Forever War?: Lieutenant Alex and the Limits of American Courage

Alex should have never been asked to accomplish the impossible. But he was. We all were.

Thing is, if anyone could have done it – "beat" the Taliban and brought home a win for the US of A – it’d have been my friend Alex. Sure, I’m biased. He was a star platoon leader and later my executive officer (second-in-command) of my cavalry troop in Kandahar Province from 2011-12. Still, his responsibility and valor (and that of his even more incredible young soldiers) was stunning. I wonder sometimes, do most Americans know what we ask 24-year-old lieutenants to accomplish in their name?

Back then, Alex spent weeks at a time in command of a tiny platoon strongpoint a few miles from our main base, further south in the Arghandab Valley – our squadron commander liked to brag – than any Soviet unit had made it in the 1980s. At one point, we were told, the outpost was the most attacked in Afghanistan – usually 3-4 times daily. Though I was his commander, Alex was independent when he was at the strongpoint, responsible for the lives of his men and defense of the little fort. He led patrols, planned missions, and coordinated air and artillery support when the Taliban inevitably attacked.

Once while out on yet another dangerous and arguably futile patrol, Alex’s medic was shot in the leg. Alex ran down the alley, as a Taliban RPK machine gun fired his way, in order to reach his wounded trooper. I wrote him a bronze star medal for that particular incident. Multiply that by a few dozen instances and you get a sense of what Alex’s boys did day in and day out for some 330 days.

Alex made it home safe. Can’t say the same about all of his platoon mates. He’s since been chosen for an early promotion to major and has a bright career in front of him. He and his dedicated, if exasperated, wife have moved some four times in the last six years. It’s a tough life but they’ve done everything the army asked of them both at home and overseas. Still, a big part of Alex will probably always stay in Afghanistan.

He could accomplish a lot over there: he kept most of his men alive, never surrendered his outpost and held the ground that was in his charge. But the truth is there was so much more he couldn’t do, he or anyone else. We never had enough troops to hold both bases as well as the ground in between. For the most part "Terry" Taliban controlled our ground supply lines, forcing Alex to fly his troops in and out of the strongpoint in late night helicopter flights. Anything else was too dangerous. He couldn’t hold his base and simultaneously provide a permanent presence in any of the bombed out villages of his district – "Terry" held those each night as well.

The dirty little secret is that Alex, and me, and many of my peers, held only the ground that we stood on at any given moment. Our bases became mini-Alamos, virtually under siege most of the time. We probably killed more of "them" than they did "us," but what did that really matter?

Especially when one considers all the things Alex, and we, couldn’t do: broker a tribal peace among local (and national) warring clans; give the federal government in Kabul the legitimacy it seemed to lack in the public’s eyes; staunch the drug-fueled corruption feeding the black market economy; update the 13th century irrigation system of southern Kandahar; or homogenize the ethnic disunity that stands at the root of Afghanistan’s artificial structure.

Well, anyway, that was back in 2011-12, when we had 100,000+ U.S. soldiers and marines stationed in Afghanistan. There’s about 15,000 there now, and unlikely to be many more than that any time soon. Those dutiful men and women spend most of their time training the "future" of the Afghan government – it’s soldiers and police, the vaunted Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). They’re undoubtedly doing their best

So what’s the situation in Afghanistan today? After 17 years of American effort and more than 2,000 dead US troopers, including a green beret killed earlier this month, we’ve little to show for all that sacrifice. This week the Taliban ambushed an Afghan Army convoy, killing 25 and capturing 16 more. ANSF casualties were through the roof during the first half of this year – frankly unsustainable. This winter the Taliban contested or threatened some 70% of the country, more than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Furthermore, Afghanistan boasted a bumper opium crop last year, besting its own record.

It is hard to know what a mere 15,000 US troops on the ground can possibly do – besides kill and die – to turn this situation around. That said, my critiques are much easier than recommendations for improvement. That’s a fair assessment. Heck, my father reminds me of that on the regular. But maybe, and this is a highly un-American assertion, there isn’t a demonstrably better way. Maybe our troopers have done all they can for the Afghans.

So what’s our best bet? Here’s a quick cut: Responsible disengagement; take world as it is – not as we want it to be; encourage dialogue with the Taliban as a messy path to an Afghan peace – an Afghan solution.

Look, it will be ugly – what about Afghanistan isn’t?

And, surely, my conjecture is hard to swallow, especially for professional military men.

Americans (especially soldiers) are natural problem-solvers. We’ve never seen an ill we don’t think we can fix. In some sense it’s an admirable trait – the reason folks like to hire vets. Well, for 17 years we’ve been hammering the same nail in Afghanistan to no avail. Maybe it’s time to admit the US can’t "fix" this problem. Back in 2011, 100,000 Americans couldn’t do it. Now, we’ve about 1/10th of that force on the ground. And, even 15,000 Alexs can’t fix what ills Afghanistan – no American can.

The question isn’t whether Afghanistan will ever be what we’d hoped for in 2001 – a model democracy birthed in America’s image. By now it’s clear it most certainly won’t. The inconvenient question is this: how many more Americans will die before we accept that truth?

Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[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.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen

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