The Ecology of War in Afghanistan

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Too often for Americans, Afghanistan is simply a war. Here’s a pacific slice of life. Donkeys and horses are the main source of transport in the mountains (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

There are many ways of looking at war: as a continuation of politics by violent means, as a biological imperative, as the extreme end of a continuum of violence that defines human existence, morally as a sin that is only justified in self-defense, as a business in which profits are the main motive, as criminal activity writ large, as a response to human fears and memories of predation, as a mobilizing force that conveys meaning and a sense of belonging, as a practice that conveys masculinity, the list goes on.  War, in sum, is an ecology of death that is arguably as complex as the ecology of life.

But you wouldn’t know this from American commentators talking about war.  Consider the Afghan war, now in its sixteenth year and with no end in sight.  It’s termed a “generational” war by American generals, a long war, a war that may require a Korean-like commitment by the U.S. military, according to retired General David Petraeus.

A commitment to the “long war” in Afghanistan, seen by Washington as the height of sobriety, is taken apart by Major Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com.  MAJ Sjursen, who saw combat in Afghanistan, has this to say about the latest mini-surge being contemplated by Washington:

One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or — dare I say — Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices — inside and outside the administration — are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).

The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies.  First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military.  That’s a nonstarter.  Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it?  Then there’s the question of longevity.  When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough?  …

And what could a new surge actually do?  The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured.  In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far. 

Now, zoom out again.  Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large.  Do the math.  The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments.  At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels?  I’ll tell you when — yesterday.

Yet U.S. military actions are worse than wheel-spinning.  To explain why, consider an article I wrote in 2014, when I called upon Charles Darwin’s wedge metaphor to explain how U.S. actions were hammering the “face of nature” of Afghan societal ecology, aggravating unrest and creating new enemies.

The U.S. military keeps hitting the terrorist “wedges” in Afghan society, without really thinking about the larger ecology and the ripple effects. In the violent struggle for existence in Afghanistan, the U.S. compounds the violence, serving to strengthen the very enemy we say we’re seeking to weaken. (Indeed, the Taliban is gaining strength, hence the call for more U.S. troops).  At the same time, the U.S. military’s foreign presence is serving to legitimate the indigenous enemy while simultaneously forcing it to learn and adapt.

By surging again and again, i.e. hitting the enemy harder, this is what the U.S. military has succeeded in doing:

1. The enemy has spread along new fault lines created by U.S. military-led hammer blows.
2. The enemy has adapted to force, becoming fitter in its struggle for existence against us.
3. The enemy has gained legitimacy from the struggle.
4. The wider societal ecology has become more radicalized as well as more unstable.
5. A complex and more chaotic ecology has become even less tractable in American hands.

Despite this, the U.S. military still thinks more hammer blows are the answer. The only answer that makes sense — withdrawal from Afghanistan — is the one that is not on that table in Washington where all options allegedly reside.

We’re already living in a new reality of alternative facts, so let’s just declare victory, America, and leave.  With or without the U.S. military, the Afghan people will find their own way.

Charles Darwin Has Much to Teach Us About War

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

W.J. Astore.  Also at Huff Post.

America’s thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.

But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the “experts” anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. These blows ripple in unpredictable directions, creating new states of nature that change the ecologies of these societies in fundamental ways. They further generate fault lines that are often contrary to U.S. goals and interests.

Charles Darwin can lend a hand in explaining why this is so. Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution with its idea of “the survival of the fittest,” although Darwin did not use that term when he originally published The Origin of Species in 1859. Indeed, Darwin’s view of evolution was highly complex and multifaceted, as befits a man who studied the natural world in great detail for his entire adult life.

In an earlier, unpublished version of his masterwork, Darwin employed a complex image, known as the “wedge” metaphor, to explain interactions within the natural world that led to species extinction. Here is the way Darwin described “The Struggle for Existence” in his Notebook prior to The Origin of Species:

Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten‐thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape & many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together & all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form & sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar & shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction: beneath the surface we may suppose that there lies a hard layer, fluctuating in its level, & which may represent the minimum amount of food required by each living being, & which layer will be impenetrable by the sharpest wedge.

In his model of the face of nature, Darwin showcases the interconnectedness of all species, together with the way in which changes to that face (the hammer blows) favor some species (wedges) while forcing out others. The hard layer, which represents the minimum amount of food for all, and which Darwin says cannot be penetrated, suggests an ecology that will continue to sustain life even as some species (wedges) are forced out and die off. The face of nature constantly changes, some species perish, but life itself endures.

How does Darwin’s wedge metaphor apply to military action? Consider, for example, U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. They are the hammer blows, if you will, to the face of nature in the region. The wedges are various groups/sects/factions/tribes in the region. The U.S. believes its hammer blows will force out “bad” wedges, driving them toward extinction, which will ultimately improve the prospects of “good” wedges, such as so-called moderates in Syria. But what if U.S. blows (airstrikes and other violent military action) are driving radical sects (wedges) more deeply into the face of nature (in this case, the face of politics and society in the Middle East)? What if these radical sects, like Darwin’s driven wedges, are forcing out rival sects that are more moderate? What if the “jar & shock” of these U.S. military hammer blows is being propagated throughout Middle Eastern societies and Islam in ways that are as unpredictable as they are long-lasting?

Darwin’s complex wedge metaphor should make us think more deeply about the results of blows to complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems. Using military strikes in an attempt to destroy “bad” wedges may have the very opposite effect than the one intended. Instead of being destroyed, such wedges (such as the Islamic State) are driven deeper into the ecology of their communities, helping them to thrive, even as they send out vibrations “in many lines of direction” that harden the new ecology of the region against U.S. interests.

What, then, to make of Darwin’s “hard layer” in his wedge metaphor, which varies in its level but which persists in that no wedge may penetrate it? The “hard layer” represents that which all wedges can’t do without. All species are dependent on a source of food and energy, a source of sustenance to sustain reproduction. Darwin notes that the hard layer fluctuates, and though he doesn’t explicitly state it, those fluctuations must also act much like blows, displacing some wedges while favoring others with effects that ripple across the face of nature.

Rise or fall, the “hard layer” persists, meaning life on earth persists, even as individual species perish. Darwin explicitly states that no wedge can penetrate the hard layer, but here his metaphor breaks down when we consider humans as a wedge. Because humans can and do penetrate that layer. As a species, we do have the capacity to damage, even to destroy, the hard layer of nature upon which all species are dependent. We’re the killer wedge in the wedge metaphor.

Politically speaking, piercing that hard layer in the Middle East would be equivalent to igniting a new Crusade that leads to world war, one involving nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD. Devolution in place of evolution.

Of course, one shouldn’t push any metaphor too far. That said, Darwin’s “wedge” metaphor, in its imagery and subtlety, is more useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of military action than analogies that reduce war to exercises in precision surgery or power politics.

William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.