The truth emerges about Afghanistan, an indictment of our war. Now comes the hard part: learning from failure.

Summary: Today’s must read is a retrospective on our expedition to Afghanistan, now that the cloud of lies slowly dissipates. Since Vietnam we’ve masked our failures by myths, short-circuiting our ability to learn. A hegemonic power can substitute power for smarts. The coming multi-polar world will prove more challenging, so that weaknesses become terminal flaws.

Afghanistan war


Opening from “Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’
by Rory Stewart
New York Review of Books, 6 November 2014


Review of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
by Anand Gopal


Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began:

There is a consensus in Afghan society: violence…must end. National reconciliation and respect for fundamental human rights will form the path to lasting peace and stability across the country. The people’s aspirations must be represented in an accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, representative government that delivers daily value.

That was 12 years ago. No one speaks like that now — not even the new president. The best case now is presented as political accommodation with the Taliban, the worst as civil war.

Western policymakers still argue, however, that something has been achieved: counterterrorist operations succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there has been progress in health care and education, and even Afghan government has its strengths at the most local level. This is not much, given that the US-led coalition spent $1 trillion and deployed one million soldiers and civilians over 13 years. But it is better than nothing; and it is tempting to think that everything has now been said: after all, such conclusions are now reflected in thousands of studies by aid agencies, multilateral organizations, foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, universities, and departments of defense.

But Anand Gopal’s  shows that everything has not been said. His new and shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed. Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.


No Good Men Among the Living

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of 2 district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.”

Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll … 21 pro-American leaders and their employees dead, 26 taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single 30-minute stretch the US had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership — stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that 7 of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry.

{Please read the rest here; it’s a demonstration of why the NYRB deserves to be on your reading list} Today' s special: lies


For More Information

About Afghanistan:

  1. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan, 23 June 2009
  2. Andrew Exum & co recommend new ways to lose at the all-star CNAS Conference in June 2009
  3. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  4. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  5. Joshua Foust describes the case for our war in Afghanistan, 28 August 2009
  6. Another attempt to justify our Af-Pak war, and show the path to victory, 31 August 2009
  7. The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
  8. Every day the war’s advocates find new reasons we should fight in Afghanistan!, 7 September 2009
  9. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009 — Lots.
  10. A new reason to kill thousands of people? Stay tuned for the answer!, 24 September 2009
  11. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 20 November 2009
  12. Hidden history of our first step into the Afghanistan War. It’s still important for us to understand., 6 August 2012



34 thoughts on “The truth emerges about Afghanistan, an indictment of our war. Now comes the hard part: learning from failure.”

    1. Poppy production at all-time high – up from $2B to $3B, 2012 – 2013

      Well, if we’re lucky the CIA won’t be funding anything in Afghanistan, so it won’t be opening conduits into the US market like they did for the Nicaraguan cartels in the 1980s. And to think that, at the time, I thought people were just doing all that blow because it was cheap and they liked it. :(

      Unfortunately, snarking aside, that heroin’s going to go somewhere and it’s going to destabilize a few markets. More blowback.

      1. Marcus,

        Results of over-throwing the socialist government (Charlie Wilson’s war): civil war — eventually bringing the Taliban to power, setting women’s rights in Afghanistan back to the Dark Ages.

        Now we overthrow the Taliban (temporarily, at least), sparking another round of civil war and resuming poppy production that the Taliban had almost eliminated.

        Remind me again, who are the good guys?

  1. Learning from failure is not part of the possibilities:

    ‘National Security and Double Government’ by Michael J. Glennon

    Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.

    Glennon, should read Bowling Alone His faith in public is misplaced as social capital is impaired:

    Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences

    Robert Putnam, social capital and civic community

  2. I swear, there’s something about Afghanistan and imperial hubris. When armies arrive at this place, for whatever strategic gobbledygook in fashion for the time — that’s the high water mark. After this, it’s all downhill. I’m not sure why exactly, but I speculate. Maybe this indicates some kind of ‘peak delusion’ — when the empire believes it can remake Afghanistan in its own image. Here’s a clue — no, not going to happen..

  3. Gin and Tacos has a hilarious post comparing American post-9/11 foreign policy to the Batman comics:

    A devoted comic book fan explained to me that the biggest issue with making a good series of films based on Batman is that other than The Joker, most of the villains suck. The Joker is #1 and once he’s gone the drop-off to #2 and beyond is huge. Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy (and the military-industrial economy) has had the exact same issue.

    The USSR was a great Villain. Americans and their elected leaders could turn the USSR into whatever they wanted, and the Soviet leaders were generally dyspeptic enough to confirm our fears. The (second) Bush administration certainly tried to turn al-Qaeda and then Iraq into the same thing but even people who go through the motions of believing it…they have to know. They must know. They have to know in their heart of hearts that despite al-Qaeda’s capacity to execute some genuinely horrific attacks, it’s just not the same. Discounting the 15-20% of the population who believe literally anything Fox News spits at them, there’s no amount of squinting that can make al-Qaeda look like an existential threat to the U.S.

    Source: “Third-Rate Villains,” Gin and Tacos blog, 7 October 2014.

    1. Thomas,

      Great analysis! Thank you for posting this.

      That was my reaction to the Avergers 2 trailer: not another crazy robot wanting to kill everyone. And to phase 2 of the WoT: are existential threat is small number of crazy jihadists in Iraq and Syria?

    1. Winston,

      Thank you for pisting this i teresting article about Google. File it uner the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same. Since the early days of the British Empire, powerful business interests worked hand-in-hand with the government to advance their interests, as your left and right hands work together to serve a common master.

      The astonishing aspect of articles like this is that this news surprises anyone. Google is exactly what we should expect it to be, a mega-corp working closely with western governments. The precedents are endless since 1700, since 1800, since WW2, and since 2000.

      Should it be otherwise? A failed state is where the powerful interest groups fight each other. A well-integrated state is where they work together.

      The real conflict is between tour fairy tale view of society and reality. That serves us ill, but makes us easy to govern.


    Dollars for Terror by Richard Labévière
    Friends-Enemies-Both? Our Foreign Policy Riddle
    More than half of Austrian’s jihadists originally come from the Caucasus region and have a valid residence permit in Austria.
    ‘We made a big mistake’: Teenage Austrian poster girls for ISIS who moved to Syria to live with jihadis are now pregnant and want to come home… but officials say that will be ‘impossible’
    His schools are in numerous countries!
    Why did USA Ambassador Aid Islamic Hard-liner Imam Escape Prosecution for Extremism?

    The Tale of Uncle Tsarnaev, CIA Chief Graham Fuller and a Turkish Islamist Who Lives in USA

  5. Jihadis are frenemies. Just like mafia were before. Remember mafia worked ith govt in WW II and in anti-Cuba effort in 1960s.

    1. Winston,

      I see no relevance between using ex-NAZIs after WW2 as spies (or scientists etc, per Operation paperclip) and mafia & jihadists now. After WW2 the NAZIs were broken, rubble.

      More broadly, i have never understood the idea that we should only associate with angels (like ourselves). Effectiveness in the real world requires making deals with the range of folks sharing planet earth. Much as the US and UK did with the Soviet Union during WW2.

      The criticism of the CIAs work with drug dealers in SE Asia and Latin America is that the CIA was indirectly (or perhapd directly) helping operations against us. That is crossing a line.

      Operation Paperclip:

  6. Maybe there is reason why both armies are so “incompetent”.

    Incompetent Afghan soldiers who refuse to show up and hide behind rocks when they do fight are ‘not ideal’ for the country’s security, warn elite Green Berets
    Reports from Special Forces officers differ dramatically from the rosy picture of the Afghan National Army painted by the Pentagon
    Green Berets are specially trained to instruct and work with foreign soldiers in their country
    Afghan soldiers could not operate at night
    They were quit halfway through the mission and refused to go on
    Report comes from a June operation that resulted in a ‘friendly fire’ bombing that killed five Americans
    US forces will end combat operations at by end of 2014 and hand defense over to the Afghan National Army
    The Iraqi Army Never Was
    Careerist U.S. generals touted a toothless military consumed from the start by corruption and split loyalties.

  7. FM, if expediency is all that maters than why complain when US supports Jihadis against Qaddafi or against Assad. using Nazis and Mafia is all part of same motive “expediency”. You cannot compartmentalize it. It s fine here, but not here.

    CIA is still involved with drug dealers.

    Ron Paul in an earlier interview about drugs confirmed what Fitts found at HUD. She discovered, which doesn’t know that housing used to launder funds.
    Ron Paul: George Bush “Deep Into” CIA Drug Trafficking
    See for Fitts (she was at HUD under Bush i and Clinton):

    “The global war on drugs is failing, new research suggests, as the price of heroin, cocaine and cannabis has fallen while their purity has increased.”
    Report: Cheaper, purer illegal substances suggest global war on drugs is failing
    “Illegal drugs are now cheaper and purer globally than at any time over the last 20 years, a report has warned.”
    War on illegal drugs failing, medical researchers warn
    Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb – The Intercept
    The Contra affair as another example of a continuing practice
    CIA Drug Trafficking and remembering Gary Webb

    See also:
    ‘Mexico’s war on drugs is one big lie’

    1. Winston,

      “If expediency is all that matters”

      That’s quite an odd parsing of what I said. If I say dont shoot yourself in the foot, do you reply “if expediency is all that matters”?

      Pointing the gun at the foe, not oneself, is a bit more than “expediency”.

      Also, I dont undersyand, as so often the case, what you think your grabbag of cites prove. If you think they prove something about the CIA today, I’m done. Fantasize away; there is no point in discussion.

  8. As we know drug trafficking is useful for many reasons: (1) Funding black ops no person in their right mind would consider; (2) job security and agency survival in make-work projects chasing dope all over the planet (sometimes to exotic locales); (3) stimulating PD travel budgets (sometimes to fun tourist destinations) for confiscation of ill-gotten gain; (4) enhancing PD forfeiture of cash, hot cars and boats, and (5) all manner local and federal LE budget increase justifications.

    If too many careers and inherent biases of psychological dysfunctions did not depend on the drug trade (for adrenalin fueled fun and profit), a simple solution would be to burn it in the field and pay the local farmer the going rate. Let the farmers continue to plant, which we already do, just short circuit the harvest. Win the farmers support to out the processors and distributors by continuing to pay them with each crop. Use the crop as bait to eliminate the bad guys. Key is not to let it out of the field.

  9. How to avoid these protracted wars, that devolve into failed nation building? We could try to reshape our democracy into a tool that would challenge the special interests that benefit from the wars, but that feels even less likely than, say, breaking the 2 party stranglehold on politics. How about lobbying for a larger budget for the State Dept. ? If there was enough money in political analysis, language training, and building organizations that were designed for nation building and could recognize -real bad ideas- ahead of time, could that help? I’m thinking of keeping the Congressional and commercial sector pork but shifting the emphasis to interventions with less violence and personal tragedy. A kinder gentler but no less venal and self centered America.

  10. “The truth emerges about Afghanistan, an indictment of our war. Now comes the hard part: learning from failure.”

    Sun Tzu says: “learning from failure is easy when a fool and his superpower status are soon parted.”

    1. Robnarrdin,

      “Apparently America’s destiny is to become an ex-superpower.”

      Yes. That’s good news, the planned outcome of the post-WW2 world order America led the creation of. A multi-polar world of free-market economies — great nations like Europe, India and China — plus many minor powers like the little Tigers of SE Asia. Success creates new worlds, with new challenges.

  11. I wonder if Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor and his Damage, Inc now regret the ‘? Have a nice day’
    No soldiers should have ever been there in the first place, none, nill.

  12. Pingback: [SOLVED] The Relationship of History with other Disciplines of Study History and Social Sciences|Homework help - CourseHeroHub

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: