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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Fighting the War You Know (Even If It Won't Work)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

In America's Afghanistan, it's all history -- the future as well as the past, what's going to happen, as well as what's happened in these last nearly 16 years of war. You've heard it all before: there were the various "surges" (though once upon a time sold as paths to victory, not simply to break a "stalemate"); there were the insider, or "green-on-blue," attacks in which Afghans trained, advised, and often armed by the U.S. turned their weapons on their mentors (two such incidents in the last month resulted in three dead American soldiers and more wounded); there were the Afghan ghost soldiers, ghost police, ghost students, and ghost teachers (all existing only on paper, the money for them ponied up by U.S. taxpayers but always in someone else's pocket); and there was that never-ending national "reconstruction" program that long ago outspent the famed Marshall Plan, which helped put all of Western Europe back on its feet after World War II. It included projects for roads to nowhere, gas stations built in the middle of nowhere, and those Pentagon-produced, forest-patterned camouflage outfits for the Afghan army in a land only 2.1% forested. (The design was, it turns out, favored by the Afghan defense minister of the moment and his fashion statement cost U.S. taxpayers a mere $28 million more than it would have cost to produce other freely available, more appropriate designs.) And that, of course, is just to begin the distinctly bumpy drive down America's Afghan highway to nowhere. Don't even speak to me, for instance, about the $8.5 billion that the U.S. sunk into efforts to suppress the opium crop in a country where the drug trade now flourishes.

And considering those failed surges, those repeated insider attacks, those ghost soldiers and ghost roads and ghost drug programs in the longest conflict in American history, the one that most people in this country have turned into a ghost war (and that neither of the candidates for president in 2016 even bothered to discuss on the campaign trail), what do you suppose Donald Trump's generals have in mind when it comes to the future?

For that, let me turn you over to a man who, in 2011, in one of those surge moments, fought in Afghanistan: TomDispatch regular Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Let him remind you of how that war once looked from the ground up and of what lessons were carefully not drawn from such experiences. Let him consider the eagerness of the generals to whom our new president has ceded decision-making on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to... well, let's not say "surge," since that word now has such negative connotations, but send thousands more U.S. troops into that country in a... well, what about a "resurge" in already vain hopes of... well... an American resurgence in that country. Tom

Tread Carefully
The Folly of the Next Afghan "Surge"
By Danny Sjursen

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We walked in a single file. Not because it was tactically sound. It wasn't -- at least according to standard infantry doctrine. Patrolling southern Afghanistan in column formation limited maneuverability, made it difficult to mass fire, and exposed us to enfilading machine-gun bursts. Still, in 2011, in the Pashmul District of Kandahar Province, single file was our best bet.

The reason was simple enough: improvised bombs not just along roads but seemingly everywhere. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Who knew?

That's right, the local "Taliban" -- a term so nebulous it's basically lost all meaning -- had managed to drastically alter U.S. Army tactics with crude, homemade explosives stored in plastic jugs. And believe me, this was a huge problem. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to bury, those anti-personnel Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, soon littered the "roads," footpaths, and farmland surrounding our isolated outpost. To a greater extent than a number of commanders willingly admitted, the enemy had managed to nullify our many technological advantages for a few pennies on the dollar (or maybe, since we're talking about the Pentagon, it was pennies on the millions of dollars).

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Truth be told, it was never really about our high-tech gear. Instead, American units came to rely on superior training and discipline, as well as initiative and maneuverability, to best their opponents. And yet those deadly IEDs often seemed to even the score, being both difficult to detect and brutally effective. So there we were, after too many bloody lessons, meandering along in carnival-like, Pied Piper-style columns. Bomb-sniffing dogs often led the way, followed by a couple of soldiers carrying mine detectors, followed by a few explosives experts. Only then came the first foot soldiers, rifles at the ready. Anything else was, if not suicide, then at least grotesquely ill-advised.

And mind you, our improvised approach didn't always work either. To those of us out there, each patrol felt like an ad hoc round of Russian roulette. In that way, those IEDs completely changed how we operated, slowing movement, discouraging extra patrols, and distancing us from what was then considered the ultimate "prize": the local villagers, or what was left of them anyway. In a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which is what the U.S. military was running in Afghanistan in those years, that was the definition of defeat.

Strategic Problems in Microcosm

My own unit faced a dilemma common to dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of other American units in Afghanistan. Every patrol was slow, cumbersome, and risky. The natural inclination, if you cared about your boys, was to do less. But effective COIN operations require securing territory and gaining the trust of the civilians living there. You simply can't do that from inside a well-protected American base. One obvious option was to live in the villages -- which we eventually did -- but that required dividing up the company into smaller groups and securing a second, third, maybe fourth location, which quickly became problematic, at least for my 82-man cavalry troop (when at full strength). And, of course, there were no less than five villages in my area of responsibility.


Copyrighted Image? DMCA

The author, plotting coordinates for an airstrike during an ambush in Pashmul, Afghanistan, 2011.

I realize, writing this now, that there's no way I can make the situation sound quite as dicey as it actually was. How, for instance, were we to "secure and empower" a village population that was, by then, all but nonexistent? Years, even decades, of hard fighting, air strikes, and damaged crops had left many of those villages in that part of Kandahar Province little more than ghost towns, while cities elsewhere in the country teemed with uprooted and dissatisfied peasant refugees from the countryside.

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Sometimes, it felt as if we were fighting over nothing more than a few dozen deserted mud huts. And like it or not, such absurdity exemplified America's war in Afghanistan. It still does. That was the view from the bottom. Matters weren't -- and aren't -- measurably better at the top. As easily as one reconnaissance troop could be derailed, so the entire enterprise, which rested on similarly shaky foundations, could be unsettled.

At a moment when the generals to whom President Trump recently delegated decision-making powers on U.S. troop strength in that country consider a new Afghan "surge," it might be worth looking backward and zooming out just a bit. Remember, the very idea of "winning" the Afghan War, which left my unit in that collection of mud huts, rested (and still rests) on a few rather grandiose assumptions.

The first of these surely is that the Afghans actually want (or ever wanted) us there; the second, that the country was and still is vital to our national security; and the third, that 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 foreign troops ever were or now could be capable of "pacifying" an insurgency, or rather a growing set of insurgencies, or securing 33 million souls, or facilitating a stable, representative government in a heterogeneous, mountainous, landlocked country with little history of democracy.

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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 (more...)
 

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