The Afghanistan Illusion

Way back right after 9/11, when the Bush Administration decided to go into Afghanistan, my wife the music and opera professor said, “It’s going to end up like Vietnam.” I didn’t disagree. We weren’t alone, but I’d hoped that the Bush Administration would get Osama Bin Laden and bow out.

Getting Bin Laden didn’t happen until much later because, as I understand it, when Bin Laden crossed the border into neighboring Pakistan, the Administration didn’t want to invade two countries simultaneously, and back then drones weren’t quite as far advanced as they are now, or if they were, the Bush Administration was leery of using them, at least if they could be discovered. Even before Bin Laden’s death, too many U.S. politicians and policymakers endorsed the continued idiocy of the idea that the U.S. could create a democratic nation in a land split by ideology and tribalism where the concept of national identity had never really existed.

My wife has had a rare perspective on the war in Afghanistan because a number of her students were National Guard and Army Reservists who were deployed there [interrupting their schooling considerably] who kept in touch with her, admittedly, often sporadically, but all of them were of the opinion that (1) the country was too “tribal” to successfully unite against the Taliban and (2) the Taliban could and would wait us out. One spent his deployments in forward area intelligence, and his comments were more than a little eye-opening.

This understanding of Afghanistan certainly wasn’t rare among U.S. troops – and their junior officers – serving in the Afghanistan or even in other Middle East locales. So why didn’t it ever filter into upper levels of U.S. policy [and if it did, why was it ignored]?

Based on my own experiences, both as a Navy helicopter pilot with two deployments to Vietnam and as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., in the last years of South Vietnam and later, and from what I’ve learned from others, realistic assessments of the situation were continually discarded by upper level politicians… or ignored for “political” considerations

When I was a junior pilot being briefed on the Vietnamese government and social structure in 1969, instructors laid out the point that the government was almost entirely from French influenced Catholic families, as were most of the senior military officers, that the wealth was held by a minority that came from Buddhist-related families, and that more than 80% of the population was comparatively poor and held folk beliefs or beliefs in various combinations of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Those were broad-stroke generalizations, but essentially true. Yet I never saw any public or policy acknowledgement of those factors.

The same lack of cultural and belief understanding has been repeated in Afghanistan, and, not so strangely, even here in the U.S. Too many of those on the far right simply do not or cannot understand the cultural and political concerns of even moderates, let alone liberals, and the same is true for the liberals who fail to understand those on the far right, whose beliefs are, in effect, who they are.

Yet policy-makers who don’t understand much of their own culture and have trouble working out legislation to benefit all Americans continued to believe that they could create a democratic nation in a culture that has no history of or understanding of democracy?

And now, everyone is shocked that the Afghan government folded so quickly? I strongly doubt that most of the front-line U.S. military members who served there are. So why is it all such a surprise? Because too many were wedded to an impossible illusion?

5 thoughts on “The Afghanistan Illusion”

  1. Postagoras says:

    A common thread in your books is when policy-makers actually face consequences for their decisions. Like when they get dosed with truth serum before a press conference, or have a ship ram their military space station at half light speed.
    Is this wish-fulfillment on your part? If you could wave your authorial magic wand, what consequences would be visited on policy-makers in the USA?

    1. The rapid collapse of the Afghan government, once direct U.S. support was removed, has been predictable for years. Right now, the consequences will likely fall on Biden, which is ironic, since he opposed going into Afghanistan in the first place, while little blame will fall on George W. Bush, who was behind it. Right now, politics determines who gets blamed, rather than a reasoned analysis. In the end, however, people do pay for their decisions. The Afghan people will pay for tolerating corruption and for not standing up to the Taliban. There are always costs. The American people have already paid a fairly hefty price for failing to understand how the world works. I’d have to say that, in my books, often the protagonist is able to make policy-makers pay for taking profitable or political actions that are unwise, but those protagonists aren’t always that successful in changing society — except sometimes by destroying institutions and remaking them, and that does impose a huge price on the population.

      For starters, in the present situation, I wonder what would happen if all the conservative anti-vaxxers came down with COVID and either died or suffered long-COVID. You can finagle a way to make that happen in books, but real life is much messier, which is why I’ve been more successful as an author than I was as a low-level political appointee.

  2. RRCRrea says:

    No empire ever really has had any luck conquering Afghanistan and keeping it. We’re just the last in a long, long line of failures. So both maxims about the futility of getting involved in a land war in Asia and history being doomed to repeat itself were in play from the get-go.

  3. Tom says:

    Report from the Inspector General on Afghanistan:
    https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/what-we-need-to-learn/index.html

    The report seems to support your views but brings to mind another question related to Tim’s “rule-based deterministic system” for planning and monitoring performance. Over the years there have been reports of not only overpriced military contracts but poor quality products delivered by those who get US Defense Contracts. As the military appears to be able to get to any corner of the world faster and faster, and in force, it seems that the quality of logistics have deteriorated: even though recent as well as all 20th century wartime history shows battles and wars are won on the right stuff getting to the right place on time.

    From what you have written it seems as if the US Congress and the Pentagon would not use AI “rule-based deterministic systems” to identify the requirements for achieving policy goals and the practical ways to do that? Are the politicians and congressional systems too dominated by the military-industrial complex lobbyists (our level of corruption)?

    1. My personal feeling is that too often politicians judge military and other contracts by the number of jobs produced, especially in their districts, rather than how fast and how well the results are achieved. Compare NASA and Space-X, for example.

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