Memory Failure at the Pentagon, one that has cost us dearly (and will cost more before the end)

Summary:  We are like children, believing that closing our eyes tightly disappears the expense, casualties, and blowback from our war in Afghanistan. All that remains is the exhalation of our killing, our pride in our drones and special ops warriors. Unfortunately this does not as well as we hope. Nick Turse describes a more effective solution.

Wars of Attrition:
Green Zones of the Mind, Guerrillas, and a Technical Knockout in Afghanistan

By Nick Turse
Originally published at TomDispatch, 24 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Endlehardt
  2. Our main feature by Nick Turse
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1) Introduction by Tom Englehardt

Call it a mantra, a litany, or a to-don’t list, but the drip, drip, drip of Afghan disaster and the gross-out acts accompanying it have already resulted in one of those classic fill-you-in paragraphs that reporters hang onto for whenever the next little catastrophe rears its ugly head.  Here’s how that list typically went after the Los Angeles Times revealed that troops from the 82nd Airborne had mugged for the camera with the corpses or body parts of Afghan enemies:  “The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant — that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public.”

That is, of course, only a partial list.  Left out, for instance, was the American “kill team” that hunted Afghan civilians “for sport,” took body parts as trophies, and shot photos of their “kills,” not to speak of the sniper outfit that posed with an SS banner, or the U.S. base named “Combat Outpost Aryan.”  (For Afghans, of course, it’s been so much worse.  After all, what Americans even remember the obliterated wedding parties, eviscerated baby-naming ceremonies, blown away funerals, or even the eight shepherd boys “armed” with sticks recently slaughtered by helicopter, or any of the “thorough investigations” the U.S. military officially launched about which no one ever heard a peep, or the lack of command responsibility for any of this?)

When a war goes bad, you can be thousands of miles away and it still stinks like rotting cheese.  Hence, the constant drop in those American polling numbers about whether we should ever have fought the Afghan War.  Yes, war strain will be war strain and boys will be boys, but mistake after mistake, horror after horror, the rise of a historically rare phenomenon — Afghan soldiers and policemen repeatedly turning their guns on their American “allies” — all this adds up to a war effort increasingly on life support (even as the Obama administration negotiates to keep troops in the country through 2024).

In the Vietnam era, when a war went desperately wrong for desperately long, a U.S. draft army began to disintegrate into rebellion and chaos.  In Afghanistan, an all-volunteer “professional” army may instead be slowly descending into indiscipline, stress-related trauma, drug use, and freak out.  The simple fact is that defeat, however spun, affects everything in countless, often hard to quantify ways.

In war, as in everything else, there is, or should be, a learning curve.  In the Afghan War, as TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse points out, the U.S. high command, the Pentagon, and the White House remain stuck in a rut at least four decades old.  There should be some command responsibility for that, too.

(2) Our main feature, by Nick Turse

Recently, after insurgents unleashed sophisticated, synchronized attacks across Afghanistan involving dozens of fighters armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, as well as car bombs, the Pentagon was quick to emphasize what hadn’t happened.  “I’m not minimizing the seriousness of this, but this was in no way akin to the Tet Offensive,” said George Little, the Pentagon’s top spokesman.  “We are looking at suicide bombers, RPG [rocket propelled grenade], mortar fire, etcetera. This was not a large-scale offensive sweeping into Kabul or other parts of the country.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in similarly.  “There were,” he insisted, “no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.”  Such sentiments were echoed by many in the media, who emphasized that the attacks “didn’t accomplish much” or were “unsuccessful.”

Even granting the need to spin the assaults as failures, the official American reaction to the coordinated attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital, as well as at Jalalabad airbase, and in Paktika and Logar Provinces, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of guerrilla warfare and, in particular, of the type being waged by the Haqqani network, a crime syndicate transformed by the conflict into a leading insurgent group.  Here’s the “lede” that should have run in every newspaper in America: More than 40 years after the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, even after reviving counterinsurgency doctrine (only to see it crash-and-burn in short order), the U.S. military still doesn’t get it.

Think of this as a remarkably unblemished record of “failure to understand” stretching from the 1960s to 2012, and undoubtedly beyond.

The Lessons of Tet

When Vietnamese revolutionary forces launched the 1968 Tet Offensive, attacking Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as well as four other major cities, 35 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district seats, and 50 other hamlets nationwide, they were hoping to spark a general uprising.  What they did instead was spotlight the fact that months of optimistic talk by American officials about tremendous strategic gains and a foreseeable victory had been farcical in the extreme.

Tet made the top U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, infamous for having claimed just months earlier that an end to America’s war was on the horizon.  As he stood before TV cameras on the battle-scarred grounds of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon — after a small team of Vietcong sappers breached its walls and shot it out with surprised U.S. forces — pronouncing the offensive a failure, he appeared to Americans at home totally out of touch, if not delusional.

Since that moment, it should have been clear that tactical success, even success in any usual sense, is never the be-all or end-all of insurgent warfare.  Guerrillas the world over grasped what had happened in Vietnam.  They took its lessons to heart, and even took them a step further.  They understood, for instance, that you don’t need to lose 58,000 fighters, as the Vietnamese did at Tet, to win important psychological victories.  You need only highlight your enemy’s vulnerabilities, its helplessness to stop you.

The Haqqanis certainly got it, and so just over a week ago sacrificed 57,961 fewer fighters to make a similar point.  Striking a psychological blow while losing only 39 guerrillas, they are distinctly living in the twenty-first century in global war-making terms.  On the other hand, whether its top civilian and military commanders realize it or not, the Pentagon is still stuck in Saigon, 1968.

Case in point: Secretary of Defense Panetta belittled the Haqqani fighters for not taking “territory.”  It’s a claim that, in its cluelessness, is positively Westmorelandish.

What territory, after all, could a relatively weak and lightly armed force like the Haqqani militants have been out to “regain” by attacking Kabul’s heavily defended diplomatic quarter?  The German Embassy?  And then what would they have done?  À la U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, launch an oil-spot strategy, spreading out slowly from there to secure the American Embassy, the British Embassy, and NATO headquarters?  While Panetta at least granted that the attacks were geared toward symbolic effect, he remained strangely focused on their “tactical” significance.

As was the case in Vietnam, the U.S. military in Afghanistan regularly attempts to prove it’s winning via metrics like the number of enemies captured and body counts from “night raids.”  No less frequently, its spokespeople create rules and measures for its enemies in an effort to prove they’re not succeeding. This Westmoreland-ian mindset was evident last week in those statements that the Haqqanis didn’t accomplish much of anything because they didn’t take territory, sweep into Kabul en masse, or carry out a sufficiently “large-scale offensive” — as if the Pentagon were the war’s ringside judge (as well as one of the fighters) and the conflict could be won on points like a boxing match.

In the Vietnam years, Westmoreland and other top U.S. officials were forever seeking an elusive “crossover point” — the moment when their Vietnamese foes would be losing more fighters than they could replace and so (they were convinced) would have to capitulate.  That crossover point was the Pentagon’s El Dorado and to achieve it, the U.S. military fought a war of attrition, just as in recent years the Pentagon has been trying to capture and kill its way to victory in Afghanistan through night raids and conventional offensives.

More than a decade after its own forces swept into Kabul, however, what began as a rag-tag, remnant insurgency has grown stronger and continues to vex the most heavily armed, most technologically advanced, best-funded military on the planet.  All of America’s “tactical gains” and captured territory, especially in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, however, haven’t led to anything close to victory, and one after another its highly publicized light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel offensives, like the much-hyped 2010 Marjah campaign, have faded away and been forgotten.

Afghan and American “Green Zones”

As the Haqqanis meant to underscore with their coordinated attacks, America’s trillion-dollar military and the hundreds of thousands of allied local security forces are still incapable of fully securing a small “green zone” in the heart of the Afghan capital, no less the rest of the country.

The conflict in Afghanistan began with its American commander declaring, “We don’t do body counts,” but a quick glance at recent U.S. military press releases touting supposed “high-value kills” or large numbers of dead insurgents indicates otherwise.  As in Vietnam, the U.S. is once again waging a war of attrition, even as America’s Afghan enemies employ their own very different attrition strategy.  Instead of slugging it out toe-to-toe in large suicidal offensives, they’ve planned a savvy, conservative campaign meant to save fighters and resources while sending an unmistakable message to the Afghan population, and simultaneously exposing the futility of the conflict to the American public.

The attrition of U.S. support for the war is unmistakable.  As late as 2009, according to a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, 56% of Americans believed the Afghan War was still worth fighting.  Just days before the Haqqanis’ coordinated attacks, that number had sunk to 35%.  Over the same span, the number of Americans convinced that the war is not worth fighting jumped from 41% to 60%.  Whatever the Pentagon’s spin, the latest Haqqani offensive is likely to contribute to these trends, and Pentagon press releases about enemy dead are powerless to reverse them.

In the era of an all-voluntary military, of the “warrior corporation” and its warzone mercenaries, breaching the “green zone” of American public opinion matters less than in the Vietnam era, but it still makes a difference.  The Haqqanis and their Taliban allies may be taking no territory, but in this guerrilla war it turns out that the territory that really matters, on all sides of the battle lines, is the territory inside people’s heads — and there the Pentagon is losing.

On April 12th, the same day that the ABC News/Washington Post poll was released, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Routt flew his last combat mission in Afghanistan.  It was a noteworthy flight.  After all, Routt began his career flying B-52 bombers at the end of the Vietnam War, and was even involved in support efforts for Operation Linebacker II, President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam.

Just a few years after those raids, Nixon was a disgraced ex-president and America’s Vietnamese enemies had won the war.  Decades later, the U.S. stands on the brink of another, more devastating defeat at the hands of far lesser foes, a minority insurgency with weaker allies (and no great power backers).  It’s an enemy that has fought far fewer battles and lost far fewer fighters, despite facing off against a far more sophisticated American war machine.

While Routt is hanging up his bomber jacket and walking away from another American defeat in Asia, the Pentagon continues its efforts to conjure up, if not victory then something other than failure, out of a mélange of money, dead bodies, and rosy press releases.  The Haqqanis and their allies, on the other hand, having evidently learned the lessons of the Vietnam War, will undoubtedly continue their carefully controlled war of attrition, while Washington pursues the losing variant it’s been clinging to for years.

The Pentagon might have swapped the Vietnam Syndrome for an Afghan one, but its playbook remains mired in the Vietnam era.  It seems intent on proving that channeling William Westmoreland is the least effective way imaginable to win a war on the Eurasian mainland.

Copyright 2012 Nick Turse

(4)  About the author

Nick Turse is associate editor of  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His new TomDispatch series on the changing face of American empire is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation.

  • You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
  • Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

(5)  For more information:  posts about our Afghanistan War

  1. On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan), 1 September 2010
  2. More experts pan our Af-Pak war. When will this show close?, 18 September 2010
  3. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 5 October 2010
  4. Kubler-Ross gives us a good perspective on the evolution of the Afghanistan War,19 October 2010
  5. Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?, 8 February 2012
  6. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012
  7. 450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet – The Pentagon’s Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops, 14 February 2012
  8. The end nears for our expedition to Afghanistan. Time to reflect on what went wrong., 29 February 2012

4 thoughts on “Memory Failure at the Pentagon, one that has cost us dearly (and will cost more before the end)”

  1. Duncan Kinder

    The so-called “War on Terror” has not been a failure to learn from Vietnam; it is a rejection of Vietnam. It has been an effort to assert that had Vietnam been “done right” then the United States would have won. Essentially the United States has been using the so-called “War on Terror” as a scratchpad to work out its unresolved domestic issues dating from the 1960’s.

    1. This is a big day for comments on the FM website. First one by João P. Bragança on another thread, now this one by Duncan Kinder. Both among the best, ever, IMO.

      The US military community has devoted an amazing amount of effort to refight the Vietnam War, showing that defeat was not their fault. Perfect knowledge, unlimited political support, and other impossible things => victory!

  2. The link on strategy pretty much sums up my knowledge and understanding (such as it is) about the stupidity of the continuing violence. One only needs to start with an objective and determine if it can be accomplished. If our strategy in Afghanistan was to chase the Taliban away for a while to ‘punish’ them for harboring Bin Laden, then we did that pretty well. If our objective was to PERMANENTLY keep the Taliban out and set up a stable democracy in the place… [snorts, laughs, loses consciousness from laughing too much, recovers] need I say more?

    My own personal feelings on war go as follows: if we get attacked (or one of our allies–note that allies need to be needed allies, not just ‘nice to have’ ones) then we go into the area from where the attackers came. We blow shit up and kill all the bad guys we can find. Then we leave.

    What if the bad guys take over the place again? Not our problem. What if they attack us again? We go in and do the same. Wouldn’t that cost a lot of American lives? How many American lives are we losing now? Wouldn’t our friends in the region (i.e. the blown-up country) be at risk? How safe are they now? Wouldn’t that cause chaos? How controlled is the place now? Won’t the world have a low opinion of us for doing that? What is their opinion of us now (concerning said conflict)?

  3. Bluestocking

    In y opinion, as long as Pakistan remains a nuclear power which has a strong wahhabist element within its society — and as long as Afghanistan has resource deposits which corporate America would welcome an opportunity to exploit — the United States will almost certainly avoid leaving Afghanistan unless or until we are forced out or officially asked to leave (and maybe not even then). For that matter, I don’t think it’s necessarily safe to assume that the United States has abandoned all hope of running an oil pipeline through Afghanistan since regime change — as in getting rid of the Taliban — was cited as the primary element needed in order to make this go forward when it was discussed in Congress during the late 90’s.

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