The Afghan War Goals: Unasked, Unsought, Unattainable

John Campbell, Delbert Byers

Gen. John Campbell, Command Sgt. Maj. Delbert Byers open the “Resolute Support” flag in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. Yet another end without an end.

by Dan White

A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t.  She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad.  Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said.  The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus.  Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on.  She’s right about that.  Not just in love, but in world events, too.

The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan.  That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began.  But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.

Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event.  Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social-security age or thereabouts.  (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)

I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat.  We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’s The War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62.  This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history.  Ambassador Jawad nodded politely.  He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.

The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes.  His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays.  I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity).  But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.

Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years.  This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary.  He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success.  Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage.  The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL.  The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.

One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces.  This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily.  I’d never heard this one before.  7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year.  The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.

Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long.  I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate.  This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon.  There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this.  If they did, they were too polite to say anything.

The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day).  Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line.  No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.

After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again.  He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney.  I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:

Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country.  Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?

And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation.  It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid.  That’s peanuts and you know it.  You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid.  And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t  the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?

Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems?  Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead.  We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts.  Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?

Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’.   Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen?  Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them?   Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?

The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechlet about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to.  I thanked him and left.

So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it.   We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon.  Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.

This piece originally appeared on the Bracing Views blog.

9 thoughts on “The Afghan War Goals: Unasked, Unsought, Unattainable

  1. Thank you for another excellent contribution. I hope it won’t get lost in the shuffle of hypocritical paying-lip-service to veterans called Memorial Day in this country. At the risk of speaking in cliches, can we properly call Afghanistan a nation or country at all? It’s an amalgam of warring lords of rival tribes. It has proved remarkably ungovernable–perhaps some kind of award for consistency should be presented. Ostensibly, Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld initially attacked it because whatever passed for a regime back then was (allegedly) giving safe harbor to bin-Laden, the (alleged) mastermind of 9/11. And then? Well, having put US forces on the ground, “we” have to protect them, I guess. Thus, an initial imperial wrong is compounded indefinitely. A very telling, very sad comment on what passes for leadership of “the greatest nation in the history of the world.” If only the prospects for who will move into the White House come January could cheer me up in the least!

    By the way, is UT using facial recognition technology to know when you and your potential irritating questions have entered an auditorium??

    • Today is Memorial Day. When I was young it was called Armistice Day to celebrate the end of WW I. It’s called Memorial Day now so that we don’t have to have two holidays that people can take off of work for WW II remembrance.
      The meme that prevailed when I was growing up was that WW I was “the war to end all wars”. I guess it really didn’t end all wars because less than twenty one years later the world was at it again.
      What I find frightening is that both my father and I were gathered up into those two catastrophes. Two generations of one family in those murderous conflicts. Certainly not an unusual inheritance in this country in 1941. He was twenty years old when he entered the infantry in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914 and I was eighteen when I entered the US Army Air Corps in 1943.
      Have we learned anything from these horrendous wars that “other people” used to start? It appears not. If anything it seems that we have learned to start them and feed them ourselves. It is no longer England and Germany fighting for imperial markets and resources but we who have allowed our political leaders to lead us into fifteen years of perpetual war, invasions and “regime changes” to bring “democracy” and chaos to a world that has rejected our offerings.
      And today we are being presented with two political parties who are seeking leadership in our country and both are fronting potential leaders who seek confrontation with China and Russia and show little intention of terminating drone war and regime change wars. Now our primary business seems to be “perpetual war” not perpetual peace.

      • I forget which statesman or political philosopher first said it, but “A nation gets the government it deserves.” We–I never say “we” in a manner that would associate me with the policies of the US government, but I have to plead guilty to being a lifelong citizen and resident of USA–have swallowed lies for so many decades that when someone tries to tell the truth about this country he/she is looked at like an alien from outer space. One can easily put one’s life at risk in such endeavors. Plant Old Glory on any pile of manure (used here as a metaphor for foreign or domestic policy) and the great majority of the citizenry will stand to attention and salute it. To question authority, you see, is UN-PATRIOTIC, UN-AMERICAN!! What else BUT a fundamentally deceitful and corrupt system could be expected to thrive in this environment? Frankly, I am talking about INTELLECTUAL COWARDICE! The average citizen is decidedly ANTI-intellectual. We don’t want a THINKING President of the United States, we want A STRONG MAN, eh? Well, come November, there is a very real chance that’s who will be elected to the highest office in the land. And we, as a people, better be prepared to reap what we have collectively sown. Yes, to the extent that I have not shrieked more loudly and put my body on the line in protest in recent years, I am part of the guilty body politic. The rest of the world is already scratching its collective head, wondering “Will Americans really commit the colossal blunder of electing Trump?” Only time will tell, but I fear we/they “ain’t seen nothin’ yet”!!

  2. A large, flightless African bird aptly symbolizes this long-held American belief that whatever Americans don’t choose to see won’t hurt them. I speak, naturally, of the ostrich, the national bird of the United States; although the typical American can look right at one and swear that they see an eagle.

  3. With the usual hoopla about Memorial Day focusing mainly on commercial sales and flag-waving, I thought back to this piece I wrote in 2011 for Veteran’s Day. Sadly, the dream of the “grizzled veteran” that I glimpsed in 1981 is ever more illusory 35 years later. Here it is, in full:

    Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.

    Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.

    At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)

    Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.

    It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.

    As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.

    Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.

    Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago? Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?

    Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.

    Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.

    On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?

    Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?

    Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?

    I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.

    • Bill A.–If your “grizzled veteran” was a member of the American Legion (a reasonable assumption under the circumstances you describe), he must be quite unique among the membership of that organization. My clear impression of the Legion and the VFW has always been that their attitude is: “WE served in times of war, and dang it, EVERY young American male should do the same.” Their brand of “patriotism” has always nauseated me and, as a veteran myself, I would never, ever want to associate myself with those groups in any way. Yes, there I go, being “slightly partisan” again!

      • I think this is true of the leadership at the top, sort of like the NRA. The true believers, the hard liners, take command and insist on “purity.” But there’s always a few rank-and-filers who are thoughtful and more open-minded. This veteran was one of them. My memory is foggy, but I believe he was older, probably a World War II veteran, someone who had had 35 years to reflect on war and its waste before talking to us boys.

        My dad and his brothers, WWII vets, never talked about the war in glowing terms. In fact, they just never talked about it. They had done their bit and moved on. Nothing special.

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