Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war)

Summary: Here Michael Brenner (Prof International Relations) perfectly captures the madness of our long war (no wins yet after 15 years) in this fictional conversation between two of its leaders. Comedy equal to anything in 1950s theater of the absurd. Unfortunately the wars it describes are real, as are our casualties and squandered wealth.

The colossus of Trump, a symbol
of AfricCom. the next battlefield.

Rhodes Colossus
The Rhodes Colossus. Image of Cecil John Rhodes in Punch, 10 December 1892. By Edward Linley Sambourne.

A chat between two of America’s imperial envoys.

By Michael Brenner,
Professor of International Affairs, U Pittsburgh.

Posted with his generous permission.

Few of us ever have occasion to observe first-hand the ensuing encounters between Imperial emissaries and vassals, or with provincial prefects, or with leaders of more autonomous realms. Someone who indeed has been privy to that type of meeting has provided us with an imagined exchange between Secretary of Defense (General) James Mattis and our commander of USFOR-A (U.S. Forces Afghanistan) in Kabul, General John Nicholson, when the former visits Afghanistan this week. It was just three weeks ago that National Security Director, General HR McMaster, was in town. At that time, McMaster made these public remarks…

 “In recent years, at a period of our maximum effort, we didn’t have as reliable a partner in the Afghan government as we would’ve liked. Now we have a much more reliable Afghan partner and we have reduced considerably the degree and scope of our effort.” {From CNN.}

McMaster described the US and Afghanistan fight against the Taliban and ISIS as one “between barbarism and civilization,” casting them as a “threat to all civilized peoples.” Against that backdrop, here is an imagined transcript of the imagined Mattis-Nicholson meeting.

An imaginary transcript of Mattis and Nicholson chatting

N:  It’s great to see, again, Mr. Secretary. Did you have a good trip?

M:  Not bad; the last leg from Baghdad was a bit bumpy – ran into turbulence over Turkey. Did manage to get through another Chapter of Sun Zhu’s The Art Of War. Important that we get a better understanding of how the Oriental mind works now that the Chinese are inching their way into the Middle East.

You’re looking fit. That Afghan chow must suit you.

N:  Naw – not that. Been spending a couple of hours a day in that awesome workout facility that Dave Petraeus built. It’s going to be marveled at forever – just like Diocletian’s Baths in Rome. Did it on the cheap, too – no more than a couple hundred million.

James Mattis and John Nicholson
James Mattis and John Nicholson at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on 24 April 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images.

M:  Well, how’re things going? All those whiners and wimps back in D.C. are starting their defeatist talk again.

N:  We’re beginning to see a few green shoots. The crocuses up in the Hindu Kush were out early – that’s always a positive sign.

I want you

M:  Yup, has been since I was here with Task Force 58 back in 02.

N:  Take a look at the map, Mr. Secretary. It’s live-streamed and interactive so you can see just what’s going down – sorry, going up. Do you prefer to follow it on your Smart-Watch or the 20 foot screen?

M:  Latter – my watch got hacked somewhere over Turkmenistan. Fuckin Putin at it again. Can’t receive anything except Sputnik News or the Red Army Choir singing Kalinka.

N:  Okay. Down here to the South, we got Taliban – active. Out here to the East, we got Taliban – active. Up here to the Northeast, we got the Haqqanis– active and backed by the fuckin Pakis. Up North, we got the mix of Talibs and Islamic State – active. Fuckin Putin supplying the IS and giving free passage to the Uzbek jihadis – the bad ones, not the good jihadis we’re arming in Idlib. Then way out there in the West, the fuckin Iranians are stirring things up with the Hazara; they’re Shia, you remember.

The Brits are on top of that. Got a report from MI-6 just last week documenting what the mullahs are up to. Title is: “Safavids Shaking Up Herat.”  Brits prefer their insurrections shaken, not stirred.

M:  Where’re our guys – the freedom loving Afghans we’ve spent $100 billion training?

N:  See those clusters of green dots – that’s them. They’re holding their own: their own kickbacks from the opium traffic, their own phantoms on the payroll, their own pay-offs from tribal chiefs. Problem is, we don’t have enough self-starters in the officer corps, not enough of that can-do spirit, not enough pro-active mentality. They’re not exactly Harvard MBA material. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that we’re ready and willing to step in and lend them a hand.

Old Man Trump really came through when he lifted restrictions on our Special Forces and Air Support. Now, if you can convince him to move on that request for a few thousand more troops, we’d really be in business – back to where we were in 2007-2008. I could see light at the end of the tunnel. That big one we dropped last month really improved the view.

M:  That’s encouraging. I always say: the glass is not 90% empty; it’s 10% full – give or take 8%.

Let me tell you a story – family history. My grandfather was a Catholic missionary in the highlands of Puapua New Guinea way back. Spent three years up there trying to bring the pagans to Christ. Exhausting business. Anyway, when he returned and met with the Church Office for Propagation of the Faith in Rome, they were keen to know what progress he’d made. He answered: “there are signs of progress but it is gradual, one step at a time. Laboring in the Lord’s vineyard, as you gentlemen know, takes patience. The encouraging news is that now, on Fridays, they only eat fishermen.” There’s much wisdom in that.

Remember the Marine motto:   “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

By poasterchild at DeviantArt.
By poasterchild at DeviantArt.

N:  And the Army motto: “Losing is not the worst thing; it’s being blamed for it.”

M:  Petraeus really was an inspired teacher. Most important, General, let’s keep in mind time horizons. With those extra men, how long do you estimate we could keep things together before the hajjis are back in Kabul?

N:  Tough question – can’t rightly say.

M:  Now just remember; you’re rotated out of here in several months. You’re the 13th Afghan Commander we’ve had. We don’t want to be superstitious, but still. I’m planning on staying the four full years – unless of course the Alpha Primate decides to replace me with Ivanka or that pink cheeked son-in-law of his. So, the critical dates are Dec. 31 this year; and January 20, 2021. If we can hold out that long, we can claim success, pronounce that the final judgment should be left to History (he usual b.s.), and enjoy our well-earned consultancies.

A pity that the Cheney/Bush crowd forgot the clinical imperative: “if a counter-insurgency continues for more than 4 years, consult your COIN specialist immediately!”

N:  We’re on the same wavelength, Mr. Secretary. Are you going to see Abdullah Abdullah before you leave?

M:  Nope – I can’t stand people who stutter  Well, it’s time to head for the airport. Let’s see: tomorrow’s Thursday, that means Amman. We’re cooking up a clever little scheme to create a “safe zone” in the South of Syria to match the one we’re pushing up North with the Sultan. Matching pair: Golf Serai South & Golf Serai North. The wacka-doo in the White House will love it. Those sand traps – beautiful! just Beautiful!

N:  Good luck, Mr. Secretary. Bon Voyage. Hope you get that Smart-Watch problem straightened out. Why not stop over in Shanghai on your way back.


(1)  One passage had been blacked out. We can only guess at the excised material. It has been conjectured that it recorded a candid exchange wherein the two generals shared experiences in handling the Kunduz hospital bombing at the request of the Afghan commando unit (Nicholson) and the 2004 Mukaradeeb wedding party massacre in Iraq (Mattis) which he approved after deliberating 30 seconds – by his own account. (The former apologized; the latter denied that there was a wedding at all). Mattis also commanded the 1st Marine Division when it razed Falluja in November 2004.

(2)  After being promoted to lieutenant general, Mattis took command of Marine Corps Combat Development Command. On February 1, 2005, speaking ad libitum at a forum in San Diego he declaimed…

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.”

— From Source: CNN. For more about Mattis’ thinking see “Breaking the Warrior Code” by John R. Guardiano in The American Spectator, 11 February 2005.}


Michael Brenner

About the author

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas.

Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 100 articles and published papers on foreign policy and politics. He is a regular contributor many in the news media. For more information see his pages at the U Pittsburgh website. See some of his article at the Huffington Post.

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6 thoughts on “Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war)”

  1. Pointless post. A better convo:

    M: you know my jock strap is twice as big as yours.

    MB: I know.

  2. Dubious Anonymuus

    Remember this? “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen” by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN at CounterPunch, 15 Jan 1998.

    Yes Afghanistan is genuinely ” your” war- meaning that it is the proud possession of every American who accepts the legitimacy of the US administration ( and it really does not matter WHICH U.S. administration, as they all follow the same policy regardless of who has voted for what).

    The lineage that Carter and Brzeinski started with the Mujahadeen leads straight through to Al Quaeda and now to ISIS. Every one of these organisations has received CIA, funding, training and armaments. They are the bastard offspring of traumatised locals and Western cash.

    I hope you are all proud to be American. I am prouder that I am not.
    Having a site like this that expresses progressive views is all very well, but it is results that count.

    I often think that this sort of political commentary ( both the original article, and this rather hostile rant) are permitted in our democracies only because they keep us intellectual types chattering and feeling good about our contribution- when in truth all we are doing is chattering and staying out of the way of the real men with the guns.

    Chomsky has been talking about all of this for 40+ years- but nothing changes, except for the worse.

    1. Dubious,

      “Remember this?”

      Yes, since I have been writing about that since 2003. Just last week I wrote “Afghanistan’s girls show the dark side of America’s influence on the world” — about the results of “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

      “I am prouder that I am not.”

      So where are you from? Let’s look at the moral history of your nation.

      “but it is results that count.”

      I would love to run the moral calculus on your life, and see your awesome results in improving the world. For the rest of us, our obligation as individuals is to try. Achieving results is up to fate.

  3. FM,

    “For the rest of us, our obligation as individuals is to try.”

    Amen to that.

    The United States is far from perfect. With that being said – I am proud to be an American. We have a long way to go and there are many obstacles in our path – but we have it within ourselves to overcome. It all starts with a long look in the mirror.


    1. Jim,

      I agree on all points. America, like every great power, has dark aspects in our history. But we have come far and accomplished much. The deeds of the greatest generation — WWII, the generous peace, the international order built afterwards, the Civil Rights era, the Apollo program — will have a justifiable place on the honor role of history.

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