Let the record show that the almighty American military machine was soundly defeated by an enemy that didn’t like fighting either in the dark or cold. Talk about bad medicine that’s good for a society (somehow still) desperately in need of a decisive case study in the limits of its own power and martial prowess. Enter the tested teachers of the Taliban and Afghanistan (though, ironically, Talib vaguely translates as "student.".
Seriously though, when I commanded a sandbagged shit-hole (in 2011-12) just miles from Talib-ground zero in Kandahar province at the very crest of the Obama-surge and U.S. troop counts – we prayed for winters and sunsets. In other words, the "farm-boys with guns" we faced – as a Reuters reporter then quoted me, and my colonels hated me for, calling them – were hardly superhuman. Rather, they ran kind of on old-timey baseball squad. Sometimes that even worked to our soldierly benefit, giving a strange gentlemanly rhythm to an otherwise vicious war against an often abhorrent enemy.
The intensity of combat – unlike in my earlier Iraq War – and thus our personal level of danger, was seasonal and cyclical. In Afghanistan there was a fighting season, and it usually began heating up right around the kickoff of Major League Baseball’s Spring Training and slowed down around World Series time. For the most part, certainly back in 2011, we slept pretty soundly and safely – another change from sleepless Baghdad – knowing the Taliban barely bothered attacking us, at least, in the dark (allegedly collaborating local villagers weren’t so lucky).
That’s partly because one of the American military’s favored slogans – "We own the night!" – actually (in a rare turn, indeed) held to some degree. The farm-boys lacked the night-vision goggles and penetrating thermal sights that our troops, drones, and bases were by then loaded with (plus it was colder at night, so…). Such night-day binaries, of course, have – just like the MLB eventually did – shifted. There were no night games in professional baseball until 1935, and the players sure didn’t like them – even if owners, with visions of increased profits dancing in their heads, absolutely loved the prospect of big games under the bright lights.
The Taliban started playing a bit of night-ball all their own, naturally, as their strength increased and US troop numbers declined. I doubt the farm-boys liked it any more than the old-school ballplayers, but the Talibs had always been more apt to attempt night-attacks on their – more evenly-matched in the darkness – Kabul-opponents (their only antagonists, for the most part, since the Trump-brokered peace deal). And these days the best Talib units are actually outfitted with night-penetrating goggles and scopes. So it’s [night] game on! – that is, if President Biden decides, as sounds likely, to extend the Afghan War past the agreed May 1st deadline, thereby announcing it’s again open season on the American troops he claims to adore.
Disputed Indisputable Facts
It’s somehow both fatalistic and fitting that the exceptionalism-deluded US hegemon had to travel almost back in time and 7,000 miles from home to get truly humbled in that classic – if a bit cliché – "graveyard of empires." Not that Washington’s circling hawks are ready to admit as much.
Consider just some recent headlines and highlights of the tired old drivel – as obsolete and out-of-style as Atari consoles and bellbottom jeans – emanating from America’s esteemed establishmentarians:
- "Keeping Troops in Afghanistan Makes America Safer," Bloomberg – Retired Admiral James Stavridis: former supreme allied commander of NATO, and currently employed by the war-industry-linked duo of both the Carlyle Group and McLarty Associates.
- "It will take a military force of 5,000 to keep pressure on the Taliban," the politely hawkish establishment’s favorite admiral tells us.
- "Why staying in Afghanistan is the least bad choice for Biden," Washington Post – Madiha Afzal and Michael E. O’Hanlon, both of the predictably liberal-interventionist Brookings Institution think tank of record.
- "The most likely outcome of pulling out of Afghanistan would be very ugly, including ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country," they forcefully assert, as though that isn’t already happening – and won’t likely happen anyway, regardless of US military commitments.
- "Leaving Afghanistan Now Would Be a Mistake," New York Times – Rina Amiri and Mark Kustra, a former senior adviser to the US special representative on Afghanistan & Pakistan and a retired Marine officer who served in Afghanistan, respectively.
- "If the Taliban prevails militarily, it will surely unwind the substantial social, political and economic gains that have allowed Afghans to advance over the last 20 years," they uncritically assert – having obviously failed to delve into the disgraceful metrics on those very social, political, and economic life in Afghanistan today.
Speaking of metrics, by every one of them – the US military’s very own, in fact (though they “classified” them once they all turned irreparably inconvenient a few years back – the Afghan War is trending terribly, and has been for quite awhile. To mention only a few: the US-trained and equipped (to the tune of some $70 billion) Afghan military is suffering statistically unsustainable casualties; overall, the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) are nowhere near their target personnel strength – with desertions and absence without leave rampant in the ranks; and that the Afghan GDP is insufficient (oops!) to even pay for its own security forces.
Against the absurd status quo madness peddled in the mainstream press, Vox offered an extended interview with one of the military’s rare retired reality-minded officers, Colonel Chris Kolenda – a West Pointer who commanded troops in Afghanistan and later was a senior adviser on the country to top US civilian defense officials and four-star generals – titled: "The best case for withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan.”
Now, mind you, Kolenda is hardly a radical outsider. He’s an adjunct senior fellow at the wildly-interventionist and second-most war-industry-funded Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank, and founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy–“which helps nonprofits and small businesses maximize their impact by developing their Leadership, Culture, and Strategy." Sounds like a real hoot, huh?
Still, Kolenda does what few published in reasonably prominent outlets dare: he points out the crucial requirement for, and typical absence of, tested and measurable evidence for the alarmist assertions flooding the press as Biden weighs his options ahead of the agreed and impending deadline. Here’s one uncomfortable but vital truth: "2,500 troops is too little to really do any good with what’s coming from the Taliban, and too big to get away quickly" – what Kolenda cleverly calls a reverse-Goldilocks position. Naturally, in what should be – but never seems to be anymore – a major scandal, it’s recently been exposed that the US actually 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than previously disclosed. But the point holds.
Furthermore, "the Taliban have already prepared militarily for this scenario [of Biden abrogating the deal and keeping troops in place]," Kolenda notes. He explains that they "are surrounding eight to 10 provincial capitals," right now, and how "with 2,500 troops and the limited airpower that we have in Afghanistan, the math just simply doesn’t work that [we would be able to] sort all of that out." In other words, if Uncle Joe unilaterally decides that the war-must-go-on, then America better be ready for some action jack! Kolenda goes so far as predicting a "Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021." He’s probably right.
So sticking with the America’s pastime analogy, expect the Islamist Boys-of-Summer to come in hot right out of the gate this fighting season. And why not? They’re wrapping up no less than 14 months of Spring Training – during the post-agreement pause that hardly any party thought permanent – spent down in their own Sunbelt stadium safe havens of Kandahar/Helmand in Southern Afghanistan and south of the border in Chaman/Quetta Pakistan.
Moreover, the Taliban have been playing Moneyball – well enough, in fact, to make one wonder if its leaders keep copies of The Bill James Baseball Abstract besides the Koran on their bedside tables. Because, just like in the film, while the old-guard think tank/study group scouts in Washington, Brussels, and Kabul are busy talking all the old irrational and unquantifiable language of "preserving gains" ("good face, good jaw," per the film’s elder talent scouts), "sustainable security" ("beautiful swing"), and "conditions-based withdrawal" ("attitude, confidence") – the General Manager Billy Beane’s (played by Brad Pitt) of Kandahar are snakily asking of the US and Afghan government militaries: "If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?" (per Pitt in a memorable Moneyball scene)…or, more accurately, "If they’re such good soldiers, why don’t they win wars?" Touché, Terry-Taliban, touché!
Also, a’la Bill James, the Taliban’s strategists – who’ve never seen the inside of the "schools of strategy" the US DOD’s chock-full of – apply a sort of sabermetrics (the paradigm-shifting statistical analysis of baseball) to their military math. They know, as America’s star-bedazzled generals still seem not to, that just as a walk is as good as a single in terms of how far it advances a baseball batter, a draw is as good as a win with respect to how far it advances an insurgency playing with home-field advantage.
All in all, the undeniably noxious Taliban team reminds me a bit of Beane’s (Brad Pitt’s) sabermetric test-case Oakland Athletics – who, one recalls, posted a record 20-game winning streak (just after America’s Afghan invasion, incidentally), that calls to mind the Talib’s ongoing 20-year refuse-to-lose track record against the New York Yankees of Pentagon-payrolls. The onetime farm team of Islamist farm-boys, has been grinding out gradual but meaningful wins through a combination of grit and technology-canceling tactical-creativity against the global superpower franchise for nearly two decades now. In other words, they’ve all but won by playing the long-game through summer after summer’s worth of seasonal "doldrums” – befitting those in the longest (162-game) season in professional sports.
Only whereas the A’s lost the 21st game and had to settle for a "moral victory," of sorts, the T’s have their eyes fixed – and plans set – for a pennant run in ‘21. In fact, they’re the odds on favorites in Vegas and Kabul alike. In fact, in what’s no doubt yet another Afghan tragedy (that we can’t possibly stop no matter how long we stay), team Talib is now less Oakland A’s than Boston Red Sox – after they hired long-time-heretic Bill James and implemented his brand of analytical baseball, that is – and seem set to upset the US military’s Bronx Bombers. And just as I didn’t like seeing the hated Sox reverse the Bambino’s curse by besting my hometown Yanks in 2004, it’s still hard not to respect their game.
By the way, it may be a stretch, but I suspect Bill James the baseball stats-guru knew something about warfare’s combat-calculus as well. After all, he left his native Kansas and entered the Army in 1971, at the tailest of tail-ends of a doomed war. In fact, James may have been the last Kansan to have ever been drafted – although it turned out he’d never see action in a winding-down Vietnam War, being routed to South Korea instead. Still, the futility of the war was on his mind – as he once fatalistically recalled "I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be the last soldier killed in Vietnam." Anyway, he wasn’t – someone else earned that macabre honor. But it was in his mid-twenties that James began writing his transformative baseball articles – right after leaving the United States Army. Probably a coincidence…but keep an eye on that.
I know, I really do: Vietnam allusions are almost as tired and oft-misapplied as World War II Munich analogies. Still, there’s something striking about the shared hopelessness of America’s Southeast Asian and Afghan adventures – about their common hubris and delusional refusal to accept reality. In both wars, lots of Americans and locals were killed long after the game was in the books. In both, the lumbering superpower team and its crusty owners rested on expired laurels and played by obsolete old rules against a gritty and adaptable no-quit enemy. In neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan did the declining dynasty recognize its dynasty days were done, and change course to align with new realities, until it was long past too late. So neither ended, or will end, well.
Listen. I don’t mean to go all Pete Rose and bet against my own team, but for a while now the safe money’s been on the Taliban. And let’s be real, were their own serious cash on the line, half of the war industry-shills filling the recent Afghanistan Study Group – and the entire lot of hawkish think tankers advocating for more war – would pull a Charlie-Hustle and wager against Uncle Sam in the breach faster than you can say hypocrisy! There’s never been much genuine passion or principle behind the dead shark eyes of Washington’s perennial combat cheerleaders – I’ve always sensed most know better and simply peddle the professionally profitable party line.
Oh, and for any serious gamblers – there’s a natural parlay available: so, let’s place the over/under on the U.S.-backed Kabul government’s survival at what, say…18 months?
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post 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 and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen