The Pentagon's "Forever War" in Afghanistan: The Limits of American Courage
September 4, 2018
Maj. Danny Sjursen / AntiWar.com & Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
Commentary: "I watched incredibly brave and dedicated officers and men battle the Taliban at the peak of American strength in Afghanistan in 2011. Courage wasn't enough then. It isn't now. Afghanistan will never be what we'd hoped for in 2001 -- a model democracy birthed in America's image. The inconvenient question is this: how many more Americans will die before we accept that truth?"
Forever War?: Lieutenant Alex and the Limits of American Courage
Maj. Danny Sjursen / AntiWar.com
(September 4, 2018) -- Alex should have never been asked to accomplish the impossible. But he was. We all were.
Thing is, if anyone could have done it -- "beat" the Taliban and brought home a win for the US of A -- it'd have been my friend Alex. Sure, I'm biased. He was a star platoon leader and later my executive officer (second-in-command) of my cavalry troop in Kandahar Province from 2011-12. Still, his responsibility and valor (and that of his even more incredible young soldiers) was stunning. I wonder sometimes, do most Americans know what we ask 24-year-old lieutenants to accomplish in their name?
Back then, Alex spent weeks at a time in command of a tiny platoon strongpoint a few miles from our main base, further south in the Arghandab Valley -- our squadron commander liked to brag -- than any Soviet unit had made it in the 1980s.
At one point, we were told, the outpost was the most attacked in Afghanistan -- usually 3-4 times daily. Though I was his commander, Alex was independent when he was at the strongpoint, responsible for the lives of his men and defense of the little fort. He led patrols, planned missions, and coordinated air and artillery support when the Taliban inevitably attacked.
Once while out on yet another dangerous and arguably futile patrol, Alex's medic was shot in the leg. Alex ran down the alley, as a Taliban RPK machine gun fired his way, in order to reach his wounded trooper. I wrote him a bronze star medal for that particular incident. Multiply that by a few dozen instances and you get a sense of what Alex's boys did day in and day out for some 330 days.
Alex made it home safe. Can't say the same about all of his platoon mates. He's since been chosen for an early promotion to major and has a bright career in front of him. He and his dedicated, if exasperated, wife have moved some four times in the last six years. It's a tough life but they've done everything the army asked of them both at home and overseas. Still, a big part of Alex will probably always stay in Afghanistan.
He could accomplish a lot over there: he kept most of his men alive, never surrendered his outpost and held the ground that was in his charge. But the truth is there was so much more he couldn't do, he or anyone else.
We never had enough troops to hold both bases as well as the ground in between. For the most part "Terry" Taliban controlled our ground supply lines, forcing Alex to fly his troops in and out of the strongpoint in late night helicopter flights. Anything else was too dangerous. He couldn't hold his base and simultaneously provide a permanent presence in any of the bombed out villages of his district -- "Terry" held those each night as well.
The dirty little secret is that Alex, and me, and many of my peers, held only the ground that we stood on at any given moment. Our bases became mini-Alamos, virtually under siege most of the time. We probably killed more of "them" than they did "us," but what did that really matter?
Especially when one considers all the things Alex, and we, couldn't do:
* broker a tribal peace among local (and national) warring clans;
* give the federal government in Kabul the legitimacy it seemed to lack in the public's eyes;
* staunch the drug-fueled corruption feeding the black market economy;
* update the 13th century irrigation system of southern Kandahar; or
* homogenize the ethnic disunity that stands at the root of Afghanistan's artificial structure.
Well, anyway, that was back in 2011-12, when we had 100,000+ US soldiers and marines stationed in Afghanistan. There's about 15,000 there now, and unlikely to be many more than that any time soon. Those dutiful men and women spend most of their time training the "future" of the Afghan government -- it's soldiers and police, the vaunted Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). They're undoubtedly doing their best
So what's the situation in Afghanistan today? After 17 years of American effort and more than 2,000 dead US troopers, including a green beret killed earlier this month, we've little to show for all that sacrifice. This week the Taliban ambushed an Afghan Army convoy, killing 25 and capturing 16 more.
ANSF casualties were through the roof during the first half of this year -- frankly unsustainable. This winter the Taliban contested or threatened some 70% of the country, more than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Furthermore, Afghanistan boasted a bumper opium crop last year, besting its own record.
It is hard to know what a mere 15,000 US troops on the ground can possibly do -- besides kill and die -- to turn this situation around. That said, my critiques are much easier than recommendations for improvement. That's a fair assessment. Heck, my father reminds me of that on the regular. But maybe -- and this is a highly un-American assertion -- there isn't a demonstrably better way. Maybe our troopers have done all they can for the Afghans.
So what's our best bet? Here's a quick cut: Responsible disengagement; take world as it is -- not as we want it to be; encourage dialogue with the Taliban as a messy path to an Afghan peace -- an Afghan solution.
Look, it will be ugly -- what about Afghanistan isn't?
And, surely, my conjecture is hard to swallow, especially for professional military men.
Americans (especially soldiers) are natural problem-solvers. We've never seen an ill we don't think we can fix. In some sense it's an admirable trait -- the reason folks like to hire vets.
Well, for 17 years we've been hammering the same nail in Afghanistan to no avail. Maybe it's time to admit the US can't "fix" this problem. Back in 2011, 100,000 Americans couldn't do it. Now, we've about 1/10th of that force on the ground. And, even 15,000 Alexs can't fix what ills Afghanistan -- no American can.
The question isn't whether Afghanistan will ever be what we'd hoped for in 2001 -- a model democracy birthed in America's image. By now it's clear it most certainly won't. The inconvenient question is this: how many more Americans will die before we accept that truth?
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.
Read more by Maj. Danny Sjursen:
The 'Left' Gone Mad: Mainstream Liberals as Modern Day Warhawks -- August 27th, 2018
The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48) -- August 23rd, 2018
Dying for What?: A Tour of Fruitless American Killing and Sacrifice -- August 20th, 2018
The Forgotten and Peculiar War of 1812 -- July 2nd, 2018
US Soldier Killed,
Another Wounded in Afghan Insider Attack
Sixth American killed in Afghanistan this year
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(September 3, 2018) – Details are still unclear, but one American soldier was reported killed and another wounded Monday in what officials are describing as an "apparent insider attack" in eastern Afghanistan. The wounded soldier is in stable condition.
Previous insider attacks have tended to happen when US soldiers were present at Afghan military bases or outposts. This is the second insider attack in the past two months. In July, one soldier was killed and two others wounded.
Exactly what happened in this case in unclear, however. The Pentagon has not specified where the attack took place, or in what context. Officials say this is the sixth US soldier to be killed this year in Afghanistan.
This is an unusual lack of information for an insider attack, as in the past such incidents have almost always come with considerable information, including what the gunman was doing at the time the shooting started.
Gen. Miller Arrives in Afghanistan as
New Commander With Peace Distant
Miller was among initial troops
who invaded Afghanistan in 2001
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(September 2, 2018) – 17 years into the US War in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller has arrived in the country to take over control of the US-led occupation, replacing outgoing Gen. John Nicholson. Miller is the 17th commander to lead the war.
Gen. Miller has been participating in the war in Afghanistan from the beginning. He was present during the 2001 US invasion, then at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was among the forces sent during President Obama's escalation of the Afghan War, as a brigadier general. Now, he's a full general, commanding the longest war in American history.
Miller talked of adjustments to be made, but gave no suggestions that he's going to make any serious changes. This likely means he'll follow the historic trend of taking over, promising a review of policy, offering nominal changes and quickly falling out of favor, only to be replaced by the next commander.
Gen. John Nicholson followed that trend to a tee. Now that he's leaving, he says it is "time for this war in Afghanistan to end." Such a comment would've had more impact when he was actually in charge. Instead, he spent his time in charge talking up how the war was winnable.
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