I have a simple proposition: Let’s rebuild America instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has spent nearly a trillion dollars on fighting and (mostly) losing the Afghan War over the last seventeen years. That price tag includes paving roads that have already fallen into disrepair. Yet as money continues to flow freely to the Pentagon and to America’s fruitless wars overseas, money for America’s infrastructure barely flows at a trickle from the federal government. How stupid is that?
I was talking to a guy yesterday who owns a local landscaping company. Like me, he couldn’t stomach Trump or Hillary for president in 2016, so he voted for a third-party candidate. He got to asking about my latest writing efforts and I mentioned my recent article on the Air Force’s $100 billion stealth bomber. He asked if I was for it or against it, and I said against. Good, he said. And he started talking about the 1930s and how America invested in itself by building bridges, roads, canals, dams, and other infrastructure. Why aren’t we doing more of that today? Sensible question. Our infrastructure is decaying all around us, but our government would rather invest in military weaponry.
Today, I had to go to the auto dealership, and I got talking to an old buck who served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam in 1967. What he recalled about the war, he said, was its enormity. All those B-52s lined up at Guam. All those napalm tanks in Vietnam. He remembered pilots dropping napalm in the morning, coming back after the mission to drink (and some to get drunk), then flying the next day to drop more napalm. (The stuff worked, he said, meaning the napalm, but he might have added the alcohol at the club as well.) He had thought about extending his time in the Army, but a lieutenant colonel talked him out of it. (The LTC explained that he’d be coming back to Vietnam much sooner than he thought, probably as a company commander, and so my conversational partner voted with his feet and left the Army.)
America is incredibly profligate in war. We spend like drunken sailors (or pilots) on everything from the biggest and most destructive weapons to bubble gum and comic books for the troops. Yet at least in the olden days our wars had some sense of closure. Nowadays, America’s leaders talk of “long” war, “generational” war, even “infinite” war, as Tom Engelhardt and Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich note at TomDispatch.com. Infinite war — again, how stupid can we be as a people?
Long war or infinite war is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. America is on a permanent war footing, at least in terms of the federal budget and societal propaganda enjoining us to “support our troops” and to be cheerleaders for whatever they do.
We need to call BS on these wars — and also on prodigal weapons like the B-21 — and start rebuilding this country. How about some new roads, bridges, dams, etc.? Instead of paving roads to nowhere in Afghanistan, or blowing cities up in Iraq, let’s pave new roads and rebuild cities right here in the USA.
At TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars? (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.) It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration. The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.” Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war). Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy. Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?
Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars. How about these?
“Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
“Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
“Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
“The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
“Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America. As James Madison wrote,
Of all the enemies of true 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 debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.
Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.
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.
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.
Is the U.S. military doomed? I’d say yes. But it’s not because our troops are uncommitted, our weapons are bad, and our tactics are flawed. Rather it’s because of the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Pentagon that continues to commit our troops to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.
This conventional wisdom is perhaps best summed up in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). It’s worth reading the speech in full, not because it’s especially original or insightful, but because it’s so unreflective and representative of Washington’s collective wisdom.
Here are General Flynn’s main points as I see them:
1. The American public must be committed to an open-ended ideological war “for decades.”
2. That war is against “grotesque” Islamic extremists who “hate our ideals” and who are “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”
3. To win the war, America must be ready to use “overwhelming power” to defeat or deter the enemy, even if the U.S. must act alone.
4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be “well resourced” for this war, meaning they must be expanded even further and given even more money and latitude.
5. The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.
That is General Flynn’s strategic vision. It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon. And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.
Why? Mainly because radical Islam is a political/religious/social phenomenon. It is not amenable to military solutions. Indeed, the more America makes it into THE enemy, the more legitimacy organizations like ISIS gain within their communities and across the Muslim World.
Military force is a blunt instrument, even when it’s applied by the Special Ops community. Expanding the American SOF presence throughout the world is a recipe for more blowback, not more victories. Consider how well we’ve done so far in Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen. Or for that matter Iraq. Can anyone say that U.S. military intervention has produced stability in these countries? Has it contributed to the defeat of radical Islam? Indeed, in destabilizing Iraq and Libya and Yemen, has the U.S. not contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism?
Military professionals like General Flynn really know only one solution: “overwhelming power” applied “for decades.” And if you don’t accept their solution, they dismiss you as misguided (at best) or as arguing for “Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament,” which “are historically a recipe for disaster,” according to General Flynn.
Well, I’m not aware of anyone seriously arguing for disarmament (fat chance of that happening in the USA!). I’m not aware of anyone arguing for “retreat,” as if this was the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. I’m not aware of anyone seriously working toward “retrenchment”; indeed, the SOF community keeps expanding, already mounting operations in 105 countries around the world in FY2015 (i.e., since October 2014). It’s easy to bayonet a straw man, general.
I have a few words for the general: Committing the American military to an ideological war “for decades” against radical Islam is pure folly. Chances are you won’t hammer it into non-existence: your blows will just spread it further, while wasting the energies of America and the lives of its troops.
Stop looking to Reagan and the collapse of communism for lessons and start looking at the actual results over the last 20-30 years of American meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. And tell me: Is this what “victory” looks like? You want to double down on “overwhelming power” applied “for decades” as defending American “ideals” and “way of life”?
Which “ideals” are those, exactly? A permanent state of war in which military men are deferred to as the heroes and sages of the moment?