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Losing out on an un-winnable war

The recently published papers on the American war in Afghanistan are astonishing in their clarity but not a real surprise. The facts about what has been going on in Afghanistan during the last almost twenty years is quite known to all. The globalized world is still globalizing at an astonishing pace, lies and fabrication have no longer the chance to supress the truth it may only delay it.

The Washington Post interviews were conducted as part of a Federal ‘Lessons Learned’ project to examine the root failures of US authorities in the conflict. Collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), whose main task is eliminating corruption and inefficiency in the US war effort. the more than 2,000 pages of notes reflect the opinion of top US military officers and diplomats, aid workers, Afghan officials and others who played a direct role in the nearly two-decade-old war. Besides the “Lessons Learned” papers, the newspaper also obtained hundreds of memos written by Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Defence Secretary under US President George W. Bush.

What are the main reasons established by these people on the ground for not only the failure to achieve a realistic goal but to acknowledge the basic impossibility to achieve the changing goals of this longest war in the history of the US? One reason is the arrogance with which the US went into Afghanistan (and into Iraq before and into Libya) thinking to apply the old Roman saying ‘veni, vidi vici’ – we come we see and we triumph without any knowledge about the society, the culture and the language of the people they were waging war upon. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Lt Gen Douglas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama years, in one of the interviews. Afghan as much as Iraqi and Libyan societies are tribal societies that have a very different cohesion, value system and power structure from modern western societies. Pashtuns who form about 60 per cent of Afghan population are known to be the largest existing tribal society with an age-old way of life that had made the British army perish in the 19th century, they defeated the Russians – a much tougher army than the American- in the 1980s.

Secondly, the soldiers, officers and most of the civilian workers on the ground not only didn’t know anything about the society they were dealing with but they also did not respect the culture of the population. The arrogance that has been shown towards the way of life of Afghans has made it impossible to ‘win their hearts and minds’.

Thirdly, American commanders struggled to define who they were fighting. “They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” said an unnamed former adviser to a US Army Special Forces team. Did they wage a twenty-year war to get OBL only? Then they should have left in 2011. They want to defeat the Taliban? Well, if any lessons would have been learned from Vietnam it would have been easy to see why it is not possible to fight a guerrilla force that has the support of the local population, that can melt away and re-surface at will and that is fighting to defend their soil from foreign occupation.

The idea to implant a tribal society with democracy has naturally failed and so has the imposition of a US-friendly and US dependent government in Kabul

Another problem is the arrogance (and naivety) that money can heal all wounds, this has not only multiplied the cost of war for the US but it has promoted corruption in Afghan society in a previously unknown dimension and has installed that corruption into power. “By 2006, the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had self-organised into a kleptocracy,” said US Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda. US top diplomat in Kabul Ryan Crocker said “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,”.

The interviews also reveal how the US flooded Afghanistan with more aid than it could manage without any clear vision. One unnamed USAID executive said 90 per cent of what they spent was overkill: “We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.” It flooded the troops and civilian workers with unprecedented amounts of alcohol and prime food. Elections observers for the Presidential Election in 2004 report that for the garrison in Gardez every week a plane full of frozen food stuff would arrive and the freezers were unable to take the load; so good food had to be thrown out in order to make room for the new delivery.

Another failure is the manipulation of the political system. The idea to implant a tribal society with democracy has naturally failed and so has the imposition of a US-friendly and US dependent government in Kabul. The so-called elections of Mr. Karzai in 2004 and that of Mr. Ghani in in 2014 and the latest disaster in September 2019 (the ‘election’ results of which are unknown until today) show that the very idea of election is not present in Afghan tradition. In order to explain the it to the people it should have been a free and fair process but from the very beginning it was manipulated with the help of the different US organizations to achieve a wanted result. These manipulations may have taken away even future trust of Afghans in this method of finding a government.

A disaster of a different kind, but closely related, is the condition of the Afghan security forces. While fighting wars for money is very much common for Americans it is a no-go until today for Afghans. That is why unpaid Taliban are winning because they fight for a cause. That is why American paid Afghan soldiers are running away because they have no cause apart from the money, in effect they are mercenaries. Describing Afghan security forces as incompetent, no US military trainer expressed confidence that they fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own. Special Forces teams called Afghan police “the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another officer estimated a third of them were either drug addicts or the Taliban.

The last but not least failure is the attempt to ‘modernize’ Afghan women. Introducing or even imposing western values with regard to the role of women in family and society with military support is doomed to failure and instead is creating turmoil in Afghan society. Like western political system western values are alien to Afghans and if at all they may want to adopt parts of them step-by step but without foreign military pressure.

The revealed papers – though just supporting what has been visible for all interested to see before- have already created an uproar in the Congress and one can only hope that this new insight will speed up fast and complete withdrawal of all Americans from Afghanistan so that Afghans can pick up the pieces of their destroyed society, infrastructure, environment and try to reconcile. Only then peace in Afghanistan will have a chance

Ikram Sehgal is a defence and security analyst while Dr Bettina Robotka is formerly of Department of South Asian Studies, HumboldtUniversity, Berlin

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