The Afghan Delusion

Counter insurgency has been at the heart of the "war on terror." It has failed -- in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The main reasons are readily identifiable. Some are generic; others specific to time and place. War kills a lot of civilians as well as combatants. That holds for "precision" drone strikes as well as mainforce operations (1). That is one. That breeds resentment and hostility. Consequently, the potential pool of recruits for the bad guys grows exponentially -- especially in tribal societies. It's like trying to remove water from a boat by scooping it in the stern and dumping it in the bow. This has become an American specialty. In Iraq, we went one step further in creating a potent enemy movement from scratch.

Long-term foreign presence alienates the locals. That is two. Nobody likes to be dictated to by foreigners, nobody likes legions of soldiers tramping around their country, nobody likes to be belittled or disparaged. It's is not just Texans who warn: "Don't Mess With T....." This is true even where the foreigners do provide some tangible benefits. Yet, the unstated premise of the GWOT is that the United States must hang around in order to make sure that the terrorists are fully suppressed and that there can be no resurrection. For that is a logical corollary to the commitment to a policy of zero tolerance for uncertainty when it comes to terrorism. This is the Mother Delusion.

Long-term success depends on creating stable political systems wherein security is provided by competent local authorities, including military and police, considered legitimate by the populace. That is three. In short, nation building and state building. It is treacherously difficult. Historically, the United States has tried its hand at that on many occasions, in many places. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba: several times each. Iraq, Afghanistan: all-out effort, absolute failure. Somalia, Mali: partial effort, failure. Let's not forget Vietnam. The Philippines is the half-way exception. Of course, it was culturally a far more congenial place to attempt social engineering. It also took 46 years of occupation; that translates into staying in Iraq until 2049 and Afghanistan until 2047. (Post-war Japan and Germany are irrelevant to this assessment given the unique, unreplicable circumstances).

A related delusion is the belief that intrinsic American virtue immunizes us from acting abusively. The shock of Abu Ghraib has not altered that article of faith. Most Americans have swallowed the "few bad apples" cover story. This despite a mountain of evidence, including testimony from those directly involved, to the contrary. Torture was integral to a calculated strategy for maximizing the effectiveness of the GWOT. It was approved in the Oval Office by George W. Bush. It was given the imprimatur at a meeting of the National Security Council where Colin Powell joined in the unanimous judgment. It was implemented at several dedicated sites including those run by the Army and CIA. General Stanley McCrystal took the lead in building the infamous Camp Cropper where abusive interrogations were conducted systematically. He later carried his methods to Afghanistan where he built a similar dedicated facility at Begram Air Force base. We operated a series of "black sites" where prime suspects were maltreated in Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Romania, Thailand, Djibouti, Morocco, Diego Garcia -- among others. Torture was also outsourced to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Libya. Then there was Guantanamo.

Afghanistan saw its share of torture. Personal testimony is now confirming longstanding reports that torture was routine at Begram and endemic at bases in Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Wardak provinces as well as elsewhere in the South and East (2). In the early years, most of the persons abused were innocent of any terrorist associated action. Many were seized (and then abused) on the word of local warlords who made fortunes trafficking rivals, competitors, other tribal leaders or just anyone whose delivery filled a quota of "Taliban." So a 12-year-old boy sex slave, or the wrong Qasim, or the illiterate farmer who bore the same name as the deputy Foreign Minister -- all fed the American chain of prisons. Most of these prisoners suffered some type of physical abuse, many tortured, several killed. This practice went on unabated for a number of years. The warlords, the drug lords and a motley assortment of other entrepreneurial types were America's staunchest Afghan supporters in the towns and villages where they were the indigenous backbone of the occupation. The boy's story is a perfect parody of the times. He was confined in the compound of a pro-American local personage who had been falsely accused of being a Taliban by an envious local rival. The boy was presumed guilty by the Army's standard of propinquity. His "liberation" led to solitary confinement in a Guantanamo cage -- euphemistically known later as "protective detention."

Three aspects of this stunning record deserve mention in regard to delusion. First, Americans generally cannot accept that torture was an official policy or that so many Americans would participate in carrying it out. Second, the critical element in this abusive behavior was vengeance. The people who committed these acts were animated by the same passions felt by most Americans. In this sense, they were acting as the peoples' surrogates. Torture of persons for whom there was not a shred of evidence of wrongdoing had no instrumental purpose. They were stand-ins for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban as an organization had dissolved by a natural process of defection and acceptance of a new order in a manner very similar to how it has first emerged. They seeped back into society from whence they had come -- reverse osmosis. There were virtually no violent acts directed against American forces in Kandahar and elsewhere in the South between 2002 and 2004. We needed an enemy, so we imagined one. Thanks to this mentality, the real thing actually did rematerialize. Acute demand generated the desired supply. At first in the form of zombie enemies, later the real thing. The terrorism market mechanism worked. Supply emerged to meet the demand.

Third, the American occupation in Afghanistan was as feckless and incompetent as the fiasco in Iraq. This conclusion is unavoidable in light of the record. This applies to the Army's war against a phantom terrorist enemy, to the ignorance that led to the occupation enterprise becoming hostage to local warlords, and to nation-building programs whose primary success was in lining the pockets of the warlords and American contractors.

The corresponding delusions are: Americans are a moral people incapable of evil deeds and evil policies; the United States observes the rule of law and the precepts of humanity in dealing with other peoples; we are an exceptionally competent society that knows how to get things done and to perform daunting tasks with efficiency and honesty.

The Army's search and capture operations primed by doctored information from dubious sources killed hundreds of innocents in villages and towns -- thereby estranging a population that initially had viewed the American' arrival with a mixture of curiosity and respect. To aggravate further the increasing discontent with the high handed occupiers, the Americans parceled out responsibility for security to the Northern Alliance Tajiks and Uzbeks in many Pashtun areas. Military and civilians alike knew too little of who was who other than that the Taliban were themselves overwhelmingly Pashtuns; so they went for the easiest option.

Another nail was driven into the coffin of Operation Enduring Freedom via the plan to eradicate the abundant opium growing fields on which a few million poor farmers depended for subsistence. Replanted when the Taliban imposed ban was lifted, their economic future was once again blighted as American soldiers and their Afghan auxiliaries arrived to burn the fields. As if to make triply sure of a Taliban revival, Washington encouraged the Indians to establish a strong presence throughout Afghanistan. This scared Pakistan's General Musharaff and the ISIS into reactivating links to the remaining Taliban leadership and associated groups like the Haqqanis as a means of retaining influence in a country that they saw as of critical strategic importance. Thus began the double game that facilitated the Taliban's revival. In this way, the United States itself staged the next act in the Afghan drama that began in 2003 and 2004.

It played out over the following decade -- in Afghanistan as real drama and in Washington as melodrama.

For the American project was doomed from the moment when we decided to launch a massive war against a phantom enemy in search of the unattainable. Success was ours in January 2002 in terms of atomizing the Taliban regime and purging al-Qaeda. We could justifiably have left at that point, leaving behind a modest police cum intelligence capability to hunt down the surviving al-Qaeda leadership in the Hindu Kush borderlands. When we raised the measure of success unrealistically by setting as the goal a stable, unified Taliban pure Afghanistan -- and set out to punish one way or another Taliban activists in revenge for 9/11 -- we sealed our fate. That manner of success was impossible. The Iraq diversion (so popular an explanation for the deterioration in Afghanistan) may have facilitated failure but was not its cause.

The tergiversations of American policy over the ensuing decade was shadow play. It had no bearing on the outcome. Classic COIN, Petraeus COIN, COIN Lite, neo-COIN, Bitcoin; the Bush force build-up, the Obama mini-Surge, the deadlines; the meddling in the 2010 presidential election; the Special Envoys, the parade of American officials including the President and his senior advisers; the changing of the guard at ISAF -- none of this made any difference. Grist for the think tank mill, material for a generation of doctoral dissertations, puzzles for the connoisseurs of military doctrine -- that's all. We did make history in one respect: the United States ran through more commanding generals than the Soviets did on the Eastern Front in WWII. Ten in all.* The faces changed frequently; the doctrines occasionally; actions on the grounds rarely and marginally; the chances of success never. Like the owner of a losing ball club, our two Commanders In Chief took the course of least resistance in getting rid of the manager -- with the predictable result. (The president does have the discretionary authority to keep in place a commander during wartime for as long he deems it necessary).

There is a triple delusion here: the notion that the Afghan war on terror's pivot was in the position of the Commanding Officer; the assumption that the United States was engaged in a campaign that could produce a definitive outcome; and, more fundamentally, Americans' intolerance for ambiguous outcomes. The Pageant of Progress makes no place for irresolution, for draws, for indeterminate results, for trade-offs between tactical successes and strategic losses. To admit of heavy investments for the sake of elusive benefits is silent admission of failure. So, delusion will be our future as it has been our past in the "war on terror."

1. See the eye-opening commissioned report of the Henry L. Stimson Center panel steered by the former Commander of Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, and Rosa Brooks, former counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense for policy. It details the inadequate control and guidance of the Pentagon and CIA operations and the failure to take proper account of the blowback from their overly liberal employment. June 26, 2014

2. A graphic on the ground account of the occupation's unfolding and lapses in provided in the remarkable work of Anand Gopal "No Good Men Among The Living: America, The Taliban, And The War Through Afghan Eyes" (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014)

Gen Tommy Franks
Gen David Barno
Gen David Roberts
Gen Dan K. O'Neill
Gen Karl Eikenberry
Gen David D. McKiernan (removed before end of appointed term)
Gen Stanley A. McChrystal (removed before end of appointed term)
Gen David H. Petraeus (removed before end of appointed term)
Gen John R. Allen
Gen Joseph F. Dunford, Jr.