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Nick Turse: Memory Failure at the Pentagon

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Call it a mantra, a litany, or a to-don't list, but the drip, drip, drip of Afghan disaster and the gross-out acts accompanying it have already resulted in one of those classic fill-you-in paragraphs that reporters hang onto for whenever the next little catastrophe rears its ugly head. Here's how that list typically went after the Los Angeles Times revealed that troops from the 82nd Airborne had mugged for the camera with the corpses or body parts of Afghan enemies: "The images also add to a troubling list of cases -- including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant -- that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public."

That is, of course, only a partial list. Left out, for instance, was the American "kill team" that hunted Afghan civilians "for sport," took body parts as trophies, and shot photos of their "kills," not to speak of the sniper outfit that posed with an SS banner, or the U.S. base named "Combat Outpost Aryan." (For Afghans, of course, it's been so much worse. After all, what Americans even remember the obliterated wedding parties, eviscerated baby-naming ceremonies, blown away funerals, or even the eight shepherd boys "armed" with sticks recently slaughtered by helicopter, or any of the "thorough investigations" the U.S. military officially launched about which no one ever heard a peep, or the lack of command responsibility for any of this?)

When a war goes bad, you can be thousands of miles away and it still stinks like rotting cheese. Hence, the constant drop in those American polling numbers about whether we should ever have fought the Afghan War. Yes, war strain will be war strain and boys will be boys, but mistake after mistake, horror after horror, the rise of a historically rare phenomenon -- Afghan soldiers and policemen repeatedly turning their guns on their American "allies" -- all this adds up to a war effort increasingly on life support (even as the Obama administration negotiates to keep troops in the country through 2024).

In the Vietnam era, when a war went desperately wrong for desperately long, a U.S. draft army began to disintegrate into rebellion and chaos. In Afghanistan, an all-volunteer "professional" army may instead be slowly descending into indiscipline, stress-related trauma, drug use, and freak out. The simple fact is that defeat, however spun, affects everything in countless, often hard to quantify ways.

In war, as in everything else, there is, or should be, a learning curve. In the Afghan War, as TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse points out, the U.S. high command, the Pentagon, and the White House remain stuck in a rut at least four decades old. There should be some command responsibility for that, too. Tom

Wars of Attrition
Green Zones of the Mind, Guerrillas, and a Technical Knockout in Afghanistan
By Nick Turse

Recently, after insurgents unleashed sophisticated, synchronized attacks across Afghanistan involving dozens of fighters armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, as well as car bombs, the Pentagon was quick to emphasize what hadn't happened. "I'm not minimizing the seriousness of this, but this was in no way akin to the Tet Offensive," said George Little, the Pentagon's top spokesman. "We are looking at suicide bombers, RPG [rocket propelled grenade], mortar fire, etcetera. This was not a large-scale offensive sweeping into Kabul or other parts of the country."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in similarly. "There were," he insisted, "no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory." Such sentiments were echoed by many in the media, who emphasized that the attacks "didn't accomplish much" or were "unsuccessful."

Even granting the need to spin the assaults as failures, the official American reaction to the coordinated attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital, as well as at Jalalabad airbase, and in Paktika and Logar Provinces, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of guerrilla warfare and, in particular, of the type being waged by the Haqqani network, a crime syndicate transformed by the conflict into a leading insurgent group. Here's the "lede" that should have run in every newspaper in America: More than 40 years after the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, even after reviving counterinsurgency doctrine (only to see it crash-and-burn in short order), the U.S. military still doesn't get it.

Think of this as a remarkably unblemished record of "failure to understand" stretching from the 1960s to 2012, and undoubtedly beyond.

The Lessons of Tet

When Vietnamese revolutionary forces launched the 1968 Tet Offensive, attacking Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as well as four other major cities, 35 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district seats, and 50 other hamlets nationwide, they were hoping to spark a general uprising. What they did instead was spotlight the fact that months of optimistic talk by American officials about tremendous strategic gains and a foreseeable victory had been farcical in the extreme.

Tet made the top U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, infamous for having claimed just months earlier that an end to America's war was on the horizon. As he stood before TV cameras on the battle-scarred grounds of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon -- after a small team of Vietcong sappers breached its walls and shot it out with surprised U.S. forces -- pronouncing the offensive a failure, he appeared to Americans at home totally out of touch, if not delusional.

Since that moment, it should have been clear that tactical success, even success in any usual sense, is never the be-all or end-all of insurgent warfare. Guerrillas the world over grasped what had happened in Vietnam. They took its lessons to heart, and even took them a step further. They understood, for instance, that you don't need to lose 58,000 fighters, as the Vietnamese did at Tet, to win important psychological victories. You need only highlight your enemy's vulnerabilities, its helplessness to stop you.

The Haqqanis certainly got it, and so just over a week ago sacrificed 57,961 fewer fighters to make a similar point. Striking a psychological blow while losing only 39 guerrillas, they are distinctly living in the twenty-first century in global war-making terms. On the other hand, whether its top civilian and military commanders realize it or not, the Pentagon is still stuck in Saigon, 1968.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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