"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"
~ Michael Corleone, The Godfather III (1990)
Kandahar Airfield ("KAF") was as bizarre as it was dusty. You sort of tasted it before you smelled it – and smelled before you saw it. It’s been a full decade since I first did. When the cavalry troop I’d commanded touched down as a final top-off to President Obama’s Afghan surge, we gazed upon this weird way station of America’s war effort with exhausted eyes. Fatigue breeds a certain stripped-down simplicity – "Just show me to my damn cot, already!" – so it took until morning to truly spy the strangeness. It was a place of curious contrasts.
Dry dirt roads, but plenty of civil and military traffic – like Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine, with tanks and Toyotas alike.
Inbound rockets and bomb shelters; and T.G.I. Friday’s dine-in on the base’s bustling boardwalk.
Trauma patients flown in daily to the hyperactive hospital; and amateur athletes flocking nightly to the Canadian-dominated hockey rink.
Long morning runs to condition ourselves for field duty; and long morning lines to caffeinate our souls with Tim Horton’s coffee.
A gypsy camp with several gyms.
The feel of a refugee encampment with the look of an imperial Epcot Center.
I hated the place, and myself for guiltily cherishing the reprieve of its relative safety.
As an ill-fated ground combat outfit, my squadron only camped out a couple of weeks before choppering to the rural "frontlines" for a hopeless tour of duty. As an ill-fated mega-base, KAF stuck around for another decade before closing down its role for a hopeless war of absurdity.
That the U.S. Army actually exited that gloomy garrison town – which, once housing 30,000 multinational troops and contractors, had a larger population than any place in the province besides Kandahar City proper – seems almost unimaginable to my entire generation of soldiers. The same goes for our brethren who tramped – and trampled – the northern half of Afghanistan, for whom last week’s withdrawal from the sprawling Bagram Airbase outside Kabul must’ve felt bewildering.
The way we’re leaving is even less comforting for those who left limbs, mates, and mental health on Afghan battlefields. At Bagram, the last US elements snuck out like thieves in the night, not even notifying the base’s new Afghan commander – local looters ransacking right on their heels. Meanwhile, outside America’s final fantasy fortress, the Taliban is on the march – and at the quick-step, with major fighting now raging just 60 miles outside the capital. Washington’s frustratingly stalwart enemy now commands about one-third of the country’s 400-odd districts, and is contesting control of at least another third. And the offensive is gathering momentum – with the Taliban seizing around 100 more district centers in as many days – posing the ever-present risk that this produces an inertia of inevitability. After all, war remains as much about morale and psychology as missiles and Predator drones.
For all that, I say good riddance. Goodbye to all that – to those Pizza Hut-packed Potemkin villages, our mirage-like mission-sets, false promises, and any noxious nostalgia for a war that couldn’t have been won and shouldn’t have been fought.
America has already attempted two adventures in Afghanistan’s imperial graveyard. Neither ended well, and both backfired. In the 1980s, Washington waged a shortsighted and indulgent proxy war against the country’s then Soviet occupiers, backing the most reactionary Islamist forces that would later form like an (era-appropriate) Taliban Voltron. Sure, the US vengefully handed the Soviet Union – per President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski – its own "Vietnam," but (karma being a bitch, and all) the CIA-fueled blowback after the Russian retreat included a worldwide jihadi diaspora and a man named Bin Laden. America’s overreaction to ole Osama’s awful but one-off 9/11 attacks then almost tragicomically handed the USits own Vietnam encore.
Twenty years deep into Nam-the-Sequel, here’s hoping – heck, begging – that the Biden Family’s reigning don resists the establishment crowd’s cacophonous cries for a trilogy. As in most matters, The Godfather offers a guide. There was no need for a third installment, and it wasn’t long after Don Michael Corleone famed exclamation in that final film – "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" – that he found himself shot, and his dear daughter dead in his arms.
Mindless Arguments from Mad Men
Look, the veterans of the Afghan War are long past done with the war an apathetic American public long-since stopped caring about. Recent polls show that fully 73 percent of the conflict’s veterans supported a full withdrawal of US military forces, along with 69 percent of their family members. In other words, America’s warriors are more antiwar than their (also pro-withdrawal) civilian counterparts – only 12 percent of whom, according to an AP Poll, closely follow Afghanistan-related news. How’s that for a healthy civil-mil-balanced society?
Only not everyone agrees, and it’s the most powerful, influential, and wealthy Washingtonian war-hawks who make up the most vocal minority. It is these cats – controlling the most communication mediums with the most reach – that are trying their darnedest to pull Biden back in. Leading the loud charge with the well-wornest of debunked stay-the-course arguments are, of course, the obvious lunatics – lawmakers of the classical warmongering Republican variety. Most loathsome in this lot has to be Florida’s Congressman Michael Waltz – himself an Afghan War veteran, a Green Beret to boot.
In a fit of rhetoric befitting imperialism-classic, Representative Waltz Tweeted that, "As our only base sandwiched between China, Russia and Iran, [Afghanistan’s] a huge strategic asset" – proof that there’s apparently endless utility in blaming the new bad boy trio to justify any and all endless wars. He then casually asked, "Why are we just giving it away?" Well, Matt, maybe because Afghanistan isn’t a base, it’s a country – with real human people living there, even – and because, you know, both legally and ethically it’s not ours to give away! Waltz then trotted out the same sorry sunken-cost and emotive-as-ever arguments we’ve been hearing for decades now. America can’t leave Afghanistan, he asserted, because "It’s by far the biggest symbol of our 20 years of blood and treasure we have expended for all veterans that have served there." Apparently, Matt believes the only way to wash away wasted blood is with more unnecessary blood.
Then there are the other usual suspects, like Bush-era Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – who literally told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, "We’re probably gonna have to go back." Seeing as Condi’s never once been right about post-9/11 foreign policy, remind me why anyone even asks her opinion anymore?
Back in April, another never-been-right-er, Max Boot, warned in an opinion column that "Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal could be the first step to a Taliban takeover." Well, actually, Max, it’d be more like the last step. America’s failed and futile strategies – which you cheered at every hawkish turn – surely accounted for the first few dozen doomed steps. Max’s employers at the "liberal" Washington Post’s Editorial Board published an article the very same day, headlined "Biden takes the easy way out of Afghanistan. The likely result is disaster."
Undercutting these tired old arguments from unhinged old men (and women) are basic realities on the ground and a 20-year track record of debacle. Some highlights of the inconvenient indicators that more of the American-same would prove a preposterous waste of blood, time, and treasure include:
- More air strikes won’t ultimately matter. In 2019, the US dropped 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan – eight times as many as in 2015 – and still here we are, with the Taliban at the gates.
- The Kabul government lacks real legitimacy with many Afghans. Every one of the country’s four presidential elections was marred by obscene and verifiable fraud.
- The joint is a damn drug den. Despite spending at $9 billion trying to eradicate Afghanistan’s narcotics – especially heroin – trade, the country still accounts for 90 percent of the world’s illicit supply of opium-poppies. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of hectares of land devoted to the crop increased 32 times over.
- Corruption runs rampant among Kabul’s illegitimates, and the US was always part of the problem. Washington empowered war-criminal warlords – who are again on the rise, risking a 1990s civil war redux – and funneled enough unmonitored funds to local politicians and power-brokers to enable the Kabul government to "self-organized into a kleptocracy," according to Army Colonel and multi-tour Afghan War vet Chris Kolenda,
When it comes to combating the world’s most powerful and tech-advanced army, the Taliban has adopted an oft-repeated adage – usually attributed to one of its captured fighters – "You have the watches, we have the time." In fact, back in June 2011, one of our interpreters overheard the local insurgents – then essentially besieging our outermost platoon strongpoint – repeat a version of that mantra over their unencrypted walkie-talkies. This Taliban middle-manager was seeking to buck-up his – probably-as-exhausted-as-mine – foot soldiers after they’d (get this!) apparently just listened to President Barack Obama’s speech that day on the "Way Forward in Afghanistan."
In his remarks, delivered almost exactly ten years ago, Obama said that Americans could "take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding" – receding because the "goal that we seek is achievable," and "in part because of our military effort," that "we have reason to believe that progress can be made." He even described some of the "progress" his two-year troop surge had already ostensibly achieved: "We’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds;" and "Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and…already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people." Plus, the US military, along with its allies and local partners, had apparently been "establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools," as well as "creating new opportunities for women and girls."
Because of all that hard work and these hard won gains – earned at a hefty "cost that’s been paid by the…1,500 [Americans] who have [given their lives] in Afghanistan" – Obama also announced that he would begin withdrawing US troops. "By 2014," he said, "this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." So much for all that. Instead, American soldiers stayed seven years longer than the president promised, about a thousand more of them died there – and in the end, the Taliban turned out stronger than ever.
It seems our almost certainly illiterate, low-level, local Taliban leader was ahead of his time, which was on his side all along.
America, its army, and its tortured veterans can’t turn back time, or get it back.
And shouldn’t try.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen