The Inevitable Afghanistan Conclusion

Like in Vietnam, the US continued a bloody war well past the time at which losing was inevitable. And, now it’s over. There’s going to be some people put up against walls and shot, in Afghanistan, which is a return to normal of sorts.

A lot of pundits are asking “how did the US lose?” The answer to that is simple: the US has lost every insurgency it has gotten involved in, except for the ones where it was able to respond genocidally. That’s probably a general rule for insurgencies, but I’m not sure so I won’t make that claim. The problem is, when insurgents have a border that they can cross, or places to hide, they will simply melt away into the landscape until they can return and strike at a time, place, and manner of their choosing. The vast military apparatus of the US doesn’t help against that – in fact, the larger the military’s “footprint” the bigger a target it is, too. I’ve described this dynamic elsewhere in terms of “force protection” – the more troops and infrastructure you have involved in an insurgency, your rear lines become a bigger target, so you need to bring more troops in to protect the rear zones, which means more troops to protect the troops, etc. Eventually, the opposition realizes that they can do a Tet Offensive-type maneuver and menace the rear zones, at which point the invaer has no option but to pack up and go home.

The Taliban did not adopt a particularly aggressive posture – they just waited for the US to get tired and go home, which they would, eventually. They did some attacks in the form of “blue on blue” in which an agent joined the security forces, got inside the wire, and then threw a grenade or shot some Americans. The American response was typical and necessary – they isolated themselves from the local population, creating walled forts. When that wasn’t enough, they made the forts “Americans Only” which drives a nail right through the heart of any kind of “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency.

Meanwhile, the US’ “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency tactics have never worked. They are based on techniques developed by the French in Algeria, so you can tell how well they worked for the French. [Yes, David Petraeus wrote a book on counter-insurgency in which he plagiarized the main point from David Galula]. There’s a lot of digression about counter-insurgency in this fascinating piece by Adam Curtis: [bbc] One of the aspects of “hearts and minds” that Curtis dissects neatly is that the counter-insurgency brings out lots of extremely sketchy sociopathic characters who are there to make money or have fun killing people. That plays directly against the “hearts and minds” mission. And, that’s why the US failed in Afghanistan: as usual we built a puppet government and put someone in place whose plan was to steal as much as possible and then flee the country to someplace where they could live in comfort forever after. Kharzai may not have been a pit of corruption but he surrounded himself with people who were, because those were the only kind of people who step forward to take a job in the government of Afghanistan. [Hamid Kharzai, BTW, has apparently decided to stay in Kabul after the flight of his successor; he’s old and he may be attempting to be the “good cop” who can come back to run the country as a figurehead.] But the problem remains: it’s hard to win “hearts and minds” in a poor country when you’re hunkered in air-conditioned forts with imported Pizza Hut and Burger King, not interacting with anyone except to send out “search and destroy” missions that occasionally kill everyone at a wedding.

The reason the US loses these wars is because we pick unwinnable wars. It’s that simple.

What pisses me off is that it was Bush and co that picked this unwinnable war, yet the Party of George W Bush is complaining that Biden lost the war. No, Bush lost the war – Biden just ended it.

The US spent billions trying to build the Afghan army into a practical force that could maintain stability, by looking at its own insanely expensive military (which loses insurgencies) and deciding to build a “mini me” version of that. What kind of military works for Afghanistan? It looks a whole lot like the Taliban. Instead of very expensive, highly trained soldiers with an air force, etc., the US should have recruited a huge force of irregular troops, given them uniforms and vehicles and ammunition and let them go police the country. By the way, that’s how the US conquered Afghanistan in the first place – tons of CIA money backing the “Northern Alliance” which looked indistinguishable from the Taliban because, it was.

So, the US built an army that depended on air-conditioned barracks with Burger King and Pizza Hut, predator drones, live intelligence feeds, satellite tracking, and NSA phone intercepts. The US would get notice from NSA that so-and-so was calling someone suspicious (probably inviting them to a wedding) and satellite surveillance indicated that there was a meeting – so saddle up the kill team. If you look at that chain, the part that the US controls was the entire first part, surrounding the targeting, i.e.: the most important part of mission planning. When the US left, they took that. I’m not saying that the US’ mission planning was any good – in fact it appears to have been terrible – but it’s what they had. I’m not suggesting this, for real, but if the US had created a military that ran its own missions it would have devolved into a rag-bag of revenge killings, corruption, and judicial murder, just like what the Taliban are going to impose. I suppose I am grudgingly glad that the US was too stupid to create its own Taliban and control Afghanistan that way, but it might have worked. As it stands, we have proof positive that the Taliban-style “government” can run Afghanistan. You need a lot of boots on the ground and to be willing to kill a lot of people. Which, the US is – but we’ve trained ourselves to need our B-52s and knife missiles when, as you can see, the only part of the US contribution to militarism in Afghanistan is the humvees that the Taliban have gleefully traded their Toyota Hiluxes for. If the US had built a military that was disorganized and organic, 10 times the size (at the same cost) and given them humvees with machine-guns, that might have worked.

After a while, the US was too busy trying to keep the machine-guns it was handing out, from being pointed back at them. Because the “hearts and minds” war had been lost back in the Bush administration.

The Taliban had even shown a willingness to negotiate, which is the ultimate “hearts and minds” strategy. A lot of people don’t know this, but the US did have the Taliban where it wanted them: over a barrel of oil. The price was not acceptable, and that’s where the whole thing went off the rails. [bbc]

A senior delegation from the Taleban movement in Afghanistan is in the United States for talks with an international energy company that wants to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan.

A spokesman for the company, Unocal, said the Taleban were expected to spend several days at the company’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas.

Unocal says it has agreements both with Turkmenistan to sell its gas and with Pakistan to buy it.

That was December, 1997. Not too long before the US invaded. I’m sure that’s just coincidence, right? Does anyone want to bet that within the next 50 years it comes out that the US invaded Afghanistan because of the pipeline, not 9/11? [wik]

The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) Pipeline, also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, is a natural gaspipeline being developed by the Galkynysh – TAPI Pipeline Company Limited with participation of the Asian Development Bank. The pipeline will transport natural gas from the Galkynysh Gas Field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India. Construction on the project started in Turkmenistan on 13 December 2015, work on the Afghan section began in February 2018, and work on the Pakistani section was planned to commence in December 2018. The abbreviation TAPI comes from the first letters of those countries. Proponents of the project see it as a modern continuation of the Silk Road.

It’s easy to predict such things because they’re happening already. The Taliban aligned with the Chinese, and basically agreed that they could cut the pipeline any time if the US-backed puppet government was building it. “Hearts and minds” should be “Oil and gas.” [france24]

China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan, a government spokeswoman said Monday, after the Taliban seized control of the country.

Beijing has sought to maintain unofficial ties with the Taliban throughout the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, which spurred an advance by the Islamist hardliners across the country that saw them capture the capital Kabul on Sunday.

Suddenly the reasons the US lost the war in Afghanistan are crystal clear, shiny black and blood-spattered.

The reporting from Afghanistan is not surprising: women are being shoved aside, politically, and some people considered thieves/looters have had hands cut off. I’m sure that eventually they’ll put a bunch of people (former cops, no doubt) up against a wall and shoot them. It’s going to be horrible, but then everyone always knew it would – which is why I think Biden was, in fact, a fucking idiot not to do anything to evacuate the people who matter rich before now. That’s probably the thing we can blame Biden the most, for – but to be fair, Trump started those gears in motion and he didn’t do anything useful either. He was too busy trying to turn the US into a puppet government, to worry about Afghanistan’s puppet government. The Taliban’s rule is, indeed, despotic and violent, and I don’t like theocracies at all. They’re cutting people’s hands off – just like they do in Saudi Arabia and they’re going to probably imprison and torture atheists and gay people – remember Raif Badawi? We should never expect anything but “same shit, different day” from despotic governments.

Oh, and you can totally believe the US government when it says that it’s going to cut back on fossil fuel extraction. As usual, they’ll just move the action to Turkmenistan or wherever, and tell the gomers back home “we’re really trying but those darned people over there aren’t playing along, nudge nudge wink wink.”

I was a bit worried (but not very) that the Taliban might attempt a sort of Dien Bien Phu strategy against the US, at the last minute. They probably are not centrally organized enough to pull it off, and they probably don’t care enough. But, had they gotten some moderately heavy artillery and covered Baghram airport, they could have suddenly stranded a bunch of US soldiers with a few mortar rounds. Airplanes on runways are notoriously fragile and a good shooter with a .50 cal machine gun could deny the airport from a mile away, for a while. Imagine the freak-out. But the Taliban aren’t interested in killing a bunch of Americans and inviting disproportionate retaliation – they’ve already seen how the US lashes out like a blinded boxer when it’s scared.

For Ketil Tveiten: As far as the stuff the US left behind – a lot of it is crap. The humvees will stop running, eventually, and won’t be repaired. The fancy toys will break and the military comms gear would have been designed to get messages from the US command structure in North America (satellite intelligence, etc) – all that stuff is useless, now. For a brief while there would have been interesting VPN passwords and user-ids on some of the laptops but I believe the folks who are responsible for cleaning that stuff up are competent-ish. They did OK in Vietnam, not so well in Iran and Benghazi!, and very well in Iraq.

I met a traveller from the graveyard of empires,
Who said – “Giant heaps of concrete barriers
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a Pizza Hut sign lies, whose discount sale,
And meal bundles, and Starbucks next to it,
Tell that its architect well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is American Capitalism, the Real Deal;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and empty strip malls stretch far away.”



  1. Bruce says

    Bush and Cheney said they knew that the usual Hearts and Minds strategy would not work in 2001, and that they would not try it. Then they had us try it for 20 years, but pretend that was not what we were doing.
    The root problem is that all US war fanboys want to relive France 1944 in every scenario. But we already had the French hearts and minds in 1939, so there was little or no convincing needed five years later. But unlike 5 years, there was NEVER a time when we had the hearts and minds of almost any country in Asia etc.
    Sure, there were several pro-western people, even in Afghanistan. But we never had the loyalty of the average man in the mosque. So it was always silly to rely on the strategy of: … but the French have always loved us.
    The fact that the Republicans and Obama played dumb for 20 years doesn’t make it Biden’s fault that they turned out not to be the French. If only we could have known.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Marcus, where did you find that poem at the end, or did you write it? I’d like to pass it on.

  3. says

    Marcus, where did you find that poem at the end, or did you write it? I’d like to pass it on.

    My mods to the original Shelly. Do with it as you please.

  4. says

    Apparently the very expensive air force fled the country in their planes and helicopters. There will be no parts or maintenance for them – they will be scrap soon.

  5. Dunc says

    The only non-genocidal way to defeat an insurgency is politically – figure out what people actually want, and a way to convince them that they’re more likely to get it by working with you than against you. Whether that was ever possible with the Taliban I couldn’t say – I suspect that it probably wasn’t for a pretty big chunk of them, but it might have been possible to peel some people off at the edges, and if keep doing that you can eventually erode your insurgency down to a sufficiently small and isolated hardcore that you can ignore them.

    Of course, this requires you to be really good at local politics, so there was never any chance of the US pulling it off… Maybe the Chinese will have better luck.

  6. says

    Afghanistan has always been ungovernable, as the English found out in the mid-19th century. It’s as much a hermit kingdom as North Korea, only with more natural resources. I don’t like to say it, but it’s a hopeless case. And I wouldn’t start the blame with Bush II. We could go back to other US meddling in the region, e.g. Reagan US arming the Mujahadeen against the Soviets, multiple US presidents befriending dictators in Pakistan, 70 years of opposing democracy in Iran.

    A map of central Asia tells much of the story of the US’s attempted occupation. Kazakhstan has one of the world’s largest oil reserves, and they were always willing to sell it to the US. But how do you get it out? Through Russia, Iran or China? Not a chance. The “easiest” possible way out was through Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, two of which were willing to play ball, just not the one in the middle.

    It’s not a shock to hear the Taliban would do business with the PRC, even as they know how the regime perpetrates genocide in East Turkestan. When you only want power in a petty fiefdom and not wealth, plenty of people are willing to let you have it while the foreigners rob the country blind (see also: the Shah of Iran, Duvalier in Haiti, Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, etc. ad nauseum).

    And the Taliban were willing to let China sabotage a US oil pipeline? I suspect the US was trying to play tit for tat, which the intentional bombing of the Medicins Sans Frontiers hospital in Kunduz was likely part of. There are large natural gas reserves inside Tajikistan’s borders, barely 100km away from Kunduz. Tajikistan sold some or all of that natural gas to Beijing.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    I remember when all of this started, my brother was of the opinion that if the Americans would go in and build a bunch of shopping malls, once Afghans got a taste of western style consumerism they would never go back to the Taliban.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    An Afghan friend told me that the Taliban is pretty much an arm of the Pakistan military these days. His opinion was that this takeover is just Pakistan extending its reach by proxy.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 Intransitive
    Afghanistan, or at least Kabul, has been a power centre for centuries. The Mogul Empire rose from there.

    I would say it is not “ungovernable” as that foreign powers have no idea of how to do it.

  10. StevoR says

    Jim Wright of the Stonekettle Station blog has a spot on essay here about how Trump set Biden up here and how he demanded but didn’t do the very thing he’s blaming Biden for:

    Also I heard something in an interveiw somewhere about the now toppled Ashraf Ghazi govt forces having no pay, no ammo and no food – anyone know if that true’s and then there’s this old article from 2013 that shows where we (?) may have lost a lot of hearts and minds albiet in a neighbouring part of Pakistan rather than Afghanistan “proper” :

    Imagine being an Afghan villager and being invaded and occupied and terrorised from the sky for two decades and think how that might feel (& the media should ASK actual Afghan folks about that?) them maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised the Western puppet regieme (if that’s what Ghazi was? Was it?) got kicked out straightaway and had seemingly no support here?

    Meanwhile and tangential but again on the losing hearts and minds score for those who don’t already know :

    in Oz we have a famous~ish C -grade celeb and veteran who was accused of war crimes being defended vigourously in court holding a defamtion trial against the media for reporting what he – allegedly – did and then tried to cover up. Funded by the boss of one of our TV stations I so gather.

  11. Ketil Tveiten says

    Soon-to-be unrepairable useless junk left behind: probably better to give it to the Taliban than the alternative, which is giving it as surplus to the police, who clearly need drones and MRAPs to beat up random civilians.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Bush and co … picked this unwinnable war…

    Intransitive @ # 6: … I wouldn’t start the blame with Bush II. We could go back to other US meddling in the region, e.g. Reagan US arming the Mujahadeen against the Soviets…

    Afghanistan meant practically nothing to the United States, until a certain Polish-born National Security Advisor hatched a scheme to use it in a sacrifice play to “liberate” his homeland from The Evil Commies©. Unfortunately, he convinced a naïve US President to give the CIA a few billion bucks to implement his bloody plan, what they actually called “the biggest covert operation in Agency history” to “give the USSR its own Vietnam”.

    The whole idea was such an obvious disaster-in-the-making that the next administration made it a bipartisan project, ramping up the pan-Islamic jihad by an order of magnitude and more, recruiting that brave young bin Laden fellow and giving the global mujahideen movement multiple $teroid $hots beyond their wildest imaginings a few years before. At the time, they told us we owed endless thanks to the brilliance and bravery of Ronald Reagan for this masterstroke of saving the world; now, neither major US party nor anyone in the media want to remind us of their shared role in creating a worldwide wave of terrorism that, with a little forethought, could have been quietly and at no cost aborted by a nominally progressive president. Even the alleged enlightened analyses we see today somehow don’t take the story back before (at this writing) nineteen years, eleven months and six days from now.

    Don’t expect, in the United States of Amnesia, to read any of this in the coming-soon obituaries of James Earl Carter, Jr.

  13. bmiller says

    I rank the Holy Peanut Farmer with Woodrow Wilson as one of the most disastrous presidents in American history w/r/t foreign policy. While off-topic, we should not forget his Central American adventures or the East Timor genocide or his bungling in Iran.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    GerrardOfTitanServer @ # 15: How did Carter bungle in Iran …

    We still don’t know what, if anything, Carter knew about the Reagan campaign’s sabotage of US-Iranian negotiations in 1980 – but we do know of several other missteps.

    The most visible was allowing the Shah to come to the US for medical treatment, very obviously reminding already irate Iranians as to just who had supported their finally-overthrown dictator after a brutal quarter-century-plus. Failing to increase security around the embassy, allowing both US hostages and documents to fall into extremist-Islamist hands, was another – though American “intelligence” – including having a former CIA head as ambassador for over a year – obviously couldn’t grasp the mood of the city around them (during a damn revolution, for crysake!).

    Also, Carter authorized a military raid on Teheran to attempt to free the hostages, and owns the responsibility for letting multiple branches of the military share the (expected) glory of that rescue attempt, resulting in terrible coordination and a fatal fiasco at their first beachhead. (And that was probably the best possible outcome: the mission plan called for a distraction by bombing civilian areas in the capital while the commandos supposedly extracted the hostages from their captors and helicoptered them back offshore – a clearly foolproof scheme!)

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