Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars. So, what did his advisers talk him into? A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan. I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.
Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note. A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:
The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.
Where to begin with this CNN snippet?
The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”? Good god. You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years. Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban? Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning. A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.
Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both. Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”
Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers. It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:
Three news items caught my eye, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy. The first involves the U.S. Navy, which has “inked a $14.9 billion contract for two Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to Defense News. The service claims the purchase of two carriers at once will save $4 billion.”
All credit to the Navy: As the Trump administration throws money at the Pentagon, to the tune of $750 billion next year, the Navy is moving at flank speed to order two new aircraft carriers of the Ford class. The problem is that first Ford-class carrier, which has been a $13 billion disaster: three years behind schedule, billions over budget, with catapults that don’t work, among other serious problems. But no matter. Let’s build another two of these mammoth ships while “saving” $4 billion in the process.
Three Ford-class carriers will cost at least $43 billion (despite the $4 billion “savings”), but you hear few dissenting voices in Congress. Anchors Aweigh, my boys!
The Navy says it needs at least twelve large carriers to perform its mission, but no rival navy has more than one. Carriers are all about imperial power projection across the globe; does the USA really need more of this for national “defense”?
The second news item comes from America’s endless Afghan war, in which the USA continues to throw billions of dollars at Afghan government security forces despite the always-disappointing results, as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR):
“The size of Afghanistan’s armed forces is shrinking even as its military faces a sustained challenge from Taliban insurgents. The [SIGAR] report finds that ‘the [Afghan] army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016,’ the AP reports. ‘The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.’”
To compensate for the poor performance of Afghan government security forces, the U.S. “has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in the country to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters. The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, The New York Timesreports.”
Just what we need: another American “surge” in Afghanistan. This time, it’s not to win the war; it’s all about gaining “leverage” in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. This calls to mind all the bombing the Nixon administration did during its peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s, also in the name of “leverage.” Look at how well that worked out.
Finally, the third item mentions America’s ongoing and undeclared drone war in Somalia. Citing a Nation report, FP: Foreign Policy notes that
“Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque.”
“An investigation by the magazine ‘identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of terrorist, with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.’”
In other words, a war is being waged with no accountability to the American people. One has to admire the chutzpah of the Pentagon, however, in declaring these drone attacks have only killed “terrorists,” even if that term hasn’t even been defined clearly.
Well, there you have it: Overpriced ships that enable imperialism, overpriced foreign militaries that require more U.S. bombing and special ops raids as a prop “for peace,” and finally a wider, undeclared, war in Africa. Just another manic Monday in Empire America.
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?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
Back in January of 2010, I wrote the following article as a thought experiment on whether Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan would succeed or fail. I bet on failure, which wasn’t much of a reach. Why? It’s not because U.S. troops weren’t brave or dedicated. They sure didn’t lack weaponry. What they lacked was the ability to enforce their will at a sustainable cost. They were strangers in a strange land, among strange people, and the mission they were given was simply beyond them. I tried to explain this with some role reversal. Eight years later, the Taliban and similar forces are even stronger than they were at the start of 2010. Surprised?
A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge (2010)
Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?
My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.
Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.
As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.
Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?
And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?
Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?
I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.
Afterthought (2018): I’ve done some hiking in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. It can be tough terrain. Heavily forested hills and valleys, rattlesnakes among the rocks (my wife walked past two of them, entwined), quite primitive in its own way. I pity a foreign army trying to force its agenda on Appalachia and the people who live there. My favorite t-shirt (sported by a native woman) read: “Hunting bucks, driving trucks: that’s what makes me roll.” Good luck pacifying her and her kin, foreigner.
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.
A new movie, “12 Strong,” is opening on January 19th. I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs. It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.” Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback. The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:
“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.
I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” U.S. troops prevail.
Watching the trailers on TV is a surreal experience. You get the impression the U.S. cavalry sounded the charge and won the Afghan war in 2001. You’d never know U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan in 2018, facing a “stalemate” and a resurgent Taliban that controls vast swaths of territory, and that U.S. forces face a “generational” slog to an endpoint where victory is indeed ill-defined.
Even though America is treading water in the Afghan war, Hollywood has cherry-picked an episode from the early days of that war, in the tradition of a John Wayne movie (like “The Horse Soldiers“).
The Wild West has been reset to Afghanistan with U.S. troops as the new sheriff in town, with the Taliban serving as the “savages” in the old Western tradition.
It’s the U.S. cavalry to the rescue, in the wild Afghan mountains. Yet highlighting this one episode in America’s quagmire war in Afghanistan is more than misleading. It’s as if the Japanese made a film about World War II that began and ended with Pearl Harbor.
Remember when Candidate Trump boasted that, when he became president, Americans would win so much, we’d get bored with winning? “Believe me,” he said.