLeaks evidence has only made them harder. Only a fool refuses to face facts, and hardheaded Americans are not fools.

Or are we?

U.S. Folly in Afghanistan and Media Complicity

mark-milley
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.

Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

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General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

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?