The only truth about US disastrous Afghanistan war is that it was all based on lies
The stunning victory of the Taliban over the US-backed Afghan government raises more questions than it answers as to how this happened. In the search for answers, however, don’t ask the generals who fought the war – they all lied.
Let me begin with full disclosure – I have never set foot in Afghanistan. I have zero skin equity in this current debacle. I have lost very close friends to the conflict that tore that country apart these past 20 years, and I do mourn their loss. What I lack in on-the-ground warfighting resume entries, however, is somewhat compensated by a more intellectually based approach toward the conflict in Afghanistan.
As a historian, I have studied the tribes of Afghanistan, especially their penchant for conflict against ruling authority which deviates from what they expect from their leaders. My specialty was (and is) the Basmachi resistance to Soviet authority in the 1920s and 1930s. More specifically, my studies focused on those elements of Basmachi which settled in Kabul and northern Afghanistan, and who helped overthrow an Afghan King and later were defeated by a Pashtun tribal army.
Not too many Americans are familiar with the names of Ibrahim Bez, Fuzail Maksum, Amanullah, Habibullah, and Nadir Khan, or the military campaign of 1930-31 to secure northern Afghanistan from the Basmachi. If they were, however, they would have a foundation of understanding when it comes to the complexity of Afghan tribal politics, and why any effort to impose a foreign system by force could never succeed.
I spent two years studying Afghanistan from the perspective of a military intelligence officer, in my role as the lead analyst for the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade on the Soviet war in Afghanistan (the 7th Brigade was the Marine component of the Rapid Deployment Force, and Afghanistan was part of our area of operations). I watched in real time as the various Soviet campaigns targeting the Afghan Mujahideen were defeated on terrain that, years later, would play host to US military forces fighting the very same enemy.
I was in the Soviet Union when Moscow, admitting defeat, finally pulled its troops out of that nation. My reporting based upon interviews with Afghan war veterans on the tactics of the Mujahideen were valued by the US military attaché office in Moscow. I read the Russian newspaper reporting and the first generation of Russian war memoirs to get a fresh take on the Russian experience in Afghanistan, and later used this foundational knowledge to better absorb Western assessments of Russian military performance such as Lester Grau’s outstanding “The Bear went over the Mountain.”
I have also served in tactical, operational, and theater commands in war and peace, and understand the intimate limitations of “ground truth” as experienced by junior enlisted and officers alike, and the absolute disconnect from reality that exists in higher commands. A sergeant or captain doesn’t know what the colonel and general know about the strategic picture, just as the colonel and general do not know what the sergeant and captain have experienced from the perspective of the tip of the spear. Having never served in Afghanistan, when seen in this light, is a liberating factor, since I am not constrained by the prejudices accrued from either perspective.
By way of this introduction, I offer the following assessment of the unfolding situation confronted by the United States in Afghanistan today:
Blame the generals. Blame the troops. Blame the spies. Blame the diplomats. Blame the politicians. Blame the American people. But most importantly, blame the generals.
Let me explain.
In ancient Rome, when a military unit failed to perform, it was subjected to a process known as decimation, where 10% of the ranks would be executed as a means of instilling discipline and a fighting spirit – literally putting the fear of death into those involved. While I am not promoting such a radical approach when dealing with the military failures in Afghanistan that have transpired over the course of the past 20 years, I will note that failure should have consequences. And yet for the vast majority of those who served in Afghanistan (all of whom failed, in one form or another), the consequences of their failure have been the awarding of medals and promotions accrued from that experience. Any military organization with a modicum of honor and integrity would understand that the process that allowed military failure to unfold in slow motion over the course of two decades could only occur in an environment which encouraged and sustained this process by rewarding failure.
The military award system is designed to reward performance above and beyond that which is required through the normal performance of one’s duties. Given that the US military has traditionally had a very high bar of professionalism when it comes to the tasks it performs, “normal” is actually a very high standard. As such, to be given a medal in recognition of service should be by exception, requiring acts that represent an upward deviation from the “norm.” This is especially true about combat. Awards for valor must involve something more than simply closing with and destroying the enemy through firepower and maneuver – one should not be recognized as exceptional for simply doing their job.
The US military spent 20 years in Afghanistan. Careers were defined by this war, and awards and other recognitions handed out liberally as a result. A successful “tour” was noted by the issuance of medals deemed appropriate to the mission, not the result. While many awards were issued to deserving personnel, many more were given to people who were simply doing their job. Why the focus on medals? Because the issuance of medals requires the generation of paperwork that documents the actions for which the medal was being awarded. If one creates an inflated awards system, then the paperwork generated to sustain this system is itself creating a narrative of performance that is inflated. Truth becomes the victim, and the lie a necessary evil to promote the careers of those whose careers were defined by the Afghan conflict.
The medals you see on the chests of those who served in Afghanistan in many ways document the many lies told over the course of the past 20 years that helped shape the narrative that has unceremoniously collapsed before the world within the past few days.
One way for the military to restore its honor would be to convene a board which would review every award issued because of the Afghan conflict, with an eye to downgrading/revoking those which do not meet the original intent of the award. Start by immediately revoking the Distinguished Service Medals issued to every general officer who ever served in Afghanistan. You don’t get a medal for losing, and you damn sure don’t get a medal for lying to Congress, the president, the American people, and, most importantly, your troops.
And make no mistake – every single one of the generals who commanded American forces in Afghanistan lied. They lied to Congress – and Congress knew it and did nothing about it. One could write a PhD thesis on political malfeasance simply by reviewing the testimony of these commanders before Congress, and the fawning adoration Congress bestowed upon every one of them. No hard questions. No insistence upon fact-based answers. Just a simple vindication of the lies being told, and the repeated passage of budgets which continued to fund these lies.
Every soldier and junior officer on the ground knew the truth about the capabilities (or lack thereof) of their Afghan counterparts. These veterans today may speak with high praise about those select few Afghans (their interpreters, or “terps”) with whom they could interact, but they are more guarded about the vast majority of the Afghans with whom they shared no linguistic or cultural bond. There was nothing there – no connection.
Without any connection, there could be no constructive interaction, and that means there could be no meaningful training, and so on and so forth. The frontline troops knew that their Afghan counterparts were incapable of fighting on their own. And yet, because the mission required the Americans to certify that the Afghans were “taking the lead” in the fight against the Taliban, these units were certified as combat capable, and that certification briefed to Congress. Medals were awarded. Careers were enhanced. And it was all a lie.
The entire Afghan conflict must be examined considering this reality – everything is a lie. Every battle, every campaign, every contract written and implemented – everything was founded in a lie.
Patrick Tilman was given a Silver Star – the nation’s third highest award for heroism in combat – for being killed by his own men. “Caught between the crossfire of an enemy near ambush,” the citation read, “Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his fire team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions.” Not a word of this was true, and the Army knew it. But Tilman, a former NFL player, was a big name, and his death had to be glorious, and not the result of military incompetence.
It was all lies.
Recent statements by US Secretary of State Tony Blinken suggest that the US mission in Afghanistan ended when we killed Bin Laden. And yet Admiral McRaven, when speaking of the operation to kill Bin Laden, noted that there wasn’t anything fundamentally special about that mission in terms of the tactics. “I think that night we ran 11 or 12 [other] missions in Afghanistan,” McRaven noted. Clearly there was a military focus beyond simply killing Bin Laden. It was secretive work, reportedly involving the assassination of Taliban members, that often resulted in innocent civilians beings killed.
It should be noted that, as of 2019, McRaven believed that this kind of special operations activity should be continued in Afghanistan for years to come. So much for the US mission in Afghanistan being defined by the death of Bin Laden. The mission had become death, and the careers that were defined by those deaths. And it didn’t matter that those who died were innocent, only that they died, and their deaths could be memorialized in citations that resulted in medals being pinned on some special operator’s chest, guaranteeing promotion, and continued budgetary support for a conflict deliberately designed not to end.
The fact is the war in Afghanistan did not need to be fought. We could have ended the threat posed by Bin Laden simply by negotiating with the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11, providing the evidence we claimed to have linking Bin Laden to the terrorist attacks on the United States. Any student of Afghanistan worth their salt knows the fundamental importance of honor that is enshrined in the concepts of Pashtunwali, the unwritten ethical code that defines the traditional lifestyle of the Pashtun people. If, as we claimed, Bin Laden carried out an attack on women and children while he was living under the protection of Pashtunwali, then his dishonor is that of the Pashtun tribes. To clear their honor, they would seek justice – in this case, evicting Bin Laden and his followers from Afghanistan.
In fact, the Taliban made precisely this offer.
For America, however, this would have been an unsatisfying result. We needed blood, not justice, and we sent our troops to Afghanistan to stack bodies, which they did, in prodigious numbers. Most of these bodies were Taliban. We excused this by claiming the Taliban were providing safe haven to Bin Laden, and as such were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
Which was a lie.
There is no easy way of saying this, but everyone who served in Afghanistan was, in one way or another, living a lie. If your “go-to” image of your experience in Afghanistan has you decked out in combat kit, weapon at the ready position, finger extended, and you don’t recognize how fundamentally incompatible that image is toward achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan, you were part of the problem. Because that image signifies a warrior prepared to kill, and then the question has to be asked, “kill whom?” and “why?”
The Russians ran out of answers for similar questions back in 1989. And the US has run out of answers today.
As the events in Afghanistan run their tragic course, it is time for every American to come to grips with the reality of what happened there, and why. The most important aspect of such an exercise must be a fundamental adherence to fact-based truths.
And the most fundamental fact-based truth about the American experience in Afghanistan is that it was all based on lies.