Losing a War One Bad Metaphor at a Time
America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory—if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul—are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015.
That statistic came up in recent Senate testimony by the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who is (to give no-end-in-sight further context) the 12th U.S. commander since the war began. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called for several thousand more U.S. troops to break what he optimistically described as a “stalemate.” Those troops would, he added, serve mainly as advisers and trainers to Afghan forces, facilitating what he labeled “hold-fight-disrupt” operations.
As to how long they would be needed, the general was vague indeed. He spoke of the necessity of sustaining “an enduring counter-terrorism (CT) platform” in Afghanistan to bottle up terrorist forces, so they wouldn’t, as he put it, hit us in the “homeland.” Indeed, the U.S. military considers what it has begun to speak of as a “generational” war in that country “successful” because no major attacks on the United States have had their roots in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. And that certainly qualifies as one of the stranger definitions of success in a perpetual war that lacks a sound strategy.
Of Stalemates and Petri Dishes
You know America is losing a war when its officials resort to bad metaphors to describe its progress and prospects. A classic case was the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel” metaphor from the Vietnam War years. It implied that, although prospects might appear dark—that “tunnel” of war—progress was indeed being made and, in the distance, victory (that “light”) could be glimpsed. Contrast this with World War II, when progress was measured not by empty words (or misleading metrics like body counts or truck counts) but by land masses invaded and cities and islands wrested from the enemy. Normandy and Berlin, Iwo Jima and Okinawa are place names that still resonate with Allied heroism and sacrifice. That kind of progress could be seen on a map and was felt in the gut; metaphors were superfluous.
Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia—all mentioned in General Nicholson’s testimony. (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.) A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations.
Long and losing wars seem to encourage face-saving analogies and butt-covering metaphors. For General Nicholson, Afghanistan is actually a “petri dish” that, as in a laboratory of terror, has cultivated no fewer than 20 “DNA strands” of terrorist bad guys joined by three violent extremist organizations—VEOs in military-speak. To prevent a “convergence” of all these strands and outfits and so, assumedly, the creation of a super terror bug of some sort, Nicholson suggested, America and its 39-member coalition in Afghanistan must stand tall and send in yet more troops.
As it turns out, our 12th commanding general there isn’t the first to resort to biology and a “petri dish” to explain a war that just won’t end. In 2010, during the Afghan surge, General Stanley McChrystal referred to the community of Nawa in southern Afghanistan as his “number one petri dish.” As the Washington Post reported at the time, McChrystal “had hoped the antibodies generated there [during its pacification] could be harnessed and replicated [elsewhere in Afghanistan]. But that hasn’t yet happened.” Nor has it happened in the intervening seven years. McChrystal’s petri dish experiment failed, yet his metaphor lives on, even if now used in a somewhat different way, with the entire country (including parts of Pakistan) serving as that “dish” and terrorists, not American troops and friendly Afghans, multiplying in it.
It may not be the most appetizing metaphor, but you can at least understand why American leaders might prefer it to the classic one applied to foreign attempts to pacify Afghanistan back in the ancient days of European colonial experiments: “graveyard of empires.”
To summarize Nicholson mixed-metaphorically: Afghanistan is a “petri dish” in which terrorist “strands” are “converging” to create a “stalemate” that is weakening America’s “enduring CT platform,” which could lead to terrorist attacks on the “homeland.” Now, let’s take that one apart, piece by piece. Is the Afghan War truly a stalemate, as in a game of chess? That hardly seems to fit a situation in which the end game is—as the Pentagon with its generational thinking and Nicholson with his request for more troops suggest—hardly in sight. In fact, at a time when the Afghan government may control less than 60% of its territory and its security forces are taking staggering, possibly unsustainable casualties, other players, not the U.S.-led coalition, seem to have the momentum.
What about that “enduring CT platform”—the presence, that is, of those U.S. and NATO troops (together with private military contractors), all showing “resolute support” for the Afghan people so as to keep us safe at home? What if, in fact, their presence is perpetuating the very war they say they are seeking to end? Can Afghanistan of the present moment truly be described as an experiment in terrorist biology, and if so are U.S.-led “kinetic” efforts to kill those strands of terror working instead to create an even nastier virus?
Above all, are such metaphors just a way of avoiding the absurdity of suggesting that a few thousand (or even a surge-worthy 30,000) more U.S. troops could possibly turn a never-ending, losing war into a victorious one almost 16 years later?
Grim Honesty Among the Ground-Pounders
For grim honesty, skip those metaphor-wielding commanding generals so deeply invested in a war that they can neither admit to losing nor contemplate leaving. Look instead to the ground-pounders, the plain-speaking corporals and captains who have met that war face to face, up close and personal. Consider, for instance, a 2010 HBO documentary, The Battle for Marjah. Seven years ago, in a much larger military effort than the one presently being contemplated, U.S. troops joined with Afghan forces to secure the town of Marjah in Helmand Province in the opium-growing heart of the country.
The documentary followed a U.S. Marine unit, which fought valiantly to clear that town of the Taliban in accordance with the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine then experiencing a revival under Petraeus and McChrystal. The goal was to rebuild its institutions and infrastructure so U.S. troops could ultimately leave. As usual, the Marines kicked ass: they cleared the town. But the price of holding it proved dear, while efforts to build a local Afghan government to replace them failed. Today, as much as 80% of Helmand Province is under Taliban control.
The documentary’s harshest lessons come almost as visual asides. While Taliban insurgents fought with spirit, Afghan government forces, then as now, fought reluctantly. U.S. troops had to force them to enter and clear buildings. In one case, a Marine takes a rifle away from an Afghan soldier because the latter keeps pointing the muzzle at “friendly” forces. We witness Afghan troops holding a half-hearted ceremony to salute their government’s flag after Marjah is “liberated.” Meanwhile, the faces of ordinary Afghans alternate between beleaguered stoicism and thinly veiled hostility. Few appear to welcome their foreign liberators, whether U.S. or Afghan. (The Afghan government units, hailing from the north, were ethnically different and spoke another language.) An Afghan shown working with the Marines was assassinated soon after the U.S. withdrawal.
A tired Marine corporal put it all in perspective: for him, the Afghan War was a “mind-fuck.” At least he rotated out sooner or later. The Afghan people have had no such luck. To mix metaphors and wars, they were stuck in the big muddy of their “petri dish.”
Let’s turn to another ground-pounding Marine of more recent vintage, Captain Joshua Waddell. A decorated combat veteran of the war, he penned an article for this month’s Marine Corps Gazette in which he lambastes the U.S. military for its “self-delusion.” He writes:
“It is time that we, as professional military officers, accept the fact that we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Objective analysis of the U.S. military’s effectiveness in these wars can only conclude that we were unable to translate tactical victory into operational and strategic success.”
Supporting Waddell’s “lost war” conclusion is General Nicholson’s own testimony, which cited the same old problems in the Afghan military: too many “ghost” (fake) soldiers—others, often commanders, pocket their salaries—indicating widespread and endemic corruption; unmotivated leadership, made worse by crippling shortages of skilled junior officers and noncommissioned officers; and too many unmanned Afghan checkpoints. (Those “ghost” soldiers, so good at funneling money to their creators, turn out to be bad indeed at securing checkpoints.)
Seeing Only What We Want to See
Given such a grim assessment, what difference, you might wonder, would just a few thousand more American troops make, when it comes to tipping the Afghan “stalemate” in Washington’s favor? In fact, General Nicholson’s humble request is undoubtedly only an opening wedge in the Trumpian door through which future, far higher troop requests are then likely to enter.
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure. With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge? How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish? (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)
That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.
Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners. They represent an invasive presence. For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us. We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive—along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again). In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.
All the metaphors and images do, however, suggest one thing—that Afghanistan isn’t real to American leaders, much as Vietnam wasn’t to an earlier generation of them. It’s not grasped as a sophisticated culture with a long and rich history. Those in charge see it and its people only through the reductive and distorting lens of their never-ending war and then reduce what little they see to terms that play well to politicians and the public back home. Stalemate? We can break it. Platform? We can firm it up and launch attacks from it. Petri dish? We can contain it, then control it, and finally eradicate it with our lethal medicines. What they refuse to do, however, is widen that lens, deepen their vision, and see the Afghan people as a richly complex society that Washington will never (and should never try to) dominate and reshape into our image of a country.
The question now is what President Donald (we’re going to win!) Trump will do. If past is prologue, he will end up approving Nicholson’s request, in part because his leading generals, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, are so psychically and professionally linked to the Afghan War. (Mattis oversaw that war while serving as head of U.S. Central Command, McMaster held a command post in Kabul, and Kelly’s son was killed there while on patrol.)
Yet if Trump gives Nicholson the troops he wants—and then more of the same—he will merely be echoing the failed policies of his predecessors, while prolonging a war that will prove endless as long as foreign forces continue to meddle in Afghan affairs. His will then be a fate foretold in a war in which Washington’s greatest foe has always been self-deception.
A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William J. Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.