The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

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.

Some Excerpts

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, US 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 US doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.) A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the US 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 US 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 US 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.

Some Afterthoughts

There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the US 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, US 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.

Concluding Thought

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?

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

  • BrotherJonah

    It benefits the manufacturers of bombs, bullets and coffins. Draws attention away from other “projects”. Other than that, it’s the graveyard of empires.

  • Luchorpan

    If the US truly wanted to transform Afghanistan, it’d send in colonists, not just Americans but non-Muslim foreigners from other parts of the world. Once the foreigners outnumber the natives, Afghanistan would be pacified for good.

    But that’s a terrible thing to do.

    • BrotherJonah

      They colonized America and it didn’t pacify anything. Of course, the colonials were the outcasts and sometimes dregs of European society, forcibly emigrated from Europe for being a really big rowdy mess who couldn’t get along with ANYBODY.

      • infamouscrimes

        It didn’t work in Israel either.

        • Luchorpan

          1. Israelis oppose integrating with Palestinians. And the Palestinians are impoverished. Part of the allure of becoming Roman was Rome’s gold. Palestinians essentially live in a tiny prison, with walls that are shrinking. It’s a recipe for conflict.

          2. Islam seems to be a unique religion that resists modern society

          3. Palestinians have a high birthrate if I’m not mistaken.

          So, stronger measures might need to be taken in Israel-Palestine.

          In Spain, people either converted or were expelled. Jews though don’t seem to want converts.

          Syria is diverse with many ancient tribes. It maintained peace via a police state. But again, I think there was more integration in Syria than in Israel.

          Anyway, I’d rather leave people alone. My original point was just that I don’t see any potential success in America’s current strategy. Our empire is plenty evil, but it’s incompetent.

      • Luchorpan

        “They colonized America and it didn’t pacify anything.”

        Sure it did. Amerindian attacks are no longer a concern. And Amerindians would have tried to integrate better if given a chance to. Amerindian culture was very warlike, which isn’t my way of saying they’re in any way inferior.

        Sun Zhu wrote: “42. When invading hostile territory, the general principle is, that penetrating deeply brings cohesion; penetrating but a short way means dispersion.”

        And while Americans, 70% English in 1790, tended to unite around common ethnicity, Amerindians split along tribal divisions. In the UK, we also see splits along native nations, including even the few Cornish (!) splitting from the English, while immigrants can sometimes better unite despite being very different.

        Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II, both knew how to pacify troublesome tribes. I’m not sure it’s polite for me to explain in full here. You essentially want to destroy their identity, make it so there are none who identify as Afghan Pashtuns, for example. If a village gives you trouble, then level it, entice them to move to a city, preferably splitting up into multiple cities. And you can repeatedly relocate the same troublesome groups, to ensure they don’t set down roots.

        Alexander had great influence (Hellenization) on the Middle East, other areas he conquered.

        So, we have that record of how evil empires control a rebellious people.

        I would rather leave people the heck alone. I’m rather conservative, so my views are I wish to preserve all the various heritages. I also hate seeing archaeology destroyed.

        “I got those jokes from my Irish grandma and her sister.” Very funny!

        • BrotherJonah

          In 1790 there were treaties from both the 7 years war and the revolution from Dutch, German (at the time you could say “same difference” because it was roughly a century before Bismarck) French, English of course, Spanish… conflicting treaties. Also my own tribe weren’t very much into attacking, more like evicting squatters who were heavily armed and as far as I know, shot first. Pretty much the same as other cultures of the native bent.

          and faith-based immigrants who visited much harm against each other. It’s the reason there’s two states named Carolina, Maryland refers to one of the Queens of Scotland / England and Virginia from Elizabeth first of england and nothingth of Ireland, Wales and Scotland although she claimed them. “The Virgin Queen”.But the Catholic colonies in Maryland had a few spontaneous battles with Virginia and so forth. A lot of the population of Georgia were prisoners, like Australia. it goes into the Southern Cross flag. Lot of christian-on-christian violence.

          To call them civilized is kind of a joke.They did far worse in the British Isles and mostly Franco-Anglo battles because they are of such proximity, they could reach each other. You can walk from Scotland to Wales or England and vice versa. The U.S. and their predecessors tried to kill us off.

          In the east there were confederations of tribes, The Iroquois in the north and the Muskogee nations in the south. For some reason the number on each is 5 and only counts the major tribes. Must be because we didn’t have a written language till 1820.

          So the English got to document the tribal Nations, but there’s more being found. There’s the Grimm’s Law organization of our languages show the Cherokee to have been separate from the Northern Iroquois about 3000 years ago.

          From a Christian point of view, but most of the christians who were violently eliminated since the first century were done so by other Christians. Even in America.

          I’m going back and forth a little, here, but by the Napoleonic Wars of which we in America are trained to chant the name of it as “the war of 1812” there were so many conflicting treaties that it caused a great deal of the Creek Wars. Muskogee means creek or swamp in Muskogee. Now, the tribes are still divided, but not nearly as much as Scots and Irish or English or Welsh. I congratulate them on the remarkably few horrendous battles in the British Isles since the House Hanover took over the maintenance of them. In the Muskogee nations, Cherokee and Seminole, which is a spanish term, are a) the most lenient on intermarriage and b) the Cherokee are one of the most populous tribes, at least in the U.S. I think the Aztec and Mayan descendants have us outnumbered. Libya was the first foreign war the U.S. fought and lost. You wouldn’t know it to hear the Marines sing about it. The Creek Wars morph into and out of the Seminole wars, and the Seminole actually got the U.S. military to back down.

          The plains tribes were starved into surrender. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody learned (from one of the plains tribes) that bison have a matriarchal pattern, there’s one lead cow… you fire a shot or something similar, and all the other cows will look right at the Lead Cow to see what she “tells” them. So the buffalo hunters identified the leaders, shot them one by one, the other cows would look to see what the matriarch was doing, which was “laying down” so they thought nothing of it, just went back to grazing. So they almost made bison extinct. DELIBERATELY.

          The U.S. couldn’t beat “generals” like Black Kettle and Crazy Horse militarily. They starved them out.

          By the 1960s the languages thus the cultures of our peoples were almost extinct. AIM and NARF changed that. NARF is relatively new. We’re in the midst of a Red Road Renaissance and the old tricks to take us down aren’t working.

          For Afghanistan to be colonized, back to the hub of the discussion, there would be a need for more water than could conceivably obtained. It’s the largest factor in population density there.

          The oil empire can’t make more oil nor can they make more water. They’ll lose.

          • Luchorpan

            Regarding water in Afghanistan, that sounds legitimate what you say.

            In 1790, the American population regardless was 70% English, with many additional lowland Scots also behaving as essentially English. And other European minorities acting largely as part of that group. So, there was great unity within the American population. That’s a large territory with a high degree of unity, not perfect unity but a high degree of it, certainly much higher than among the Amerindians.

            You did have notable divides in the American Revolution.

            The act of coming here to this foreign land, where there were slaves, Amerindians, and whites, would unify many of these people into the group of “whites”. One way to unify people is to do so against a common opponent.

            Unwritten languages tend to have memorised information passed down. I’m sure much was lost.

            “There’s the Grimm’s Law organization of our languages show the Cherokee to have been separate from the Northern Iroquois about 3000 years ago.”

            That’s a remarkable heritage.

            I tell you though, I’m a believer that the Amerindians were more war-like. That just seems legitimate. You’d have overpopulation that could only be limited by starvation/war/(introduced disease), just as with any people before birth control. If you’re starving, of course you’ll be willing to raid for food.

            The archaeological records, from what I’ve read second hand, do suggest that Amerindians fought one another fiercely. How else could populations control themselves? Is it worse to die in war than by starvation?

            And we’ve seen with later British conquest in New Zealand how tribes would fight one another. If the British supplied a tribe with guns, it would then attack its tribal enemies. That just makes sense.

            Your belief that divisions were stronger in Europe doesn’t make sense. I suspect the divisions were comparable between the two. I expect it’s quite normal for any tribal society to bitterly hate its neighbors as a result of past wars and feuds. Over time a common European enemy though could unite Amerindian tribes against a common threat.

            The Abrahamic religions are unique in how they encourage religious war, but Christianity also encourages Christians not to kill, to respect society’s order (even slavery is to be respected!), that man is meant to labour, that the rich struggle to get into Heaven. Christianity also broke up European clannishness by banning cousin marriage out as far as eight degrees. I dunno what the working ban was in 1790; supposedly people often married within their villages at that time, suggesting cousin marriage continued.

            Perhaps that larger scale society just leads to war on a larger scale, but it’s certainly different from the Amerindians. “Different” doesn’t suggest better. I’d say small scale order and divisions have a pleasant sanity to them.

            The Europeans had better farming technology and could support a greater population density. I dunno that at least the early colonists had much better military technology, however. So, the unity among colonists makes sense as to why they weren’t driven out.

            My own ancestors arrived here early on. I don’t think any in my family (that I’ve traced) backed Cromwell. I personally hate him. One of my ancestors (from SC) fought Amerindians in North Carolina, but I suspect the history is twisted. Because he sounds as if taking both sides.

            Much of the divisions in the British Isles today seem deliberate by those who would weaken the English as a power. You have Anglos who preach secularism, classical liberalism, genetic Social Darwinism, and defend their horrible empire (which did some good). And that all naturally creates a backlash. The Celts then tend to embrace positions opposite the English, seemingly just to spite them. And an Englishman will reply how parts of England are more divided. Well, there is a general trend there, in my experience.

          • BrotherJonah

            Don’t forget, because it’s important, there was a 90% drop in population in the first century of European occupation. Roughly 12,000 years of isolation means that the evolution of bubonic plague, smallpox, measles and chickenpox weren’t matched by evolution of our immune systems. Even with the extra boost given the rest of the world’s immunity, they also killed and still kill the invaders. It just hit us harder. The plagues ran faster than spanish horses.

      • John_Smith001

        sometimes dregs of European society,

        heh, Donald Trumps grandfather comes to mind

        But seriously, aren’t Austrailians kind of the same in the sense that they were people who Britain didn’t want and yet they tend to be less aggressive than Americans?

        • BrotherJonah

          If we find the dynamics to explain that, I’ll gladly split the Nobel Peace prize with you.

  • don

    This is badly misinformed propaganda. Obama tripled the US military occupation of Afghanistan. He added 70,000 not 30,000 as this writer claims. Get the basics right.

  • LibertyBill_1776

    Afghan Warfare

    ‘Top a hill in far-off Afghanistan, a weary US soldier stood
    Amidst the bodies of the “enemy”, in that distant shore
    He’d joined to serve his country, as he understood he should
    But for ten-plus years he has merely fought his leaders’ war

    He knew that the dead men ‘round him only had wanted him to leave
    And their brothers, sons, and nephews with him now had a score
    Each time he’d kill a “bad guy” five more came to believe
    That it was better to die in battle than to not resist this war

    The be-stubbled US soldier, standing atop that gloomy hill,
    Now had time to ponder was this effort worth our blood
    For now with five new enemies for each one he’d had to kill
    Our nation’s willingness for war would soon exit like a flood

    For our leaders knew in order to be sure that victory was complete
    We’d have to kill each Afghan born above the age of four
    Or otherwise their parents would have them struggle for our defeat
    But we are not born to battle and should not find any glory in this war

    The exhausted US soldier knew deep within his shattered heart,
    That no matter how hard he’d struggle, the war-horns would still sound
    And all his efforts would come to naught, until his nation would depart
    His leaders and their forces need to leave so peace would find a start

  • LibertyBill_1776

    Afghan Warfare

    ‘Top a hill in far-off Afghanistan, a weary US soldier stood
    Amidst the bodies of the “enemy”, in that distant shore
    He’d joined to serve his country, as he understood he should
    But for ten-plus years he has merely fought his leaders’ war

    He knew that the dead men ‘round him only had wanted him to leave
    And their brothers, sons, and nephews with him now had a score
    Each time he’d kill a “bad guy” five more came to believe
    That it was better to die in battle than to not resist this war

    The be-stubbled US soldier, standing atop that bloody hill,
    Now had time to ponder was this effort worth our blood
    For now with five new enemies for each one he’d had to kill
    Our nation’s willingness for war would soon exit like a flood

    For our leaders knew in order to be sure that victory was complete
    We’d have to kill each Afghan born above the age of four
    Or otherwise their parents would have them struggle for our defeat
    But we are not born to battle and should not find any glory in this war

    The exhausted US soldier knew deep within his shattered heart,
    That no matter how hard he’d struggle, the war-horns would still sound
    And all his efforts would come to naught, until his nation would depart
    His leaders and their forces need to leave so peace might be found