Foust focuses on the "magical thinking" that he sees as the root problem of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan. The root problem, on the contrary, was and is imperialist pride locked into a militaristic mindset, exceptionalist arrogance combined with a profound ignorance and the superiority complex of leaders who, despite all evidence to the contrary, thought America could do in Afghanistan what nobody since the Mongols had done—get it under control.
Several times in the past 11 years of direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, somebody has come up with a new silver bullet. Gen. David Petraeus's answer, and the one adopted for the 2009 surge under President Obama, was counter-insurgency, for which the general co-wrote the manual. Even taken on its own terms, however, that was doomed from the start. Petraeus himself had previously said that such an effort would require at least a decade to succeed and far more troops than any president would be willing to commit.
So, it was done on the cheap, comparatively speaking, in terms of number of troops, duration of commitment and the never-fully realized "civilian surge." Despite Washington's ability to legitimately point to a bustling bazaar over here and a much quieter province over there, counter-insurgency failed and was abandoned in favor of counter-terrorism even before the first troops of the 68,000 deployed in the surge began their withdrawal.
No empire does things exactly as its predecessors. The Macedonia of Alexander did it differently than Assyria. Britain did it differently than Rome. America did it differently than the USSR. But Foust's target of criticism is less existential, more mundane than all that. It nevertheless speaks to some issues worth paying attention to.
(U.S. Navy/Lt. Benjamin Addison)
The US government has engaged in significant magical thinking in Afghanistan. For the last ten years, military and civilian leaders have promised that if something was built, or a certain area of the country was “cleared” of militants, or if some other singular event like a presidential election took place, the war would be won. It was the political equivalent of a rain dance—rather than understanding the complex reasons why bad things happened in Afghanistan, policymakers chose to assume that simple fixes could produce victory. The result was expensive—not just in lives, but in money.The other four unlearned lessons, in Foust's view: understand the environment; the war is a political conflict; a failure to plan; and, real success only matters over the long term.
Here's what he has to say about the failure to understand the environment:
Counterinsurgency advocates have insisted for years on the importance of understanding the enemy and the population where you’re working. It is a lesson the US Army is trying to internalize. Colonel Thomas Roe, the director of the US Army’s Center for Lessons Learned, recently said in an interview that troops need to adopt a more cultural approach to fight effectively in places like Afghanistan:“That goes very deep in the sense that one village may be different culturally from the next one.”
However, this understanding has most often taken the form of crash courses in “culture” during pre-deployment training for some soldiers. Tens of thousands of other civilians have also served in Afghanistan, but one would be hard pressed to identify where increased cultural understanding has become practice.
For example, a new part of pre-deployment training for soldiers involves teaching them agriculture: beekeeping, tree pruning, and other practices. The training lasts one week and takes place in Central California, which trainers say is similar to Afghanistan (“fertile valleys, semi-arid plains and mountains”).
While these short agricultural training camps sound innovative, they bump up against other efforts to account for Afghanistan’s farming culture. Agribusiness Development Teams, or ADTs, are National Guard units from US farming communities that already travel around Afghanistan with the purpose of liaising with local farmers. Many ADTs encounter Afghan demonstration farms, which seem to function and thrive without much western input. Afghan farmers even teach the ADTs about local farming conditions and issues. It is difficult to see why and how Afghans actually need help farming—whether from an ADT or from regular soldiers who spent a week at an orchard in California.
The US government’s approach to understanding Afghanistan is based on superficial assumptions and does not account for what Afghans already know. Soldiers cannot meaningfully learn about Afghanistan’s farming culture or techniques in a weeklong crash course in California. Experienced farmers who deploy with the specific purpose of supporting Afghanistan’s farms arrive surprised at Afghans’ ability to farm on their own.
What deploying soldiers really need to learn is how and why Afghan farmers do certain things—like using shovels to dig irrigation canals near roads. Many soldiers have confused Afghan farmers engaged in basic construction work with insurgents laying IEDs. Learning to tell the difference – which doesn’t require a week of beekeeping—will lead to a better understanding of the environment.
Understanding the environment cannot only be a military affair: it requires efforts from beyond the military. In reflecting on the war in Afghanistan at the end of 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “One of the most important lessons… is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance,
providing basic services to the people are essential to success in state building.”
Gates was indirectly referencing Clausewitz’s dictum that war must serve politics – a refrain that has become cliché. The public discourse about the war, however, is dominated by an arbitrary debate over troop numbers rather than discussing any substantive political goals or even an end state to the conflict. The current strategy favored by the White House, transitioning security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces, is a military-first policy that does not include a political, cultural, or economic component.
For example, a recent project spearheaded by the US Embassy in Kabul created an Afghan version of Sesame Street in December of 2011. “Teachers here in Afghanistan will discover that Sesame Street can help children start school well prepared,” said the US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker. “Perhaps most importantly, it shows children the world around them.”
The problem with bringing Sesame Street to Afghanistan is that most homes do not have any electricity. It is magical thinking born of not understanding the environment. Despite the international community spending nearly $60 billion to develop Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure, only 497,000 of Afghanistan’s 4.8 million households have any access to electricity. According to the most recent UN data, Afghanistan’s per capita GDP is only about $500, or less than $2 per day, yet it costs Afghans $11 per month to power a television. Every single light bulb costs $2.60 per day.
The Sesame Street project is not just an example of magical thinking—assuming that a TV show will somehow get more children through school—it is also astonishingly ignorant of the local conditions that will prevent it from ever having an effect on Afghan children. Even “tweaks” the show’s producers came up with—calling dancing “exercise” in an effort not to offend conservative Muslim parents—rings so false it is difficult to understand what the project leaders were thinking when they created it. Additionally, an understanding of basic infrastructure in the country would have shown that creating a high-cost American-imported children’s show wouldn’t have a chance to be successful because so few would ever have the opportunity to watch it.
The war in Afghanistan has been fought largely outside a basic understanding of the country and its culture. As a result, many missteps have been made and billions of dollars wasted on schemes that had little chance of success. Moreover, what should have been a collaborative effort between the military and civilian agencies of the government has been overly militarized and focused on narrow military objectives. Even= the much-vaunted “civilian surge”—meant to supplement the military mission, no less – never fully materialized. A better understanding of the society in which a war takes place will allow for less expenditure and fewer lost lives.
Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2011:
Today was the day Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks testified before a parliamentary hearing. Short version: nobody knew anything. And they are really sorry. And about halfway through it there was a pie.