Let’s admit the obvious: Afghanistan War is unwinnable

Douglas A. Wissing
The Hill, March 25, 2017

The Afghanistan War is unwinnable. Partnered with a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, U.S. forces confront a robust and growing insurgency, substantively funded by skimmed American contracts. After 15 years of dysfunctional U.S. development schemes costing over $100 billion, Afghans remain near the bottom of most human development indices.

Beyond the counterinsurgency failures, many Afghans remain resistant to ideas imposed by foreigners. One Kentucky sergeant, frustrated by his team’s failed development mission, drawled to me, “The Afghans ain’t buyin’ what we’re sellin’.”

There is no good way forward. The systemic failure of the 21st-century American way of war and development cannot easily be reformed. The many entrenched beneficiaries, both Afghan and American, have perverse incentives to continue the futile war. “It’s the perfect war,” one intelligence officer told me. “Everyone is making money.”

Doing more of the same won’t yield a different outcome.

With operations ramping up in Syria, Afghanistan is the forgotten war. Americans are often surprised to learn Afghanistan remains our largest military foreign engagement, with 8,400 troops plus untold numbers of special forces and tens of thousands of contractors for the Department of Defense and other agencies.

U.S.-led coalition commander Gen. John W. Nicholson recently asked for “a few thousand” more troops to break “the stalemate.” U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel said the new Pentagon strategy included more troops.

Neither explained how 2,000 more soldiers could change the direction of the war when 100,000 didn’t.

To fund Afghanistan operations, the Pentagon and State Department initially asked Congress for fiscal 2017 appropriations of $44 billion, later raised by over $11 billion, in part to maintain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of the amended Defense appropriations request is for Afghanistan. (Referentially, the initial budget request for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]/Syria operations was only $5 billion.)

Additional troops will require additional appropriations. Economists indicate the Afghanistan War alone will cost over $1 trillion; over $5 trillion for the two post-9/11 wars.

Endless war has stressed America’s military. Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed with post-9/11 wounded and disabled vets: over 1,600 amputees; 327,000 vets with traumatic brain injuries; and 700,000 vets who are 30 percent or more disabled. Post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant. And the burden most often falls on military families, struggling to assist vets wounded in body, mind and soul.

This sacrifice has accomplished little. Sixteen years into the American intervention, Afghanistan’s government is ranked among the world’s most corrupt: ninth on the Fragile States Index. In 2016, tens of thousands of Afghan security forces were war casualties, as were 12,000 civilians. The conflict displaced 600,000 Afghans, adding to the refugee crisis.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it was at the bottom of virtually every human development index — infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, literacy, electricity usage, etc. Since the invasion, the U.S. has spent more on development in Afghanistan — a country of about 30 million with a per capita annual income of about $400 — than was spent on the Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation.

Yet despite $117 billion of U.S. development aid since 2002, Afghanistan remains a disaster zone, still near the bottom of virtually every Human Development Index. Afghanistan is a victim of “phantom aid,” development funding wasted through pernicious corruption and greed in both donor and recipient countries.

Each year since at least 2005, the Taliban’s strength has been growing at double-digit rates. Taliban shadow governments operate in virtually every province, and essentially control several of them. Analysts indicate insurgents now control about half of the countryside. The Taliban have no need to go to the negotiating table. They are winning.

The insurgents are pressuring government centers across the country. Kabul is besieged with attacks, the latest on a military hospital where over 30 people were killed and dozens wounded. Insurgencies are centripetal: They start in the countryside and move into the government centers.

U.S. officials are calling the war “a stalemate.” The special forces’ dictum has long been that if an insurgency isn’t shrinking, it’s winning. So this is not a stalemate. It is a lost war.

Generals, diplomats and politicians are arguing the U.S. can’t withdraw from Afghanistan because of the “investment” of American blood and treasure. There is the wisdom of that great economics concept, sunk cost bias. Smart people are careful to not throw good money after bad.

President Trump is a pragmatic businessman, who knows when it’s time to stop the bleeding. He’s clearly not afraid to pull the plug on a lost cause — or a bad “investment.”

Douglas A. Wissing is a journalist and author of “Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan” (Indiana University Press, 2016). His article was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2017.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Deadly bombing in Kabul

A truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies on May 31, one of the deadliest strikes in the long Afghan war and a reminder of how the capital itself has become a lethal battlefield. In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded, and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant security checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.

Kabul’s vulnerability to such an attack spoke volumes to the frustrations of stabilizing the country despite 15 years of American-led military intervention to thwart the Taliban, coupled with hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid to a population that, for the most part has known only war.

For more than two hours, smoke rose from the blast site, a 13-foot crater centered on a vast circle of destruction. In different corners of the city, workers and relatives dug graves for the ones who, with life having become a game of chance, just were not lucky. Parents arrived to escort panicked children home from school, holding their hands and cautiously walking close to walls — as if walls could protect against such violence.

– edited from The New York Times, May 31, 2017
PeaceMeal, May/June 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


The never-ending war in Afghanistan

Andrew J. Bacevich
The New York Times, March 13, 2017

BOSTON — Remember Afghanistan? The longest war in American history? Ever?

When it comes to wars, we Americans have a selective memory. The Afghan war, dating from October 2001, has earned the distinction of having been forgotten while still underway.

President Trump’s Inaugural Address included no mention of Afghanistan. Nor did his remarks in February at a joint session of Congress. For the new commander in chief, the war there qualifies at best as an afterthought — assuming, that is, he has thought about it all.

A similar attitude prevails on Capitol Hill. Congressional oversight has become pro forma. Last week Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, told Congress that the Pentagon would probably need more troops in Afghanistan, a statement that seemed to catch politicians and reporters by surprise — but that was old news to anyone who’s been paying attention to the conflict.

And that’s the problem. It doesn’t seem that anyone is. At the Senate hearings on the nomination of James Mattis as defense secretary, Afghanistan barely came up.

To be fair, Mr. Mattis did acknowledge that “our country is still at war in Afghanistan,” albeit without assessing the war’s prospects. In response to a comment by Senator John McCain, the Armed Services Committee chairman, that “we are in serious trouble in Afghanistan,” Mr. Mattis merely allowed that the Taliban had “eroded some of our successes.”

That was it. No further follow up. Other members of the committee, Republican and Democratic, focused on more pressing concerns like seeking to induce Mr. Mattis to endorse military programs and installations in their home state.

The military brass deserves some of the blame. Soon after Mr. Mattis’s hearing, Gen. John Nicholson, the latest in a long line of American commanders to have presided over the Afghan mission, arrived in Washington to report on its progress. While conceding that the conflict is stalemated, General Nicholson doggedly insisted that it is a “stalemate where the equilibrium favors the government.” Carefully avoiding terms like “victory” or “win,” he described his strategy as “hold-fight-disrupt.” He ventured no guess on when the war might end.

All of this flies in the face of what the conflict in Afghanistan has become, a reality made clear in a recent report from the Defense Department’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Despite appropriating over three-quarters of a trillion dollars on Afghanistan since 2001, Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by the problem of inflated rolls, with local commanders pocketing American-supplied funds to pay for nonexistent soldiers. According to the report, “The number of troops fighting alongside ‘ghost soldiers’ is a fraction of the men required for the fight.”

Large-scale corruption persists, with Afghanistan third from the bottom in international rankings, ahead of only Somalia and North Korea. Adjusted for inflation, American spending to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total expended to rebuild all of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan; yet to have any hope of surviving, the Afghan government will for the foreseeable future remain almost completely dependent on outside support.

And things are getting worse. Although the United States has invested $70 billion in rebuilding Afghan security forces, only 63 percent of the country’s districts are under government control, with significant territory lost to the Taliban over the past year. Though the United States has spent $8.5 billion to battle narcotics in Afghanistan, opium production there has reached an all-time high.

For this, over the past 15 years, nearly 2,400 American soldiers have died, and 20,000 more have been wounded.

What are we to make of the chasm between effort expended and results achieved? Why on those increasingly infrequent occasions when Afghanistan attracts notice do half-truths and pettifoggery prevail, rather than hard-nosed assessments? Why has Washington ceased to care about the Afghan war?

The answer, it seems to me, is this: As with budget deficits or cost overruns on weapons purchases, members of the national security apparatus — elected and appointed officials, senior military officers and other policy insiders — accept war as a normal condition.

Once, the avoidance of war figured as a national priority. On those occasions when war proved unavoidable, the idea was to end the conflict as expeditiously as possible on favorable terms.

 These precepts no longer apply. With war transformed into a perpetual endeavor, expectations have changed. In Washington, war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible. Like other large-scale government projects, war now serves as a medium through which favors are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied.

That our impulsive commander-in-chief may one day initiate some new war in a fit of pique is a worrisome prospect. That neither President Trump nor anyone else in Washington seems troubled that wars once begun drag on in perpetuity is beyond worrisome.

Andrew J. Bacevich is an American historian and author specializing in international relations, security studies, American foreign policy, and American diplomatic and military history. His latest book is “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.”

– PeaceMeal, March/April 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Wave of political defections spells new trouble for Afghanistan

KABUL — Afghanistan’s embattled government is facing a new challenge to its rule. Former supporters, disillusioned by what they see as its incompetence, now want fresh elections to remove the president from power. The discontent comes as the country is confronting a robust Taliban insurgency and an economy crippled by the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Over the past few months, politicians, warlords, former ministers and other powerbrokers have come out against the government, which they say is paralyzed by infighting and unable to govern. Critics have slammed the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who together formed a national unity government after flawed elections in 2014, and they are calling for a snap presidential election to break the deadlock.

The government says it is dedicated to implementing reforms and has prioritized corruption and unemployment. But adding to the urgency is the looming September deadline for launching the mechanism to create a new legitimate government. If that deadline is not met, which is likely, Afghanistan could face a power vacuum that would destabilize the country even further.

“If it performed well, people were willing to give the [national unity] government the benefit of the doubt. But it hasn’t. It has proved disastrous for this country,” said Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a former Ghani supporter and onetime finance minister under the previous president, Hamid Karzai.

The deal, brokered by the United States nearly two years ago, called for parliamentary elections and a constitutional assembly to legitimize the government by September this year. The assembly would decide whether to permanently enshrine the chief-executive role as that of prime minister, a more authoritative position.

But so far, none of those steps has been taken. Instead, government squabbling over basic decisions has only hindered reforms. Kabul, the capital city of 4 million people, is still without a mayor because of the deadlock.

– edited from an article by Erin Cunningham in The Washington Post, March 29, 2016
PeceMeal, March/ April 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Human error led to deadly U.S. strike on Afghan hospital

WASHINGTON – A U.S. investigation found that the deadly October 3 air strike in Afghanistan that destroyed a hospital run by international humanitarian-aid NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was a tragic and avoidable accident caused primarily by human error, a top U.S. military commander said on November 25. Some U.S. personnel were suspended and could face disciplinary action after failing to follow U.S. rules of engagement in a war zone, said U.S. Army General John Campbell, who leads international forces in Afghanistan.

It remained unclear whether the U.S. military, even as it expressed remorse and wholly accepted blame, would be able to quickly mend its image in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the attack, which killed 30 people.

MSF’s general director Christopher Stokes said in a statement that the investigation illustrated “gross negligence” by U.S. forces. MSF had in the past publicly cast doubt on the idea that the strike could have been a mistake. Detailing its own investigation on November 5, MSF said the site’s location had been clearly communicated to both Afghan forces and the Taliban.

“This was a tragic mistake,” Campbell said at a Pentagon news conference, releasing the results of the U.S. investigation. “U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities.”

“The frightening catalogue of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war,” Stokes said in his statement. “MSF reiterates its call for an independent and impartial investigation into the attack on our hospital in Kunduz.”

Campbell acknowledged the hospital was on a no-strike list and that MSF had called during the attack to alert the U.S.-led forces. He described a series of mistakes that allowed the American forces to destroy the hospital, despite the call.

According to the U.S. investigation, U.S. forces had meant to target a different building in the city and were led off-track by a technical error in their aircraft’s mapping system that initially directed them to an empty field. The U.S. forces then looked for a target that was visually similar to the one they had originally sought — the former National Directorate of Security headquarters in Kunduz, which they believed was occupied by insurgents.

“Tragically, this misidentification continued throughout the remainder of the operation even though there were contradictory indicators,” Campbell said.

The grid location of the AC-130 aircraft that attacked the hospital eventually identified the correct target building. In addition, there was no hostile enemy activity at the MSF hospital, Campbell said, but the U.S. attack continued. “These are examples of human and procedural errors,” he said.

The timeline detailed by the U.S. military indicated that the 29-minute-long strike began at 2:08 a.m. By 2:20 a.m. a caller from MSF reported the attack to Bagram air base. It took U.S. forces until 2:37 a.m. to realize the mistake, by which time the AC-130 gunship had already stopped firing.

“It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems,” MSF’s Stokes said.

Campbell said the investigation found that the strike killed 30 staff, patients and assistants and injured 37. He gave his condolences and said the U.S. military would offer to help rebuild the hospital.

“Chaos does not justify this tragedy,” Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a U.S. spokesman, said at the briefing. “We are absolutely heartbroken over what has occurred here and we will do absolutely everything in our power to make sure that it does not happen again.”

– edited from an article by Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati of Reuters, November 25, 2015
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2015

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


In an Afghanistan awash in arms, a push to ban toy guns

KABUL, Afghanistan — The weapons of Afghanistan’s long decades of war can be seen almost everywhere, from the burned-out hulks of Soviet tanks to the Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over policemen’s shoulders. So, it should be no surprise that young children play “police and Taliban,” chasing each other around with toy guns designed to mimic the real thing. And like the real war, there have been casualties.

At least 184 people, nearly all children, suffered eye injuries over the Eid al-Fitr holiday in July from toy weapons that fire BB pellets and rubber shot, health officials said. In response, authorities have banned toy guns and ordered all police forces to search shops and confiscate them — even from from children.

The toy guns come mostly from China and neighboring Pakistan. Many were given to young boys as gifts during the Eid holiday that marked the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Authorities had tried to warn parents about the dangers the guns posed before the holiday.

“An awareness video was prepared as an initiative to inform people how much these toy guns can be dangerous,” said Dr. Abdul Rahim Majeed, the program manager for the public Noor Eye Hospital. “Unfortunately, the families did not take it seriously and didn’t pay attention to this important message, and it caused many people to get injured and come to hospitals for treatments.”

Majeed said Noor treated 116 cases during the holiday — double the number from last year.

Parents like Shakib Nasery, a 38-year-old father of two, welcomed the effort to eliminate the toy guns. Any reduction of violence in the insurgency-wracked country — even if just child’s play — would be good, he said.

“It is not good for a society to have kids with such mentality of using guns or playing gun battles,” Nasery said. “Unfortunately, this is the negative impact of an ongoing war in our country.”

– edited from The Associated Press, July 27, 2015
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2015

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)