Washingtonian elites have lived out the inverse of the popular Aesop’s Fable since at least 2008. That pivotal year – when power passed from buffoonish Emperor Bush to polite Emperor Obama – Congress formed the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to "provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities." And, well, the boys of SIGAR have been crying about real wolves – in 47 consecutive quarterly reports – ever since.
Though couched in courteous and loquacious language, the assessments have repeatedly raised the alarm on fraud, waste, abuse, and overall strategic morass. Too bad neither Barack’s "best and brightest” nor The Donald’s "Rapture is near" chaos crew bothered to read their own government’s reports.
So here I go again, railing on about another SIGAR quarterly that most of the public (somewhat understandably) and policymakers (unforgivably) don’t give a hoot about. Still, the late Christopher Hitchens was on to something – his Iraq War support aside – in one of his Letters to a Young Contrarian. Some matters, he advised, are so urgent that it’s excusable – and a critic’s duty – to be an insufferable bore. Revelations of obfuscation, lies, and false pretenses regarding America’s longest war ought qualify for such an exemption.
Taken together with the Washington Post’s publication of – and fleeting media attention to – high-level, private admissions of strategic failure in the "Afghanistan Papers," SIGAR’s publications offer a wolf of an indictment: the U.S. long ago lost an unwinnable war, then proceeded to classify the bad news. These are delusional actions befitting a petulant child.
47th Time’s the Charm?
Of course, SIGAR is ultimately a government entity, with leaders beholden to a range of official and de facto bosses. In fact, the latest report – episode #47 in a running series – the SIGAR director’s opening words were schizophrenic enough to warrant psychoanalysis. Mr. John Sopko was apparently "pleased to submit" this report on a "momentous quarter" in which "the United States and the Taliban signed a historic agreement…that might bring an end to more than four decades of war in Afghanistan." Oh, thank heavens – I was worried there for a (18+ year) moment!
Yet in all seriousness, if one reads its actual lines (and between them) SIGAR-47, like most of the preceding analyses, tells a rather different story. In fact, Sopko’s prelude fantasy belies almost everything of substance in the proceeding 211 pages of his own report.
Let us briefly consider just a few revelatory highlights:
- Dealmaker Donald’s highly touted February 29th "peace
agreement” with the Taliban does not, apparently – per the State Department
– "prohibit all Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces, nor does
it preclude the United States from acting in defense of Afghan forces."
If that definition of "peace" doesn’t stretch the English language
to its breaking point I don’t know what does. State felt obliged to send SIGAR
this rejoinder via email after Taliban attacks resumed just five days after
the signing ceremony, then actually increased beyond typical "seasonal"
levels. A less impenetrably confident (or myopic) man than Secretary Mike
Pompeo might’ve been embarrassed by this escalation – seeing as he’d announced
at the signing that the Taliban had "made commitments to continue to
reduce the violence level." But the fearless secretary wasn’t fazed.
Still, making a deal that leaves an armed enemy in the field – and doesn’t even preclude its offensives – bears rather unsettling resemblance to another peace that didn’t end well: the Vietnam War’s 1973 Paris Accord. The purported realist Henry Kissinger negotiated that deal, which allowed North Vietnamese Army divisions to remain in South Vietnam. Wouldn’t you know some of those same units conquered Saigon and won a decisive military victory just over two years later? Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Prize for his deal of the century!
Nonetheless, the Paris farce at least mostly ended the US military role; Pompeo’s diplomatic masterpiece doesn’t even pretend to. America’s longest adventure is hardly over. At best, the recent agreement constitutes what Winston Churchill described – after Britain’s victory in the Battle of El Alamein – as "not the end…not even the beginning of the end, but…perhaps, the end of the beginning." Thing is, the prime minister said that after 38 months of combating the Nazis; America’s Afghan war is in its 223rd.
- As for the ongoing violence, all the public vaguely knows is that, according the theater US military command, in the month following the peace deal the Taliban "increased attacks against ANDSF [Afghan security forces] to levels above seasonal norms." The lack of specificity stems from the minor detail that – as SIGAR reports with some alarm and chagrin – the Pentagon has for the first time "restricted from public release its data on enemy-initiated attacks (EIA), an important metric the command uses to track the levels and locations of violence." SIGAR’s exasperation no doubt reflects that this data constituted "one of the last remaining metrics [it] was able to use to report publicly on the security situation."
Furthermore, this furtive military move was only the latest act in a three year Pentagon process of classifying defeat: the American people are already prohibited from knowing "ANDSF casualties," "most unit-level ANDSF authorized and assigned strengths," "detailed Ministry of Defense (MOD), Ministry of Interior (MOI), and ANDSF performance assessments," or "the operational readiness of [Afghan Army and Police] equipment." Oh, and due to pandemic restrictions, this quarter "SIGAR will not publish a classified annex." So even most congressmen won’t know the truth. Coincidentally, every one of these metrics had been trending negatively when Trump’s generals quietly hid them from view. It’s enough to wonder how SIGAR is supposed to do its congressionally mandated job at all – or if, perhaps, it’s not really supposed to.
- At the time of SIGAR’s recent release, the U.S.-backed Kabul government still couldn’t exactly agree who was the rightful president of Afghanistan (after seven months of controversy, a power-sharing agreement was reached just 10 days ago). No surprise there. All but one of the country’s American-shepherded elections has been disputed amidst massive allegations of fraud and serious irregularities. The latest go round included the absurdity of both leading contenders taking the oath of office this March. Try teaching that in a US civics class! So much for the universal applicability of American democracy (such as it is); and so much, too, for the historical truism that no amount of foreign troops tends to succeed if the host government lacks local legitimacy. Fear not: the United States makes it own rules!
These not-so-minor revelations of recent US failure, fraud, and fantasy are distressing in their own right. Still, SIGAR-47 ultimately identifies latent symptoms of a diseased ethical-strategic foundation.
While Mr. Aesop – attributed author of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" – may have been Greek, the recent version of this particular fable seems decidedly Soviet. Almost everyone has heard the tired trope that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires,” but there’s much truth to it. Turns out that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to hopeless efforts to occupy, pacify, and "transform" the graveyard.
The Soviet Union deployed strikingly similar (peak) numbers of troops during their own doomed Afghan crusade (1979-89). They too threw all manner of methods and money at the Afghan wall, hoping something would stick. Though rightfully remembered for their indiscriminate bombing, the Soviets also tried most of the more genteel American tactical flavors of the moment: military/civil advisors, school-building, women’s rights promotion, and massive economic aid. All to no avail.
Three analogous anecdotes offer a taste of the chilling parallels:
- Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – like Barack Obama – came to power promising broad domestic reforms, but also inherited a long, flailing war in Afghanistan. The Soviet, too, was skeptical of Third World military interventions, but fearful of political backlash and cognizant of the entrenched power of Moscow hawks, he eschewed immediate withdrawal. Rather, in the summer of 1985, Gorbachev initially opted for a military "surge" to solidify the Soviet-backed Kabul Regime and Moscow’s military position.
However, he announced from the outset – as would Obama 24 years later – that the escalation was temporary, and phased Soviet troop withdrawals would commence just a year (18 months for Barack) later. The mujahideen insurgents – like their Taliban successors (or perhaps mutation) took note. Unable to capitalize on fleeting minor military gains or transcend the ever-flawed foundation of imposing local government at the tip of foreign bayonets, both the Gorbachev and Obama surges failed. The Soviet, at least, had the good sense to march all of his troops out two and half years later.
During his escalation, Gorbachev’s stated focus was on political stability, and saw military pressure as merely a tool – to create time and space for security (sound familiar?) – to that end. However, frustrated by paltry progress from an increasingly illegitimate Kabul regime, he also tried raw military power. This time presaging Donald Trump, Gorbachev doubled cross-border artillery and airstrikes. At the same time, the premier ordered his generals to reduce the involvement of their own ground troops – and substitute Soviet-trained and armed Afghan soldiers – in frontline engagements. Lots of insurgents and civilians died, and Moscow’s war budget increased by 30 percent, but the military gains were insignificant. If anything, with strategic failure increasingly imminent, the bombing spike smacked of desperation and cruelty – drawing yet more international and local Afghan ire.
- It wasn’t long before Trump…I mean Gorbachev, forced an unhappy "settlement" on his Afghan allies so as to abandon a war he didn’t want to fight – and didn’t think prudent – in the first place. Back then, President Najibullah had as little input as President Ashraf Ghani does now in Moscow’s unilateral decision-making. After all, the "internationally-recognized" Kabul government was barely even party to the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that culminated in the current wavering agreement. Yet Trump’s words – and Pompeo’s decision and threat to further withhold aid – made it clear that America’s doleful allies best fall in line. Gorbachev, at least, offered his Afghan proxy a dose of brutal honesty at the outset:
By the summer of 1986 you’ll have to have figured out how to defend your cause on your own. We’ll help you, but only with arms, not with troops. And if you want to survive you’ll have to broaden the base of the regime…make a deal with the truly influential forces…including the mujahideen commanders.
When the recipient of this rejoinder, President Babrak Kamal, resisted, Gorbachev had him run out of Kabul. His replacement, Najibullah, played ball and held on longer than anyone expected. Nevertheless, in 1996 even he was dragged out of a United Nations compound, beaten, shot dead, and publicly hung by the very Taliban the US battles today.
Make no mistake, I remain persuaded that President Trump’s flawed deal-that-isn’t was probably the best available. In this desperate situation, anything with minimal potential to even modestly speed up withdrawal from the nation’s longest – and perhaps most hopeless and ludicrous – war is probably a net positive. That said, Americans ought to be clear-eyed and tell the truth about what a Trumpian peace is and (more so) isn’t. This is a US defeat; the Taliban isn’t beaten. This is a very slow, gussied-up "Irish exit;" the Kabul regime isn’t secure. The ultimate denouement remains an open question, but don’t expect the endgame to be pretty.
The Tragedy of Waste
What is truly obscene is this: Gorbachev (or his three elderly predecessors) could have marched the Soviet troops out in 1979, 1982, 1984, or 1986 with the same outcome as he achieved in 1989. The same goes for recent American presidents. Bush could’ve pulled the ever-frayed cord in 2002, or Obama in 2014, when the US military held a far stronger (relative) hand than Trump inherited in 2017 and held at the recent peace deal.
It’s not that earlier withdrawals would’ve amounted to victory, or made the post-occupation aftermath less messy, but far fewer rubles or dollars, and Soviet or American lives would’ve been wasted. And, especially in the US case – given the early hopeless admissions in the Afghanistan Papers – waste is the only word for the blood and treasure spent in the imperial graveyard. That constitutes nothing less than tragedy.
Worse still, Gorbachev sensed as much and saw it all coming way back in February 1987. Confounded and near desperation, the last Soviet premier grappled with the intractable tension between preserving national stature and prudent withdrawal from what he knew was an unwinnable war. His words might ring familiar to Bush, Obama, and yes even Donald Trump; but his prescience was indisputable:
Of course we could leave Afghanistan quickly…and claim we don’t have an answer for the mistakes of the former leadership. But we cannot do so…it would be a blow to the authority of the Soviet Union…A million of our soldiers went through Afghanistan. And we will not be able to tell our people why…We suffered such terrible losses. For what?…Why did we lose all these boys?
Only Gorbachev uttered these contradictions and doubts in a closed session of the Politburo. While his Glasnost reforms did create limited space for mild media critiques of the war, overall Moscow was never honest with the Soviet people about Afghanistan.
Neither was Washington. Yet long after America’s own media realized the Afghan War made for meager click-bait and thus mostly bailed, one government outfit kept raising (albeit politely) some alarm. Sure, SIGAR’s reports were mild, D.C.-friendly alarms – and often unfolded between-the-lines – but more prominent folks should’ve taken notice.
Then again, remember that SIGAR may investigate, but ultimately belongs to, the US government. So it’s less than shocking that no one heeded SIGAR’s 47 cries about Afghan wolves. As the Afghanistan Papers demonstrated clear as day: Uncle Sam is a known liar.
The nice thing about fables is how they end with clear morals. Recall the ending of the Greek version of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf:"
"This shows how liars are rewarded: even if they tell the truth, no one believes them."
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at 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. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen