New Year’s Resolution: End America’s Quagmire Wars

b-52
B-52s against drug labs.  Really?

W.J. Astore

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?

America’s Endless Afghan War

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The rugged face of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

News this week that 300 Marines have returned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan recalls the failed surge of 2009-10, when roughly 20,000 Marines beat back the Taliban in the region, only to see those “fragile” gains quickly turn to “reversible” ones (to cite the infamous terms of General David Petraeus, architect of that surge).

While fragility and reversibility characterize American progress, the Taliban continues to make real progress.  According to today’s report at FP: Foreign Policy, “the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began.”  Meanwhile, in January and February more than 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, notes Foreign Policy, citing a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  That’s a high figure given that fighting abates during the winter.

Besides committing fresh U.S. Marines to more Afghan security forces “training,” the U.S. military has responded with PR spin.  For example, when friendly Afghan forces abandoned a district and police headquarters, a U.S. spokesman claimed it had been “repositioned.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “U.S. forces helped in ferrying [Afghan] government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.”  Literally, the old district center and its resources had to be destroyed, and a new one created, for the Afghan position to be “saved.”

Destroying things to “save” them: Where have we heard that before?  The Vietnam War, of course, a lesson not lost on Aaron O’Connell, a U.S. Marine who edited the book “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”  O’Connell’s recent interview with NPR cites the Vietnam example as he explains the one step forward, two steps back, nature of America’s Afghan War.  In his words:

So we’ve spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 – things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.

So it’s – really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable.

Americans have spent an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan without thinking about how to sustain the improvements we’ve funded.  Meanwhile, as O’Connell notes, the security situation (as in lack of security) in Afghanistan undermines those infrastructure efforts.

With respect to U.S. efforts to create a viable Afghan Army, O’Connell doesn’t mince words about its failings:

[T]he massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear [with their guns].

Here’s the grim reality: U.S. military efforts to take charge and win the war, as in “winning hearts and minds” (known as WHAM) in 2009-10, proved unsustainable.  Follow-on efforts to turn the war over to the Afghan government (analogous to LBJ and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy in the waning years of the Vietnam War) are also failing.  Yet America’s newest commanding general in Afghanistan wants yet more troops for yet more “training,” effectively doubling down on a losing hand.

Wissing
Required reading for those with eyes to see and ears to hear

The logical conclusion – that’s it’s high-time U.S. forces simply left Afghanistan – is never contemplated in Washington.  This is why Douglas Wissing’s book, “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan,” is so immensely valuable.  Wissing is a journalist who embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013.  His book consists of short chapters of sharply drawn vignettes focusing on the street and grunt level.  Its collective lesson: Afghanistan, for Americans, doesn’t really exist as a country and a people. It exists only as a wasteful, winless, and endless war.

What is Afghanistan to Americans?  It’s an opportunity for profit and exploitation for contractors.  It’s a job as well as a personal proving ground for U.S. troops.  It’s a chance to test theories and to earn points (and decorations) for promotion for many officers.  It’s hardly ever about working closely with the Afghan people to find solutions that will work for them over the long haul.

A telling example Wissing cites is wells.  Americans came with lots of money to drill deep water wells for Afghan villagers and farmers (as opposed to relying on traditional Afghan irrigation systems featuring underground channels that carry mountain water to the fields with minimal evaporation).  Instead of revolutionizing Afghan agriculture, the wells drove down water tables and exhausted aquifers.  As the well-digging frenzy (Wissing’s word) disrupted Afghanistan’s fragile, semiarid ecosystem, powerful Afghans fought to control the new wells, creating new tensions among tribes.  The American “solution,” in sum, is exacerbating conflict while exhausting the one resource the Afghan people can’t do without: water.

Then there’s the “poo pond,” a human sewage lagoon at Kandahar Air Field that was to be used as a source for organic fertilizer.  I’ll let Wissing take the tale from here:

But instead of enriching Afghan soil, the U.S.-led coalition forces decided to burn the mountains of fertilizer with astronomically expensive imported gasoline.  The [U.S. air force] officer reminded me that the Taliban got $1500 in protection money for each U.S. fuel tanker they let through, so in the process the jihadists were also able to skim the American shit [from the poo pond].

Walking back, I spot a green metal dumpster stenciled with a large sign that reads, “General Waste Only.”  At that moment, it seems to sum up the whole war.

Wissing’s hard-edged insights demonstrate that America is never going to win in Afghanistan, unless “winning” is measured by money wasted.  Again, Americans simply see Afghanistan too narrowly, as a “war” to won, as a problem to be managed, as an environment to be controlled.

Indeed, the longstanding failure of our “answers” is consistent with the military’s idea we’re fighting a generational or “long” war.  We may be failing, but that’s OK, since we have a “long” time to get things right.

After sixteen years and a trillion dollars, the answer in Afghanistan is not another sixteen years and another trillion dollars.  Yet that’s exactly what America seems prepared to do in the endless war that to us defines Afghanistan.

Update (5/5/17):  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “‘More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,’ said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.”

I love that word: thicken.  The general refuses to say “improve.”  And that’s probably because more U.S. troops really won’t improve training, in the sense of enhancing Afghan forces’ effectiveness.  As FP reports, “Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in.”

But not to worry: More “thickening” is coming in the form of more U.S. troops and money.

Insanity: repeating the same course of action again and again and yet expecting different results.