Mission Failure: Afghanistan

Summary: The very first articles articles at DNI, in 2003, expressed skepticism about the Afghanistan War.  By 2009 it was clear that we could achieve nothing useful from the war. But our military exists to feed itself, disconnected from any rational national goals, and only after ten years has the drawdown slowly began. Today Tom Engelhardt begins the long review, necessary if we are to avoid the post-Vietnam amnesia and learn from our expenditure of blood and treasure in that distant land.

A Message Written in Blood That No One Wants to Hear
By Tom Engelhardt
Published at TomDispatch on 31 July 2012. Posted here with his generous permission.

Imagine for a moment that almost once a week for the last six months somebody somewhere in this country had burst, well-armed, into a movie theater showing a superhero film and fired into the audience. That would get your attention, wouldn’t it? James Holmes times 21?  It would dominate the news.  We would certainly be consulting experts, trying to make sense of the pattern, groping for explanations. And what if the same thing had also happened almost once every two weeks in 2011? Imagine the shock, imagine the reaction here.

Well, the equivalent has happened in Afghanistan (minus, of course, the superhero movies).  It even has a name: green-on-blue violence. In 2012 — and twice last week — Afghan soldiers, policemen, or security guards, largely in units being trained or mentored by the U.S. or its NATO allies, have turned their guns on those mentors, the people who are funding, supporting, and teaching them, and pulled the trigger.

It’s already happened at least 21 times in this half-year, resulting in 30 American and European deaths, a 50% jump from 2011, when similar acts occurred at least 21 times with 35 coalition deaths. (The “at least” is there because, in May, the Associated Press reported that, while U.S. and NATO spokespeople were releasing the news of deaths from such acts, green-on-blue incidents that resulted in no fatalities, even if there were wounded, were sometimes not reported at all.)


Take July. There have already been at least four such attacks.  The first, on July 1st, reportedly involved a member of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, a specially trained outfit, shooting down three British soldiers at a checkpoint in Helmand Province, deep in the Taliban heartland of the country.The shooter was captured. Two days later, a man in “an Afghan army uniform” turned his machine gun on American troops just outside a NATO base in Wardak Province, east of the Afghan capital Kabul, wounding five before fleeing.  (In initial reports, the shooter in all such incidents is invariably described as a man “in an Army/police uniform” as if he might be a Taliban infiltrator, and he almost invariably turns out to be an actual Afghan policeman or soldier.)

Then, on July 22nd, a security guard gunned down three police trainers — two former U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and a former United Kingdom Revenue and Customs Officer (while another retired Border Protection agent and an Afghan interpreter were wounded). This happened at a police training facility near Herat in Afghanistan’s generally peaceful northwest near the Iranian border.  The next day, a soldier on a military base in Faryab Province in the north of the country turned his gun on a group of American soldiers also evidently working as police trainers, wounding two of them before being killed by return fire.

Note that these July attacks were geographically diverse: one in the Taliban south, one east of the capital in an area that has seen a rise in Taliban attacks, and two in areas that aren’t normally considered insurgent hotbeds.  Similar attacks have been going on for years, a number of them far more high profile, including the deaths of an American lieutenant colonel and major, each shot in the back of the head inside the heavily guarded Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul; the killing of four French soldiers (and the wounding of 16) by an Afghan non-commissioned officer after an argument; the first killing of an American special forces operative by a U.S.-trained Afghan commando during a joint night raid; an elaborate attack organized by two Afghan soldiers and a civilian teacher at a joint outpost that killed two Americans, wounded two more, and disabled an armored vehicle; and the 2011 shooting of 9 trainers (8 American officers and a contractor) in a restricted section of Kabul International Airport by an Afghan air force pilot.

In 2007-2008, there were only four green-on-blue attacks, resulting in four deaths.  When they started multiplying in 2010, the initial impulse of coalition spokespeople was to blame them on Taliban infiltrators (and the Taliban did take credit for most of them).  Now, U.S. or NATO spokespeople tend to dismiss such violence as individual pique or the result of some personal grievance against coalition forces rather than Taliban affiliation.  While reaffirming the coalition mission of training a vast security force for the country, they prefer to present each case as if it were a local oddity with little relation to any of the others — “an isolated incident [that] has its own underlying circumstances and motives.”  (Privately, the U.S. military is undoubtedly far more worried.)

In fact, there is a striking pattern at work that should be front-page news here.  Green-on-blue attacks have been countrywide, in areas of militant insurgency and not; they continue to escalate, and (as far as we can tell) are almost always committed by actual members of the Afghan military or police who have experienced the American project in their country in a particularly up-close and personal way.

In addition, these attacks are, again as far as anyone can tell, in no way coordinated.  They are individual or small group acts, in some cases clearly after significant thought and calculation, in others just as clearly impulsive.  Nonetheless, they do seem to represent a kind of collective vote, not by ballot obviously, nor — as in Lenin’s phrase about Russia’s deserting peasant soldiers in World War I — with their feet, but with guns.

The number of these events is, after all, startling, given that an Afghan who turns his weapon on well-armed American or European allies is likely to die.  A small number of shooters have escaped and a few have been captured alive (including one recently sentenced to death in an Afghan court), but most are shot down.  In a situation where foreign advisors and troops are now distinctly on guard and on edge — and in some cases are shadowed by armed compatriots (“guardian angels”) whose job it is to protect them from such events — these are essentially suicidal acts.

So it’s reasonable to assume that, for every Afghan who acts on such a violent impulse, there must be a far larger pool of fellow members of the security forces the coalition is building who have similar feelings, but don’t act on them (or simply vote with their feet, like the 24,590 soldiers who deserted in the first six months of 2011 alone).  Unlike James Holmes’s rampage in Aurora, such acts, extreme as they may be, are not in the usual sense mad ones.  And scattered and disparate as they may be, they have a distinctly unitary feel to them.  They seem, that is, like a single repetitive act being committed, as if by plan and program, across the length and breadth of the country — or perhaps a primal Afghan scream of rejection of the American and NATO presence from an armed people who have known little but fighting, bloodshed, and destruction for more than three decades.

If the significance of green-on-blue violence hasn’t quite sunk in yet here, consider this: such acts in such numbers are historically unprecedented.  No example comes to mind of a colonial power, neocolonial power, or modern superpower fighting a war with “native” allies whose forces repeatedly find the weapons they have supplied turned on them.  There is nothing in our historical record faintly comparable — not in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian wars, the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the last century, Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, or Iraq in this century.  (In Vietnam, the only somewhat analogous set of events involved U.S. soldiers, not their South Vietnamese counterparts, repeatedly turning their weapons on their own officers in acts that, like “green-on-blue” violence, got a label all their own: “fragging.”)

Perhaps the sole historical example that comes close might be the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  That, however, was a full-scale revolt, not a series of unconnected, ever escalating individual acts.

Whatever the singular bitterness or complaint behind any specific attack, a cumulative message clearly lurks in them that the U.S. military and Washington would undoubtedly prefer not to hear, and that reporters, even when they are toting up the numbers, prefer not to consider too deeply.  To do so would be to acknowledge the full-scale failure of the ongoing American mission in Afghanistan.  After all, what could be more devastating 12 years after the invasion of that country than having such attacks come not from the enemies the U.S. is officially fighting, but from the Afghans closest to us, the ones we have been training at a cost of nearly $50 billion to take over the country as U.S. combat troops drawdown?

What we’re seeing in the most violent form imaginable is a sweeping message from our Afghan allies, the very security forces Washington plans to continue bolstering up long after the 2014 drawdown date for U.S. “combat forces” passes.  To the extent that bullets can be translated into words, that message, uncompromising and bloody-minded, would be something like: your mission’s failed, get out or die.

If the Aurora shootings got all the attention here last week, far more Americans are dying at the hands of Afghan allies than died in James Holmes’s hail of gunfire.  And yet the message from the more deadly of those rampages is barely in the news and few here are paying attention.

In reality, the American mission in Afghanistan failed years ago.  It’s as if we refused to notice, but the Afghans we were training did.  Now, they are sending a message that couldn’t be blunter or grimmer from that endlessly war-torn land.  Not to listen is, in fact, to condemn more Americans to death-by-ally.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses the historically unprecedented nature of green-on-blue violence, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

For More Information

Posts about the Afghanistan War:

  1. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  2. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  3. The beginning of the end to our war in Afghanistan, 13 August 2009
  4. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  5. More experts pan our Af-Pak war. When will this show close?, 18 September 2010
  6. Kubler-Ross gives us a good perspective on the evolution of the Afghanistan War,19 October 2010
  7. Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?, 8 February 2012
  8. The end nears for our expedition to Afghanistan. Time to reflect on what went wrong., 29 February 2012
  9. Chuck Spinney describes the next phases of the Afghan War: defeat, retreat, & demobilization, 9 April 2012

22 thoughts on “Mission Failure: Afghanistan”

  1. So what’s the next endless unwinnable foreign war on the schedule, FM? The U.S. military-industrial-prison-surveillance-antiterror complex has to keep fighting someone in order to justify its ever-increasing budget…so where’s our next quagmire? Syria? Mexico? Pakistan? Yemen? Tierra del Fuego?

    Inquiring minds want to know. Since we’re now in Joe Haldeman’s “Forever War” (from the 1979 science fiction novel), the only element of surprise involves the name of the battlefield…

    1. “So what’s the next endless unwinnable foreign war on the schedule, FM? ”

      Good question. Lots of opportunity to meddle in Africa’s endless wars. In 2006 met a consultant working on setting up Africom. I thought that was a daft idea, that we’d not be foolish enough to again involve ourselves in those conflicts. Wrong, again.

      Forecasts are difficult to get right. My secretary was an early buyer of an iPod. I told her that they’d never catch on. How many people would want to carry all their music around with them?

    2. “The U.S. military-industrial-prison-surveillance-antiterror complex has to keep fighting someone in order to justify its ever-increasing budget”

      They need threats, which are in many ways even better than shooting wars. The Soviet Union was an ideal foe (I’m sure many toasts at DoD dinners end with “By God, I miss the Cold War”). It’s difficult to get people terrified about Russia (although Romney tried, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

      “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They – they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”

      That’s a remarkable statement considering the villains and rogues the US has backed over the years.

      So DoD will rely on China as our 21st century boogeyman. The Yellow Peril Returns! For a good look at what to expect see “The China Scenario and Defense Budgets“, Bernard Finel, 3 August 2012.

  2. What Americans do not seem to get is that when they send their troops to another land – no matter honorable the intention – and then stick around for years, the local people will inevitably start viewing them as occupiers.The initial strike against the Taliban was a great idea, but the US should have gotten out soon after that. Fanciful ideas like nation building and “making the world safe for democracy” are utopian and seldom work out. Besides, doesn’t the US have enough problems at home?

    1. philippi666 mentioned: “What Americans do not seem to get is that when they send their troops to another land – no matter honorable the intention – and then stick around for years, the local people will inevitably start viewing them as occupiers.”

      Well, wouldn’t you say that if one country invades another country and then sticks around for years, they are occupiers? I mean…what else could you possibly call ’em?

      The fact that Americans can’t seem to grasp these basic realities puts me in mind of a classic cartoon by the Australian cartoonist Leunig:

    2. I cringed when the old Tajik man told me; “I liked the Russians better than the Americans. The Russians built apartment blocks for us!”

  3. It is definitely unsettling how the green-on-blue attacks have been downplayed. Can we chalk it up to the general propaganda of the war, though? One thing I realized the other day is that there has been virtually no news about Ssg Robert Bales and his killing spree since May/June. It’s as if it never happened, apparently.

    So it may not be the case that certain kinds of bad news are being suppressed – it’s all bad news, period.

  4. “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They – they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”

    Predictable .. and China as well. This has been on the agenda for years now. It’s like a watching a drunk at a casino who keeps losing but doubles up every time. “I lost last time and the time before and … never mind I’ll double my bet this time .. give me another drink”.

    Afghanistan and Iraq a disaster, never mind Iran will be a cakewalk. Chine will be easy and let’s support those nuts in Georgia into having another go at Russia .. easy. What could possibly go wrong?

    As I have said several times, we are in a race, US bankruptcy vs the ‘Big One’. Bankruptcy defined as the US dollar stopping being the reserve currency. Lots of paddling behind the scenes on this one. Heck even Australia has signed up with China for direct currency swaps. Even Japan has!! The reason is that even its closest allies are slowly waking up to the fact that it has gone crazy.

    The issue is if the US dollar stops being the reserve currency then it can no longer afford all the bases (and wars) around the World, because it will have to become a normal country that has to earn foreign currency to pay for it. An example is Afghanistan, the costs of the logistics are insane, but the US effectively can just print the money which is accepted. Now when it loses its reserve status then it becomes worthless overseas. Taking Afghanistan again, then it would have to pay in (say) yen or Euros or pounds or … gold, whatever. To do that it would have to earn it from trading. Since the US has had a trade deficit for decades now it would not be able to do it.

    This was what really killed the British Empire. The pound was the reserve currency until WW2. When it was supplemented the UK had to pay for all its bases around the world with hard cash (as the US dollar was at that time). Within just a short time they were all gone as Britain simply could not afford it. That would pretty much kill the US ‘push’, as I call it, into ever more conflicts. Now this ‘push’ comes from a multiplicity of sources, both internal and external. Saudi Arabia and Israel are the main external forces, but not the only ones. Internally there are the neo-cons (largely Israeli admittedly), which are like cockroaches, no matter how you think you have got them they keep turning up.

    The MINS state is the main internal lobby. Not uniform though. The ‘suppliers’ of military equipment now prefer a gravy train of getting huge amounts of money without actually delivering anything (the F-35 is the poster child for this). So we have the spectacle of the US Air Force spending more and more money while its planes age and age, yes your grandfathers plane.

    The Army (and the Marines) always ‘suck on hind tit’ and since they take the casualties they are sometimes (increasingly so) a bit circumspect. Not entirely though, since we now have that the ‘elite special forces’ doctrine. These ‘supermen’ will do everything that those ‘grunts’ could not do. Yeah right. And if you believe that I have this really nice bridge I can sell you. Look good on your garden, payments in gold only.

    The Navy wants to be seen to be relevant (which it hasn’t since WW2) to keep the money flowing, but is terrified of losing a bunch of carriers, which it knows in its heart, that if it ever gets into a serious conflict it is going to get thumped.

    The Air Force is gung ho as always, as the recipient of the most amount of money it will always promise everything and deliver nothing … just as long the billions flow so what?
    “Never, in the history of human conflict, has a branch of the armed forces promised so much, got so much .. and delivered so little”.

    The financial elite have worked out that they can make more money our of chaos and misery than anything else these days. So going to war with Iran (in their limited time horizon of about 5 minutes) seems like a great idea. And if the US can muscle China into selling off all their state industries then manna (literally) from heaven. Just as long as they don’t actually have to pay the taxes for all those things that go boom.. and all the smashed people and so on.
    That’s for the ‘little people’ to pay for.

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. “Bankruptcy defined as the US dollar stopping being the reserve currency.”

      Oldskeptic is probably wrong about the broader effects of the US dollar no longer being the reserve currency. Reserve currency status is called a “poisoned chalice” for good reason. The resulting overvaluation devastates exports, forces industry to leave, and leads to ruinious foreign debts.

      However, his point about the importance of reserve currency status to Empire is correct and essential. In its last stage the British Empire no longer paid for itself, as the foreign exchange required for the foreign military bases was no longer offset by profits. This forced the closing of British overseas bases, as it will eventually for the US withdrawal from its mad unprofitable Empire.

    2. I’m not questioning the “What” or the “Why”. I’d like OldSkeptic and FM’s opinion as to when. After reading all of the US propaganda and applying some common sense, it appears that the US dollar will continue to be the reserve currency for quite a while to come.

      There just doesn’t appear to be a viable replacement.

      1. “There just doesn’t appear to be a viable replacement.”

        (1) Nobdy is dumb enough to volunteer, especially when America is so stupid and proud about it. First rule of poker: always complement the fish.

        (2) There is no need for a reserve currency in the sense of the US dollar and British pound. We could use a basket, or some version of the IMF’s special drawing rights. Economic impacts are largely a function of rate of change. A gradual evolution — such as that taking place now — eventaully can replace the US dollar with little fuss. People will look back and wonder what the fuss was about.

        (3) These mildly technical economic subjects develop mistiques about them, as do the multi-national financial organizations. Whoever has the reserve currency runs the world! The loss of RC status will bankrupt America! THE BIS — or IMF — are the secret centers dominating the world! Total nonsense.

  5. I should add that there should be a recognitions of all those who predicted that Afghanistan and Iraq would end in disaster. Bit like the 12 economists who are recognised as predicting the GFC (as we Australians call it: Global Financial Crisis), of which there is the great Steve Keen and Michael Hudson … et al.

    My hat tip goes to Bill Lind. Picked it right from the beginning. Given his background in 4GW it should be not surprising. Some think he is a bit weird, but ‘far seers’ often are. His strength was (as in the case of the 12 economists) he gave a logical reasons why it would end in disaster.

    Lots of others as well, who should be recognised. I remember the pre Iraq invasion, and the tiny minority who were against it for very logical reasons (drowned in the propaganda of the time).

    Might be a good FM article (since you have really have now morphed into a journalist of the good type, ah lah Patrick Cockburn, et al).

  6. I am proud to say in my 2002 book Path to Victory, I also predicted occupations of other countries would end in disaster because of 4GW, the costs, and our cultures inpatience meaning, we are not willing (Thank God) to pay the full costs of an occupation and changing a culture=about 500,000 troops, trillions yearly, and about 30 years.

  7. Pingback: Mission Failure: Afghanistan – Fabius Maximus (blog) | Military News

  8. Pingback: Mission Failure: Afghanistan – Fabius Maximus (blog) | We Who Served

  9. Pingback: Mission Failure: Afghanistan – Fabius Maximus (blog) | PAULitics.US – Wake Up America

  10. Pingback: Pakistan, Afghanistan Tensions Flare Cross-Border Attacks – Voice of America | We Who Served

  11. Pingback: Pakistan, Afghanistan Tensions Flare Cross-Border Attacks – Voice of America | Military News

  12. I do not think the Sepoy Rebellion is an adequate comparison to this phenomena, although I admit that it would be difficult to find a historical comparison.

    These attacks can be seperated into three types:

    A small percentage of these attacks, usually the story that begins with; “Following an argument…” are solely about “restoring” face after being insulted, disrespected, etc. Period; end of story.

    A larger percentage of these attacks can be attributed to infiltration of anti-government elements into Afghan Security Forces (Army/Police/etc.), either by enlisting into those forces (small percentage), or by infiltrating on the day of the event (uniforms are cheap in the Bush Bazaar).

    The overwhelming majority of these attacks are based on the fact that the enemy is intelligent, posesses a decent stategic communications organization, and is well aware of how to manipulate the Afghan Populace, the international media, and as a result, the populaces of ISAF contributing nations (I would venture to say that they have studied the Vietnam conflict at least as much as we have).

    Moderate or Pro-Government Mullahs have been systematically executed. Slick, pro-martyr videos have been circulating since 2007 (Prior to 2007, most suicide attacks were performed by foreigners), ISAF continues to inflict collateral damage resulting in civilian deaths, we remain as the big stick of a horribly corrupt government, and the economy is in decline. The message of the AGE is consistant and loud; the message of GOA and ISAF is a sometimes contradictory whisper. Afghans know that ISAF is leaving, which will eventually result in a future war which will be a war of the “Taliban” (or what the Talib have morphed into by that time), and a government element on the defensive, a Tajik element on the defensive, and Hazara and Uzbek elements on the defensive.

    What we are seeing in these attacks is the result of the policeman or soldier who is fully “saturated” by a successful strategic communications campaign and has finally succumbed to it.

    What better way to get us to leave a bit quicker?

    Mission failure? Totally. Blood and treasure on our part, and the investment of hope by all the Afghans who hitched their wagon to our star. After all; they are a captive audience for the second feature.

    1. I agree that there is no clear parallel to these events. The Mutiny has some points of similarity, but only a few. Events in Afghanistan are complex, our information limited, and the foreign-ness of the culture makes understanding problematic at best. I suggest caution when drawing conclusions like this:

      “The overwhelming majority of these attacks are based on the fact that the enemy is intelligent, posesses a decent stategic communications organization, and is well aware of how to manipulate the Afghan Populace, the international media, and as a result, the populaces of ISAF contributing nations”

      That might be true. My guess is that it is overstated, and that full analysis (many years from now) will find that these events had only a weak connection with any specific policies of the Tailiban or ISI, let alone any of the more far-fetched enemies we imagine shaping events there (eg, al Qaeda).

      The default assumption should be, until proven otherwise IMO, is that these events are a very small-scale organic rejection of the latest infidel foreign invader — from a society wracked (wrecked) by wave after wave of internal and external stress.

      It’s important to see the numbers involved in their true scale. For example, how many civilians die in Afghanistan each year from land mines and other “accidental” military-related fire?

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