Reinforcing Failure in Afghanistan

Saighan 05-2011 -
The Tough Terrain of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, as the Obama administration was ramping up its ill-fated surge in Afghanistan, I wrote the following article on the contradictions of U.S. military strategy in that country.  Like the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century, both defeated by the Afghan people as well as the harsh environment, the Americans in the 21st century are a foreign and invasive presence in Afghanistan that will ultimately be fought off and ejected.  (Interestingly, the U.S. military has it exactly backwards, seeing itself as antibodies to a foreign terrorist threat in Afghanistan.)  Despite the weight of history and the lack of U.S. progress in Afghanistan over the last two decades, the U.S. government in 2018 refuses to withdraw, wasting an additional $45 billion a year on a trillion-dollar campaign that’s gone nowhere.

Little did I know in 2009 that, nearly a decade later, the U.S. military would still be mired in that country, yet still be talking about some kind of victory in a war that retired General David Petraeus says will last for “generations.”  The British and Soviets learned their lesson and withdrew; when will the U.S. learn the lesson of Afghanistan and withdraw?

Why is the U.S. military still there?  If it’s to suppress terrorism or the Taliban, the exact opposite has happened: terrorism has spread and the Taliban has grown stronger.  The heroin trade has also accelerated.  Is it about gas pipelines?  Strategic minerals?  Bases from which Iran can be attacked?  Maintaining American “credibility”?  All of the above?  I would guess most Americans have no clue why the U.S. military is still in Afghanistan, other than some vague notion of fighting a war on terror.  And in war vague notions are a poor substitute for sound strategy and communal will.

Here’s my article from 2009:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government [now gone] in Kabul.

The conundrum is that any Afghan military created by outsiders — and America, despite our image of ourselves, is naturally seen by most Afghans as a self-interested outsider — is apt to be viewed as compromised and illegitimate.

Committing more American troops and advisors only exacerbates this problem. The more U.S. troops we send, the more we’re “in the face” of the Afghan people, jabbering at them in a language they don’t understand. The more troops we send, moreover, the more likely it is that our troops will take the war’s burdens on themselves. If history is any guide, we’ll tend to push aside the “incompetent” and “unreliable” Afghan military that we’re so at pains to create and celebrate.

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.”

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. Nor is an Afghan army ours to create. Like the British, we might fine-tune Afghan physiques, but we won’t be able to instill high morale and staying power.

And if we can’t create an Afghan army that’s willing to fight and die for Karzai or some other government we consider worthy of our support, we must face facts: There’s no chance of winning at any remotely sustainable or sensible cost to the United States.

Nevertheless, we seem eager to persist in our very own Catch-22. We may yet overcome it, but only by courting a singularly dangerous paradox. In Vietnam, our military spoke of destroying villages in order to save them. Will we have to destroy the American military in order to save Afghanistan?

For that may be the ultimate price of “victory” in Afghanistan.

An Addendum (2018): This year, the Trump administration’s Afghan “strategy” seems to be to pressure the Pakistanis by withholding foreign aid, to bomb and drone and kill as many “terrorists” as possible without committing large numbers of American troops, and to “brown the bodies,” i.e. to fight to the last Afghan government soldier.  That’s apparently what the U.S. military learned from its failed Afghan surge of 2009-10: minimize U.S. casualties while continuing the fight, irrespective of the costs (especially to Afghanistan) and lack of progress.  So I was wrong in 2009: Unlike the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. military came close to destroying itself in a vain pursuit of victory, the Afghan War has been tamped down to a manageable level of effort, or so Washington and the Pentagon seem to think.

What Washington experts will never seriously consider, apparently, is withdrawal from a war that they already lost more than a decade ago.  Thus they commit an especially egregious error in military strategy: they persist in reinforcing failure.

Update (4/2/18): Just after I wrote this, I saw this update at FP: Foreign Policy:

“This is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing [in Afghanistan] for 17 years,” Gen. Joseph Dunford , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Washington Post. “This is a fundamentally different approach.”

That notes of optimism comes as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains, with the group now openly active in 70 percent Afghanistan’s territory. Afghan military forces, meanwhile, are taking casualties at a record level. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to drum up support for a peace initiative that would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but so far a a breakthrough appears far off.

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

jackie-and-john-jackie-kennedy-3856502-816-800
They seemed perfect …

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

W.J. Astore

President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come).  They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image.  Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps.  Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).

Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific.  The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written.  JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.

As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions.  He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965.  He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief.  As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.”  Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold.  They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”

Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself.  Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.

Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.”  He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist.  In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did.  When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military.  In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.

Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative.  The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964.  JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived.  (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)

In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction.  Profiles in courage these are not.

It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him.  Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents.  He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende.  But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union.  Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.

The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws.  Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.

Relentlessly Building Potency: The U.S. Military Encircles Russia

Russian Flag
Encircling a bear: A good idea?

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has an excellent article at TomDispatch.com documenting how U.S. special ops forces are involved in many countries that share a border with Russia.  A telling quotation from his article comes from General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  Testifying before Congress, Thomas said

“We are working relentlessly with our [European] partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”

This looks like typical bureaucratese, but two words struck me as revealing: “relentlessly” and “potency.”  Typically, one might say one is working “tirelessly,” or “cooperatively,” or just plain working.  The idea one is working “relentlessly” serves to highlight the often frenetic nature of U.S. military deployments, the emphasis on ceaseless toil and constant action, especially of the kinetic variety.  This is a leading feature of America’s can-do military, a strong preference for acting first, thinking later.  And it doesn’t bode well as American special ops forces take up “mature and sustainable” positions in former Soviet satellite countries for the alleged reason of deterring Russian aggression.

The second word that struck me from the general’s testimony was “potency.”  Americans certainly can’t be seen as impotent.  But potency here is really a weasel word for offensive potential — the ability to strike “kinetically” at an enemy.  For example, one could say the Soviets were building up potency in Cuba during the early 1960s, but the Kennedy administration didn’t exactly see nuclear missiles being based there in those terms.  Is Kim Jong-un similarly building up regional “potency,” working “relentlessly” to deter U.S. aggression in his region of the world?  American military and foreign policy experts would laugh at those words and sentiments coming from the mouth of rival leaders like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.

With ever bigger military budgets, and ever growing ambitions, the U.S. military is relentlessly building up potency, which is nevertheless always framed as defensive, even benign.

Something tells me the Russians don’t see it this way.

Are We the New “Evil Empire”?

russian bear
A common depiction of Russia as a hyper-aggressive bear.  But what is the United States?

W.J. Astore

In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR.  You can read the entire article here.  What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.

Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.

The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.

All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.

When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

 5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.

As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

Gary, Indiana. Lotzman/Flickr photo

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.

Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

To read the rest of this article, go to TomDispatch.com.  Thank you.