Afghanistan: The Endless War of Finger-Pointing

Success has many parents, who have PR machines behind them and trumpet it to the skies. Failure is, as they say, an orphan. In the case of Afghanistan, like Iraq, the war party has diligently flicked the remaining scraps of egg from its face and declared everything is the current administration’s fault (for doing exactly what the previous administration was planning to do).

I suppose the only good thing about it is it gives me pause to ponder causality: it’s impossible to point at one single thing in such a complex chain of events, and say “that’s why it failed.” The obvious answer is “once it started, it failed” but there are fractally complex sub-branches of failure. You can point at any cluster of those and say that’s why it happened. Ultimately, it was a multi-causal failure at the management layer, and everything past that point was foreordained. If I had to point, I’d say it was the Bush administrations’ demanding the Taliban unconditionally surrender and hand over OBL, who they no longer had their hands on by the time the negotiations had proceeded. (OBL, not stupid, left the country as soon as he realized the Taliban were going to be strong-armed into handing him over)

But I’m also fascinated by “no shit, there I was” stories. And some of those are coming out, too.

The most passionate and (I think) best, right now, is a piece from one of the generals formerly commanding the Afghan military, writing in the New York Times [nyt]:

President Biden said last week that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months. The Afghan Army is not without blame. It had its problems – cronyism, bureaucracy – but we ultimately stopped fighting because our partners already had.

He points out something most of us knew: the US tried to build the Afghan military into a “mini me” version of the US military: heavily reliant on air power and mobility, which are great but expensive and require a lot of training. As the US kept finally drawing down its forces, there were only about 3,000 left, mostly at fortified fort Zinderneuf-like compounds away from the action where it was nice and safe. The Afghan military were basically artillery spotters and forward air controllers – but they never had or built the kind of capability that maintains the rear echelon necessary to do that. When the US left, the planes and helicopters and artillery left and that tore the heart out of the local forces.

By the way, it also didn’t help that the US forces were using Afghanistan as a training-ground for their new incompetents. Check out this:

That’s a bunch of guys trying to hit a mountain with a howitzer and missing. The round went over and “oh well as long as you didn’t see it hit, it’s not yours.” By the way, now you can see why I call it “Fort Zinderneuf” – there are even parapet walls with revetted fire-nests. It’s a mini Khe Sanh.

There is another heartfelt piece on Counterpunch about an artillerist’s experience in Afghanistan. Sounds to me like he was a sympatico guy who allowed himself to feel like he fit in, which is nonsense because when you’re the only guy in the room with a gun, you’re not representing friendship. Cops pull that routine, too: “I’m just folks” except if you smart-mouth me I may kill you with impunity. [counterpunch]

Our job, as well, was one of contradiction. We were not, as stated, training the Afghans to shoot artillery. There was a team who oversaw the Afghan battery of old Russian D 30 howitzers. On the other side of the base was our guns. When we were fired upon or needed to assist an Afghan platoon out on patrol, both Afghans and Americans would be called up. But only one fired at the enemy. The Afghans would be allowed to shoot, always before us, and never at the target. They were not trusted yet and the consensus from the team overseeing them was that they were a long way off from being ready. Our platoon was left feeling as though we were doing something, while being told we were not to be open about the something we were doing. The Combat Action Badge, that shiny piece of metal non-infantry combat men covet, was denied on the grounds that the Afghans officially engaged, not us.

The US military is top-heavy with REMFs who’ll say “You train as you fight, and fight as you train.” I.e.: you learn on the job, and the degree to which you learn the job depends on how you do the job. What does that mean if you’re an artillery team using old Russian gear and you’re not allowed to actually shoot except training missions not on target? There are probably a lot of other things going on, one of which is: how can you train to use an old gun, if you’re using a gun that has less range and accuracy than a new gun? I.e.: “train to fail on the fail train!” The article strips away the lie: the Afghan forces weren’t doing anything and never learned how to do anything because the US was fighting the war and didn’t trust the Afghan forces near live artillery – presumably because they might turn around and fire on some US target in a “blue on blue” incident. I’ve read other accounts of Afghan forces going on patrol with US troops and the patrols were separated so there were no “blue on blue” danger. I.e.: they were going on patrol separately, at different times and places, not “together” at all.

The US spent a lot of money in Afghanistan supposedly building a military but actually just having a good time lining everyone’s pockets. If they had been trying to build Afghanistan a military that could hold the country, it would have looked a lot like the Taliban: more people, less gear, and a lot of Toyota pickup trucks instead of aircraft.

And, sure, it doesn’t help that the government evaporated as soon as the Taliban came close to Kabul – with president Ghani appearing later in Dubai in an airplane full of US taxpayers’ money (estimated to be about $160mn). Back around when the US was still “considering” invading Iraq and they were throwing around cost projections like “$300bn! and Iraq will pay for its liberation.” (the same way Mexico paid for the wall) I suggested to some friends that we could probably just take the money and offer it to all of the officers and NCOs of the Iraqi military to step down or overthrow their leaders – instantly creating a middle class of millionaire bureaucrats that were former military and had organizational skills. We talk about “class war” but really what we need is “class inversion” – let the ci-devant push lawnmowers and clean house for their former servants. But, the US created that government, for specific reasons, and allowed it to fail because it wasn’t getting its job done.

I mentioned the Taliban’s flirtation with Unocal and the theory that the whole war was about a pipeline as much as catching OBL, and that did not go over well. Apparently sometimes reality sounds too much like conspiracy theory to take it seriously. If you’re interested in that topic, here’s a pretty good summary [historycommons] It’s paranoid-making stuff. I don’t see that as any more incredible than finding out that the US is in Syria, pumping oil and selling it through shell companies in Iraq. “That’s how it’s done, folks” as Barack Obama said.

It will be interesting to see if the Taliban show their islamic values by suppressing the opium trade, or if they can’t resist the money. The US military got itself in the middle of picking sides as to which warlord’s opium fields they were going to protect and which they were going to burn. Will opium crops go up, as the Taliban become more forward-thinking and liberal, or will the opium farmers get shot? It’s going to be interesting to see.

Defending the Oxycodone

Defending the Oxycodone


  1. komarov says

    Not exactly on topic, but what happened with that howitzer there? Was that a misfire? Is the standard response to keep pulling the trigger until it goes boom?
    I saw a (british) artillery demonstration once and one of the guns – there were three – did indeed have a misfire. The drill apparently was to make sure the gun was as safe as possible and leave it be for a while, just in case something was going to explode after all. Must have been nice for the crew; they got to sit around legs dangling while the other gun crews had to work and look extra professional for the onlookers. After the demo (maybe 30 minutes?) the gun was finally cleared.
    Okay, you can’t do that in every situation and presumably there are some faster methods, but just trying again and again? That doesn’t sound like a safe approach at all, especially when you’re training and there is no urgency whatsoever. It feels a bit like bashing a jammed rifle against the rocks and peering down the barrel to see if you can make it work again.

  2. says

    I believe that it’s just like a round in a regular gun – there’s a casing and it’s got a primer in the base. The gun snaps a pin against it and the primer goes off (in principle) and ignites the main propellant charge. It looks like the primer didn’t go off. Probable causes of that would be dirt in the striker mechanism reducing the impact, a worn firing pin, a worn spring, or a dodgy primer. But! The expression “hang fire” is when you have a faulty primer that smoulders a bit before it goes off all of a sudden. A hang fire is really bad news with an artillery round! So you leave it in the gun and snap it a few times, hoping it goes off and solves your problem. If it does not, you leave it “a while” in the gun with the breech locked so if it decides later to go off, at least you know where the shell is going. It’s still bad news because the gun unpredictably recoils and can mulch someone. So the best all-around is to keep snapping it and hope it goes off.

    Same applies to hand guns and rifles. You do really not want a hang fire in a .44mag revolver if you have a round in the cylinder after it has rotated. Or if it’s a rifle or shotgun, you eject the cartridge and it’s on the ground and goes off a second later. With small arms, unless it’s a combat situation you want to keep it pointed somewhere safe for maybe a minute before you eject the round.

    That’s (or should be) a rare occurrence. I have never seen or experienced one in many years at ranges. But it can be really high cost if it happens and you mismanage it. Imagine a howitzer shell going off in your hands. Not good.

    There is one accident I know someone who saw: a guy reloaded his own ammo and was firing .44 magnums from a Ruger blackhawk. Guy pulls the trigger, thinks “hmm dud round” waits a while then figures he’ll let it go around again, cocks the gun, pulls the trigger, and the chamber and barrel blow apart, shredding the firer’s arm and a bystander. What happened? The guy was reloading and fucked up: he put a primer in the case then forgot the powder charge (maybe his phone rang?) and put the bullet on. When he fired the primer it drove the bullet into the barrel but it didn’t produce enough gas to make it leave the barrel. Now there is a bullet in the barrel, blocking it, and he fires the next round… blam.

    Moral of the story? If a gun of any size does not go off you must thoroughly understand why, before you try to fire it. Imagine the .44 magnum scenario except with a 16″ naval gun. It’s probably happened once in the heat of battle, but none of the people in the turret lived to tell the tale, if it did.

    And now you know why I won’t shoot reloads or shoot with someone who does. There are also jackasses who overcharge bullets (+P) because: gun nut.

  3. lorn says

    One of the core reasons the Afghani National Army (ANA) folded so quickly has to do with very few Afghans see Afghanistan as a nation. At best it may be a confederation of states and regions. There are strong and enduring regional, religious, ethnic and tribal loyalties but very few who get all misty listening to their national anthem:

    It also didn’t help that the ANA was massively underfed, poorly equipped (lots of equipment sold), and many units hadn’t been paid in six months. It didn’t help any that the Trump administration essentially cut the existing Afghan government out of negotiations and rigged the situation to fail catastrophically. The collapse of the ANA was negotiated and planned between Trump and the Taliban. Entire units were disarmed and their leaders paid off. Those likely to fight were moved to locations well out of the way of Taliban advances. Isolated and having to fight alone it was clear there was no point to resistance. Afghanistan was in the bag from day one.

    A big clue being that the refused to share information with the incoming Biden administration. Most transitions consult and coordinate outgoing and incoming staff and make sure they can hit the ground running. There was no attempt to maintain continuity.

    So … Yes, the US didn’t train the ANA to fight the war that the ANA faced if it wanted to contest the Taliban take over without massive US (western) intervention. A grinding small unit war of terror, attrition, and reprisals. A fight that almost certainly would have taken on tribal, ethnic, religious overtones in a short while. Divisions that would eliminate any chance of a single national identity for decades. In all likelihood it saved thousands of lives that the ANA folded quickly.

    Of course all is not joy and light on the Taliban side. Twenty years has seen changes. There is a generation of young people who greatly outnumber the Taliban and they have a much more limited experience with religious fanaticism, repression, and the deep poverty of the remote areas where the Taliban gets its manpower.

    There is a lot of talk on the right about Russian and Chinese influence and exploitation of the situation. They will both meddle where they can. Russia having been burned once is going to keep Afghanistan at arms length. A little light business and trade perhaps. I don’t see any great numbers of Russians flocking to Kabul. Those that do will have their exit well planned out.

    China would like to get hold of those mineral resources and, not having any great or recent experience getting their hands caught in the cookie jar, they might go for it. I don’t think they are that dumb. But … For the next decade they seem most likely to be like the Russians, playing gingerly around the edges.

    After that? Perhaps they invest in a big way. I have a hard time imagining that China has some special sauce that will allow them to both exploit and harmonize with the Afghan people. They aren’t doing so well with their own Muslim population and it can be expected that any conflict in Afghanistan will echo in western China.

    In a nutshell:
    – The US should have taken the deal offered by the Taliban and got out.

    – Afghanistan can’t really have a national army because it isn’t a nation. Of all the interlocking and conflicting loyalties and animosities Afghan nationalism is the weakest. It never was a national army.

    It pretty much always ran as a group of nominally cooperating warlords wearing similar uniforms. US troops knew that the individual ANA units were not capable, having no discernible loyalty to the nation, to wield heavy weapons. What is the point of the ANA using heavy weapons when they were as likely to use them on other ANA troops run by a different leader or having a different ethnicity.

    The US, and allies, never did have an answer for this issue. We just kept antagonistic units and individuals apart and hoped that it would change. It didn’t change.

    – The Afghan national government never had any power or control and had to be worn like a condom to stand up. They weren’t even important enough to be at the table.

    -The collapse of the ANA was inevitable. Few thought it would go so fast but then again: the Afghan people are smart and know a useless cause when they see one. There is a long history of leaders, armies, factions changing sides.

    – Russia and China will exploit the situation but there is not a lot to gain unless they are willing to go in big. Russia seems unlikely to do so. China seems wise enough to avoid the major problems but may be tempted by visions of imperialism and resources. The later seems doomed.

  4. says

    I’m sure we are about to have Benghazi!-style investigations regarding the bomb attacks this morning. It appears someone knew something was brewing, issued warnings, nothing was done and 12 soldiers died.

    My concern was someone plastering a runway with artillery, Khe Sanh style, while a plane was taking off. It can get a lot more horrific. Announcing to the world at large “ooh we are having big security crisis!” Was bad strategy.

  5. consciousness razor says

    Shoot enough of them, as they were certainly doing, and a misfire like that is bound to happen a lot. So, just knowing that, I’m not terribly surprised. From the wiki page for the M777:

    In May 2017, the US Army revealed it was buying the Swedish BONUS round as an interim system as a result of the required phasing out of cluster munitions from artillery shells, complying with policy to achieve less than 1% unexploded ordnance from non-unitary explosives; the BONUS has two sensor-fused munitions deployed by a 155 mm carrier projectile that scan the ground for targets and fire explosively formed penetrators down from the air. The system has been tested from the M777 howitzer.[65]

    Perhaps not the shells they were using in the video, but hoping to achieve less than 1% failure with those suggests that it may be a relatively common occurrence in general. I mean, something tells me that they wouldn’t be too tolerant of “unitary” shells blowing up in their faces either, although a cluster bomb does sound more a little terrifying in a way.

    What I don’t get at all is how they managed to miss the side of that huge mountain. It’s pretty incredible. The thing comes with a fancy computerized fire-control system….

    The LRIP systems employ an optical sighting system for direct and indirect firing by day or night. Full production systems are fitted with the General Dynamics Armament Systems Towed Artillery Digitisation (TAD) system. LRIP systems will be retrofitted with TAD.

    The TAD digital fire control system provides on-board ballistic computation, navigation, pointing and self-location, providing greater accuracy and faster reaction times, and also includes a laser ignition system, electric drives for the howitzer’s traverse and elevation, and a powered projectile rammer.

    But even if they were just eye-balling it for whatever dumb reason, I wouldn’t have expected results quite like that.

  6. consciousness razor says

    edit: “a little more terrifying”

    Also me:

    even if they were just eye-balling it for whatever dumb reason

    Honestly, I have no idea…. Is that even an option?

  7. lochaber says

    komarov@1 > similar thoughts here. prior USMC infantry, so no experience with artillery, but considering it’s a lot bigger, I’d also assume greater misfire safety protocols than what is used on a medium machine gun (side rant, fuck artillery, all three or so I’ve met claimed they were “combat arms” instead of “artillery”, because they want to pretend they are infantry without putting up with all the stupid bullshit that comes with an infantry unit…)

    As a machinegunner, when we had a misfire, there were two main concerns (disclaimer: it was a long damned time ago, so I’ve forgotten a lot…); the “hang fire” that Marcus already mentioned, as well as a round “cooking off” because the chamber had so much heat from rapid fire, that it would transfer to the misfired round, and cause it to belatedly fire. I think the standard procedure was to keep the machine gun aimed down range/on target, and wait x(I said it’s been a while…) number of seconds. After that, I believe the gunner was supposed to put their head down, and the team leader pop the cover and clear things out. I’ve probably got the details wrong, but someone from another unit on a live-fire training range I was on supposedly had a fairly serious injury from one of these – Supposedly they popped the cover immediately instead of waiting for the prescribed time period, and whatever the reason was for the round not firing, almost immediately after everything was opened, the round cooked off from chamber heat, and the casing blew back into the gunner’s arm, and then supposedly the primer also blew while the casing was in their arm, making the injury quite a bit worse.

    Anyways… I imagine artillery doesn’t likely have the same “cooking off” problem that machine guns can have after heavy use, and I’m really hoping they have a system different from small arms that doesn’t have an equivalent primer, otherwise their response seems pretty risky, but again, I’m not familiar with their weapon.

    Also, small-unit training is a special kind of breeding ground for stupidity…

  8. says

    Is that even an option?

    I am pretty sure no artillerist will ever accept a gun that doesn’t have iron sights. But, also, there’s bore-sighting: leave the breech open and you can look right through the tube then guesstimate range and fudge the ballistics.

    By the way, there’s ballistic apps for various weapons, including bench rest rifles.

    I was talking to a bench rest guy once and he claimed (wrongly as it turned out) that nothing was as accurate as a bench rest rifle. So I dialed Al P., a former US Army artillery major and asked him what was the longest distance he’d bet $100 he could kill a deer from using an old WW2 105 howitzer. He instantly said “7 miles” – well, with a 105 HE round you have some leeway. But also he mentioned that they have compensating computation tables in a little book that even takes into account barrel wear and planetary coriolis forces – and they have had that since WW2. It’s all precomputed. You turn to the page for the range bracket then at the longer ranges there are pages for compass azimuth, then that gives you a drop/deflection constant that gets modulated by a coefficient for barrel wear. If you think about it, it’s brilliant: the first value gets you close enough that the high explosive will frag your target but if you are trying something tricky like knocking the turret off a tiger tank with a falling shot, then you can make your estimates increasingly accurate. Al also said that they watch where the first lands and from there adjusting fire is easy. He says he used to laugh at snipers because if 155s weren’t so expensive they could snipe people at 12 miles with them. Besides you could have 3 shells in the air in a triangle before the first hit and the sound would take another 8 seconds, so the newly dead would never hear a thing. “A sound you never hear from a place you never see.”

  9. consciousness razor says

    I am pretty sure no artillerist will ever accept a gun that doesn’t have iron sights. But, also, there’s bore-sighting: leave the breech open and you can look right through the tube then guesstimate range and fudge the ballistics.

    Sure, but that’s aiming. It sounds like the “trigger” is integrated with all of those other systems…. I guess they probably do have some way to get around that to manually fire whenever those things fail (seems important), but I don’t know how that works.

    So I dialed Al P., a former US Army artillery major and asked him what was the longest distance he’d bet $100 he could kill a deer from using an old WW2 105 howitzer. He instantly said “7 miles” – well, with a 105 HE round you have some leeway.

    Sure, I believe it. My impression is that it hasn’t really been much of a trial and error guessing game for the last hundred years or so, but of course they can be extra-precise these days.

    So how hard is it to hit a mountain? The only thing that sort of makes sense to me is that they just didn’t care where it would land, as you said. But with no actual target to miss, it’s not exactly “target practice” anymore, so what’s the point of this exercise? Fire off the ammo so you’ll need to make an order for some more, and it’ll look like you’re keeping yourselves busy? Or what?

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ 10 consciousness razor
    So how hard is it to hit a mountain?

    Very agile targets, mountains.

    I saw a great video a few years ago of the Canadian Forces shooting at a mountain to start an avalanche —standard safety maneuver in winter—and completely missing the mountain.

  11. komarov says

    Re: #2

    A smouldering round was what the artillery demo folks were worried about, hence all the siting and leg-dangling. So I’m no more comfortable with that video after reading your description. Keep hitting an explosive device that didn’t explode in the normal, planned idea? I also didn’t think testing a failed round again was a good idea even before the anecdote about it blowing up in someone’s face, but maybe I’m just too careful for firearms use. I’m not sure I see the point either. Unless you’re a munitions expert trying to figure out why your latest achievement misfired you’re not going to learn anything. If you’re a hobbyist or soldier, that round probably cost less than a (Pentagon-adjusted) dollar and isn’t worth worrying about.

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