When they saw Afghanistan, all they could think of was Iraq. Indeed, most military thinkers are perennially driven by the tunnel-vision of personal experience; rarely a good thing. Indeed, the generals and colonels managing the foolish, politically driven 2009-12 Obama "surge" into Afghanistan – what he’d absurdly labeled the "good war" – had few fresh ideas. Convinced, and feeling vindicated, by the myth that Baby Bush’s 2007-09 Iraq surge had "worked," most commanders knew just what to do and sought to replicate these tactics in the utterly dissimilar war in Afghanistan. That meant the temporary infusion of some 30,000 extra troops, walling off warring neighborhoods, and plopping small American units among the populace.
Some of us, mostly captains who’d cut our teeth in the worst days of the Iraq maelstrom, were skeptical from the start. I, for one, had long sensed that the "gains" of that surge were highly temporary, that the U.S. military had simply bought the fleeting loyalty of Sunni insurgents, and that the whole point of the surge – to allow a political settlement between warring sects and ethnicities – had never occurred. The later rise of ISIS, breakdown of centralized governance, and rout of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army in 2013-14 would prove my point. But that was in the future. From my viewpoint, the legacy of surge 1.0 had really only been another 1,000 or so American troop deaths – including three of my own men – and who knows how many Iraqi casualties.
Then again, no one cared what one lowly, if dreamy yet cynical, officer thought anyway. I was a tool, a pawn, a middle-managing "company man" expected to carry out surge 2.0 with discipline and enthusiasm. And so I tried. My team of cavalry scouts raised a dubiously loyal local militia, partnered with the often drug-addicted, criminal Afghan Army and police, and parsed out my squads to live within the local villages semi-permanently. That’s when things got weird.
Impressed by the minor, momentary drop in violence – such deceptive stats were a way of life in the US Army – these early measures had allegedly produced, both my squadron commander, and his boss, the brigade commander, suddenly took interest in my troop. Now they wanted to expand on what we were doing and toss in their own misguided two cents. What was needed, my colonel informed me, was to wall off the nearest contested village – Charcusa – with tall concrete "T-walls." That way, so his twisted logic went, the Taliban couldn’t get in. See, for him, a complex war was that simple. In an oddly prescient foreshadowing of his future commander-in-chief, Donald Trump’s, border tactics, my squadron commander never saw a problem a section of wall couldn’t solve.
Now, once again, it was my turn to attempt to pour a dose of reason all over his best laid plans. This rarely ended well. Thus, I explained that surrounding the small agricultural village with concrete barriers would separate farmers from their fields, and thus their livelihood. Besides, even if we created a few guarded exits to the fields, the T-walls would seal off the many canals the villagers used for drinking and irrigation, essentially drying out the whole joint. Oh, and the Taliban could climb, I reminded him. The Taliban were probably already in the village, related to the villagers, and didn’t wear uniforms or big Ts on their foreheads. The aesthetic nightmare of walling off a village would alienate the people and cause psychologically deep reactions of insecurity combined with resentment of us Americans. I tried, well, every single argument I could muster.
Mister "lower-caters-to-higher” was far from pleased. See, the real brainchild of the Charcusa concrete bonanza was actually the brigade commander, and my lowly unit certainly couldn’t defy his wishes. Heck, my squadron commander’s own evaluation and career progression might be on the line. Weighed against that, what did tactical commonsense or the livelihood of meaningless Afghans matter? The brigade commander had himself been a battalion commander in Western Baghdad during surge 1.0, where he and others, gleefully walled off the area neighborhoods and divided conflicting Muslim sects. It "worked" in urban Baghdad, so why not rural, no electrical grid, religiously homogenous, Southern Afghanistan? There it was again: a colonel who saw an Afghan problem and reflexively sought to apply an uncreative Iraqi solution.
Well, after weeks of wrangling, and certainly another blight on my leadership reputation with the squadron commander, my irrigation ditch argument won out with the more practical elements on the brigade staff…sort of. There’d be no concrete barriers, the commander reluctantly conceded, but we just had to "throw a bone" to the brigade commander’s Baghdad-based vision. The solution: I was ordered to surround the village after all, only with thousands of strands of menacing, ugly, triple strand concertina (barbed) wire. I wasn’t going to stop this one, and hardly bothered.
For days on end my weary troopers turned the village of Charcusa into what discomfiting resembled a concentration camp. Not that it worked, or mattered. The results produced amounted to little more than the few hundred cuts on my soldiers’ hands. Within a couple years my unit was gone, and so were our successors. Today, most of Kandahar is again contested by the Taliban, the rusting barbed wire naught but a monument to American obtusity. Still, it pleased both of my bosses, one off which told me I’d done a "great" job with the concertina wire mission, a macabre gold star of sorts for my own impending evaluation.
So today, on that wars rolls in an ongoing combination of stalemate and quagmire. Just this week, another American soldier was killed by a suicide car bomb. His death, ultimately, changes nothing as the Afghan War now has a preposterous inertia all its own. As for my colonel, he got the next promotion and his own brigade. His boss, the king of concrete himself, well he’s a rising star and a prominent general officer today. Now that President Trump has foolishly called off seemingly promising peace talks with the Taliban, maybe my old brigade commander will lead the next phase of an Afghan War with no end in sight. If he does, expect more of the same. He’ll have his troops and their Afghan mentees needlessly walling off more tiny villages in no time…
Series note: It has taken me years to tell these stories. The emotional and moral wounds of the Afghan War have just felt too recent, too raw. After all, I could hardly write a thing down about my Iraq War experience for nearly ten years, when, by accident, I churned out a book on the subject. Now, as the American war in Afghanistan – hopefully – winds to something approaching a close, it’s finally time to impart some tales of the madness. In this new, recurring, semi-regular series, the reader won’t find many worn out sagas of heroism, brotherhood, and love of country. Not that this author doesn’t have such stories, of course. But one can find those sorts of tales in countless books and numerous trite, platitudinal Hollywood yarns.
With that in mind, I propose to tell a number of very different sorts of stories – profiles, so to speak, in absurdity. That’s what war is, at root, an exercise in absurdity, and America’s hopeless post-9/11 wars are stranger than most. My own 18-year long quest to find some meaning in all the combat, to protect my troops from danger, push back against the madness, and dissent from within the army proved Kafkaesque in the extreme. Consider what follows just a survey of that hopeless journey…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. 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