Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
On July 4, 2009 Team Prowler, American soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, set off to patrol Highway 601, a key road in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. All trade entering the province passed through 601. It was the land supply route for British, American, and Afghan forces, and the “skuff” hall in the British-run base was getting low on food. The Taliban controlled villages along the road. “Nothing out there but the Taliban,” one soldier said. Civilian vehicles avoided 601 because of the roadside bombs, called IEDs.
Team Prowler followed 4,000 U.S. Marines who, a month earlier, launched a “mini-Surge” aimed at taking over Taliban-controlled villages in Helmand, the country’s largest poppy-producing province. Helmand had also seen the most attacks on American, British, and Afghan government troops. The plan called for an “Afghan face,” joining marines with the Afghan Army and Afghan National Police (ANP). The Afghans knew the language and the people, and they could provide intelligence. The marines also hoped that Afghan participation would convince locals that the Americans were fighting on their behalf, that this was not just another foreign occupation.
Sergeant Dyer, a thickly muscled former Navy Seal who took part in Team Prowler’s patrol, complained to me that the Afghan police knew where to find the Taliban but did not pursue them. “At one checkpoint they were still wearing their man jammies, not uniforms,” he said, referring to the salwar kameez, the long flowing tunic and baggy pants that Afghans often wear. “IEDs are placed two clicks from police checkpoints. They don’t go on patrol, and at the sound of the first shot they request air support. . . . They say, ‘if we don’t get air support we’re leaving.’”
After the Americans cleared an area of insurgents, Afghan security forces were supposed to hold it. But the security forces were too small and poorly trained to do their part. Despite the billions of dollars spent since the fall of 2001, the Afghan Army never showed up. Dyer and fellow officers complained bitterly—and openly.
Nor could Dyer hide his contempt for most of the coalition members. The British, Australians, and Canadians were aggressive, he said, but Americans joke that ISAF, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, stands for “I see Americans fighting,” or “I suck at fighting,” or “I stay at the FOB” (forward operating base).
It was Dyer’s third combat deployment in Afghanistan. The rules of engagement had changed since he first arrived, and he worried that his men were more at risk because of limitations on when they could shoot. “There’s too much talk of counterinsurgency and civil affairs. It requires security,” Dyer said, “You can’t build a school if you can’t protect the teacher.”
The new rules, issued in July by ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal, ordered soldiers not to pursue Taliban fighters at the risk of civilian casualties. McChrystal also ordered troops to drive more slowly and respectfully on Afghanistan’s roads. His predecessor, General David McKiernan, had issued similar orders, albeit with less media fanfare. Despite the increased caution, 1,013 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of 2009, according to the UN, up from 818 for the same period of the previous year. Almost half died in American air strikes.
• • •
McChrystal’s announcements of new rules of engagement were part of a larger change of strategy in the eight-year-old war: a move to counterinsurgency (COIN).
In March 2009 the Obama administration gave itself one year to “shift the momentum” in the war—meaning, to stop losing. Three months later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for McKiernan’s resignation. He was replaced by McChrystal, who, in late August, recommended increasing U.S.-troop deployment by 40,000 and implementing a COIN strategy. In his December 1 speech at West Point, Obama did not give McChrystal everything he asked for, but he largely embraced McChrystal’s analysis and fully accepted his COIN recommendations.
More than a specific code of action, COIN is about priorities. In a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign, the chief priority is protecting the population, not killing the enemy. The idea is to win over the people with security and services attentive to local needs, thereby depriving insurgents of popular support, dividing them from the people, and eventually affording an opportunity to kill or “reconcile” them.
In a near-fanatical fight for influence, proponents of COIN spent much of the past decade exhorting the U.S. military and government to embrace the strategy in the global war on terrorism. COIN shaped the “Surge” in Iraq in 2007, and its alleged success in reducing violence earned its military proponents a dominant role in strategic thinking. COIN’s biggest proponent is General David Petraeus, who is credited with designing the Surge and now oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as head of Central Command. Petraeus coauthored the latest edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a seminal book in the COIN community. The Field Manual cites the view of “General Chang Ting-chen of Mao Zedong’s central committee . . . that revolutionary war was 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military.” According to the Field Manual, “such an assertion is arguable and certainly depends on the insurgency’s stage of development; it does, however, capture the fact that political factors have primacy in COIN” (emphasis added).
The team of ‘experts’ who advised McChrystal on his report—only one was expert on Afghanistan—included many celebrity pundits.
Opponents in the defense establishment warn that this emphasis on “political factors” undermines conventional war-fighting ability. They point to the Israeli military, bogged down as an occupying army for years and defeated by Hezbollah in conventional warfare in 2006. Some of these skeptics acknowledge COIN’s successes in the Iraq Surge. But Afghanistan, they argue, is a different case.
One circumstantial difference is that while General Petraeus conducted his Iraq review with people who knew the country well, McChrystal, a “hunter-killer” whose background in counterterrorism worried some supporters of COIN, called in advisors already committed to a population-centric COIN strategy. The team of “experts” who advised McChrystal on his August report—only one was expert on Afghanistan—included many celebrity pundits from both sides of the political divide in Washington, including Frederick Kagan, Stephen Biddle, Anthony Cordesman, and Michael O’Hanlon. It was a savvy move, sure to help win political support in Congress, but it had little to do with realities on the ground.
More fundamentally, COIN helped to control violence in Iraq because sectarian bloodshed—which changed the conflict from an anti-occupation struggle to a civil war, displaced millions, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—was already exhausting itself when the Surge started in 2007. The Sunnis were willing to cooperate with the Americans because the Sunnis knew they had been defeated by the time the “Sunni Awakening” began in Anbar Province in September 2006; the victorious Shias were divided, and militias degenerated into gangsterism. In comparison with al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia gangs, the Americans looked good. They could step into the void without escalating the conflict, even as casualties rose temporarily. Moreover, with more than two-thirds of Iraqis in cities, the U.S. efforts could focus on large urban centers, especially Baghdad, the epicenter of the civil war.
In Afghanistan, there is no comparable exhaustion of the population, more than two-thirds of which lives in hard-to-reach rural areas. In addition, population protection—the core of COIN—is more complicated in Afghanistan. The Taliban only attack Afghan civilians who collaborate with the Americans and their puppet government or who are suspected of violating the extremely harsh interpretation of Islamic law that many Afghans accept. And unlike in Iraq, where innocent civilians were targeted only by predatory militias, civilians in Afghanistan are as likely to be targeted by their “own” government as by paramilitary groups. Afghanistan has not fallen into civil war—although tension between Pashtuns and Tajiks is increasing—so the United States cannot be its savior. You can’t build walls around thousands of remote Afghan villages; you can’t punish the entire Pashtun population, the largest group in the country, the way the minority Sunnis of Iraq were punished.
McChrystal was not blind to these difficulties. His assessment of the war in Afghanistan, leaked to the media in September, accurately described the dismal situation in Afghanistan and identified the Americans’ foremost challenges as political, social, and economic. But his solution—now Obama’s—was to send more troops. He offered no details on what a successful COIN strategy will require, nor has Obama filled in the blanks.
McChrystal proposed more than doubling the size of the Afghan Army, even though his more modest goal of 134,000 had not yet been achieved. He did not explain why results might improve—neither did Obama.
McChrystal’s report correctly portrays the Afghan police as ineffective, but does not show how adding more of them, even with additional training, would solve the problem. “If I take drug dealers and gangbangers from the streets of D.C. to an eight-week program and then put them back in the same environment, can we expect it to change their activities?” one skeptical COIN expert working on Afghanistan asked me. The expert, whose government employment bars him from making public comments, added, “If the corrupt force is the problem, why put twice as many police out there?”
Nor does the assessment question whether ISAF (meaning primarily the United States) has the resources and the will to conduct a decade-long COIN campaign, the length history suggests is required.
McChrystal assumed that creating a centralized, functioning state in Afghanistan, which has never had one, is possible. Past efforts to extend the reach of a deeply unpopular central government in Afghanistan only caused instability. Prior to the recent elections, the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai’s government faced serious challenges even in areas it controlled. The botched vote makes clear that his government will never gain the authority it needs in order to function. Obama’s unpromising solution is to pressure the Afghans to create a state by announcing his exit strategy before the troops arrive.
Perhaps McChrystal’s most crucial assumption—also endorsed by Obama—was that the failure to create a unified, centralized state in Afghanistan will lead to al Qaeda’s return. This claim is widely contested. Al Qaeda is already ensconced in Pakistan, where it is better protected from the United States than it would be in Afghanistan. And the Taliban are not interested in global jihad. Their current alliance with al Qaeda is a result of convenience, not ideology, though the longer the Americans are in Afghanistan, the stronger that alliance will become. Any new al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan could be bombed by the Americans, and Afghans themselves might not be so welcoming. Even Pashtuns, who support the Taliban, are opposed to al Qaeda attacks. Most Afghans dislike the Arab extremist volunteers.
President Obama asks how our strategy serves U.S. security, but McChrystal’s report answered a different question: how can Afghanistan control its territory?
President Obama asks how our strategy in Afghanistan will serve U.S. security interests, but McChrystal’s report answered an entirely different question: how can Afghanistan control its own territory? He prescribed for the United States the impossible task of creating a new Afghanistan while engaging in counterinsurgency against the Taliban. COIN inevitably requires military action against a major segment of the Afghan population and, in doing so, undermines the project of state-building.
In Obama’s “all of the above” plan, the Americans in Afghanistan will not be engaged in counterinsurgency—or in reconstruction—at all, but in creating something out of nothing.
• • •
As Prowler and the Provincial Police Reserve drove down 601, an insurgent with an itchy trigger finger detonated his IED. The police discovered the command wire and timidly fanned out to look for the bomber. Prowler’s leader, Captain Nate Westby, complained that they were “squirrelly” and would need a lot of “mentoring” to go forward.
Team Prowler and fellow units had to make the most of the police, many of whom are hopelessly incompetent or corrupt. The Reserve police are not paid until they complete their training and take a drug test, making it hard to sign up recruits and keep them onboard. Out of 80 men, only 53 showed up for the test in July. Some refused to take it, and twenty tested positive. An Air Force major conducting drug tests on police throughout the country told me that in some districts 60 percent tested positive. The south, where Helmand is located, was the worst. Westby lamented that the good ones were too often killed.
If the Americans ever want to leave, they will have to train an Afghan force large enough to secure the country. McChrystal’s plan calls for 400,000 soldiers and police, but as of last June, only 170,000 had been trained. Although expansion of the forces was being fast-tracked, few locals were volunteering.
But even if the Americans can meet their goal, Afghanistan will not be able to pay its own forces when the ISAF departs. Afghanistan is already a heavily militarized society. When the Americans stop subsidizing the Afghan security forces, the men with weapons and training will return to warlordism and militias, preying on the population. The Americans hope for an eventual process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR. But they tried and failed to implement DDR earlier in the war, just as they failed in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the brutality and lawlessness of some ANP do little to uphold the legitimacy of government. Police bullies alienate the population, driving people toward the Taliban. An effective police force requires an effective justice system, with judges, lawyers, prisons, and administration. But corruption among the police and other government officials is rampant. It was a huge problem for the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, too. Now, as then, Afghan cops cannot be expected to turn down bribes when they know that everyone else in the system is taking them. And the police are taking the greatest risks in the country’s most dangerous job, making them feel doubly entitled. The high illiteracy rate also makes it difficult to build a system of justice; who will keep records?
Creating and training security forces is difficult enough in peace time, and the challenges only mount during war. Where others have failed under similar conditions, the Americans think they can succeed in only a few years.
• • •
The Afghan forces got lost on the way to the village of Balochan. The Americans took the lead, but when they arrived, the Afghan police commander, Lieutenant Farid, insisted it was the wrong town.
Shots came from 400 meters away, killing one policeman. The Americans returned fire, and the insurgent fire soon subsided. “Afghans suck at shooting,” the Americans said, guessing they must have been up against foreign fighters.
The police had no radios, so they could not call for help. Lieutenant Farid was wounded in his calf. He was only wearing a black T-shirt, refusing body armor because, he said, it was hot and heavy. His men were not wearing armor either.
Westby chastised Farid. “As leaders,” the American explained, “we have to make the decisions to set examples for our men.” But Farid argued that armor would not have helped his leg. Westby felt like he was talking to a kid. Sergeant Dyer expressed the collective disappointment with the performance of the Reserve: “they sucked,” he said.
After the July 4 operation, a police checkpoint on Highway 601 reported that Taliban were constructing a barrier across the road, diverting traffic through the village in order to shake down drivers and control who passed. Prowler and the Reserve returned to the road and clashed with a dozen or so Taliban, killing at least one. But without bulldozers, they could not take down the barrier.
Later the Reserve returned again—without their American mentors—to back up the highway patrol who were under attack. Lieutenant Farid’s Ford Ranger went over an IED, or was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Farid was killed along with two other cops. His men picked his pieces up off the road.
An Afghan patrolman who had been in the police for a year and a half told me he had lost nearly a hundred comrades. ‘We have a graveyard for police nearby,’ he said.
The Americans took Farid’s loss heavily.
“He was going to be a good commander,” Westby said. “It’s frustrating.” “We’re asking a lot from these men. We come out here for a year and we’re done. These ANP come out here until they get killed.”
One of the highway patrolmen who had been in the police for a year and a half told me he had lost nearly a hundred comrades. “We have a graveyard for the police not far away,” he said.
Despite the loss, the police were expected to go on a mission the next night. They were ordered to relieve four checkpoints manned by a highway police force that was supposed to have been disbanded because of corruption. Meanwhile, more orders came from the British commander at the police headquarters in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, Lieutenant Colonel Jasper de Quincy Adams. The mission was to clear Popalzai, a Taliban-dominated village along 601. “There’s nobody good left” in Popalzai, Dyer told me. This certainty that everybody was Taliban worried me. What if “good people” remained?
The Brits asked Prowler and the police to take one side while the British and the Afghan Army would take the other. But on hearing they had to go back out, Sergeant Ahmadullah—a former school teacher and Farid’s temporary replacement—and his senior men were on the verge of a mutiny.
They gathered around Westby and insisted that they did not have enough ammunition for the operation, that 27 RPG heads and thousands of rounds of machine gun ammo were destroyed in Farid’s vehicle. The Americans were skeptical. Farid was on his way to get more supplies. His truck should have been empty. Westby understood that the police did not want to go, because they felt the Americans did not care about Farid’s death or the policemen’s safety. Eleven other Afghan policemen had recently been killed at a checkpoint on 601.
The Americans were not happy about going on the mission either. “We’re not a fuckin’ route-clearance package,” said Dyer.
“We can say we’re not going,” Westby responded with frustration, but if his police were going, it was Prowler’s job as the mentor team to go with them. Noting Farid’s death, Westby persuaded the British to postpone the operation until the following day.
By then, de Quincy Adams had decided to cancel it. With the British media focusing on the number of British casualties, including a lieutenant colonel, and their clinics too full to accept additional wounded, the risks of the Popalzai operation were not worth it.
Westby turned to replacing the highway patrol checkpoints. Sitting with four senior policemen to discuss the next day’s mission, he spread a blanket on the floor and split open a watermelon. The men discussed where they might set up their new checkpoint. The Afghans could not read the map; they did not know that a blue undulating line was a river. Abdulahad, another sergeant, was not enthusiastic about the mission. He suggested a different route through the desert, along the river, which would take an entire day. It was baffling, but Westby responded calmly.
“I think we are strong and we can attack them back,” Westby said. “We have enough fire power with our trucks, and I can radio for helicopters.” Abdulahad explained that, unlike the Americans, his men did not have armored vehicles, and he worried about IEDs concealed along the sandy and rocky roads. His men raised other objections, too: they did not have enough ammunition; there were many Taliban checkpoints; only 33 Provincial Police Reserve men were on the base that night. Westby suggested that when the remaining twenty returned the following day, they could bring supplies. Eventually, having run out of objections, the Afghans reluctantly agreed. Westby painstakingly made sure each of them knew his task, and told them they had to depart at 7 a.m.
The police were not ready. “New leadership and lack of motivation are making the [Reserve] slow this morning,” Westby wrote to his headquarters on the blue force tracker, a computer in his vehicle that allowed him to e-mail other forces in the area. “I’m sure some of these dudes are scared shitless,” one soldier from Prowler said as the Reserve slowly lined up on the day of the mission.
“I’m sick and fucking tired of waiting,” Westby told his men, hiding his frustration from the Afghans. “Not getting paid, the high op tempo, the casualties, are taking a huge toll on [the Reserve’s] morale,” Westby wrote to de Quincy Adams.
At 8:13 a.m., 36 Afghans from the Reserve—only three of the expected twenty showed up—finally got into seven Ford Rangers, and the fifteen men of Prowler and their interpreters joined the convoy in humvees. The driving was smooth, with the police hopping out every few minutes to search culverts for IEDs. At 8:40 a sergeant radioed from the front of the convoy that the Taliban had blown up part of the road. “It’s pretty fucked up,” he said, “we’re gonna have to take a bypass.”
Westby ordered the men to look for freshly dug ant trails on the dirt road, signs of command wires leading to an IED. The vehicles rolled down into the desert, driving through a moonscape, passing sheep and their herdsmen and the mud compounds they shared.
We stopped at a checkpoint with mud walls. Outside were the charred carcasses of destroyed vehicles, including a police Ranger. The Taliban, on motorcycles and in Toyota Corollas, had attacked it the previous night and early that morning. The Taliban own the night, undoing whatever the Americans accomplish during the day. Neither the Americans nor the Afghan security forces conduct night patrols, and the insurgents have learned to avoid direct encounters. They could continue placing IEDs despite the increase in troops, which could make transportation close to impossible and easily neutralize police.
‘If the Taliban see us talking to police they will slaughter us tonight,’ an Afghan civilian said. ‘We can’t notify the police, but we’ll send some small child,’ said another.
Prowler left two Rangers and several policemen at the checkpoint. They had only half a can of water and no food. “These motherfucking idiots, like goddamn children,” Westby complained, exasperated that their police commanders gave the Afghans no supplies. Ahmadullah and many of his men were not wearing their body armor. Others lacked uniforms or boots.
We passed another blown-up culvert a few hundred meters away from the checkpoint, and Westby wondered why the police manning the checkpoint had not seen it happen.
That night, the men drove up and down the road and found a suspected IED. It was too dark to do anything about it. They did a reconnaissance by fire, shooting at where they suspected the triggerman might be hiding, but nothing happened.
In the morning, Prowler drove to a compound they suspected insurgents had used. They dismounted with the police, walking past green fields into the compound. A spy hole was bored into a corner by the road, and two tell-tale ant trails emerged from another hole below it. Inside the compound was a corn field, a marijuana field, and harvested poppy plants. The police came across three young brothers who said five armed Taliban had just moved north through a narrow path between two mud walls. Dyer worried it was a trap and chose not to pursue. In a nearby mosque the men found mattresses along with corn kernels, bags of nitrogen (which could be used for fertilizer and explosives), and a car battery. The police sat in the shade beneath the trees. Some of them filmed the patrol with their camera phones.
“I need those men to get in some Rangers and drive their sorry asses out here,” Westby complained.
That night Dyer led a mission near the mosque where the patrol suspected the Taliban were sleeping. The men started getting ready at 3 a.m. and left ten minutes late. “Not bad for Afghans,” Westby said. An unmanned Predator flew overhead, but Prowler had no way of talking to its ground-based controllers.
They drove under blackout, taping over the Rangers’ lights. Dyer told the men to make sure the police had no cigarettes, did not play music, and stayed quiet. “Throw some fucking grenades,” he said. “We’re not there to arrest people, just fucking kill people.”
I doubted the Taliban would be there. They were not stupid. They knew the Americans had found their hideout.
So I was not surprised when Prowler found the mosque was empty. The ambush team stopped five middle-aged and older men who were walking to their fields or the morning prayers. When the rest of Prowler joined them, I found the Afghan men sitting and waiting to be released. Several times they asked to pray. “They can fuckin’ sit and shut up,” Dyer said, but he finally agreed, letting them conduct their ablutions and pray on the grass. One of them told me that the Taliban disrupted their lives. “They come here to shoot,” he said, “they don’t let us irrigate our fields. When the Taliban shoot from here, the Americans and police come, and we have to run away. We have to take our women and children away.”
Another old man chimed in and complained about the police. “Three months ago the Taliban set up an ambush on the road,” he said. “The police entered our houses, they stole our sheep and everything. We complained to Lashkar Gah police headquarters, and they gave us back two motorcycles and one sheep, but not the rest of our things.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Westby said. “You can rest assured that this is a different police.”
“Let them understand that we’re not the bad guys,” Westby told his translator, “but we’re adamant about keeping these people out. The best way to accomplish that is by a partnership. We can’t keep coming here every day.” Westby told them that if they gave information on the Taliban that resulted in arrests, they would be paid for it.
“If the Taliban see us talking to you they will slaughter us tonight,” one of the men said. “We can’t notify the police, but we’ll send some small child,” said another.
The sun rose golden over the shrubs as we made our way back to the checkpoint. The police had mentioned seeing a Taliban car. “What was that about a Taliban car?” Sergeant Ryan Killacky, of Prowler, asked. “The ANP think everything is Taliban,” Westby replied, “I don’t think they fuckin’ know.” (In fact, there is no one Taliban. While a hierarchy for the main groups exists, often with a well-structured chain of command, there are diverse groups attacking the Americans, their allies, and the Afghan government. Their motives are similarly varied. Many attacks are falsely attributed to the Taliban because they are a convenient focus for blame.)
Counterinsurgency doesn’t make sense. It asks soldiers, concerned primarily with survival, to be Wyatt Earp and Mother Theresa.
That afternoon Westby and his men were recovering from the overnight mission, languishing in the oppressive heat. A soldier woke Westby to tell him that two village elders were complaining that the British had blocked their water supply when they filled the craters in 601 with dirt. Westby was groggy. “I’m not here to solve all the world’s fucking problems,” he muttered. Despite the impossible challenges of his job, he never showed frustration in front of Afghans he worked with.
He got up to talk to the men. They wore white turbans and had long white beards. They squatted, their tunics covering their bodies, and spoke in raspy voices. The water supply, they said, served 30 farming families.
The British had ignored their complaints, and they asked Westby to put a pipe through so they could water their crops. Westby promised to talk to Afghan and American officials and guessed it might take a week. The two men seemed relieved. “We all have to work together to stop the Taliban,” Westby told them. The two apologized for bothering him. To them he was just another in a long string of foreign officers and local warlords who had come and gone.
• • •
Westby was trying to be a good soldier in the COIN spirit. But the fact is that once you get down to the rifle squad, COIN does not make any sense. Soldiers, whose greatest concern is living through their deployments, are being asked to mix Wyatt Earp and Mother Theresa. In public they pay lip service to COIN because that is the way to advance. Less publicly, officers speak of going in to villages and “doing that COIN shit.”
But COIN is not going in for a few hours, calling a shura—a sit-down—with some elders, and heading back to base before the chow hall closes. COIN is dangerous, and the military is risk-averse. American casualties peaked in Iraq when the military got serious about protecting the people. COIN advocates have changed the language used by the top brass, but the bureaucracy is still dominated by old-school army thinking. All they can do is try to take COIN and graft it onto conventional doctrine.
The military has been talking for a long time about being good at complex operations, simultaneously fighting and providing aid. But they still make it up as they go. Each unit takes its knowledge back home with it, leaving its successor to relearn everything. Relationships formed with Afghans—still viewed derisively in the military as “Hajis”—are lost.
The troubles with COIN are institutional. The American military and policy establishments are incapable of doing COIN. They lack the curiosity to understand other cultures and the empathy to understand what motivates people. The new counterinsurgency manual gets it right: political factors have primacy in COIN. But the military is not a political party, and the Surge is the exception to the rule: Afghanistan 2009 is not Iraq, certainly not Iraq 2007, and confusing the two cases—rural/urban; ungoverned/governed; history of expelling occupiers/no comparable history; largely organized insurgency/multiple, competing insurgencies—promises disaster.
The Americans have been ignoring the right lessons from Iraq—such as the use of community outposts—and internalizing the wrong ones. For example, all of the talk about bribing Afghan tribes shows that the Americans do not understand why Sunnis stopped resisting in Iraq (they lost) and overemphasizes the importance of tribalism in Afghan society.
It is also wrong to romanticize the extent to which the Americans protected the Iraqi population during the Surge. Air strikes killed more than 250 civilians in Iraq in 2006, more than 940 in 2007, and about 400 in 2008. Civilian deaths caused by Americans spiked during the Surge, even though the COIN manual states: “The benefits of every air strike should be weighed against the risks, the primary danger being collateral damage that turns the population against the government and provides the insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” The Americans deserve credit for taking advantage of factors that were already turning Iraq toward stability before the Surge began, but the Iraqis themselves were the critical factor. We can have no comparable expectation in Afghanistan, and the threat of early exit (some might say “the promise of early exit”) will not mobilize the Afghan government into wakeful action.
The failed elections were a message to Afghans that there was no hope of improvement or change.
The obsession with elections in Afghanistan reflects another misreading of the Iraq experience. In Iraq elections helped to enshrine sectarianism and paved the way to civil war. So, too, in Afghanistan, elections have empowered warlords and preserved a corrupt order. While U.S. strategy was on hold for the elections, the Taliban managed to reduce the turnout compared to previous years. Turnout in the south was less than 10 percent—zero in some places—and evidence of systematic fraud is overwhelming. Americans and their allies immediately hailed the elections as a success merely because violence was low. Perhaps the Taliban knew the elections did not matter and that nothing could better serve their ends than a deeply flawed result that implicated the Americans in corruption.
The failed elections were a message to Afghans that there was no hope of improvement or change.
• • •
The day after the attempted raid on the mosque, Ahmadullah radioed Prowler’s translator, Mansur. “We found a Taliban. What should we do, kill him?” Mansur told Ahmadullah not to kill the prisoner but to bring him to the Americans. The prisoner, Zeibullah Agha, was a young man with a purple salwar kameez, long hair, and a cap atop his head. He wore two different sandals. He looked bewildered as he squatted in the dirt with his hands cuffed in front of him. He had been a passenger in a taxi when the police detained him. The police also brought the driver and the other passengers.
Ahmadullah’s evidence was the Taliban ringtone on his prisoner’s cell phone. The policemen were angry with their commander and wanted the man released. Zahir, another translator, was outraged. “This is why people hate the fucking police and support the Taliban,” he said. One policeman told me that Ahmadullah bragged he had killed many people in “personal hostility” in Babaji, a village near Lashkar Gah.
Westby and Dyer interrogated the prisoner. He was a student in a famous religious school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and was on his way back to Babaji, where the British were fighting the Taliban, in order to help his family flee to safety. The Americans asked him for the names of his brothers, father, and uncle, but they had trouble with the names, and they confused Peshawar with Quetta, famous for being a Taliban safe haven. The school he named practiced a moderate form of Islam that was an anathema to the Taliban, I told the Americans. “I am a poor man. I don’t know why they arrested me,” Zeibullah said.
Dyer asked him about the music on his cell phone. “One of my friends put it there,” Zeibullah said. The sergeant smiled. “Bullshit,” he said, looking at Zahir. “How do you say bullshit in Pashtu?”
Zahir looked at the prisoner and said “kus eh shir,” “a pussy’s poem.”
Zeibullah’s cell phone also contained videos of a graduation from a religious school and battles. “Everybody has them on their phones, even I have them,” Zahir said. Ahmadullah told the Americans that he knew Zeibullah’s father, that he was a good man.
“But I don’t know him,” Ahmadullah said, “and his uncle is Taliban.” Mansur scoffed. “He’s fucked up,” Mansur told me, referring to Ahmadullah. Another policeman, originally from Babaji, also insisted the prisoner was innocent. But Zeibullah was sent to the prison in Lashkar Gah. He might be released for money, Dyer told me. Or he might still be there.
The next day we drove by the first compound the patrol had searched. The sandbag the Prowler men had stuffed into the spy hole was gone. Dyer wanted to destroy that part of the wall, but de Quincy Adams said that on McChrystal’s new orders a compound could only be destroyed in order to protect soldiers from imminent danger. The men were baffled. Captain Westby was reluctant to ask his men to search the compound. Their tour was coming to an end, and he didn’t want to have any of his men killed a couple of weeks before they went home.
As we returned to Lashkar Gah, one of the sergeants driving grew elated. He started laughing and playing chicken with oncoming vehicles. On the way, a kid picked up a rock to throw at the humvee. A cop kicked him hard in the chest.
• • •
For many commentators, politicians, and military officers, victory demands more resolve, as if war is a contest of wills. McChrystal’s supporters say he “gets it”; he is another Spartan hero like Petraeus, there to save the day; another “Zen Warrior scholar,” praised in fawning articles about his low percentage of body fat, ascetic habit of eating one meal a day, and brilliant recitation of COIN aphorisms (clichés in Iraq by 2007). There is a cult of celebrity in the D.C. policy circles. Many of the same pseudo-experts who were once convinced the war in Iraq was the most important thing in the world are now convinced that Afghanistan is the most important thing in the world and are offering trendy solutions du jour—paying off tribes, building roads, reducing the troops and relying on special forces and unmanned strikes.
For the average Afghan, life remains a struggle. More troops cannot fix this. The American strategy has raised greater expectations than it has satisfied.
One U.S. government specialist on insurgency, who requested anonymity because he is prohibited from talking to the press, mocked McChrystal’s reported revelation that, with a plan and enough time and resources, anything is possible. On the other McChrystal revelation, that we “turned the tide” of the Iraq insurgency, he said:
Why does [Iraq] remain deadlier than Afghanistan if we did? That’s what I don’t get: if we really did win in Iraq, why are there more dead Iraqis per month than in Afghanistan? Do only U.S. lives count? It’s also remarkable that apparently no one in [Central Command] realized the Afghan insurgency was so strong. Do they not read their own reports? McChrystal says he needs 24 months ‘to have a decisive impact.’ His deputy, [General Michael] Flynn, says it’s a minimum three years. Is McChrystal out of step with his own staff about time frames and resources? How much does each week of Obama’s dithering affect the outlook?
McChrystal’s defenders claim that his secret hunters and killers destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq. But even his greatest success—killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, in 2006—did nothing to halt the violence or weaken al Qaeda.
The media eagerly consumed the hype about the new general, allowing the military to manipulate public opinion throughout Obama’s three-month policy review. The military was setting the agenda for the war, and it came down to a massive escalation of troops. No one (now including the president) has explained what the qualitative difference on the ground would be.
The Helmand operation of July 2009 resulted in at best a stalemate for the Americans, with the Taliban merely slipping away, avoiding direct confrontation. The influx of marines in Helmand meant the province had a higher ratio of soldiers to people than anywhere else in the country, with little apparent effect.
After Helmand the focus turned to nearby Kandahar, and there was talk of pouring troops in there. Once more, the Americans were wrongly targeting the south. As a result they let Logar and Wardak provinces, adjacent to Kabul, come under Taliban control. Much of the formerly safe north, such as Kunduz, was falling to the Taliban as well. There is no process set up for reconciliation or engaging the Taliban to switch sides, though there is no reason for them to do so either since they are not losing.
For the average Afghan, life remains a miserable struggle for subsistence. More troops cannot fix this. Nor is there much evidence that aid money in COIN has had an impact, and the strategy has raised greater expectations than it has satisfied. The more insecure the region, the more development aid it gets, so the safer provinces feel penalized for not having Taliban or poppy cultivation. Afghans who have been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies are unlikely to become loyal partners after receiving a bit of aid money, which has also been relatively minimal compared to that provided for projects in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor.
Afghanistan should have been easy. Eight years in, the Taliban look good compared to the Americans.
The Americans have failed to convince Afghans that they should want them to stay, and Afghans certainly have not been convinced of Karzai’s legitimacy. There are just too many blunders. In September 2009 a British plane dropped a box of leaflets that failed to open. The box landed on a girl and killed her. Given that most Afghans are illiterate, its contents would have made no difference anyway.
Material goods will not outweigh anger over civilian casualties and eight years of humiliation. In Iraq it took the trauma of the civil war to make the Americans look better, yet Iraqis still overwhelmingly want them out. Obama is not Bush, but for Afghans it is the same occupying country—the America of Iraq, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib; the America seemingly at war with Islam.
Afghanistan should have been easier. Eight years after overthrowing the Taliban—the world’s most detested and backward regime, which provided no service to its people—the United States has restored many brutal warlords the Taliban expelled. The authority the United States established is a failure, corrupt and brutal. Americans and their allies manage to kill innocent civilians, and the Taliban have once again become attractive to many Afghans. A few tens of thousands of troops will not turn things around.
President Obama’s stated goal in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda. Why, then, did McChrystal argue for fighting the Taliban and remaking Afghanistan? Why has Obama agreed? Assuming that al Qaeda will set up bases in Afghanistan recalls predictions that Saddam Hussein would give his imaginary weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda. It assumes that the Taliban are irrational and unaware of their interests. And it rests on much more fundamental assumptions, too: that al Qaeda is a significant threat to the United States and that the best way to reduce the threat is by attacking the movement itself.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 were tragic and criminal. They were painful for the victims and their families and a shock to a powerful, arrogant, and proud nation blissfully unaware that it was so resented.
But beyond the terrible murders, the attacks themselves had little impact on the American economy or way of life, though the response at home and abroad changed everything. Al Qaeda used its “A-team” on that day to attack a slumbering nation. Can a few hundred angry, unsophisticated Muslim extremists really pose such grave dangers to a vigilant superpower, now alert to potential threats?
Al Qaeda is not determined to do evil for the sake of evil. It is a movement that won support, to the extent that it has, in response to America’s imperial excesses. Many of the popular grievances and resentments it mobilizes—including U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and for friendly dictators—are legitimate, even if killing American civilians is a heinous means of addressing them. The resentments were not produced by al Qaeda’s ideology. They have existed for decades. The causes have remained the same, though the discourse used by those who fight imperialism has changed from secular to religious. Addressing these problems at their roots would do much more—for Afghans and for us—than sending in the military once more to do the work of decent politics.
Rosen neglects a key factor in U.S. planning: domestic politics.
The real danger is that al Qaeda and the Neo-Taliban will drag us into war.
Dismissing the Afghan Government is a grave mistake.
The massive investment and destabilization are not worth the small threat al Qaeda poses.
This conflict will likely mark the end of the current era of counterinsurgency.
The West can encourage legitimacy and accountability.
Americans misperceive the world and their role in determining its evolution.
Strategic considerations override concern for foreign suffering.
Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be separated.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.