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Afghanistan: the Smell of Defeat


“These two visions, one of tyranny and murder, the other of liberty and life, clashed in Afghanistan. And thanks to brave US and coalition forces and to Afghan patriots, the nightmare of the Taliban is over and that nation is coming to life again.”

—  George W. Bush, The War College Address, 2004

Not so fast, George.

The United States hasn’t liberated Afghanistan. It hasn’t rebuilt Afghanistan. It hasn’t removed the warlords from power, curtailed opium production, established strong democratic institutions, or improved life for ordinary working people. The US hasn’t achieved any of its strategic objectives. The Taliban are stronger than ever, the central government is a corrupt farce, and, after 11 years of war, the country is in a shambles.

This is what defeat looks like. The US military has been defeated by a poorly-armed militia which has demonstrated a superior grasp of modern warfare and asymmetric engagement. The Taliban has shown that they are more adaptable, more motivated, and smarter. That’s why they prevailed. That’s why they beat the world’s most celebrated army.

Americans don’t like to hear that kind of talk. They’re very proud of their military and are willing to pay upwards of $1 trillion per year to keep it outfitted in the most advanced weaponry on earth. But weapons don’t win wars, neither does propaganda. If they did, the US would have won long ago, but they don’t. What wins wars is tactics, operations, and strategy, and that’s where the emphasis must be if one expects to succeed.. Here’s an excerpt from an article by William S. Lind explaining why the US mission in Afghanistan failed:

“A general rule of warfare is that a higher level trumps a lower, and technique is the lowest level of all. Our SEALs, Rangers, Delta, SF, and all the rest are vastly superior to the Taliban or al-Qaeda at techniques. But those opponents have sometimes shown themselves able at tactics, operations, and strategy. We can only defeat them by making ourselves superior at those higher levels of war. There, regrettably, Special Operations Forces have nothing to offer. They are just another lead bullet in an obsolete Second Generation arsenal.” (“What’s so special about Special Ops?”, William S. Lind, The American Conservative)

The US military’s high-tech gadgetry and pilotless drones merely disguise the fact that America is still fighting the last war and hasn’t adapted to the new reality. Here’s more from Lind expanding on the same theory:

“The greatest intellectual challenge in Fourth Generation war—war against opponents that are not states—is how to fight it at the operational level. NATO in Afghanistan, like the Soviets three decades ago, has been unable to solve that riddle. But the Taliban appears to have done so….

The Soviet army focused its best talent on operational art. But in Afghanistan, it failed, just as we have failed. Like the Soviets, we can take and hold any piece of Afghan ground. And doing so brings us, like the Soviets, not one step closer to strategic victory. The Taliban, by contrast, have found an elegant way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare.

What passes for NATO’s strategy is to train sufficient Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban once we pull out. The Taliban’s response has been to have men in Afghan uniform— many of whom actually are Afghan government soldiers or police—turn their guns on their NATO advisers. That is a fatal blow against our strategy because it makes the training mission impossible. Behold operational art in Fourth Generation war……

The Taliban know this technique is operational, not just tactical. They can be expected to put all their effort into it. What counter do we have? Just order our troops to pretend it is not happening—to keep trusting their Afghan counterparts. That order, if enforced, will put our soldiers in such an untenable position that morale will collapse.” (“Unfriendly Fire”, William S. Lind, The American Conservative)

Lind does not underestimate the Taliban or dismiss them as “ignorant goat herders”. In fact, he appears to admire the way they have mastered 4-G warfare and routed an enemy that has vastly superior technology, communications and firepower. It helps to prove his basic thesis that tactics, operations, and strategy are what matter most.

For more than a decade, the Taliban have been carrying out an impressive guerrilla war frustrating attempts by the US to establish security, hold ground or expand the power of the central (Karzai) government. In the last year, however, the militia’s efforts have paid off as so-called “green on blue” shootings–where coalition troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers or policemen–have dashed US plans to maintain a client regime in Kabul when US combat operations end and American troops withdraw. The Taliban found the weak-link in the Pentagon’s strategy and has used it to full advantage. “As American Security Project Central and South Asia specialist Joshua Foust puts it, ‘The training mission is the foundation of the current strategy. Without that mission, the strategy collapses. The war is adrift, and it’s hard to see how anyone can avoid a complete disaster at this point.'” (“The Day we lost Afghanistan”, The National Interest)


The persistent green on blue attacks have convinced US and NATO leaders that the war cannot be won which is why President Barack Obama has decided to throw in the towel. Here’s a clip from a speech Obama gave in May at a NATO confab in Chicago:

“I don’t think that there is ever going to be an optimal point where we say, this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home…Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end.”

The political class is calling it quits. They’ve decided to cut their losses and leave. Here’s how the New York Times summed it up:

“After more than a decade of having American blood spilled in Afghanistan…it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan ….. It should not take more than a year. The United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm….

Administration officials say they will not consider a secure “logistical withdrawal,” but they offer no hope of achieving broad governance and security goals. And the only final mission we know of, to provide security for a 2014 Afghan election, seems dubious at best …

…the idea of fully realizing broader democratic and security aims simply grows more elusive….More fighting will not consolidate the modest gains made by this war, and there seems little chance of guaranteeing that the Taliban do not “come back in..

Post-American Afghanistan is likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq and perhaps about the same as Vietnam. But it fits the same pattern of damaging stalemate. We need to exit as soon as we safely can.

America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions.” (“Time to Pack Up”, New York Times)

Notice how the Times fails to mention the War on Terror, al Qaida, or Bin Laden, all of which were used to garner support for the war. What matters now is “America’s global interests”. That’s quite a reversal, isn’t it?

What happened to the steely resolve to fight the good fight for as long as it takes; to liberate Afghan women, to spread democracy to far-flung Central Asia, and to crush the fanatical Taliban once and for all? Was it all just empty posturing aimed at ginning up the war machine and swaying public opinion?

And look how easy it is for the Times to do a 180 when just months ago they were trying to persuade readers that we should hang-in-there to protect Afghan women. Take a look at this August 2012 editorial titled “The Women of Afghanistan”:

“Afghanistan can be a hard and cruel land, especially for women and girls. Many fear they will be even more vulnerable to harsh tribal customs and the men who impose them after American troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Womens’ rights have made modest but encouraging gains over the past decade. But these could disappear without a strong commitment to preserve and advance them from Afghan leaders, Washington and other international partners….

…all Afghans should be invested in empowering women. As Mrs. Clinton has argued, there is plenty of evidence to show that no country can grow and prosper in today’s world if women are marginalized and oppressed.” (“The Women of Afghanistan”, New York Times)

Ahh, but lending a hand to “marginalized and oppressed” women doesn’t really hold a candle to “America’s global interests”, now does it? As one might expect, the Times most heartfelt feelings are shaped by political expediency. In any event, the Times tacit admission proves that the war was never really about liberating women or spreading democracy or even killing bin Laden. It was about “America’s global interests”, particularly, pipeline corridors, mineral extraction and the Great Game, controlling real estate in thriving Eurasia, the economic center of the next century. That’s why the US invaded Afghanistan, the rest is propaganda.

There’s one other glaring omission in the Times article that’s worth noting. The editors tiptoe around the one word that most accurately summarises the situation: Defeat. The United States is not leaving Afghanistan voluntarily. It was defeated. The US military was defeated in the same way that the IDF was defeated by Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, by underestimating the tenacity, the skill, the ferocity, the adaptability, and the intelligence of their adversary. That’s why Israel lost the war in Lebanon. And that’s why the US lost the war in Afghanistan.

There’s a reason why the media won’t use the term defeat however applicable it may be. It’s because your average “Joe” understands defeat, the shame of defeat, the sting of defeat, the anger of defeat. Defeat is a repudiation of leadership, proof that we are ruled by fools and scoundrels. Defeat is also a powerful deterrent, the idea festers in people’s minds and turns them against foreign interventions, police actions and war. That’s why the Times won’t utter the word, because defeat is the antidote for aggression, and the Times doesn’t want that. None of the media do.

But the truth is, the United States was defeated in Afghanistan. If we can grasp that fact, then maybe can stop the next war before it gets started.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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