I have been meaning to write this article for entirely too long. Not just for you, but for me. The conflict in Afghanistan has been something that has been in the background of my life for entirely too much of my existence. Now that there is the faintest hint of an end to this conflict. At least for NATO member states. I feel that I should say something. Not before it is too late. Such things are never too late. But because the time seem right.
Afghanistan compromises a region which has seen some form of armed conflict for as long as humans have recorded history. Empire after empire has gone into this area to be destroyed or at the least humiliated. The Persians, Greeks, English and various other armies have gone in there with disastrous results. For instance the Hindu Kush mountain range that defines so much of the area. Do you know that roughly translates as Killer of Hindus?
My knowledge of Afghanistan started in the late 1990s with conversations on Alexander the Greats invasion and the recently dealt with Soviet Russian invasion. I heard so many, ahem colorful stories from both invasions that Afghanistan sounded like a country that no sane person would consider visiting. Much less invading. Atrocity after atrocity was regaled to me in documentaries featuring Russian and Afghan war veterans.
Then one morning while I was in high school I was woken up by my father. I asked, “is it time to go to school?”
“No, they have blown up New York, no school today.”
I observed, “oh well, bound to happen sooner or later” and went back to sleep.
If that sounds unlikely or particularly brutal there are two things that I need to say about that. Back in those days I was a very different person than who I am now. At the time I had few qualms with murder. Or even mass murder of human beings. I couldn’t bear the thought of animal cruelty but I had little concern with eliminating people. Heck I was of the opinion that the world would be better off with a great deal less people. There was also the fact that I was subscribing to a variety of doomsday prophecies and I was of the opinion that it was only a matter of time until major cities all over the planet. Probably starting with New York were going to start blinking out of existence.
When I woke up I was stunned by what I saw. The twin towers burning as a result of aircraft impact made less sense to me than if Manhattan island had been a smoldering hole in the ground as a result of a nuclear detonation. Once again let me explain. I knew that the U.S. had multilayered defenses against aircraft attack but relatively little countermeasures against some nefarious party smuggling in a nuclear bomb. I figured that as soon as the hijacked aircraft were reported to be out of control of their pilots that fighter jets would have neutralized them.
I was confused, upset and quite angry. My father reacted differently. He became violently physically ill. From what I saw the whole rest of the country had responses that pivoted between these two poles. Clearly what most people wanted was vengeance. To crush the skulls of whoever was responsible for this crime. Which some people seemed to believe was the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world.
In short order a villain was found. One Osama bin Ladin whose al Qaeda network were an undeniably villainous group that gave the U.S. Government an excuse to suspend all manner of civil rights at home and the excuse to commit a series of unspeakable atrocities overseas.
As for how I feel about the 9/11 attacks? I am not going to say in detail here because what I would say would probably be considered unspeakable to most people. But according to the offical 9/11 commission report the NSA tracked some of the hijackers clear across the United States as they went from San Diego to Washington, D.C. to do their thing. In the report the responsible parties give the excuse that they were barred by existing law from stopping their villainy. To which I say bullshit. Even if you think the whole “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” argument is a thousand times more heinous than the statements of holocaust deniers you can’t get around the fact that it is admitted in the offical story that certain elements of the U.S. Government were aware of the hijackers intending to do something nefarious and did nothing about it.
But back to Afghanistan. After an initial series of glorious victories brought about by a celebrated alliance of CIA agents, special forces, local tribesmen and overwhelming US air power. The Taliban government of Afghanistan was dealt with. Various pundits then proceeded to slap each other on the back about how those big bad Russians had fought and died there for years and we had rolled right in there and handed their heads to them. They were so drunk on victory that they rolled right on into another country in the area.
Over time the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan got out of hand. Many in liberal circles believed that we had dropped the ball by going into Iraq. Saying that it was a bad war and thus Afghanistan was a “good war.” Or at the least a just war that needed to be won. Or that it could have been won. Those pundits who were so high on victory had either forgotten, or more likely never knew that the timeworn strategy of the afghan people is to allow an invader into their country. Let them get comfortable then tear them and especially their long supply columns to shreds.
Now this is very basic information. Not garnered through any personal experience or comprehensive research. Mere personal observation. That being said I would like to recommend two books about the contemporary history in Afghanistan. Apache Dawn by Damien Lewis and After we kill you we will welcome you back as honored guests. By Ted Rall. Told from radically differing perspectives these two books gave me an interesting view on the war. After we kill you is written by an extremely hardcore socialist. Really I would say communist, editorialist and cartoonist out of New York who traveled to Afghanistan as part of an unembedded group of journalists at the start of Operation Anaconda. Where he saw unspeakable horrors as a result of the U.S. bombing campaign. He went back to Afghanistan more recently as part of a three man team of crowd funded journalists. Where he saw that things have changed radically from when he was last there. I would strongly suggest reading the book yourself as it is an extremely easy read. In a nutshell mr Rall says that NATO forces have invested a huge amount of time, money and other resources into Afghanistan that have resulted in the country having some surprisingly good infrastructure. But it is not particularly well built and will probably fall into disrepair soon. Meanwhile the afghan people have developed a burning resentment of the occupying forces ways of doing things. The Afghan national police force in particular is not just shot through with corruption and badly run. It was never all that well built in the first place.
As for Apache Dawn. It doesn’t spend too much time on how Afghanistan is. It is written from the perspective of a writer embedded with an Apache helicopter squadron. As such little is said about the Afghan people. Other than that they are ferocious fighters. It is more about what was going on from the perspective of the missiliers not the missilee.
As for the civilian population? Well they seem to be trapped in quite a Kafkaesque-Seussian perpetual motion machine
Warfare nowadays is thought of by entirely too many people as a detached process. Where one can simply rain down missiles from a great distance on people whose mindset and most of their technology is not far removed from the Stone Age. But there is plenty of old fashioned infantry combat going on in Afghanistan. And even the helicopter and drone pilots get a hearty dose of ptsd as a result of their advanced sensors giving them a very good look at the victims of their wrath.
An odd thing to reference in this article I admit. Skip to 11 minutes in for the relevant section.
It seems to be faces more than anything else I have seen that reminds those who go to war that what they are doing is wrong. I have heard over and over again that is what comes back to haunt so many over the years. Victim and perpetrator alike. Unless you are a full blooded psychopath.
I want you to consider that. The trauma, the pain, the lost lives, the broken existences, the wasted resources that armed conflict entails. The fact that it should only be done as an absolute last resort when all other options have failed. Because even if you win you will be irrevocably changed by the process. But as unjustifiable so many wars were in the past they are only becoming more pointless as time goes on. 60 Minutes recently did a story about a group of soldiers, or marines, I can’t quite recall. Talking about their experiences in Afghanistan. What stuck in my mind the most was one of them saying that they weren’t sure if they had done the right thing coming to Afghanistan. If you intend to invade any foreign country. Especially one with a history of not taking too kindly to outside intervention like Afghanistan you had better be damn sure if what you are doing.
As for the future of Afghanistan? I don’t claim to be any kind of fortune teller. But I have a pretty good track record of predicting things based on the evidence available. The lot of the Afghan people has never been all that good and I see no reason to suggest that things are going to be getting much better for them. Trauma is not good for anyone but hardcore statists and the Afghans have an existence defined by trauma.
Here lies the biggest problem. We see the world through the lens of our experiences and knowledge base. The people in this region, (not just Afghanistan) have relatively little to work from. Poverty is rampant, cruelty is everywhere. U.S. Army and Marine Corps personnel have been ordered to ignore child sex slaves being held by their Afghan National Army allies. You simply cannot claim the moral high ground if your allies keep child sex slaves.
As the U.S. Militaries involvement in Afghanistan winding down the Taliban and their allies are on the rise. They have captured at least one city and the central government seems to hold relatively little loyalty. This has always struck me as the ultimate irony of the Afghan conflict. That the U.S. And NATO have spent immense amounts of blood and treasure to establish a strong central government in a place that has never really had a central government. A place that is culturally and geographically defined by fierce independence.
Once this incarnation of the Afghan central government is swept under the rug the conflicts will continue. Tribal groups will align and realign. Isis is already starting to make a rather disgusting name for themselves in the region. So that may wind up being the defining conflict of the future of Afghanistan. From what I can see the wars in a land of war will continue into the foreseeable future. Sigh.