Afghan Futility and the Not-So-Curious Case of Lieutenant Jordan Rich
These days he supervises the assembly line at a Dr. Pepper plant in St. Louis, Missouri. But once, not too long ago, Jordan Rich carried grenades to work and wielded immense power over an entire district of Afghanistan. He was a brand new lieutenant, just 26, and quickly enough my lifelong friend.
In Kandahar, some 7,000 miles from his hometown of Bishop, California, Jordan —like the U.S. military itself—carried a heavy load. He was asked, by me and by his country, to do the impossible. He failed, America failed, and it’s long past time to bring the boys home.
Jordan was less of a rule follower than most clean-cut officers. The brightest minds usually are. After suffering through four years at haze central—the Virginia Military Institute (VMI)—he graduated in December 2009 and became an artillery officer. He trained on standard, Cold War-era tactics: calling for fire support, plotting trajectories, he even practiced firing the big guns. The truth, though, is that Jordan—like most Iraq and Afghanistan vets—joined up in the midst of ongoing wars. He knew he’d only do his actual “job,” coordinating artillery, on rare occasions. By 2011, when we entered Southern Afghanistan, “war on terror” artillerymen were jacks of all trades, the commanders’ point men for counterinsurgency.
As the unit Fire Support Officer (FSO), Jordan didn’t directly command troops. His portfolio was much broader, even more consequential. His job essentially was to work with me to coordinate all intelligence and civil-military relations for the Pashmul sub-district, the traditional home of the Taliban.
He ran a Company Intelligence Support Team (CoIST), a group of dorky scouts hand-selected to track enemy operations and help us target Taliban leaders. He wrote contracts, often spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, on local humanitarian projects. More often than not, the Afghan contractors robbed us blind, skimmed off the top, and paid kickbacks to the Taliban. That’s little surprise. At the macro level, corruption has long been rampant in the official Afghan government. Billions and billions have been wasted or funneled to the enemy.
He also helped me facilitate the local governing council, the Shura. See, in full-throttle counterinsurgency it’s not enough to dislodge the enemy. Young, Christian, American military officers—with no experience in legislative affairs—are expected to groom, advise, and empower a district government built on a centuries-old Islamic belief system. Jordan brought energy and charisma to the task and sure did his best. Inevitably, we empowered one tribal sect over another and further destabilized the tenuous local power structure. It was the same story all over Afghanistan.
Each of these responsibilities, and more, were lumped under the Orwellian euphemism “non-lethal effects.” No one really knows what that means, though thousands of cute PowerPoint slides explain it in abstruse military jargon. In practice, it meant winging it, treading water, and blindly seeking stability in local politics, economics, and the society. It was always, if we’re honest, an impossible task, but off we rode anyway, tilting at windmills like modern-day Don Quixotes.
Jordan was also a top liaison to our partnered Afghan Army company, an experience that damaged my young friend. These lunatics—the supposed vanguard of the new Afghan government—tortured deserters, not-so-secretly raped young boys, stole money, went AWOL, and alienated the local villagers. And that was just in our district. Seven years later and 16-plus years into the war, the Afghan Army has deteriorated further under the weight of desertions, casualties, and apathy.
Sometimes, Jordan even got to do his real job. After all, there was a war to fight. Ours was waged against illiterate, disgruntled, Islamist-nationalist farm boys calling themselves Taliban. They’d never met any al-Qaeda, had nothing to do with 9/11, and could hardly find America on a map. Still, logical or not, they were the enemy. Jordan rained down artillery, Apache helicopter missiles, and F-16 airstrikes on the farm boys. Sometimes they died; mostly they slipped away, and we’d do it all over again the next day.
That was 2011, when the U.S. had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We still couldn’t “win,” whatever that meant. There are fewer than 15,000 American soldiers on the ground now. Still, the Trump administration and Afghan leaders assure us that there is “light at the end of the tunnel” and that we’re “turning a corner.” The evidence belies such talk. After 17 years of effort, a few thousand dead servicemen, and tens of thousands more Afghans, the Taliban still contests for control over a record number of districts. And the U.S.-backed government can’t seem to stop a recent wave of suicide attacks in the national capital of this failing state.
The problem is one of legitimacy. Too few Afghans consider the Kabul regime or its U.S. backers (or occupiers, depending on one’s point of view) to be sovereign and legitimate. Until that changes—and no amount of American bombs can make it so—the war will rage on and on.
One of Jordan’s main projects, one our bosses’ favorites, was to dole out taxpayer cash to locals in exchange for menial labor on district “improvement projects.” We called it “Cash-for-Work!” At the program’s peak, our unit employed some 1,200 Afghans. Every week they’d queue up in a ludicrous welfare line, Jordan would pay them, and they’d pretend to work.
It was odd, though: a huge target like that and the Taliban never bothered to attack the workers. You’d think they’d be threatened by our monetary largesse. They weren’t. Truth is, the enemy was on the take, profiting from our stimulus program. We had no illusions, of course; we just hoped our cash would keep them from becoming suicide bombers or active foot soldiers in the insurgency. We hoped it’d work, but if attack statistics are any measure, it didn’t.
So much money was wasted on these programs—just as enormous sums of U.S. reconstruction funding in Afghanistan simply disappeared. The U.S. has now spent more—about $120 billion—rebuilding perennially unstable Afghanistan than we infused into Europe after World War II. There’s little to show for it.
Despite standard training and procedures, there was remarkably little oversight on all this. If we were less honest we could have made a killing; stupid us, we never took a dime. One day, Jordan turned to me and said: “it’s amazing we don’t steal.” And it was. The Afghans, well, they had fewer compunctions.
I forgot to mention something: Jordan was also our counter-narcotics officer. Unfortunately, that whole aspect of the war was a joke both in our sector and across the country. Command could never decide if we should burn the poppy we found before it could be refined into heroin, or, conversely, let the farmers be, since poppy sales provided their livelihood. Unable to choose, our orders changed every few months. Sometimes we burned it, sometimes we confiscated it, most of the time we just ignored the whole problem.
Truth is, half our “partners” were themselves drug runners. Shafi Khan, a self-appointed police captain and tribal bigwig, was one of our colonel’s favorites. One day another tribal leader escorted us through a particularly vibrant and expansive poppy field. When I commented on the drug crop, the old man laughed. “You can’t burn it, this is Shafi Khan’s field!”
Today the war on drugs that isn’t carries on with a momentum of its own. And after 17 years, well, Afghan opium production just reached record levels.
Jordan gave his heart and soul to a Sisyphean mission. He left a part of his soul there. It was all in vain. Three of our boys dead, others are amputees, dozens wounded. Still, Pashmul today is much as it ever was: chaotic, unstable, and contested by the Taliban.
Jordan had quite the portfolio: too much for a grizzled veteran, let alone a 20-something lieutenant. He couldn’t fix the landlocked, mountainous geography that isolates Afghanistan, or the divisive tribal culture, the ethno-sectarian divides, or the rural-urban conflict. He couldn’t make the underpaid government soldiers act the part or win local loyalty. He couldn’t put a stop to the rampant pederasty or village vendettas.
In hindsight, he should never have been asked to.
Our metrics, America’s metrics, for success were all supply-side: dollars spent, patrols completed, Shuras held, villages searched, and on and on. We struggled to measure outputs, confused measures of performance for measures of effectiveness, conflated being busy with doing well.
We also couldn’t fix the fog of war, the mistakes and missteps inherent to battle. Sometimes civilians were killed, usually by accident. Today, across Afghanistan, civilian deaths are near record highs. Sometimes we killed our own. Late in the deployment I sent Jordan out to fill in as commander at our remote, oft-attacked strongpoint. They came under heavy attack and called in emergency air support. A Marine colonel pilot plugged in the wrong coordinates and dropped a massive bomb dead center on our outpost. Everything went black for Jordan and the rest of the boys. Three Afghan soldiers were killed instantly, thrown clear out of the perimeter. Others were wounded. Jordan was rattled, physically and emotionally. He still is. Within minutes he was back on duty.
One day, towards the end of our tour, one of our best marksmen took a local Taliban fighter’s head off with a single shot. Jordan and I watched his brains come apart on the base security camera. We cheered and high-fived. It was like we’d won the war! All the frustration of enemy escapes and evasions left us overjoyed by the kill. Needing to confirm and to please command with stats, I sent out a partnered Afghan patrol to retrieve the corpse. Minutes later, one charismatic Afghan soldier charged into the headquarters wearing the dead man’s bloody hat. We riotously laughed, then shook our heads at who we’d become.
Many years have passed; none of us are quite the same. Then again, in other ways, we are just as we were—consider it a particularly dark brand of arrested development. The same goes for America, which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades.
As for Jordan, he still likes to drink, loves to dance, and can always make us laugh. His burden, like so many others’, is understated, and he carries his pain with a private pride. He can do that, he can handle it.
What Jordan couldn’t do was alter a thousand-year old culture as thickly ensconced as the ubiquitous grape rows and canals of Afghanistan’s Arghandab valley. He valiantly tried, despite the absurdity of the task.
America tried, too, though like my friend, I’m afraid its mission is also doomed to failure. Something happened to us, to all occupiers in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. We lost something, we soldiers, and so has our republic.
Neither Jordan, nor the United States, will ever be the same.
Major Danny Sjursen, a TAC regular contributor, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]