The Unwinnable War
A much redacted/trimmed version of this article appeared in The Daily Beast on August 17, 2021. This piece has a more expansive discussion of China and the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack on the Indian parliament. It also has a more expansive discussion of the shortcomings of SNTV in producing stable, legitimate political outcomes.
The indelible images of the fall of Saigon featured American helicopters departing from the roof of the US Embassy overflowing with Vietnamese seeking an escape from an uncertain and terrifying future. In 1975, some 125,000 Vietnamese refugees found refuge in the United States as a result of a US-sponsored evacuation program in the wake of the war. The images of the fall of Kabul are darker: Americans occupying the airport in Kabul, focusing upon evacuating their own while terrified Afghans cling to the departing C-17 aircraft. To disperse the crowds of Afghans on the runway, the US army flew attack helicopters lower over their heads. As of August 13, the United States evacuated 1,200 Afghans although that number is likely to rise to 3,500 in coming weeks.
Virtually every American news channel has been focusing upon the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives every day to support the US military and civilian mission. This addition to countless more who worked with NATO and other wester embassies and multi-lateral organizations such as the United Nations. Everyone knows that the Taliban has a list of the so-called collaborators, and they are being hunted down and killed along with their families. However, many Americans are in a conundrum. They hear the figures recited: 2,448 US service members killed through April 2021; an estimated 3,846 contractors for whom there is no official count; another 1,444 other allied service members killed; 444 aid workers murdered; 72 journalists; 20,660 US soldiers have been injured in action; all at an estimated price tag of 2.3–6.5 trillion. What they are less likely to hear are these figures: at least 111,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since 2009 alone, when the United Nations began systematically recording civilian casualties. The Taliban killed so many members of the Afghan National Defense and Security forces in 2016, the American and Afghan governments decide to maintain their death and casualty figures a secret for fear of further eviscerating their morale. President Ghani said that 45,000 Afghan security forces were killed between the time he took office in 2014 and January 2009. Prior to the last two weeks, US officials estimated that about 30–40 were being killed each day. Obviously, the tolls of the injured are many fold this figure. While the war’s price tag looms large, vast majority of those “allocations” returned to the United States economy as much of the civilian and military activities were farmed out to US contractors with massive amounts of corruption, much of which has been committed by US entities and persons.
Rightly so, many Americans are asking whether massive loss of life treasure was worth it. What if I told you that this war, as the Americans fought it, was winnable in the first place and that we lost this war on the installment plan? Here are perhaps three of the American blunders that ensured this defeat.
Pakistan Was Always the Problem….and it still is
The biggest American blunder was going to war with the one country dedicated to undermining American objectives at every turn even while raking in tens of billions of dollars in the fictive guise of supporting them: Pakistan. Pakistan’s perfidy was evident from the earliest days of the war and it continues now, helping its assets — the Taliban — squeeze the democratic life from Afghanistan wherever and however it can.
On 7 October 2001, the United States entered Afghanistan from Tajikistan under the aegis of “Operation Enduring Freedom” with a small force of special operators. Their goal was to shore up the Northern Alliance after their leader, a murderous warlord known as Ahmad Shah Massoud, was grievously injured in the first suicide attack Afghanistan had ever experienced on 9 September 2001. No American pundit anticipated that the Taliban would fall so quickly. Many Afghan Taliban and their clients anticipated that the United States, furious at the Taliban for harboring Osama Bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, would succeed and defected pre-emptively in hopes on being on the winning side. As the Northern Alliance took Kabul, the dedicated Taliban who aimed to fight another day headed south and took refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Meanwhile in November 2001 in Kunduz, the Americans granted Pakistan permission to conduct numerous sorties over two days in what is known as the Kunduz airlift or, according to US military personnel on the ground “Operation Evil Airlift.” Pakistani army officers and intelligence advisors who were working with the Taliban and fighting alongside them were trapped in Kunduz following Northern Alliance advances bolstered with US special forces. The United States permitted the Pakistanis to airlift this menagerie of despicables back to Pakistan using US-supplied transport aircraft. Special operators who witnessed this firsthand and with whom I’ve discussed this operation claim that the number of sorties was much larger than was reported. They believe there were dozens of sorties. While the Americans insisted it was supposed to be a limited evacuation of Pakistani military and intelligence operatives, uncountable Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were also ferried out of Kuduz by Pakistan’s “Evil Airlift.” That probably should’ve have been a good signal of what the Pakistanis would do as the conflict progressed. But Pakistan was just warming up.
On October 8, 2001, President Musharraf appointed a close advisor and Taliban sympathizer Lieutenant-General Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai to the Peshawar-based XI Crops. Aurakzai, with ostensible ties to the Tribal Agency of Orakzai, would lead the Pakistani forces deployed on the Afghan border to support the Americans who in December 2001 searching for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora cave complex. According to all-source intelligence reports, Bin Laden was in Tora Bora for several days in mid-December. Aurakzai’s forces were supposed to be playing the “anvil” to America’s “hammer,” by catching and/or killing al Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaping into Pakistani territory. That effort was short-lived.
On 13 December 2001, Jaish-e-Mohammad launched a suicide attack on India’s parliament in New Delhi. Due in large measure to the incompetence of the attackers, they killed nine and injured 18. The Jaish-e-Mohammad was a creation of the Pakistani state and its notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, and was a loyal proxy force of the same. Jaish-e-Mohammad, under the leadership of Masood Azhar, was loyal to the Pakistani hands that fed it even though part of the organization defected and regrouped under various names. It is extremely unlikely that the organization would have conducted such an outrageous attack with such tremendous strategic importance without the explicit go ahead of the Pakistani state. Had the attackers not bungled the assault, countless more would have died. India mobilized for war along the border with Pakistan in what was the largest mobilization since the 1971 war. They would remain in place until October of the following year after provincial elections were held in Kashmir.
The Indian army is a large, bulky, non-agile force. Pakistani generals “could see that India was shifting divisions from as far away as Calcutta, in the east, to the western frontier with Pakistan; it looked like the largest military mobilization in Indian history.” Pakistan’s khaki brass informed the Bush administration that it must swing its forces to the Indian border. Subsequently, Pakistan dispatched more than seventy thousand troops and their equipment — two full corps, or four divisions — to the Indian border. Pakistan left mostly Frontier Corps along the Afghan border. Not coincidentally, the Frontier Corps was precisely the organization that had previously trained the Taliban and myriad other militias that Pakistan trained and dispatched back into Afghanistan since 1974. Despite protests from American diplomats, Musharraf did not waiver. Even though the so-called ratlines or trails which wound through the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are overdetermined by geography and geology and well-known to Aurakzai, they were conveniently unguarded Under General Aurakzai’s watch, Taliban and al Qaeda operatives “slipped” into Pakistan’s tribal areas. Aurakzai. There is a general consensus that by the end of December 2001, bin Laden escaped Tora Bora and fled to Pakistan where he was eventually killed by US special forces in May 2011 in a garish safe house in Abbottabad, a casual one-mile stroll from Pakistan’s Military Academy, its equivalent to the US West Point Military Academy
It’s hard not to draw connections between the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack and the Bin Laden escape. All of these years, I’ve wondered if the very point of the attack was to provide an excuse for Pakistani forces to leave the border unguarded as their proxies made their way back home to roost. This is all the more plausible because Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Taliban were joined at the hips, share Deobandi “theological” leaning and goose step to the tune of the ISI’s kazoo.
Oddly, despite Bin Laden’s escape with at least Pakistani passive if not active facilitation, the United States congratulated itself for its swift defeat of the Taliban. In fact, the Americans had only routed them. Safe again in their Pakistani sanctuaries, the Pakistan state silently helped their allies regroup and prepare for what would be their reinvigorated offensive in 2005 which would persist until Kabul fell this week. The United States was largely indifferent to the Taliban for many years in large measure because the George W. Bush administration was overly focused upon its Iraqi misadventure and because it narrowly focused upon al Qaeda. For all intents and purposes, al Qaeda had evacuated Afghanistan and sought out various safe houses in Pakistan. However, Washington was generally pleased with Pakistan’s cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda because Pakistan regularly coughed up “Al Qaeda Number Threes” conveniently timed for the visits of Bush administration officials. Maybe Pakistan was helping to catch so many al Qaeda terrorists precisely because there were so many to catch in Pakistan?
While President Bush insisted that Musharraf was a loyal ally (pro tip: he wasn’t), the remaining sentient observers grasped Pakistan’s unending perfidious support to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other groups operating against American forces and their. In 2009, in an effort to stem the losses, the Obama administration was strong-armed by his generals to launch the so-called surge. The surge could never have worked for two reasons. First, the numbers were fictional. If we took Field Manual 3–24 on counterinsurgency seriously (and I did not), you would need about 450,000–500,000 troops in Afghanistan. We never had more than 140,000. Second, the surge misdiagnosed the problem: we were losing because of Pakistan. As the American and allied presence in Afghanistan increased, Pakistan became ever-more central. Even though Iran had been extremely helpful to the US and international efforts early on in Afghanistan and even though Iran continued to offer assistance to Washington first Afghanistan and then in Iraq for more than a year, the Bush administration rebuffed Iran and denounced it as part of an Axis of Evil. With Pakistan being central to sustaining the war in Afghanistan, the United States could not find a way of punishing Pakistan for murdering Americans and their allies despite being an ostensible ally.
No matter what Pakistan did, American officials found reasons to excuse Pakistan rather than treat it like the enemy it clearly was. Many believed that there was some magical combination of allurements that could transform Pakistan from the regional menace was and is, into a state that is at peace with itself and its neighbors. President Trump, despite his numerous other outrages, at least understood was Pakistan was and cut off the aid. But even Trump could not bring himself to do what needed to be done: apply every possible sanction against the Pakistani military, intelligence, and political personalities for which we have intelligence (and we slews of it) of supporting the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups which have long been the workhorse of Pakistani foreign policy.
Corruption: We built It
Second, only to our failures to properly handle the problem of Pakistan which had been waging jihad in Pakistan since 1974 (not a typo), the second major blunder was corruption. For those Americans who care enough to know that we have spent at least $2.3 trillion in Afghanistan, very few know that because the United States relied upon a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, belt-way banditry, and aid contractors as much as 80 to 90% of outlays actually returned to the US economy. Of the 10–20 percent of the contracts that remained in the country, the United States rarely cared about the efficacy of the initiative. While corruption is rife within Afghanistan’s government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction repeatedly identifies bewildering corruption by American firms and individuals working in Afghanistan. In many cases, American firms even defrauded Afghans. A military member of the International Security Assistance Force, speaking about this under-discussed matter, explained to Carlotta Gall, “Without being too dramatic, American contractors are contributing to fueling the insurgency.”
It’s a story that Americans don’t want to hear: that we contributed to the massive corruption in Afghanistan. In some cases, it happened because USAID didn’t know how to allocate all the money it was expected to allocate and relied upon enormous institutional contractors and a complicated series of sub-contractors, all of whom took their overhead fees for the privilege of being a booking agency. USAID was drinking from a firehose and oddly didn’t seem bothered by the fact that it was effectively transferring US taxpayers’ money into the bank accounts of institutional contractors who enriched themselves in the process. By the time the leftovers reached Afghan implementing partners, there was neither interest nor ability to monitor those activities. Much of the funds were stolen or spent on poorly executed projects. This is why Asri Suhrke, for example, strenuously argued that less aid is actually more. She argued that fewer, smaller projects executed with less corruption would produce better results. But this was a fast-moving gravy train and everyone wanted to take a ride. The money just kept pouring in and the corruption kept growing. The US knew that corruption was losing Afghan hearts and minds. Afghans quickly became came to resent public displays of generosity when they understood that most of the money went into the pockets of US firms or dodgy Afghans who had little intention of aiding ordinary people. They also understood that the corruption was giving the Taliban grist for their mill of decrying the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Proponents of the surge steadfastly ignored Pakistan experts and indeed General Stanley McChrystal didn’t even bother having a single competent Pakistan authority on his assessment team that produced the absurd proposal. Unsurprisingly, the surge made the United States more dependent upon Pakistan for ground lines of control (GLOCs) than ever before while doing little to develop genuine alternatives. The Northern Distribution Route could never carry more than 20% of the logistical demands and Russia insisted that it not be used for lethal goods. Given that this route was needed to resupply a war, Russia effectively rendered this route inutile. And even though the United States was perfectly capable of working with Pakistan — despite a well-known history of horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation and decades of supporting terrorism — Washington could not palate the idea of finding ways of using Iran’s ports and safe road and rail network to supply the US-led NATO effort in the country.
General Stanley McChrystal, in his leaked interim commander’s report, also encouraged the United States to do something about the industrial-strength corruption in Afghanistan. But this was too hard and instead, everyone focused upon his surge idea. To win in Afghanistan — by any metric of winning — the international community had to foster better business practices amongst themselves and amongst their Afghan partners.
However, there is a darker side of the corruption fostered by the US government: it wanted to use corruption as a means of control. It secretly paid Afghans working in the government a secret, and often illegal, the second salary so that those officials would be the eyes and ears of the US government inside the palace. It could use such emoluments to induce desired behavior among compliant Afghans. And when that relationship soured, as it so often did, the United States could denounce that person for being a corrupt, bride-taking ne’er-do-well who traded his country in for personal gain.
The Myth of the Legitimate Leader
If the corruption aided the Taliban’s return to power, so did the failure of Afghanistan’s political system to produce a so-called legitimate leader. Biden officials have been busy the last two weeks castigating Afghan political leaders for “failing to come together” in aid of their country. It’s a nice narrative if, in fact, this was the fault of dodgy Afghan leaders. Unfortunately, the United States and its partners foisted upon Afghanistan a political system that would always be characterized by fragmentation and illegitimacy. How? The Afghan constitution itself was never appropriate for the country. US officials use to quip that we “gave the Iraqis the constitution that Afghanistan got, and we gave the Afghans the constitution that Iraq needed.” Part of the problem was that the United States wanted an Afghan government that would rubber-stamp its objectives. The easiest way of achieving this was to have a strong man as president. The Americans thought that Karzai was going to be their man in Kabul. To make sure that he was, they put several of his staffers on those afore-noted illegal salaries.
In 2003, President Karzai banned political parties. The United States went along with this because, in fact, the United States did not want an effective Afghan parliament to get in the way of its big ideas. Political parties function to aggregate interests as a bloc. If there are no political parties, Afghan politicians would have to form coalitions repeatedly. This was one way of keeping the parliament from getting in the way of the United States. Parties are now allowed to function, however, they are very week institutionally and individuals have little incentive to affiliate with any party. Efforts by civil society actors and NGOs to strengthen parties were hobbled by Karzai who strongly opposed them.
The next internationally-backed recipe for illegitimacy was the way in which Afghan elections are carried out. Elections for national and sub-national elections are not held on the same day. This means that each election is an opportunity for fraud, malfeasance in the election rolls, counterfeit ballots, and a raft of election-stealing techniques that the Afghans perfected often with American and international complicity. Elections for the lowest level of elected positions specified in Afghanistan’s constitution never even happened. So Afghans were not governed by elected officials at the provincial level. Instead, they were governed by strong men appointed by the President.
Then there was the electoral method itself that as much as anything ensured that no leader would have genuine legitimacy: the Single Non-Transferrable Vote or SNTV as the elections aficionados call it. Afghanistan is one of four countries that use this shambolic method of ascertaining the will of the people. That alone should have given the masterminds behind this scheme pause if they wanted to produce legitimate and stable electoral outcomes. Per this system, voters cast a single vote for individual persons unconstrained by any party structure. Even when parties have been allowed to function, multiple persons from the same weak party can contest the same seat. To an American accustomed to a two-party system and generally, only two candidates from which to choose, this may not seem obviously heinous. However, if anyone were to look at an Afghan ballot, there are often hundreds of persons contesting a single seat. This means that no candidate must secure a majority; rather, he or she need only get more votes than anyone else. And parties, such as they are, can win a majority in a legislative body with a small fraction of the overall votes.
Thomas Johnson provides a good example of the dysfunction of this system. He notes in his analysis of elections in 2014 that there were 664 candidates who competed for the 33 seats in Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) allocated for Kabul province. A total of 486,111 valid ballots were cast. The chairman of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and former Vice President and the Minister of Planning in the interim government of Afghanistan, Muhammad Mohaqiq, secured the largest number of votes. Here’s the catch: he only secured 3.6% of the vote! How is it possible that he could legitimately claim to represent the will of Kabul province? Johnson calculated that that 21 of the 33 candidates elected to the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul were elected with less than 1% of the total vote in their district. How can this system produce legitimate and stable electoral outcomes? It can’t. And this was why it was adopted in the first place?
Last night, during his address to the nation, President Biden doubled down on this criminal retreat that abandoned our Afghan partners to fend for themselves. Callously, he reiterated the same canards: that we couldn’t stay forever, that the Afghans need to fight for themselves, that Afghans need to find unity amidst diversity, and other nauseating bromides meant to serve as a salve on a nation’s heavy conscious. Know this. All of this is a lie. We never gave the Afghans a fighting chance.
PS: If you’d like to do something to help Afghans, consider the options listed here: https://twitter.com/CChristineFair/status/1428003177912324102
1. Sign this letter from Scholars at Risk urging Secretary Blinken to undertake a select set of clear, doable tasks to offer a modicum of security to Afghan scholars, researchers, and public intellectuals whose lives are now in great peril.
2. Donate to the organization of your choice raising funds to get SIVs here, find them homes, and provide basic home furnishings. These are the orgs to which I have donated so that you know I’m putting my money where my mouth and fingers are: https://help.rescue.org/donate/afghanistan?ms=fb_ppc_fy21_afghanistan_20210712&initialms=fb_ppc_fy21_20210712&fbclid=IwAR3D03CoODm1ws0EgKNl2WnHj_lHJ32ydcCZp6-Sj0TsPemg5AFCx3gnRuI and https://www.facebook.com/donate/887738608492266/10158417116015003/
3. Many of us with day jobs are writing op-eds or media for which we are paid, I’m donating ALL proceeds I receive to help Afghans. Obviously, if you’re a struggling writer, you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself. But most doing this have day jobs. This is pocket money for us. But with the average OpEd fee, you can help a dozen Afghans. Do I sound preachy? Yes. I won’t apologize.
4. If you’re offering your “hot takes” because you have something to say, be cognizant that many who read your well-intentioned hot takes on “empire” or whatever, fall on those of us who have worked in Afghanistan as offensive&triggering. Remember that many of our students have served in various capacity whether in the United States, Europe, Australia, India and of course Afghanistan and beyond. Do you want to make them think you’re a heartless ass with your ill-informed and posturing “hot takes”? Do you want your colleagues to think you’re a heartless ass with no actual experiences or understanding to underpin your “hot takes.”
5. Don’t just recirculate the tired wisdom of the grand white men of strategic grand strategery WHO GOT US INTO THIS MESS. Instead, LISTEN to the Afghans on Afghan twitter. Even if they write in Dari or Pashtu, Google translate does a fair job. LISTEN MORE to them.
6. Don’t recycle/ legitimize Pakistani talking points that: The Taliban freed Afghans; Pakistan is the REAL victim here; that this was US imperialism when the most enduring imperialists have been the Pakistanis. They’ve been trying to subjugate Afghanistan since the late 50s.
7. Finally, if you are a US citizen reach out to your congressional representation. If you are American, you find your 2 senators and house rep here: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials. If you are not a US citizen and your soldiers or civilians worked alongside Afghans, reach out to your parliamentary reps. We may not get the outcome we desire, but we don’t have to it here bitching when we CAN take steps.