Group, human effort requires timely, accurate information particularly in the case of warfare. In the case of the United States, there is also a historic ideology upon which the United States rests, that of a nation built on a foundation of laws. It followed that balanced, legal military action depends on a clear definition of the floating borders between want and necessity, between accurate, timely consensus-based information and the dangerous realm of guess-work.
In the matter of the current military action in Afghanistan there is more than enough evidence on hand to question that which is pawned as “truth” spouted on the constant yammer of televised 24 hour news. The following is based on a study of Afghanistan and interviews, notably the scrupulous details provided by a long time veteran of the North Carolina US Army National Guard who I will call “Ellis,” a robust, well-preserved veteran in his 60s.
Ellis got a taste for the military via his carpenter father’s WWll experiences. In 1966, he wanted out of Ohio, signed up, shipped out and spent the next 4 decades plus in the service. Ellis retired as a Battalion Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commission rank one can attain, having received along his journey combat service ribbons for every overseas military mission beginning with his escape from teenage boredom in Vietnam and ending with multiple, extended tours of Afghanistan. His last was a volunteer hitch specifically for the purpose of contending with the improvised explosive devices that have become a major, deadly factor in the conflict. Ellis’s job involved locating and defusing these primitive yet bloodily effective munitions which have produced so many combat casualties.
There are similarities shared by many post WWII conflicts in which the US has become involved, similarities which evoke in some ways America’s own efforts to shake the clutch of colonialism in the 18th century. In the case of Vietnam and Afghanistan the similarities are at times striking: undeveloped nations possessed of a zeal for independence that transcends politics as well as creating a complicated, demanding situation on the ground for military operations. In both examples another similarity is an absence of substantive reasons justifying the conflict. In the case of Vietnam, the ignition event was a disputed “attack” on the USS Maddox, a Navy destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin; Afghanistan was invaded via President Bush’s simplistic and irrelevant claim that the supposed perps of 911 trained in Afghanistan, a subject for another discussion.
In order to create a recognizable comparison, Ellis likened military actions in Iraq to the WWII “ETO” or European Theater of Operations where warfare developed familiar patterns via centuries and scores of wars among similar national types and related ethnicities. The action in Afghanistan by contrast is more akin to the war against Japan in the “PTO” or Pacific Theater of Operations. As in the ETO, warfare in Iraq could be qualified as more “civilized,”whereas the Afghanistan/PTO synthesis runs counter to what we westerners recognize as “civilized” warfare, “heads getting cut off”, as Ellis put it.
Afghanistan exists in a temporal gestalt more akin to 700 AD rather than this new millennium. Its position as a crossroad of the ancient world has left a legacy illustrated by the bewildering array of languages and ethnicities created by itinerant, hegemonic, religious leaders, various plundering hordes and a succession of empires; Persians, Huns, Greeks, Romans, Brits, Soviets and now, the United States. Once in a great while there appears on the scene a leader strong enough to forge nationalistic links but such strong-man leadership has invariably proven to be temporary. Any cohesive, national Afghan leadership remains subject to constant challenges and attack. The consistent collapse of attempts at central governments accompany reversion to tribal conflicts directed by regional warlords.
This new millennium has produced no departure from a familiar, bloody pattern. Only the weapons change, becoming more destructive that whatever there was of permanent, urban structure lies now in ruins. The Kabul of walled gardens, flowers and palaces has been reduced to wreckage. Today, street battles are common enough in most urban areas that the only place in the country one could call “secure” are the grounds of the presidential palace and only then because of the presence of a phalanx of US guards.
Unlike Iraq, modernized via the Brits, the United States and Aramco, an accurate view of modern Afghanistan runs counter to the misleading soft-balls emitting from the corporate media. In contrast to the pretty pictures painted in Greg Mortenstern’s best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” Western attempts at implementing non-local “new” ideas about schooling and “progress” beyond the minimally protected areas are dealt by the locals immediately and finally. Afghanistan is a tough, tough place that allows an average 800 dollar income and a 44 year life expectancy for both men and women. There is no fixed, modern infrastructure, no schools, modern roads, utility systems, hospitals, stores or large-scale agriculture (except opium) and no government outside of Kabul, affirms Ellis, making Afghanistan a place lacking even the concept of record keeping, i.e. no ID s, birth certificates, etc. The borders remain unsealed, reducing “nation building” to scratchings on paper. The griding reality of the region is enhanced by a ubiquitous warlord mentality created by millennia of internecine ethnic and religious battles which the ordinary people variously accept or flee. The only legitimate armed conflict that would bring about the great changes trumpeted in the press would be popular, armed rebellion, a means the Afghan people have not as yet displayed any sign of interest nor the organization to carry out.
The large armies and equipment which form the basis of Western military strategy are useless in a place like Afghanistan. Much of the terrain is too rough, steep and elevated for either trucks or helicopter transport. The enemy refuses to cooperate with a pattern that US and associated western forces have prepared and funded for. Afghan warriors materialize, take a few shots and vanish into the rocks before any substantive casualties can be taken, before even a response can be mustered. The only response is to “take a bite and hold on” with small unit tactics involving “3 to 8 guys.”
“One of the largest was an all day firefight that got 8 bad guys,” while the others melted into the void. “Eastern Kandahar, home of the Taliban and Wardak are the worst. You cannot get out of your hole.” Ellis mocks talk of high-tech weaponry. To prevail in combat in Afghanistan takes “guys with rifles.”
Nevertheless, the deadly hit and run tactics have forced the US to alter the nature of the infantry with enhanced use of large, wheeled personnel carriers. The so-called MRAP was introduced to counter the Taliban’s employment of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, typically fashioned from 150 to 200 lbs of HME, a local version of a common explosive made with fertilizer and fuel oil made even more powerful by the use of local fertilizers with a higher percentage of the nitrates that supply the ooomph. The amounts typically used are capable of flipping and launching a 40,000 lb MRAP 10 yards. A common trigger consists of strips of wood wrapped in foil and buried using the weight of the overhead vehicle to complete the circuit to the detonator. If you survive, the resultant explosion will likely result in one of the three traumatic brain injuries that’ll get you on a plane home. Ellis described exiting the vehicle in the dark with night-vision equipment and performing multiple perimeter scans of the immediate area before the squad even disembarked. This sort of stuff is learned only through experience, pointing out the demands created by current rotation policies that erase much on-the-ground education. A hitch lasting 3,4 or 6 months equals a loss of knowledge that no computer file can match.
Into this cauldron of endless conflict NATO has deployed 100,000 active military (70,000 from the US) to subdue a nation the size of Texas with an unprotected border 3700 miles in length butted up to India, Pakistan, China and several of the so-called “Ickystans” states (as they are sometimes impolitely referred to in diplomatic circles) recently released from Soviet hegemony by the fall of the Iron Curtain in ’89. A comparison that may serve to highlight the demands of the current mission would be that the US deployed 565,000 in Vietnam whereas in a hostile region 4 times that size the US currently commands a quarter the number of troops. But even that figure fails to provide an accurate picture of military force by a ratio of 10 to 1, 90% being support personnel rather than what Ellis calls “trigger pullers.” Then there’s the financial drain of the 100,000 or so contractors who in many cases provide redundant services. “They’re paying contractors 80,000 dollars a year to ladle out meals,” the contractor pay coming out of Department of Defense funding, a stellar example of “privatization.” Because of reallocation of DOD funding, more contractors equal more flag draped coffins.
Logistics are a nightmare. Undefended US military transport vehicles are instantly targeted, resulting in a necessary dependence on civilian “Hadji” trucks, the result being that 40% of materiel, food, medicine, aircraft parts and the like become destroyed or “lost”. Good guys and bad guys are indistinguishable although one has to assume that all are bad guys coupled with the added complicating factor of diplomatic problems caused by the deaths of civilians. And the mostly US western forces are largely on their own. The ANA or Afghan National Army is “not worth a shit,” according to Ellis. “They’ll muster and equip 10,000 and end up with 5000 minus the sign-up money and equipment.” Contractor costs and unreliable logistics wreak havoc on military operations. Ellis told somewhat bitterly and angrily of having to cancel operations because of a lack of materiel amid a general situation so common in modern American wars: contractors lobbying in Washington to keep the conflict going for the simple goal of profits.
But behind this messy quandary are fundamental detail that not only render the conflict unwinnable but negate the stated reasons for our presence. The reason the US claimed for invading the nation, to eliminate or disrupt this mysterious Al Queda, no longer applies. The best intel the US is in possession of indicates the group is no longer in nation, that they have decamped for other regions, notably Yemen. In the evaporation of the primary, “legitimate” reason for our presence the US mission has been corrupted by fall-back explanations that collapse under examination. The first, the use of the Taliban as a proxy enemy is a disingenuous ploy that obscures that Taliban is an internal force with no connection to “global terrorism.” “They want local control, not world terrorism,” according to Ellis. The second “reason” is the vaunted importation of nationhood and democracy, both abstract concepts the average Afghan neither understands nor accepts. “There is no sense of nation or nationality in Afghanistan by the Afghan people.” They simply want foreigners out of their land, the only thing Afghans have consistently wanted and fought for since the west first invaded. The actual facts destroy justification for the ongoing costly, deadly, military action.