Why the Endless War Failed

By: Peter Sessum

The war in Afghanistan was a colossal failure that historians will speak about for generations to come. From the perspective of this veteran, who spent multiple years in Afghanistan in a number of different roles, the coalition efforts in Afghanistan had been failing for years. According to a study at Brown University, the 20-year war in Afghanistan cost the United States $300 million a day, or $2.3 trillion. It is literally the epitome of throwing good money after bad, but with that much of a financial investment, why did we get such a low return?

It boils down to two simple reasons. One; the western ways of doing things doesn’t work in Afghanistan, and, more importantly, two; the western way of doing things doesn’t work in Afghanistan.

The western way of doing things doesn’t work in Afghanistan

Everyone knows that Afghanistan is its own country with a unique history and culture. It isn’t that they interact with the world different because they aren’t western, but because they are Afghans. I know that sounds like the same thing, but the differences in worldview aren’t just the major ones, but the subtle differences as well.

Lines on a map mean something to us. You can’t get someone from the Lone Star State to shut up about being Texan. Two people can live 50 feet apart on a line drawn on a map and they will think they are from completely different places and cultures. You can be OK on one side of the line, and not to be messed with on the other. Pashtuns are not that petty. Still, over 100 years later, many don’t recognize the Durand Line, the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, placing an invisible line bisecting the tribe. A Pashtun is a Pashtun, it doesn’t matter if he is in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Tribal loyalties are tribal loyalties. If we suddenly redrew state lines and gave the Texas Panhandle to Oklahoma, does anyone think they are going to drop their Texas identity? If the Oklahoma panhandle was given to Texas, would they start drinking Lone Star Beer with pride? Probably not.

In America, you can take a kid from Alabama, train him in Missouri, and send him to a base in Colorado and there is no issue. He won’t care that his commander is from New York or that his squad leader is from California. It is a little different with a person from a culture that has a long memory and grudges die hard. How would a Pashtun from Khost feel about taking orders from a Tajik in Herat? Would an Uzbek trust a Pashtun commander or a Hazara get fair treatment from a Baloch senior? Creating a western style Army in an area that has been fighting as tribes for centuries was pure folly.

As soon as we took Kandahar and Mullah Omar was in hiding, we should have stepped back and let Afghans take the lead. Why were we trying to build a western style military for people that went toe to toe with the Soviets? Whatever they did, worked pretty well in the past. We should have treated Afghanistan as a true ally and worked with tribal leaders to secure the country by tribal, not national or provincial lines.

Reconstruction efforts should have been a reward for regional stability. Instead of the U.S. military patrolling, looking for a fight, let the Afghans handle security. If an area is safe, road crews will come in and repair the highway. If it isn’t, your neighboring tribe will get the new schools and roads. The more money we threw at the war effort, the less inclined corrupt officials were to ensure stability. If the only way to siphon off cash was to have a safe environment for crews to build, you can bet it would have been safe.

After three years of American occupation, police in rural Khost Province were still just working with what they had.

Another benefit of securing the country by region is that when the Taliban tried to make a play when we left, the entire nation wouldn’t fall in a weekend. We would also have pockets of allies we could reasonably support.

Is there a better model for Afghanistan than a western style government? I think the “one person, one vote” way of selecting leaders is a pretty good one, and there needs to be a national leader to speak for the country on the world stage, but maybe the invasion was a good time to let Afghans decide how they want to do things. And not the national leaders who benefit from the current system, and the relationship with westerners, but how do the majority of Afghans want things to work?

Most of Afghan geography is rural and many people still live in huts without power and running water. They are limited by their access to information. This doesn’t mean they are backwards or stupid, but when you never go more than 10km outside your village and don’t have access the internet, you can’t be expected to have a solid grasp on globalization. Your average Afghan wants what anyone else would want. Access to resources and for outsiders to stay out of their way.

The training of the Afghan National Police (ANP) should have been up to the Afghans. It is another way the western way of doing things was pressed on the Afghans. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on POS contractors it should have been up to Afghans to decide if they needed a national police academy in Kabul, with a curriculum developed, and taught by Afghans. They have a lot of smart people in the country, with support, they would have figured it out.

The western way of doing things doesn’t work in Afghanistan

Not only does forcing Afghans to be more western not work, but neither does the way westerners do things work in Afghanistan. Coalition forces must have seemed schizophrenic to the Afghans. Relationships constantly changed, not just in personnel but in disposition. A Civil Affairs team could visit your village to try and gain trust and help with reconstruction efforts the day before some grunts kick down doors in the middle of the night. The promises made by one officer could be completely overruled by the next with no explanation.

I really believe that the nature of the Officer Evaluation Reports (OER) are the core of many issues in the military, especially for the Army. Staff officers have to fight for their OERs. I can’t imagine the reasons for grading staff performance on a curve in a warzone. When only a few can get top marks, it breeds competition. Maybe that is fine for a sales team on a car lot, but not when the staff is making decisions with lives in the balance.

When the individual’s OER is the only focus, there is no value put on the long term. No one wants to take over an old project, they want to start their own. I saw an outgoing unit practically beg the incoming unit to take up an almost complete project. There were delays, but it was going to be a great asset to the local Afghan police. As soon as they left, the new unit dropped it for their own projects. Naturally, the Afghans saw it as another broken promise.

Brand new trucks, like this one, donated by the government of Japan languished in Kandahar because the follow on unit couldn’t be bothered to deliver the project the previous unit started.

Officers would outright ignore long term plans that they wouldn’t get credit for. They would refuse to start the process for something that they wouldn’t get the credit for completing and drop projects they didn’t get the credit for starting. That is fine for the short American attention span, but for the Afghans, it was constantly changing priorities and relationships.

Pam Amini, who served in Afghanistan with the Air Force and later as a contractor, best summed up the major problem in Afghanistan with, “I came to realize that over the course of our occupation, with each new command, also came a ‘good idea fairy.’ Every new leadership had a new plan, a new goal, a new way to earn their award.  There was no consistency or continuity.  We didn’t go into Afghanistan without a plan.  We went in with hundreds of plans and it was a new war every year.” She is right, we didn’t fight one big 20-year war, we fought many, tiny one-year wars.

Afghans are a proud people, and deservedly so. They live in a harsh environment and have been occupied by one nation or another since the beginning of time. They consider themselves always occupied but never conquered. They survived 20 years of us, they’ll survive whatever comes next. Hopefully, someday they’ll find the peace they deserve. When they do, it will be what works for Afghans, and may not look like how westerners do things. Because clearly, that doesn’t work there.

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