Why can’t we learn from our mistakes in Afghanistan?

When it comes to our endless occupation, the same depressing story lines keep playing out again and again

Topics: Afghanistan, War Room, Middle East, Washington, D.C.,

Why can't we learn from our mistakes in Afghanistan?An unidentified U.S. soldier is seen at the scene of a suicide attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One day in October 2001, a pilot for Northwest Airlines refused to let Arshad Chowdhury, a 25-year-old American Muslim (“with a dark complexion”) who had once worked as an investment banker in the World Trade Center, board his plane at San Francisco National Airport. According to Northwest’s gate agents, Chowdhury writes in the Washington Post, “he thought my name sounded suspicious” even though “airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat.” He sued.

Now, skip nearly a decade. It’s May 6, 2011, and two New York-based African-American imams, a father and son, attempting to take an American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte to attend a conference on “prejudice against Muslims,” were prevented from flying. The same thing happened to two imams in Memphis “dressed in traditional long shirts and [with] beard,” heading for the same conference, when a pilot for Atlantic Southeast refused to fly with them aboard, even though they had been screened three times.

So how is the war in Afghanistan going almost 10 years later? Or do you think that’s a non sequitur?

I don’t, and let me suggest two reasons why: first, boredom; second, the missing learning curve.

At home and abroad, whether judging by airline pilots or Washington’s war policy, Americans seem remarkably incapable of doing anything other than repeating the same self-defeating acts, as if they had never happened before. Hence Afghanistan. Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and proclaimed victory, like imam-paralyzed airline pilots, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated deja vu with a Mobius strip.

If you aren’t already bored to death, you should be. Because, believe me, you’ve read it all before. Take the last month of news from America’s second Afghan War. If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story in the last four weeks came from some previous year of the war.

Headlines from the Dustbin of History (Afghan Department)

Let me explain with seven headlines ripped from the news, all of which sit atop Afghan War articles that couldn’t be newer — or older. Each represents news of our moment that was also news in previous moments; each should leave Americans wondering about Washington’s learning curve.

* “Pentagon reports ‘tangible progress’ in Afghanistan“: Here, the headline tells you everything you need to know. Things are going remarkably swimmingly, according to a recent congressionally mandated Pentagon report (which cost a mere $344,259 to produce). How many times in recent years has the military claimed “progress” in Afghanistan, with the usual carefully placed reservations about the fragility or reversibility of the situation? (Oh, and how many times have U.S. intelligence reports been far gloomier on the same subject?)

* “Afghan violence rises amid troop surge — Pentagon“: The information that led to this headline came, curiously enough, from that very same upbeat Pentagon report. As the Reuters piece to which this headline was attached put it: “A surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan has dealt a blow to the Taliban insurgency, but total violence has risen since last fall and is likely to keep climbing, the Pentagon said on Friday in a new assessment of the war as it approaches its 10-year mark.” This spring, insurgent attacks have reportedly been up about 80% compared to the previous year, which might be more startling if the rise-in-violence piece weren’t a longtime staple of Afghan War reportage.

Are you bored to death yet? No, then I’ll keep going.

* “Audit: Afghans don’t know how many police on rolls“: The news embedded in this headline is that a recent audit by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan has found that some of the $10 billion a year being poured into training, building up, and supplying Afghanistan’s security forces is undoubtedly missing-in-action. The IG reports that “the country’s police rolls and payrolls cannot be verified because of poor record keeping,” which means that the numbers “for all practical purposes become somewhat fictitious.” Put another way, the U.S. and its coalition partners are undoubtedly paying “ghost” policemen.

This story could be paired with a recent Reuters piece, “Pentagon’s rosy report of Afghanistan war raises questions,” which points out that, despite the billions of dollars and years of time invested in mentoring Afghanistan’s security forces, “there are currently no Afghan National Police units that are able to operate independently.” In addition, even that recent “rosy” Pentagon report indicates that so many Afghan soldiers are deserting — six out of every 10 new recruits — as to imperil the goal of creating a massive army capable of taking over security duties in the next several years. It has also been difficult to find enough trainers for the program, and given all of the above, experts suspect that the country will not have an effective army in place by 2014.

But here’s the thing: such reports about the massive training program for Afghan security forces, the inability of those forces to operate independently, the wholesale desertions continually suffered, and so on have appeared again and again and again over the last years.

* “With bin Laden dead, some escalate push for new Afghan strategy“: Here’s the only problem with that “new Afghan strategy” reportedly being debated in Washington — it’s not new. It’s drearily old. In fact, it’s simply a replay on the downhill slide of bitter policy arguments in the fall of 2009 involving Washington policymakers and the U.S. military. That was a moment when the Obama administration had set about reassessing Afghan strategy and trying to choose between counterinsurgency (“the surge”) and what was then called “counterterrorism plus” (more drones and more trainers, but less combat troops).

Then the debate was narrow indeed — between more (an increase of 40,000 troops) and more (an increase of 20,000 troops). There was never a real “less” option. Today, with almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and despite reports of “war fatigue,” even among Congressional Republicans, as well as plummeting poll numbers among Americans generally, the new debate is similarly narrow, similarly focused, and deeply familiar, a kind of less-versus-less version of the more-versus-more duke-em-out of 2009.

Similar arguments, similar crew. Then, Vice President Biden spearheaded the counterterrorism-plus option; today, it’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who quickly made the parameters of the “new” strategy debate clear: “I do not know of any serious policy person who believes that a unilateral precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would somehow serve our interests or anybody’s interests. I do not believe that is a viable option.”

As in the fall of 2009, agreement among “serious policy people” that there should be a continuing American “footprint” in Afghanistan is set in stone. It seems the only question on the table is how small and how slow the drawdown should be, with the debaters already evidently settling into an agreed upon endgame of 20,000 to 30,000 American troops, special operations forces, and trainers post-2014. Despite the president’s promise of significant troop reductions this year, early hints about war commander General David Petraeus’ recommendations indicate that as few as 10,000 may be withdrawn, with no combat troops among them (though pressure to increase those numbers is rising).

Not out of your mind with boredom yet? Then I’ll keep at it.

* “Accusations of Corruption Rampant in Afghanistan“: Here’s the thing: you don’t even need to know the details of the story that lies behind that NPR headline. Yes, Vermont representative Peter Welsh has called on Congress to investigate Afghan corruption, given the billions the U.S. is squandering there; yes, the Afghan deputy attorney general admitted that he had arrest warrants for various high officials on corruption charges but feared trying to bring them in; yes, headlines like “Afghan war progress at risk from corruption, training lags” are commonplace these days, as are stories about “reconstruction” corruption, protection payoffs to unsavory local warlords or the Taliban, and staggering levels of corruption in and around the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But here’s the thing: it’s been that way for years. Corruption stories — and stories about fighting corruption or the need to force the government of Hamid Karzai to do the same — have been the essential bread and butter of Afghan war reporting for almost a decade.

* “For Second Time in 3 Days, NATO Raid Kills Afghan Child“: The New York Times piece under this headline reports on how “NATO” night raiders (usually U.S. special operations forces) killed a 15-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan National Army soldier, sleeping in his family fields with a shotgun beside him. In the incident two days earlier the headline alludes to, another crew of night raiders killed a 12-year-old girl sleeping in her backyard, as well as her uncle, an Afghan police officer. And who’s even mentioning the eight private security guards killed in an air strike as May began?

As it happens, however, from the moment that a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using precision-guided weapons, destroyed a village wedding party in December 2001, killing 110 out of 112 revelers (only the first of numerous wedding parties to be blown away during these years), such civilian casualties have been the drumbeat behind the war. The Afghan dead — slaughtered by Taliban suicide bombers and IEDs as well — have risen in a charnel heap high above those of September 11, 2001.

Accompanying such stories over the years have been passages like this one from the Times piece: “When morning came, an angry crowd gathered in Narra, the boy’s village, and more than 200 people marched with his body to the district center. Some of the men were armed and confronted the police, shouting anti-American slogans and throwing rocks at police vehicles and the… government center, according to the district governor and the [local school] headmaster.”

This is the never-ending story of the war, the one whose only variations involve whether, faced with such deaths, U.S. military spokespeople will stonewall and deny, launch an “investigation” that goes nowhere, or offer a pro forma apology. When it came to the death of that girl recently, an apology was indeed issued, but her father made the essential point: “They killed my 12-year-old daughter and my brother-in-law and then told me, ‘We are sorry.’ What does it mean? What pain can be cured by this word ‘sorry’?”

Rogue War

When it comes to the Afghan War, there are other news stories of the present moment that were also the Afghan news of 2006, 2008, and 2010. There’s even the newest hot set of rumors about U.S. attempts to open negotiations with the Taliban, whose last iteration ended when American officials discovered that the Taliban “senior commander” they had flown to Kabul was actually a clever impostor (who made off with a pile of money). But let’s consider just one more story, the seventh headline of this moment, versions of which have headlined many other moments in these years, and ask whether there isn’t something — anything at all — new to be learned from it.

* “Afghan officer fires on NATO troops, kills 9“: This was breaking news when it happened. On April 25th, a veteran Afghan air force pilot, armed with two weapons and in a specially guarded and secure area of Kabul airport, suddenly opened fire on a group of Americans evidently involved in a training program for Afghan pilots. He gunned down eight U.S. Air Force personnel, including a lieutenant colonel, four majors, two captains, and a master sergeant, as well as a private contractor (himself a retired U.S. military officer) before being killed. It was “the deadliest episode to date of an Afghan turning against his own coalition partners.” But hardly the only one. In a sense, this was no news at all. It was already at least the fourth time in 2011 that someone dressed in an Afghan army or police uniform had turned a weapon on U.S. or NATO personnel. Among such incidents was one just three weeks earlier in which a man wearing a border police uniform, reportedly “upset over the recent burning of the Quran at a Florida church,” killed two Americans, and another in February in which an Afghan soldier, reportedly “offended by his German partners,” killed three of them, wounding yet more.

By military count, since March 2009, 17 such incidents have been reported. Since the mass killing at Kabul airport, there has already been an 18th in which, according to sketchy reports, a man in an Afghan police uniform opened fire on two NATO personnel at a “luncheon” in Helmand Province in the country’s embattled south. In such incidents, at least 34 Americans have died. (Not counted in this total, evidently, is an incident in January 2010 in which a Taliban double or triple agent blew himself up amid a group of CIA employees on a forward operating base in Eastern Afghanistan, killing seven of them, including the station chief.)

Such incidents pile up repetitively, without adding up to anything of significance here. Yes, the literal math has been done and it should be striking, even shocking, to Americans, and yet these news stories seldom get much attention and have already fallen into a he said/he said pattern in which the only crucial question becomes: Was the killer a Taliban plant or a “rogue” member of the Afghan security forces? As soon as such an attack occurs, the Taliban — which has made striking strides in entering the modern age of media spin — promptly takes credit for it, claiming that whoever blew away a coalition soldier was one of its own and the incident a carefully planned operation.

It’s easy to understand why the Taliban would want to associate itself with such events. Harder to grasp — though no reporter seems to give it a second thought — is the U.S./NATO response. Their spokespeople regularly hustle out statements insisting that whoever attacked U.S. or coalition personnel was not connected to the Taliban, but simply having a truly bad day/life (experiencing, say, financial or psychological stress) and that, as a result, the incident was an “isolated” one, “not part of any organized pattern,” or as an American general summed it up to reporters, “rare.” And yet the phenomenon turns out to be common enough that the military has a label for it: “green-on-blue” violence.

Consider this, though: Is the thought that the enemy is capable of repeatedly infiltrating American or NATO ranks really more devastating than the thought that, on a really bad day, “our” Afghans, the ones we are training or regularly working side-by-side with, have a deep-seated, repetitive urge to blow the foreigners away? That seems to me the devastating message U.S. military officials are rushing to reinforce.

Can you, in fact, even come up with a comparable historical situation? Admittedly, when weaponry is everywhere, war is the subject, and hair-trigger is the attitude, people can die in all sorts of ways, as “fragging” incidents in the U.S. military in the Vietnam era indicated. (There was, in fact, one such incident at a military base in Kuwait as the invasion of Iraq began and, more recently of course, a disturbed Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, went on a rampage, killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas.)

Still, where else is there such a record of police and military personnel blowing away their own trainers and ostensible allies so often? Isn’t it possible that all those “rogues” are offering a collective message Americans simply don’t care to hear?

Despite the almost unbroken and certainly repetitive record of three decades of war and destruction, there are undoubtedly new stories to be found under the Afghan sun (as well as across the border in roiling Pakistan). It’s just that you aren’t likely to find them in American war coverage, in part because you aren’t likely to find them in American strategic or tactical thinking.

Perhaps the real question is this: What does it tell us when neither a new policy thought nor a new story can come out of a disastrous war almost 10 years old?

What does it mean when a great power proves incapable of learning anything from its own past actions? What does it mean when you can’t think creatively or reimagine the world in a land that has so often been referred to as “the graveyard of empire”? Is it really so hard to guess?

And by the way, is anybody bored to death yet? Then, what if, for the sake of having one new story to write, we decided to come home?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, "Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World" (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

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