This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Last year, an internal report commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees Voice of America and other U.S. government-supported foreign news outlets, examined the "perception of U.S. international media in Afghanistan." This study, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, concluded that Afghans saw U.S.-backed media as "useful" and "essential." Far more intriguing, however, were the observations embedded in the responses of 60 Afghans from Kabul Province who took part in the survey.
You'll recall that, in 2001, the Bush administration launched the Afghan War with a host of explicit and implicit promises to the people of Afghanistan: the vanquishing of the Taliban, the establishment of peace, the promotion of women's rights, genuine economic development, support for education, and so on. "We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations," said President George W. Bush in April 2002. He then invoked the patron saint of nation building from the post-World War II era as he offered an unambiguous pledge to Afghans that Washington would transform their country. "By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall."
Fifteen years later, however, Afghans surveyed about two U.S.-funded news programs offered responses that hardly suggested halcyon days had arrived. They talked little of "peace," "stable government," or the "education system for boys and girls" once invoked by Bush. Instead, speaking about what she heard on the U.S.-funded news programs, a 40-year-old housewife mentioned coverage of "fighting and suicide attacks that are conducted in every province." Another cited "family violation[s] against women [and s]mall girls... given in marriage to old people for money." A 39-year-old woman discussed the utility of news programs that "increase our general awareness about different issues including fighting, confiscating ammunition... [and] drone strikes."
A 31-year-old woman spoke of the masses of Afghans that, thanks to such broadcasts, she had learned were fleeing to Europe and the perils along the way "which can cause them to be killed and their property lost" and went on to cite the coverage of International Women's Day, noting that she learned how "even two-year-old children are raped. Women commit suicide by burning themselves." She also referred to a program about the grim case of Farkhunda, a young woman brutally murdered by a mob in the streets of Kabul for supposedly burning a Quran (she didn't), pointing out that "none of them [are]... sentenced or executed yet." Even the report's authors got in on the act, noting the country's "high rate of illiteracy" and the "limited economic and social opportunities available in rural villages, which is why some people are forced to resort to unsavory acts, such as selling girls to older men, familial rape, and narcotic addiction." They also pointed out that "the instability and large foreign presence in Afghanistan over the past 15 years make it difficult for young people to develop and appreciate Afghanistan's cultural assets."
Read between the lines and those positive Afghan appraisals of U.S.-backed media are actually a grim primer on the broken promises and abject failures of the American project in their country. But, for all the reasons mentioned in the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, there's little chance it was read that way by the Broadcasting Board of Governors or anyone else in Washington. Today, the always-intrepid Jones -- who witnessed the effects of the American war in Afghanistan firsthand over the better part of a decade -- takes stock of that once-and-future conflict and a military mission that seemingly never fails to fail. Nick Turse
The American Military's Repetition-Compulsion Complex
By Ann Jones
Here we go again! Years after most Americans forgot about the longest war this country ever fought, American soldiers are again being deployed to Afghanistan. For almost 16 years now, at the command of three presidents and a sadly forgettable succession of generals, they have gone round and round like so many motorists trapped on a rotary with no exit. This time their numbers are officially secret, although variously reported to be 3,500 or 4,000, with another 6,000-plus to follow, and unknown numbers after that. But who can trust such figures? After all, we just found out that the U.S. troops left behind in Afghanistan after President Obama tried to end the war there in 2014, repeatedly reported to number 8,400, actually have been "closer to 12,000" all this time.
The conflict, we're told, is at present a "stalemate." We need more American troops to break it, in part by "training" the Afghan National Army so its soldiers can best their Taliban countrymen plus miscellaneous "terrorist" groups. In that way, the U.S. military -- after only a few more years of "the foreseeable future" in the field -- can claim victory.
But is any of this necessary? Or smart? Or even true?
A prominent Afghan diplomat doesn't think so. Shukria Barakzai, a longtime member of the Afghan parliament now serving as Afghanistan's ambassador to Norway -- herself a victim in 2014 of a Taliban suicide bomber -- told me only weeks ago, "The Taliban are so over! They just want to go home, but you Americans won't let them."
She reminded me that the Taliban are not some invading army. (That would be us.) They are Afghan citizens, distinguished from their countrymen chiefly by their extreme religious conservatism, misogyny, and punitive approach to governance. Think of them as the Afghan equivalent of our own evangelical right-wing Republicans. You find some in almost every town. And the more you rile them up, the meaner they get and the more followers they gain. But in times of peace -- which Afghanistan has not known for 40 years -- many Taliban most likely would return to being farmers, shopkeepers, villagers, like their fathers before them, perhaps imposing local law and order but unlikely to seek control of Kabul and risk bringing the Americans down on them again.
Few Afghans were Taliban sympathizers when the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. Now there are a great many more and they control significant parts of the country, threatening various provincial capitals. They claim to be willing to negotiate with the Afghan government -- but only after all American forces have left the country.
For the Trump administration, that's not an option. (Think what a negotiated peace would mean for our private arms manufacturers for whom America's endless wars across the Greater Middle East are a bonanza of guaranteed sales.) Instead, the president has put "his" generals in the Oval Office to do what generals do. Those in charge now -- James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly -- are all veterans of the Afghan or Iraq wars and consequently subject to what Freud labeled the "repetition compulsion": "the blind impulse to repeat earlier experiences and situations," often in the expectation that things will turn out differently. You'd think these particular generals, having been through it all before, would remember that very little or nothing ventured in Afghanistan (or Iraq) by "the greatest military the world has ever known" has worked out as advertised. As Freud pointed out, however, "The compulsion to repeat... replaces the impulsion to remember."
But I was in Afghanistan too and, strangely enough, I remember a lot.
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