Tag Archives: afghanistan

Before we start a new war with ISIS, let’s remember how we stumbled into the last two

Summary: As we gear up for new wars in Syria and Africa, and rejoining old wars in Iraq, let’s a pause to think. Success will depend on learning from our failures since 9-11. Our greatest failures have been our initial failures: seeing the situation incorrectly and beginning before we have accurate information about our foe. The combination creates almost insurmountable barriers to success, barriers that we construct. We can do better.

Learn from mistakes


  1. Familiar bad news about our new wars
  2. Reminders from the past
  3. We’re winning! Like always.
  4. Let’s remember the great advice we need the most
  5. For More Information

(1)  Familiar bad news about our new wars

It’s become the one of the two standard themes for the starts of our wars: US intelligence tells us that we know little about our enemies. As Eli Lake explains in “ISIS Baffling U.S. Intelligence Agencies“, The Daily Beast, 14 August 2014 — “It’s been two months since ISIS took over Iraq’s second-largest city. But U.S. analysts are still trying to figure out how big the group is and the real identities of its leaders.” Excerpt:

The U.S. intelligence community is still trying to answer basic questions about the jihadists who tried to wipe out Iraq’s remaining Yazidis and who now threaten to overrun the capital of the country’s Kurdish provinces.

In a briefing for reporters Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials said the government is re-evaluating an estimate from early this year that said the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had only 10,000 members. These officials also said intelligence analysts were still trying to determine the real names of many of the group’s leaders …

While many U.S. officials have warned publicly in the last year about the dangers posed by ISIS, the fact that the U.S. intelligence community lacks a consensus estimate on its size and the true identities of the group’s leadership may explain why President Obama over the weekend said the U.S. was caught off-guard by the ISIS advance into Kurdish territory.

{the usual fear-mongering follows, presented as analysis}

The second theme which marks the start of our wars: errors and outright lies about the wars. The sinking of the USS Maine and the Spanish-American War, the Tonkin Gulf Incident, Saddam’s WMDs and alliance with al Qaeda, and Afghanistan’s key role in 9-11. Let’s hope that what we are told about our enemies in this new phase of the Long War is more accurate than what we’ve been told so far.

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Examples of blind allegiance to tribal truths, keeping us weak & ignorant

Summary: Truth has become a tribal thing in America. Scores of posts have documented this on the Right and Left. Today we have two fun examples by the Left, with sublime but blind confidence in their tribe’s truths. Our tribalism divides us, making us weak. Our blinders keep us ignorant. The combination probably makes reform impossible for America.

Spirit Of Truth



  1. Matthew Yglesias indicts Bush, defends Obama
  2. Tribal truths about climate vs George Will
  3. For More Information


(1)  Yglesias indicts Bush, defends Obama (blindly)

An analysis by Matthew Yglesias  VOX, 16 June 2014 — Excerpt:

The US military is the finest military in the world, the sharp spear of the mightiest empire in human history. But the considerable virtues of America’s fighting forces do not give it any particular expertise in micro-managing Afghanistan politics.

And the fundamentals in Afghanistan have simply never been very good for a peaceful and democratic settlement. The country is not only divided between sectarian groups, but sandwiched between two rival regional powers … and neither power having any particular interest in democracy and pluralism. Throw in the well-known phenomenon of the resource curse and the country’s lack of stable institutions, and you’ve got a recipe for problems, problems that a bunch of heavily armed young people — no matter how well-intentioned or well-led — are not capable of solving.

This is a searing indictment of Obama’s war policy. During the 2008 campaign he advocated boosting the war effort in Afghanistan, despite 7 years of futile but expensive effort. Which he did starting in early 2009. Now our failure is obvious to all who look (although many prefer to see with closed eyes).

Surprise! This was in fact a defense of Obama, and by implication an attack on Bush Jr, titled “The mess in Iraq proves Obama was right to leave“. In this excerpt Afghanistan was swapped for Iraq, and resources for oil. Yglesias writes it with no sign of awareness that his logic defending Obama’s Iraq withdrawal also condemns Obama’s Afghanistan surge.

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Afghanistan: The Desert of Death, an opportunity to learn

Summary: Our small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end, but we fear to learn from these failures. Such cowardice didn’t make America great, but might bring it down. It need not be like this, since the truth is out there. Today we have an article that can help us begin  the process of understanding what we did wrong in Afghanistan, and what to do next with this knowledge.



America, both leaders and people, struggle to forget our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dead lie quietly with those of our many other wars. Our politics continue their mad cacophony — Benghazi Climate Apocalypse Benghazi! The false story of these wars have become a portrait of ourselves that, like Dorian Gray’s, we damage at risk of death — the death of our illusions of competence and exceptionalism. Learning is the enemy of such people, and the path back to security and prosperity.



Afghanistan: The Desert of Death
by Anatol Lieven, Blog of the New York Review of Books
7 January 2013
Posted with their generous permission.

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. …
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A number of writers have preceded me in quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to evoke the huge US and NATO bases planted since 2001 in Afghanistan. The comparison is irresistible, but not necessarily apt. Even if only the head and legs were left, bits of Ozymandias’s statue had still presumably survived for 3,000 years or so, which is a pretty good record as these things go. Few US or NATO officials, by contrast, seem to be planning seriously much beyond the next 3 years.

In Kabul, the changes wrought by the West’s 12-year Afghan adventure have a certain solidity, at least to the point where the banks and office buildings would make for reasonably imposing and long-lasting ruins. Even some more intelligent members of the Taliban seem to recognize that the Afghan capital, a city of some five million people, is no longer the rubble-filled and shrunken city that they ruled in 2001; that the modern educated classes have grown to the point where they cannot be subjected to the moral code of a madrassa in a Pashtun mountain village; and that if a future Afghan government including the Taliban wants the help of these people — those who do not depart following the West’s withdrawal — in ruling and developing Afghanistan, it will have to grant them some freedom.

In the southern Pashtun province of Helmand, however, the atmosphere is very different. The presence of the Taliban is much more palpable both from conversations and the watchfulness of the Western forces. The veil of progress brought by the West is also a great deal thinner. During a recent trip with NATO officials, I was kept within the fortified perimeters of the US and British forces and the Afghan government centers — an indication of the current level of concern about the Taliban.

Visiting US and NATO bases there, I found that the images that came to mind were not Ozymandian images of long-fallen imperial grandeur, but rather those of science fiction: of Ray Bradbury’s human and Martian species meeting under an enormous, indifferent sky amidst the vast and utterly strange landscape of Mars.

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The best response when hearing about Benghazi

Summary: Recommendation: when you see someone ranting about Benghazi Benghazi BENGHAZI, ask why they are more concerned with the few dead in that incident than our troops pointlessly fighting now in Afghanistan. If he has no good answer, but continues to rant about Benghazi, spit on him. Or rather, tell them they deserve to be spit at (if this were a just world).



Our troops fought and suffered in Iraq — 32 thousand injured or crippled, 4,489 died.

Our troops fight today in Afghanistan, still paying in blood for our mad foreign policy.

Most of the people (not all) seeking to exploit the few deaths in Benghazi either did not care about the toll those men or women paid — or cheered the war despite the toll, despite its obvious stupidity, as seen in the total failure of either war to produce significant gains for America. And they care nothing for the ongoing waste of lives in Afghanistan.

Lives of men and women spent carelessly, like bullets fired into the air by cowboys drunk on the strength.

Nothing shows our ovine nature like the passivity with which we allowed our leaders to led us into those war, enterprises both decked with lies, executed from start to finish incompetently. No wonder the 1% regard us with contempt, and believe that they can govern America better than we do.

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Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.

Summary: What have we learned from our experiences in Afghanistan? My guess: not much. Certainly not the vital lessons we need to learn in order to prosper in the 21st century. This is thousand words raising questions. In the comments post your thoughts, and pointers to works by others grappling with these issues.

Every society experiences defeat in its own way.  But the varieties of response within vanquished nations — whether psychological, cultural, or political — conform to a recognizable set of patterns or archetypes that recut across time and national boundaries.  A state of unreality — of dreamland — is invariably the first of these.

From the Introduction to Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003)

Afghanistan war

The closing of Abu Muqawama (run by Andrew Exum) and The Oil Drum were greeted with tears by their fans, Probably undeserved tears. Both played large roles in major issues during the past decade, but perhaps not useful contributions.

Abu Muqawama focused on providing expert, fact-rich, but horrifically wrong advice during our “small wars” (small but expensive wars). The Oil Drum provided fact-rich discussions with wrong conclusions about “energy and our future”. Both were nodes for concerned, educated, knowledgeable professionals and laymen. It’s disturbing that these cohorts of our best and brightest could not the errors in their analysis — or question them after years of failed forecasts.

For ten years I’ve written about America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop. Here we have two tangible examples. This post looks at Abu Muqawama.

The Afghanistan War

Anrew Exum was a paid propagandist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). CNAS is one of the leading pro-war think-tanks, started in 2007 with lavish funding (now their roster of corporate donors). In August 2009 he ran a debate about “why we fight” in Afghanistan.  The pro-war submissions were bizarrely weak. The anti-war submissions and comments (e.g, Bernard Finel, Col. Gian Gentile) were more strongly reasoned and factually supported.  In broader terms, most of the comments were anti-war.  Probably not how Exum intended this to run. But at the end he wrote a predictable pro-war screed, with more of our hawks patentable bad advice.

Take a stroll on memory lane, see for yourself the confidence of the hawk’s advice.

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Our wars: using the military to do Social Work with Guns

Summary: A wonder of the age is our continued confidence on people whose decisions proved wrong in the crucible of war, while those whose advice proved correct remain on the sidelines. It’s easy to distinguish the two groups by looking at their past work. Four years later this essay by Andrew Bacevich looks prophetic. That we continue to make the same mistakes shows that we are slow to learn. That Bacevich and his peers remain on the sidelines of US policy-making shows that we are stupid. Slow and stupid are two sins always punished, eventually.

Will Work For Change


  1. “Social Work with Guns”
  2. About the author
  3. For more information

Social Work with Guns“, Andrew Bacevich
London Review of Books, 17 December 2009
Reposted with the generous permission of the LRB and Andrew Bacevich

By escalating the war in Afghanistan – sending an additional 34,000 US reinforcements in order to ‘finish the job’ that President Bush began but left undone – Barack Obama has implicitly endorsed Bush’s conviction that war provides an antidote to violent anti-Western jihadism.

By extension, Obama is perpetuating the effort begun in 1980 to establish American dominion over the Middle East, hoping through the vigorous exercise of hard power to prolong the postwar Pax Americana. In ways that Obama himself may only dimly appreciate, his decision on Afghanistan affirms the pre-existing character of US foreign policy. But by advocating ‘counter-insurgency’, the McChrystal report also represents a tacit acknowledgment that a decades-long military reform project has definitively failed.

Understanding the contradiction at the heart of McChrystal’s report requires a quick survey of the way the United States managed to mire itself in its current predicament. It’s a tale of recurring miscalculation and disappointment followed by intensified military exertions yielding disappointment on a larger scale.

It began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter formulated his response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter Doctrine, promulgated just weeks after the Red Army entered Afghanistan, declared the Persian Gulf a vital US national security interest and committed the United States to using ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to secure that interest. To make the commitment credible, the Pentagon created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), an embryonic instrument of military intervention.

At the urging of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter also initiated a programme of covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation. Oblivious (or indifferent) to the potential consequences of destabilising Afghanistan, Brzezinski hoped to turn it into Russia’s Vietnam.

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Some questions as we march to war in Syria

Summary: We’re off to war in yet another nation. Little Syria has suddenly become a nation whose fate can shake the foundations of the United States. Rather than again dissect the mad arguments of the hawks, let’s step back to see the larger pattern at work. After all, our opinions on the war matter not at all to our ruling elites. These significance of these events lies only in their ability to show that our leaders are incompetent, that we can no longer see the world through the fog of propaganda, and as a result we have lost control of the Republic.


It might take a century or more, but future historians will devise a catchy name for the US interventions in Afghanistan (1979 – now), Iraq (1990-2011), Libya (2011), and Syria (2013) — our bipartisan policy of overthrowing secular regimes, replaced by Islamic regimes — with dubious results for their people and the US. It is a coherent but mad policy, with several characteristics.

It’s just a game to our rulers

  1. No clear plan; we rely on our awesomeness for success
  2. Ignorance or indifference to the historical record of the target nation
  3. Ignorance or indifference to the past failures of the methods used
  4. Indifference to the fate of women in the target nation


(1) No clear plan

Imitating the plan of Imperial Japan in WW2: our awesomeness will produce success.

Our lavishly funded foreign policy apparatus (mostly military), with its middle and senior managers stocked with people holding advanced degrees (at the higher levels, mostly from elite universities), seem unable to form a first-year B-school level plan for our interventions. Goals, entry, execution, exit, follow-up. That’s obvious in the histories published about the Afghan War. It was obvious at the time in the post-9-11 interventions. Such questions were asked in the general media, but our confident elites blew them off with in effect instructions to “trust us”.

Despite repeated failures, we do. Again and again. This time they’re scarcely bothering to give coherent stories to build support for this war. They’re just ringing the bell, knowing we’ll respond. WMDs! Iran! Overthrow tyrants!

See the posts at the end about the Libyan War for examples of ignored warnings and daft propaganda.

(2) Ignorance or indifference to the historical record of the target nation

All these nations were weakly held together, with deep ethnic (and religious in Iraq, Libya, and Syria) divisions. All had traumatic experiences with colonial aggression, with ours seen as just another chapter. Experts warned about the risk of prolonged instability, but were ignored.

(3) Ignorance or indifference to the past failures of the methods used

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