I Knew the War in Afghanistan Was a Lie

I can't help but surmise that the original sin of America's Afghan war, particularly after the initial 2001 invasion, was the reflexive assumption that within this landlocked Central Asian country, an imposed, Western-style representative democracy could take root. (Photo: Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

I Knew the War in Afghanistan Was a Lie

Nineteen years into America’s longest war, Afghanistan is in a worse state than at any time since the U.S. military invasion.

Nightmares still haunt me. Sometimes it's the standard stuff associated with classic post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks of horrible attacks and images of my mutilated troopers. More often, though, peculiar as it may sound, I dream that my sociopathic, career-obsessed colonel calls to give me another late-night order to do something unnecessary--usually dangerous, always absurd--the next day.

We never got along; the man distrusted me from the start. To him, my plainly ironclad loyalty to my young soldiers was suspicious. Given his own deep-seated predilection to climb the ranks on the backs of his exhausted subordinates, he assumed I must have ulterior motives. I didn't. Nonetheless, he kept me around because I knew the region better than most and was capable of impressing visiting generals with tactical briefings. And because, in the main, he found me useful.

It's not that that lieutenant colonel believed in anything, even the mission in Afghanistan. Deployment was a means to an end for the guy. That said, nearly two decades as an unapologetic climber through the officer ranks had imbued him, not with any real competence--he could hardly spell "Kandahar"--but with an uncanny knack for mind-melding with his bosses. If they fancied a particular mission, he loved it. So in 2011-2012, out in the sticks southwest of the city of Kandahar, when his brigade commander championed democracy-building in the district, my colonel was all in.

For the entirety of our unit's year in country, the colonel and I battled over the efficacy of imposing democracy (at the tip of a bayonet, of course) in rural Afghanistan. Nevertheless, my repeated and often detailed assertions to him that what the Army euphemistically titled our "governance" operations was doomed to fail were always ignored. After all, the colonel had a career to advance. In the prevailing acquiescence-over-effectiveness Army culture, questioning the basis of his given mission wouldn't play. Thus it was that this captain would tirelessly toil to implement the boss's fruitless attempts at promoting democracy in the very district where the Taliban had been birthed. It was a hell of a futile hoot of a year.

Everyone up and down the chain of command put on a show and presented the illusion of "progress."

So, for the better part of a year, I pretended to promote "democracy" in rural Kandahar, my dense squadron commander pretended to know what that entailed, his commander pretended the endeavor was possible in the first place, and on and up it went--straight to the top to the White House. Everyone up and down the chain of command put on a show and presented the illusion of "progress." I knew this, viscerally, as a young captain. Heck, I was complicit in a way. Thus, I found the recent release by The Washington Post of what it titled The Afghanistan Papers equal parts astonishing and unsurprising. The documents--consider them the Pentagon Papers of my generation--present proof-positive that the generals and various U.S. officials misled the public for decades about supposed progress in what they knew was a failing, unwinnable war. The reports left me feeling partially vindicated, but mostly morose. Still, in the vein of the dark humor that helps soldiers survive absurd combat tours, let me recall some true episodes seen from a micro level that substantiate the Post's macro scoop.

There were times that the war in southern Afghanistan, though horrifically bloody--a 40% casualty rate for our troop of about 100 kids--was incredibly funny. It was tragicomic, really. Though I knew my objections to the colonel were destined to fail, I just couldn't resist pinging him with flippant pleas of why establishing a Jeffersonian-style representative democracy in the Arghandab Valley was an absurd crusade. Somehow, running sarcastic intellectual circles around the obtuse, knuckle-dragging colonel assuaged my admittedly arrogant and angry tendencies. My evidentiary examples were so farcical that they bordered on fiction.

I thought back on four such vignettes over Thanksgiving weekend, during lunch in a Middle Eastern restaurant on Staten Island shared with my former interpreter from Iraq and two of his Arab friends. They loved my stories about the mad, medieval nature of rural southern Afghanistan. I suppose they found some comfort in knowing their home country, for all its ongoing problems, is wildly modern compared to my former stomping grounds in rural Kandahar.

We had been discussing the prospects for democracy across the post-Arab Spring Greater Middle East. But a few beers deep, sensing that the table needed a bit of levity, I started riffing about the buffoonery of bringing "democracy" to Afghanistan. The stories I told were the very ones I'd once used to pointlessly advise my former boss about the hopelessness of our mission.

Like this one time: I was chatting over some tea with an old man in a nearby, dusty, mud-hut village. I asked the elder his age. He didn't know; few did. I pressed, asking if he had any sense of what year he'd been born. His reply--"I was birthed during a full moon in the year before the Emir Habibullah Khan was murdered"--wasn't exactly what I'd expected. I realized that the man didn't even know what year it was right then, nor did he likely adhere to our Western Gregorian calendar.

Still, being the history geek I am, I returned to base and googled the lineage of various Afghan monarchs. I figured out, based on the information the elder had provided, that he was probably born in 1918, making him, at that point, around 94 years old. In a country with an average life expectancy of about 46 years, this was profound.

The next day, I returned to the village to inform the old man of his actual age. He seemed equal parts surprised and pleased. A few minutes later, he demonstrated that he still had the libido to flagrantly hit on, even offer to buy, one of my handsome young male lieutenants as a sex slave of sorts. I politely declined. (And who says rural Afghanistan isn't ready for democracy?)

Then there's this memory: My troop ran a program we called "cash for work," through which we'd pay tens of thousands in U.S. dollars per week to put some 1,500 local Afghans to work on small public works projects. The idea was that if we gave the chronically unemployed men jobs, they'd eschew the Taliban's own version of our program--call it "cash for planting IEDs"--and thus violence would lessen. I knew the inherent limitations of the scheme. It was utterly temporal and unsustainable, would distort the local economy and empower corrupt tribal leaders. I also knew that the Taliban would inevitably skim off the top of the laborers' salaries. Nevertheless, I was on board; by then, all I cared about was keeping my troops as safe as possible.

The tasks the Afghans did for us weren't particularly useful. I had to manufacture much of the work, telling them to clean out irrigation canals, paint yellow divider lines on the district's one paved road, and paint Afghan flags on the hundreds of concrete barrier walls surrounding the hopelessly indefensible nearby police station. The absurdity of the program was perhaps best illustrated by my troop's favorite laborer-mascots: "backpack man" and "the ride." The former was a triple amputee with just one arm. The latter had no arms but carried his one-armed friend on his back to work each day. Both had lost their limbs by stepping on errant, ubiquitous IEDs. Despite their physical limitations, we paid them the same salaries as the other workers. "The ride" would carry "backpack man" to the canal, where that one-armed go-getter would grab a pickax and start digging. The whole scene was a macabre inspiration for us all.

Friday was payday for the cash-for-workers. The Army, bureaucratic beast that it is, insisted that we adhere to regulations stipulating that each and every Afghan line up each week and "sign" their names on a standardized form prior to cashing in. (This is despite the fact that it had no qualms about handing out a backpack full of cash.) No one seemed to care when I reminded the bosses that 95% of these guys were illiterate; they had to sign, I was told. So, some Afghans would scribble something random, others would make a thumbprint in ink. One drew a marvelous little chicken next to his name each week. (And who says rural Afghanistan isn't ready for democracy?)

Another time, the colonel informed me that the time had come to update the local Afghans' farming techniques. The brigade sent me a nice fellow from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)--an agriculture expert from Kansas--to revitalize husbandry in rural Kandahar. I asked my boss not to bother. Better for the USAID guy to earn his bloated salary from the safety of headquarters than risk his life down in my sector, where soldiers got killed on the regular.

The USAID expert's plan was to introduce PVC pipe-based irrigation to the district. To that end, he built what he called a "model farm" outside my combat outpost as an example for the Afghans to follow. The local farmers were going to ignore the new technology, or steal the materials, I'd told my colonel. These people were content with their 13th-century-era but fairly functional irrigation methods, I'd emphasized.

As expected, the colonel ignored me. When some locals stripped the "model farm" of its materials one dark night, the colonel summoned the Kansan to headquarters. We never heard from him again, the poor, well-meaning guy. (And who says rural Afghanistan isn't ready for democracy?)

More ludicrous still, my senior commanders decided that our stuck-in-the-Middle-Ages district was ready for some third-wave feminism. In the Army way, they came up with an acronym for a new unit: the Female Engagement Team (FET). The idea was to pluck one of the handful of female staff officers in our male-dominated cavalry reconnaissance squadron and assign her to go on combat patrols and "engage" with local Afghan women, to assess their concerns, and ... well, it was never clear what the squadron would actually do after that. In a bit of particularly ironic slapstick, the young West Point-trained officer chosen was--wait for it!--a New York Jew. The whole charade dovetailed with the preposterous fiction that establishment elites have bandied about: that the original purpose of America's post-9/11 foray into Afghanistan had anything to do with women's rights.

When I heard about the new FETs, I felt obliged to remind my colonel that after nine months spent in the villages of the sector, I hadn't seen a grown woman, given that the local men cloistered their wives as if the entire district were a Catholic convent. I reminded him of the maybe 12-year-old girl in the nearest village I'd taken a shine to months before. She had piercing green eyes, a boisterous personality and had impressively held her own while playing rough games with the village boys.

More of the country is contested or controlled by the Taliban than ever before (to such an extent that the U.S. military has decided to stop measuring that inconvenient data).

For months, I'd given her candy, dolls and anything else I could scrounge up. My mother started sending toys and snacks specifically for this girl. Then one day, she disappeared. I started asking around about her. Finally, one of the local elders told me what had happened. She'd had her period, he explained, and, as per local tradition, she was immediately clothed in a full-length burka and stashed indoors until her parents could arrange a marriage with, inevitably, some older man. I never saw her again.

Oh, and nothing useful ever transpired from the squadron's FET experiment. (Who says rural Afghanistan isn't ready for democracy?)

I can't help but surmise that the original sin of America's Afghan war, particularly after the initial 2001 invasion, was the reflexive assumption that within this landlocked Central Asian country, an imposed, Western-style representative democracy could take root. Seen from the relatively cosmopolitan capital city of Kabul, where most American generals and diplomats resided, that might have seemed plausible. However, the "view from Kabul" was different from my perspective from the Afghan version of Appalachian Kentucky.

My vignettes are admittedly personal, local, area-specific and, one might argue, the equivalent of viewing a complex war from 30,000 feet through a soda straw. But humility be damned--I'm also a scholar, and I'm confident in my widely shared assessment that on a macro level, Afghanistan as it stands today remains a mess. And now I've got The Washington Post's Afghanistan Papers in my evidentiary corner. Fact: Nineteen years into America's longest war, Afghanistan is in a worse state than at any time since the U.S. military invasion.

More of the country is contested or controlled by the Taliban than ever before (to such an extent that the U.S. military has decided to stop measuring that inconvenient data). The Afghan government's revenues can't pay for its security forces without foreign aid. Local police and army casualties are unsustainable, and the country's opium crop has had another record bumper crop of a year.

None of this bodes well, yet American troops remain and still die there. Worse, this year, no doubt, one of the dead will be a young man or woman born after Sept. 11, 2001.

To ask one final time: Who says rural Afghanistan isn't ready for democracy?

I do.

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