Stop Pretending: Washington and Kabul Never (Really) Controlled Rural Afghanistan

Here we go again. The typically underreported non-news of Orwellian America. This week, two more U.S. soldiers – Green Berets – were killed in a firefight with the Taliban in Faryab province, just another hopeless corner of rural Afghanistan. The two posthumously promoted Master Sergeants represented the 15th and 16th American deaths in the country so far this year. Sure, that’s a modest count compared to the bad old days when I and around 100,000 American troops were in-country (2010-12) and annual deaths were thirty times higher. Nonetheless, there are now only some 14,500 US servicemen in Afghanistan, and the indigenous troops are pulling most of the load, so context is relevant. Still, there’s reason for concern. Through just eight months of 2019, more American soldiers have been killed than in any year since 2014 (which was supposed to mark the end of the "combat" mission in Afghanistan).

The latest deaths occurred in the midst of ongoing, and reportedly productive peace talks between the US, the Taliban, and, to a lesser extent, the Kabul-based regime. To his credit, and based especially on his past tweets and public statements, President Donald Trump appears serious in his desire to end the more than eighteen year old indecisive American war in Afghanistan. The peace negotiations and attack resulting in the recent Green Beret deaths, demonstrate that the Taliban is working from a position of strength as they pursue a "talk-and-fight" strategy eerily reminiscent of that of the ultimately victorious North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong elements in America’s previous – and futile – longest war.

It’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, for the US military to "win" in any meaningful sense. That should be obvious as all the empirical evidence, from percentage of districts under government control, to the unsustainable level of Afghan security force casualties, to the record opium bumper crop, points to impending Taliban victory or perpetual stalemate. Nonetheless, by predictably ignoring these nasty, annoying facts, an array of Washington interventionists, ranging from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to retired General David Petraeus, have recently vocally opposed US military withdrawal and criticized Trump’s desire for peace. Two recurring problems best explain this: the establishment’s reflexively anti-anything-Trump bias and the stunning persistence of the interventionists’ tired, old, discredited ideas.

As a veteran of the Afghan War, and a student of that conflict’s trajectory and regional history more generally, I find the prevailing Washington consensus both insulting and intellectually bereft. Leaving aside all the high-level, macro analysis and wealth of available statistics bolstering my pro-withdrawal argument, consider one applicable survey of my own unit’s fruitless efforts – at the height of the Obama "surge" and topped out US troop levels – to pacify rural southern Afghanistan (home base of the Taliban) in 2011-12. Here, despite the best efforts of my own courageous, (mostly) well-intentioned band of some 120 cavalry scouts – and their sacrifice of three lives, several limbs, and dozens of wounds – we hardly moved the needle towards sustainable security, to say nothing of handing power over to the Kabul-based Afghan government.

Back in 2011, though our brigade had flooded in more troops and stationed them further south than the Soviets ever got back in the 1980s in the restive Arghandab Valley of rural Kandahar province, my troops actually controlled only the very square foot they stood upon. Our two tiny Alamo-like outposts were essentially under siege and daily attack. Our ubiquitous and mandated (by higher command) patrols were attacked numerous times daily, often within sight of the bases. Our Afghan Army partners – nearly all of whom hailed from the country’s northern, minority communities and couldn’t even speak the local Pashto language – were largely ineffective, immoral, and seen by the population as nearly as foreign and alien as my own American troopers.

Desperate to break the siege, protect my men, and hold just a bit more ground in the sub-district, I begged command to have my unit be the first conventional outfit to implement the nascent Special Forces program known as Village Stability Operations (VSO). That was army-speak for raising a local militia, arming and paying them, and positioning them (with American advisers) in local villages. Thing is, I, unlike many of my peers, had no illusions about this problematic program. I knew we were empowering local warlords, favoring some tribes over others, and probably even kicking some of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), as we called the militiamen, cash back to the very Taliban they were expected to fight but were often (literally) related to by blood.

Still, it worked. Only in a highly brief, short-term, and, for me, self-serving way. The ALP did help keep the Taliban fighters (usually) out of shooting distance of my bases, probably saved many of my troopers lives, and allowed the majority of my command to sneak out of Dodge with a draw in January 2012 – which, of course, my self-promoting colonel sold as a great "victory."

Point is, the overall dynamics of power and security hardly changed during our year in the Pashmul sub-district. The ALP we left behind were ultimately just another warlord-led militia in a country littered with locally controlled armed bands. The ALP never reconciled with the distant Kabul regime they’d viewed as an illegitimate puppet government; never truly partnered with the equally foreign (to them) Afghan Army, and continued – in our absence – to strike deals with the local Taliban, with whom they had far more in common, culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and tribally.

In retrospect, B Troop, 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division’s (our full unit name) efforts and sacrifice were essentially quixotic from the first. That we didn’t all realize this at the start reflected the built-in, can-do attitude of military culture and (just maybe) our own intellectual naivety. The whole charade of our tour of duty left me frustrated, angry, and, finally, deeply disoriented and militarily nihilistic. Which is why I find the whole debate over the U.S.-Taliban peace talks a little ridiculous, and very absurd.

The entire debate raging in Washington today, between a national majority exhausted by the war (including, it seems, President Trump) and bipartisan, beltway insider stay-the-course types is, at root, ever so futile. The US military cannot win, cannot even marginally alter the outcome in troubled Afghanistan. The current peace talks retain only the vague potential to save a bit of American bloodshed, which is admirable. Yet the very absurdity of the whole D.C. wrangling is precisely that it doesn’t matter a lick. Whether the rationalists for withdrawal, or chickenhawks for more-of-the-same, win out, the inconvenient truth is the outcomes will differ only negligibly.

Maybe Trump will actually be the one (ironically) to end America’s longest war; maybe he won’t. It’s a toss up, really. But as for life, and what passes for security, in rural Afghanistan, not much will change. The civil war will wage on, the medieval Taliban will generally emerge triumphant, a rather harsh form of sharia law will reign, and women will live like slaves. Thus, when the US military finally does pull out, whether soon or years from now, expect most Americans – and Afghans – to wonder just what it was all for. And they’ll likely find no satisfactory answers…

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. 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.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen