If you had asked Americans about Afghanistan before 1979, it's a reasonable bet that most of us wouldn't have known much about that country or even been able to locate it on a map. Perhaps only to the "freaks" of that era, in search of a superb hashish high, would its name have rung a special bell. It was, after all, a key stop -- considered particularly friendly and welcoming -- on what was then called "the hippy trail." In those years, you would have been taken for either an idiot or a mad person if you had told any American, freak or not, that between 1979 and 2017, the United States would engage in two wars in that country, the first against the Soviet Union and the second against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terror outfits; that Washington would be at war there for more than a quarter of a century (with a decade-plus off during a brutal Afghan civil war and the rise of the Taliban); and that almost 16 years into its second Afghan War, its generals would be considering how many more U.S. troops to recommend that a new president send in to continue the conflict into the distant future.
And yet that's a perfectly reasonable summary of the situation from the moment Washington dispatched the CIA (and piles of money) to that region to give the Soviet Union, which had sent the Red Army into Kabul in 1979, a "bloody nose" and its own "Vietnam." The irony: they succeeded. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called his country's war there "the bleeding wound" and when the Red Army finally limped out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet Union itself was at the edge of implosion. From that experience, the political leadership in Washington seemed to draw only one lesson: it could never happen to us. Sending an American army of occupation into Kabul and then, like the Soviets, pouring money into the military and the wars that followed would never result in a "bleeding wound," not for the "sole superpower" on planet Earth. The result, as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore writes today, has been a bloody wound par excellence or at least one hell of a bloody nose. As once again an American commander there calls for yet more U.S. troops and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as the head of Central Command once oversaw the Afghan War, considers just what Washington's next steps should be, rest assured of one thing: based on the record to date, they're not likely to be steps in the direction the Russians took in 1989 -- not yet, anyway. Tom
Losing a War One Bad Metaphor at a Time
Thrashing About in the Afghan Petri Dish
By William J. Astore- Advertisement -
America's war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase "no end in sight" barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory -- if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul -- are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such "progress" has, over the years, invariably proven "fragile" and "reversible," to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan "surge" of 2010-2011 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015.
That statistic came up in recent Senate testimony by the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, John "Mick" Nicholson Jr., who is (to give no-end-in-sight further context) the 12th U.S. commander since the war began. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called for several thousand more U.S. troops to break what he optimistically described as a "stalemate." Those troops would, he added, serve mainly as advisers and trainers to Afghan forces, facilitating what he labeled "hold-fight-disrupt" operations.
As to how long they would be needed, the general was vague indeed. He spoke of the necessity of sustaining "an enduring counter-terrorism (CT) platform" in Afghanistan to bottle up terrorist forces, so they wouldn't, as he put it, hit us in the "homeland." Indeed, the U.S. military considers what it has begun to speak of as a "generational" war in that country "successful" because no major attacks on the United States have had their roots in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. And that certainly qualifies as one of the stranger definitions of success in a perpetual war that lacks a sound strategy.- Advertisement -
Of Stalemates and Petri Dishes
You know America is losing a war when its officials resort to bad metaphors to describe its progress and prospects. A classic case was the infamous "light at the end of the tunnel" metaphor from the Vietnam War years. It implied that, although prospects might appear dark -- that "tunnel" of war -- progress was indeed being made and, in the distance, victory (that "light") could be glimpsed. Contrast this with World War II, when progress was measured not by empty words (or misleading metrics like body counts or truck counts) but by land masses invaded and cities and islands wrested from the enemy. Normandy and Berlin, Iwo Jima and Okinawa are place names that still resonate with Allied heroism and sacrifice. That kind of progress could be seen on a map and was felt in the gut; metaphors were superfluous.
Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a "gray zone"; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia -- all mentioned in General Nicholson's testimony. (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn't see its military presence there as foreign.) A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations.
Long and losing wars seem to encourage face-saving analogies and butt-covering metaphors. For General Nicholson, Afghanistan is actually a "petri dish" that, as in a laboratory of terror, has cultivated no fewer than 20 "DNA strands" of terrorist bad guys joined by three violent extremist organizations -- VEOs in military-speak. To prevent a "convergence" of all these strands and outfits and so, assumedly, the creation of a super terror bug of some sort, Nicholson suggested, America and its 39-member coalition in Afghanistan must stand tall and send in yet more troops.
As it turns out, our 12th commanding general there isn't the first to resort to biology and a "petri dish" to explain a war that just won't end. In 2010, during the Afghan surge, General Stanley McChrystal referred to the community of Nawa in southern Afghanistan as his "number one petri dish." As the Washington Post reported at the time, McChrystal "had hoped the antibodies generated there [during its pacification] could be harnessed and replicated [elsewhere in Afghanistan]. But that hasn't yet happened." Nor has it happened in the intervening seven years. McChrystal's petri dish experiment failed, yet his metaphor lives on, even if now used in a somewhat different way, with the entire country (including parts of Pakistan) serving as that "dish" and terrorists, not American troops and friendly Afghans, multiplying in it.
It may not be the most appetizing metaphor, but you can at least understand why American leaders might prefer it to the classic one applied to foreign attempts to pacify Afghanistan back in the ancient days of European colonial experiments: "graveyard of empires."- Advertisement -
To summarize Nicholson mixed-metaphorically: Afghanistan is a "petri dish" in which terrorist "strands" are "converging" to create a "stalemate" that is weakening America's "enduring CT platform," which could lead to terrorist attacks on the "homeland." Now, let's take that one apart, piece by piece. Is the Afghan War truly a stalemate, as in a game of chess? That hardly seems to fit a situation in which the end game is -- as the Pentagon with its generational thinking and Nicholson with his request for more troops suggest -- hardly in sight. In fact, at a time when the Afghan government may control less than 60% of its territory and its security forces are taking staggering, possibly unsustainable casualties, other players, not the U.S.-led coalition, seem to have the momentum.
What about that "enduring CT platform" -- the presence, that is, of those U.S. and NATO troops (together with private military contractors), all showing "resolute support" for the Afghan people so as to keep us safe at home? What if, in fact, their presence is perpetuating the very war they say they are seeking to end? Can Afghanistan of the present moment truly be described as an experiment in terrorist biology, and if so are U.S.-led "kinetic" efforts to kill those strands of terror working instead to create an even nastier virus?
Above all, are such metaphors just a way of avoiding the absurdity of suggesting that a few thousand (or even a surge-worthy 30,000) more U.S. troops could possibly turn a never-ending, losing war into a victorious one almost 16 years later?