The Absurdity of America’s Afghan War

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W.J. Astore

The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed.  Here’s the first:

NEWS ANALYSIS
Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean
By MARK LANDLER, HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT
A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.

Think about this.  What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months?  The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?

Here is the second headline:

To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction
By MUJIB MASHAL
A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.

So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation.  Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?

No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement.  That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.

Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles.  And we should keep doing this?

From the SIGAR report (RS is Resolute Support, ostensibly a NATO mission to support the Afghan government, but of course commanded and driven by the U.S.):

— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.

— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.

— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.

— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.

— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.

— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.

Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?

America’s Cascading Disaster in Afghanistan

the Oval Offrice ...
A U.S. government promotional photo.  Pamela notes, “Look closely at the expressions on the faces of the Afghans.”

By Pamela

Editor’s Intro: I asked Pamela if I could highlight a recent comment she made at this site about the U.S. military’s approach to Afghanistan.  Not only did she give me her permission: she elaborated on her point in an email.  Pamela, a former aid worker with a decade’s worth of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, worked with the Afghan people in relationships characterized by trust and friendship.  Her words should be read by all Americans, especially our foreign policy “experts.” W.J. Astore

Cascading disaster is an apt term for the U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan, which involves the indiscriminate killing of terrorist leaders, whether Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS or whatever else.

In addition to heavily underreported civilian casualties, U.S. military strikes increase the ferocity of those terrorist outfits. Not just because those outfits want to show the world how strong they are.  There is another element which arguably is even worse, as it is virtually impossible to reverse. Each “neutralized” leader leaves a power void within his organization and a number of usually younger and more ruthless members start fighting among each other to take over — with cruelty and spectacular attacks obviously being stronger “election” arguments than a “softy” willingness and capacity for peaceful dialogue.

Thus in Afghanistan the original Taliban – the ones who were ousted in 2001 – probably could have been convinced to take part in negotiations. They were an unsavory lot to have as a government, with medieval habits, but they were not terrorists like the ones nowadays. Few people know that in 2000 the British charity Christianaid (yes, with such a provocative name) had an office there, run by a female Australian doctor with her husband and little Sam, their six-month-old son. They enjoyed it very much and the Taliban had no objection against a foreign woman providing medical care to women and children, despite the obvious need for careful diplomacy.

Since then, however, there have been so many cascading series of eliminations of Taliban leaders at all levels – all for the purpose of PR spin rather than any coherent strategy – that we now have the umptiest generation, which has lost whatever dignity and humanity their predecessors may have had.

Furthermore, we knew the original Taliban leaders, and they were relatively predictable.  Each new batch needs to be infiltrated, investigated and analyzed from scratch, after which we kill those too. What a waste of energy and knowledge! But President Trump believes that the evident lack of success is caused by too little rather than too much bombing/eliminating, so this vicious cascade can be expected to go on and on until doomsday.

This “destroy the Taliban by assassination” strategy has one more layer: the eroding authority of their original leaders.  By continuously eliminating (often after several failed attempts in which civilians are killed instead) successive leaders at all levels — from village to nation-wide – the U.S. has shattered the Taliban into different splinter factions, each with its own power structure & power struggles.  This has increased pressure and violence at the village level, as people who during the day were already pressured by coalition armies and at night by the Taliban, ended up with several competing “Taliban” factions all pressuring them to join. Some of these factions were foreign, as Afghan friends would tell me, meaning they were from some other part of Afghanistan, not necessarily from a different country, which made it even harder to negotiate with them.  Multiple terrorist factions contributed to anarchy in which common criminality has flourished.

At the same time, as this cascading fracturing continued, successive local “terrorist” leaders became increasingly detached from central top leadership and therefore any negotiations with Mullah Omar or any other grey eminence might not translate into concrete changes in the field.

Negotiations should have been conducted in 2002, when the Taliban had been wiped out, which then was no major feat as the vast majority of its followers had been coerced into joining and were only too happy to have been delivered from this burden and being able to return home.

So few true believers were left in 2002 that the Taliban was in a very weak bargaining position, a perfect starting point for negotiations.

Systematic demonizing by the U.S., however, and the ludicrous strategy of killing them one by one — which is as absurd as believing that the best way to eliminate ants is by crushing them one at a time as they appear at our sugar bowl — have led to what we have now: a thoroughly opaque playing field with regularly shifting alliances and competition, which makes it even harder to keep track of who’s who, with whom, against whom.   This increasingly chaotic situation makes counter-terror operations even more complicated (spectacular attacks may have more centralized backing, but smaller attacks are often initiated by local splinter factions).

The addition of ISIS further complicated the situation, as the Taliban have been fiercely fighting them — Afghans generally do not like Arabs nor any other foreigners who want to impose their ways — and thus the absurd situation developed in which everyone is fighting everyone — Taliban, ISIS, Haqqani et al, the Afghan army & police, coalition-supported local militias and coalition armies themselves.  A bit like the present proxy-wars in the Middle East in a nutshell.

We also tend to forget that the Taliban — for all their senseless cruelty and often medieval ideas — were welcomed in 1996 with a huge sigh of relief when they cleaned up the murderous chaos of the civil war and restored law and order.  When asking Afghan friends what part of their experiences since 1979 was the worst, they all would name the civil war.  Unfortunately power corrupts and soon this relief was replaced with a different kind of horror. The Taliban regime was loathed but at least was relatively predictable.  One could somehow adapt to its rules.

I am convinced that given a bit more time, the Afghans would have gotten rid of that regime themselves and the ensuing civil war would have been relatively short-lived as then they all were thoroughly fed-up with fighting.

Today, the chaos and corruption in Afghanistan is being hidden further, as the U.S.-led coalition acts to suppress information, specifically the reports of SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, has always been a hero of mine, shining a bright light on the mess that otherwise was swept under the carpet.

Now even that light is being switched off.