Soap Opera Over Kabul

Oh Lordy, Lordy, how I love the Afghan war: it just goes on and on, without end. By comparison, death and taxes seem long shots.

In the latest episode of this long-running sitcom, the Afghan army is killing GIs. Yes. Blowing them away right and left. In Washington, the Five-Sided Wind Tunnel is in shock and maybe awe. It has stopped training Afghan troops because it is scared of them. It has ordered our soldiers to stay armed to protect themselves against our devoted allies, to whom we are bringing democracy, because they want to kill us.

How can this be, you ask? The brass are puzzled too. The reason can’t be that Afghans don’t like night raids, torture, GIs going house to house and shooting women and kids, drone strikes blowing up weddings, and other routine mechanisms of democratization. Instead, it must be … Taliban infiltrators. Yes. This being decided, all is now well. Just as the military calls routine atrocities “isolated incidents,” it attributes Afghan hostility to Taliban infiltrators. Problem solved. In the modern marketing military, you don’t need a solution, just a salable explanation.

OK. In the Guardian, I learn that actual Pentagonal military psycho-wonks have done a study on what Afghans and gringos think of each other [.pdf]:

One group sees the other as a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane, infidel bullies hiding behind high technology; and the other group [the U.S. soldiers] generally view the former as a bunch of cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous, and murderous radicals. Such is the state of progress in the current partnering program. Over a decade of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder had created mutual loathing that was impossible to camouflage.

Who would have thought it?

Anybody with the slightest acquaintance with reality. Tell you what, brothels and cisterns, I could have written every word of it, and I’ve never been to Afghanistan. It’s Vietnam all over again. Which means that it’s all over, again. GIs and Afghans hate each other.

What do you expect when you put combative, not too bright, half-educated, unsophisticated lower-middle-class guys into an illiterate 13th-century culture with a history of detesting invaders? I know, I know: you figured it would spark a love-in, kumbaya, Oprah as featured speaker.

This comedy occurs because the military inhabits a parallel reality. In its experience, you tell a thing to happen, and it does. If the base commander decides that all dumpsters should be painted Day-Glo chartreuse, he issues orders, paint crews go out, and three days later the dumpsters glow sort of greenly. The military also believes that things work. Put 6,000 sailors and a hundred airplanes on an aircraft carrier, obviously an unworkable idea — and it works. It works because everyone wants it to work and does what he is told.

Afghanistan isn’t an aircraft carrier. It has a different shape, it isn’t as flat, and it is full of Afghans. These are important distinctions.

Further, the military thinks that policy determines existence. American policy is that Afghanistan is an allied country like Germany, which it isn’t, that Karzai is chief of state like Angela Merkel, which he isn’t, that the Afghan people are our allies, which they are not, and that if you train Afghans who hate us to say “oorah,” they will want to kill other Afghans that we don’t like — which, obviously they don’t.

Add to the military’s eternal misunderstanding of the enemy’s motivation a matching underestimation of his capacity to fight, plus hypertrophied self-confidence, and you get an over-armed, under-brained, excessively oorahed pack of losers. Don’t think so? How is it that a trillion-dollar military with fighter-bombers, helicopters, armor, electronics, drones, and such can’t beat pissed-off goat-herders with rifles? What do you think would happen if GIs had to fight on equal terms — sandals and a smoke pole, no PX?

Please don’t send me growly mail about Our Boys and their courage, training, sacrifice, honor, and the rest of that string of beads. For one thing, there is no honor in going to someone else’s country and butchering people you don’t know because some political general, which is to say some general, told you to. A hit man for the Mafia is exactly as honorable. For another thing, an army’s job is not to be brave, selfless, yada yada yada, but to win wars. Look at the record:

Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos: Dead losses. Underestimated the Vietnamese, the AK, the RPG, the IED. By policy the Pentagon said the war was about communism, while the Viets thought it was about getting invaders out of their country, which they did. The GIs hated the Viets as they always hate their allies. The Pentagon left with its tail between its legs.

Beirut, 1983: Dead loss, 241 Marines killed versus one Arab. Underestimated the enemy and the truck bomb, had amateurish security, and misunderstood local motivations. Left with tail between legs.

Mogadishu, 1993: Dead loss. Underestimated the enemy, the AK, the RPG. Left dead GIs being dragged through the streets. Tail between legs.

Gulf War I: Victory. Enemy tried to fight Pentagon’s kind of war with fifth-rate forces. Tail high.

Iraq: Dead loss. Did not get the oil, permanent bases, or docile puppet government. Clueless about politics, urban war. Underestimated the enemy, the IED, the AK, the RPG. Left, tail high, fooling few.

Afghanistan: Dead loss, as yet unadmitted. Underestimated enemy, IED, AK, RPG. Clueless about politics. Tail in default position.

Several things explain this Gilbert-and-Sullivan performance. Since 1945 the Pentagon has never fought a war it had to win. Nor will it. The possession of nuclear weapons by the First World ensures that no seriously dangerous country will attack any other seriously dangerous country. This leaves the Pentagon and its suppliers free to buy phenomenally expensive weapons with no purpose. The B1, the B2, and the Airborne Laser come to mind and, now that pilotless airplanes are coming into their own, the U.S. spends hugely on the piloted F35, for which there is no enemy.

But what the military seems particularly not to grasp is that the nature of war has changed. The day of massed armor roaring across deserts under gorgeous sunsets, of fighter aircraft duking it out gloriously at Midway, of huge formations of Marines storming ashore, is over. In Afghanistan there are no targets of high value to destroy, no clear lines of supply to be cut, no cities whose capture means you win, and no concentrations of enemy to be easily killed. World War Two ended a long time ago.

This should be obvious, but militaries don’t do obvious. They run on the hormonal aggression built into men — males, grrr, bow-wow, woof — which is why all of history roils with pointless wars and slaughtered innocents. Herd combat is as biologically determined as a teenage boy’s newfound interest in girls. Oh good.

Coming soon on these same channels: Days of Yemen, a heartwarming series about a handsome young GI’s illicit love affair with his aging Ma Deuce. Brought to you by the New! New! Tide, with three special antioxidants that work together to remove all trace of rationality.