2014 was also the year President Obama chose to end the war in Afghanistan once and for all. Only he didn’t. Instead he left behind those under-counted thousands of American soldiers now being joined by thousands more. For what purpose?
American victory certainly hasn’t materialized, but the greatest military the world has ever known (as it’s regularly referred to here) cannot admit defeat. Nor can the failed state of Afghanistan acknowledge that it has failed to become anything other than a failure. Afghan-American Ashraf Ghani, who once co-wrote a scholarly book tellingly entitled Fixing Failed States, surrendered his U.S. citizenship to become Afghan president, but he seems unable to fix the country of his birth.
In May 2017, Ghani welcomed back to Kabul and into public life, after an absence of 20 years, the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder of the party Hezb-i-Islami and most favored among the mujahidin during the 1980s by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and the CIA, and most hated by Kabuli civilians for having randomly shelled the city throughout the civil war of the 1990s. In Kabul in 2002, I found it rare to meet a person who had not lost a house or a relative or a whole family to the rockets of “the Butcher of Kabul.” Now, here he is again, his war crimes forgiven by a new “Americanized” president, and an Afghan culture of impunity reconfirmed.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Donald J. Trump forgot his denunciation of “Obama’s war,” adopted the “expertise” of his generals, and reignited a fading fire. This time around, he swore, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
The American effort is now to be exclusively military. There will be no limits on troop numbers or time spent there, nor any disclosure of plans to the enemy or the American public. There is to be no more talk of democracy or women’s rights or human rights or peace negotiations.
Announcing his new militarized “strategy” in a long, vague, typically self-congratulatory speech, Trump lacked even the courtesy to mention the elected leader of Afghanistan by name. Instead, he referred only to assurances given to him by Afghanistan’s “prime minister” – an official who, as it happens, does not exist in the government Washington set up in Kabul so long ago. Trump often makes such gaffes, but he read this particular speech from a teleprompter and so it was surely written or at least vetted by the very military which now is to dictate the future of Afghanistan and U.S. involvement there – and yet, a decade and a half later, seems to know no more about the country and its actual inhabitants than it ever did.
“I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” Trump claimed, and yet he staked his case for escalating the war once again on a shopworn, cowardly ploy: we must send more troops to honor the sacrifice of the troops we sent before; we must send more troops because so many of those we sent before got killed or damaged beyond repair.
Lessons Learned (and Unlearned)
We can’t allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists, Trump insisted, echoing (however unintentionally) Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him. He seems unaware that the terrorists who acted on 9/11 had found safe haven in San Diego and Oakland, California, Phoenix and Mesa, Arizona, Fort Lee and Wayne, New Jersey, Hollywood and Daytona Beach, Florida, and Newton, Massachusetts, among other American towns and cities. On 9/11, those 19 terrorists possessed 63 valid U.S. driver’s licenses issued by many different states. It was in the United States that all 19 of those terrorists found safety. It was here, not in Afghanistan, that the prospective pilots for those hijacked planes learned to fly.
Now, as more troops depart for Afghanistan, I can’t help but think of what I learned when, after so many years of living and working among Afghan civilians, I finally embedded with American troops in 2010. My first lesson was this: there is no such thing in the American military as a negative after-action report. Military plans are always brilliant; strikes always occur as expected; our soldiers are (it goes without saying) heroic; and goals are naturally accomplished without fail. No wonder the policymakers back in Washington remain convinced that we have the greatest military the world has ever seen and that someday we will indeed succeed in Afghanistan, although we haven’t actually won a war of any significance since 1945.
My second lesson: even officers who routinely file such positive reports may be blindsided by the bogus reports of others. Take, for example, a colonel I met in eastern Afghanistan in 2010. He was newly returned to a forward base he had commanded only a few years earlier. Overwhelmed with surprise and grief, he told me he had been “unprepared” – which is to say uninformed by his superiors – to meet “conditions” so much worse than they had been before. He was dismayed to lose so many men in so short a time, especially when American media attention was focused on the other side of the country where a full-scale battle in Helmand Province was projected to be decisive, but somehow seemed to be repeatedly postponed.
Judging by my own experience on forward bases, I believe we can hazard a guess or two about the future of the American war in Afghanistan as the latest troops arrive. First, it will be little different from the awful past. Second, it will produce a surfeit of Afghan civilian casualties and official American self-congratulation. And finally, a number of our soldiers will return in bad shape, or not at all.
And then, of course, there are the dogs again: this time, a black one – unclean, as always, by Islamic standards – in silhouette with a Taliban flag bearing an Islamic text from the Quran on its side. That was what the Americans printed on a leaflet dropped from planes over Parwan province, home of America’s enormous Bagram Air Base. That was supposed to win Afghan hearts and minds, to use an indelible phrase from our war in Vietnam.
Afghans, insulted again, are in an uproar. And the U.S. military, all these years after invading Afghanistan, still doesn’t get this thing about dogs. The obscurity of such a simple fact to the military brass again brings the Vietnam era to mind and, from a great Pete Seeger antiwar song, another indelible line: “Oh, when will they ever learn?”