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.
A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility. The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump. Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.
That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”
Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat. “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?
Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.
Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.” A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.
In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”). Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives. (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)
As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them. As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue. Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.
It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.
An Afterthought: Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war. It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations. This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse. Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.
Update (6/16/17): Surprise! News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces. And so the “stalemate” in Afghanistan will continue.
As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:
That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.
Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York Times: Afghanistan Is Trump’s War Now. It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it. Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration. Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim. WTF, America?
Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience. He spoke of a generational war in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years. Most revealing of all was the language he used. He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan. 4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”
There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on. But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”
Update 4 (6/17/17): Good god. At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war. These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).
These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power? Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”
If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme. After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen …
According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.
Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure. The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops. Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.
The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”
There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists. First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged. We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw. Smart, right?
Second is the domestic political scene. Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.” Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?
Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war. Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism. They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.
Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling. The refusal to admit defeat. Domestic politics. War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism. Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S. Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.
Two comments. First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war. Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time. Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.
Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:
Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military. Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.
That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan. We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.
Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan. I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness. That it made him think of Biblical times. So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?
Last week, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on the Afghan war. You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.
America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…
Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee]. (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.) A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure. With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge? How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish? (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)
That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.
Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners. They represent an invasive presence. For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us. We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again). In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.
In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception. Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.
After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.
There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S. We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe. And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case. The wars matter little to us. Why? Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).
There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.” Lines don’t move on maps. Enemies aren’t truly defeated. Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror. So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war. And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.
Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us. But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs. More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.
Here’s the thing. I’m not an expert on Afghanistan. I’ve never been there. I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me. My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit. Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.
What I do know is my own country and my own military. I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.
As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan. We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.
America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars. When we do think about them, they’re all about us. They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever. They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us. We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.
Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image. It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.
Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan? To let its peoples find their own path?
General John Allen wants to “destroy the Islamic State now.” So he says in an article for Defense One. Allen, a retired Marine Corps general who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. But what is distinguishing him in this article is his crusader-speak, a remarkable blend of religious extremism and chauvinistic parochialism.
Let’s tackle the latter first. For Allen, the good people of Iraq are “poor” and “benighted.” But some of them can serve as our “boots on the ground” in the region, i.e. they can serve as bullet magnets while the U.S. provides air support with impunity. It’s up to the U.S. to “orchestrate” their attacks against the Islamic State. As long as they follow our conductor’s baton, all will end well, perhaps with a crescendo of U.S. bombs. (As an aside, he describes the Taliban in Afghanistan as “cavemen” when compared to the new enemy in Iraq. Some of those “cavemen” did fairly well against the former Soviet Union, did they not?)
My charge that the general’s language is that of “religious extremism” may itself appear extreme, but take a close look at his article. The general refers to the Islamic State as a “scourge” and an “abomination.” (I’ve read my Bible and recognize the religious resonances here.) They are “beyond the pale of humanity” and must be “eradicated” because they are engaged in “total war” aided by a “witch’s brew” of foreign recruits.
In sum, General Allen has demonized the enemy while at the same time diminishing potential allies (those “poor benighted” people in need of an American conductor). The answer is eradication, i.e. extermination of that enemy. Now!
Remind me again: Which side is engaged in religious war here?
As Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not in any way defending the murderous extremism of the Islamic State. What I’m saying is that the best solution is not to return the favor (unless you’re truly seeking a crusade). I’m also suggesting that the general’s article is (unintentionally) indicative of a mindset that explains much about why American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed.