Book Review of Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

I must confess, the absurdity of me writing a review of Scott Horton’s book is akin to the absurdity of the war in Afghanistan, albeit without the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies and billions of government no-bid military contracts and after eighteen years, nothing to show for it.

Sticking with absurdity, I’ll start with a passage from a different book, Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh, a fictional account of a fledgling reporter sent to cover a “promising war” in a faraway land. Bear with me. The passage involves the reporter receiving:

…a radiogram which had arrived that morning and was causing him grave bewilderment. It read:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING FRONTWARD

SPEEDIEST STOP ADEN REPORTED PREPARED

WARWISE FLASH FACTS BEAST.

“I can’t understand it,” said William.1

I feel the same as William after devouring this thoroughly researched and well documented book, including over 1100 footnotes from myriad sources from all sides of the political spectrum. I feel this way not on account of illegible or confusing writing, for the book is laid out is such a manner that any average person could follow along and track with the absurdity of it all, but on account of the mind-numbing fallacies, falsehoods and flat out ahistorical bungling of the reality of the facts on the ground in the Middle East for the last fifty years that have led to our current, ah, situation, in Afghanistan.

If you thought the first quote was nonsensical, try this passage from Fool’s Errand and think of the concept of entangling alliances,“the U.S. was bribing one ally to back another ally, forcing a third ally to back our own and our first ally’s enemies, which required the U.S. to turn to the first ally for help against the third, and then around again. This has continued for more than a dozen years. In fact, the reality is even more convoluted than this. Our other allies, the Saudi royals, have continued to finance the Taliban resistance against the U.S. all along as well, since the Taliban serves as a check on the power of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazaras, who are Shi’ites aligned with Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, Iran.”2 Got it? That might be tough to follow out of context from the chapter within which it was written, but it certainly serves to illustrate the insanity of this whole Afghanistan affair. How could anyone sort all that out? How do you define victory? How do you ever not continue to create enemies in a scenario like that?

After reading this book, there is no rational human being who can justify further military action in Afghanistan, yet the war machine grinds on. A war that, by no conceivable metric can be said that the U.S. is winning, or ever can win, continues to be waged. Every strategy has been tried:

[Retired US Army] Col. Bacevich observed about the war in Afghanistan, and the broader War on Terrorism, “We’ve done counterinsurgency, we’ve done counter-terrorism, we’ve done advise-and-assist, we’ve done targeted assassination, we’ve done nation-building… We have run the gamut of approaches in terms of tactics and methods, and none of them have yielded the success that proponents have argued that we would achieve. So you come back to that basic question, maybe the entire enterprise is misguided.”3

The military has tried to buy off every local warlord only to be double crossed in the end. Every last stolen tax dollar has been blown on an amount that far exceeds the ENTIRE Marshall Plan from WWII, which included aid to 16 West European countries. Rights for women? Schools for kids? Where is the progress on those fronts? And if our barometer for success involves installing a tiny little baby government in a box that will grow and flourish and sprout a glorious “constitution, providing a bicameral legislature, proportional representation…an independent judicature, religious liberty, secular education, habeas corpus, free trade, joint stock banking, chartered corporations, and numerous other agreeable features,” 4 then we most certainly have failed. Afghanistan is the farthest you can imagine from these lofty ideals, as Horton has succinctly summarized in the following passage:

If leaders of the Western nations are truly attempting to initiate a new Enlightenment era of democratic values in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as they claim, perhaps trying to live by our highest principles and leading by example — promoting natural, individual rights and self-government in the free market of ideas — might be a more effective strategy than the current policy of propping up some of the world’s most repressive governments, while launching invasions and carrying out regime change operations against others. So far, these methods have only led to massive casualties, sectarian civil war and a return to fundamentalism by people who very well might otherwise have been much more receptive to the more positive aspects of our ideas and traditions.5

Throughout the book, Horton is banking on many having so easily forgotten, or never learned, the true history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. To be sure, most of the soldiers who are over there fighting now, weren’t even born when the seeds of this disastrous war were planted. Hollywood is assuming the same thing too, with new movies like 12 Strong that only serve as a continuation in the conflating of the factions Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the minds of the average American. They are all the same over there, right? They all just want to get us and our freedoms forever and ever. Assuming a lack of learned history is a fair assumption. Grab any ole joker off the street and ask him: what was the Carter Doctrine? Follow up with: would you consider the 1990’s “peacetime”? For a bonus round ask: how long have the Iraqi people been living under wartime conditions? Right about now, I’m assuming you are thinking wait, wait, wait, why are we talking about Iraq and not Afghanistan? The talking heads on the nonstop news cycles like to get us to think in small bubbles: just believe us, we have experts on this show, we will tell you what’s really going on over there. We have no sense of historical continuity or understanding of societies beyond the bullshit lines that we draw on a map that define countries for us. Countries that we can’t even locate on a map, but still! We have been programmed to forget that, “to the population of Saudi Arabia, and especially the bin Ladenites, these state borders are meaningless; they view Arabia as one holy peninsula.”6 Further, the concept of a unified Afghanistan is most certainly unachievable, it becomes an eternal struggle pitting one faction against another; always has been and always will be, according to Nizamuddin Nashir, a district governor in Kunduz province:

Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin. This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don’t happen, you can burn my bones when I die.7

But enough with the niceties, there are some general concepts that stick out throughout the book that bear emphasizing. Admittedly, boiling this immense work down to a handful of general concepts is difficult and a little unfair given the all-encompassing nature of the book, but it’s a good framework. The fiasco that is the war in Afghanistan is tied up with the history of the U.S. meddling in the Middle East, the U.S. creating distortions of power leading to entangling alliances, the desire and futility of attempting to change entire societies by force, the perpetual simple answers to “why do they hate us?” (trademark, Team America), and always looking forward so we can forget the past.

 

Damn You, History:

Alas, there is never really a perfect place to start when discussing history, but let’s start with the good ole days when our once ally, now existential threat and “we must-not-back-down-from foe,” the USSR, was mired in their own war in Afghanistan. This was a time when the U.S. was helping Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support what were referred to then as “freedom fighters,” in their battle against the USSR. The U.S. wasn’t worried so much about the freedom of the fighters, of course, they were only trying to give the USSR their own Vietnam. There is such a delicious irony in the following interaction between President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who boasted that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, he sent a memo to [Carter]: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”8 History never repeats, eh?

The U.S. began, in response to the USSR invasion of Afghanistan, the implementation of the “Carter Doctrine,” that is, an attempt to create an environment of “permanent U.S. supremacy in the Persian Gulf [which] had America’s military presence spreading throughout the Arabian Peninsula.”9 This was expanded throughout the 1980’s under President Reagan and ultimately, seventy more permanent bases were later added in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates…as the U.S. prepared to wage the first Iraq war in 1990-1991.”10 It’s not hard to imagine this process creating resentment in any number of sovereign people across the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. quickly transformed the Carter doctrine into a concept of “Dual Containment” under the George H.W. Bush administration, playing both sides in the Iran-Iraq war (you need look no further than the current war hysteria brewing regarding Syria to see this concept in real time, let’s arm both sides, what could go wrong?). This was a era of not worrying about Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s, since he was using them against the Iran. Another sordidly ironic historical moment occurred when George H.W. Bush boastfully proclaimed that we had finally kicked “Vietnam Syndrome,” all the while the seeds of what was to become the longest war in U.S. history were being sown. War is plenty devastating in and of itself, but the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN and U.S. after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were devastating to the people caught up in the war. Sanctions, of course, is a nicer sounding word for what it really is: a blockade of essential foods, medicines and other basic necessities (for a current example of this, take a look at the current U.S. and Saudi Arabia blockade of Yemen). Bill Clinton oversaw and continued these sanctions throughout the 1990’s, but finally (hooray?), in 1996, the UN Oil for Food program was implemented. Unfortunately, as Horton reminds us, “it was far too little, too late for hundreds of thousands of people. According to the United Nations, as many as a million people died of this deprivation, more than half of them children, in what Americans called ‘peacetime.’”11 Nevermind Clinton’s bombing campaign in the Balkans; but that’s a whole other topic.

The fallacy that 9/11 was a surprise attack out of the blue that never could have been predicted has been parroted around U.S. lore for so long, it is refreshing to have Horton recount the plain as daylight rationales for why anyone would want to attack the U.S. This was readily admitted by a, “senior official in the George W. Bush administration [who] admitted, [F]atwas from Osama… cited the effects of sanctions on Iraqi children and the presence of U.S. troops as a sacrilege that justified his jihad.”12 In a brutally honest fashion, Horton reminds us that, “September 11 was part of the cost of containing Saddam. No containment, no U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. No U.S. troops there, then bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass.”13

There are numerous additional accounts of grievances against the U.S. leading up to 9/11, but let’s take that part of out of the equation and act as if history began on 9/11 and that it truly was an unforeseeable event. There was a chance to end this war quickly. Multiple offers from the Taliban were made to extradite bin Laden to the U.S., but they were turned down. A few days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, the Taliban even went so far as to agree to hand over bin Laden to any country, without evidence. This was still not good enough to stave off the U.S. invasion.14 This was never about getting bin Laden, much to the chagrin of every freedom loving, flag waving, red-blooded American, no, this was about creating a never ending war. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even stated as much, according to journalist Bob Woodward, “Rumsfeld worried that a coalition built around the goal of taking out al Qaeda would fall apart once they succeeded in that mission, making it more difficult to continue the war on terrorism elsewhere. In other words, if the U.S.A. won by defeating the enemy, the war would be over. So, to avoid that problem, they would have to be far more ambiguous about just who was to be included as enemy targets in the war.”15 We let bin Laden get away. This was deliberate, intentional and this is the devastating heart of the matter, not six months after 9/11, the hunt for bin Laden had been all but called off. From the book:

…whatever the motivation, the decision made to focus on hiring local warlords to fight the Taliban regime, instead of focusing on finding Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda allies as quickly as possible, provided enough time for many in bin Laden’s core group, those most responsible for the deadly attack on the United States, to make a run for the border — east toward Pakistan. In December 2001, the CIA, Army Delta Force and their Northern Alliance allies finally tracked down and cornered al Qaeda at Tora Bora in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. This was where the plan to outsource America’s fight to the Northern Alliance and other associated warlords proved to be a disaster. Warlord Hajji Zaman later laughed that he had taken millions in cash from the CIA and then helped escort Osama bin Laden and his friends across the border anyway.
Berntsen [former CIA Field Commander] was sent home in the middle of the ongoing battle of Tora Bora in mid-December. He later wrote in Jawbreaker that he just could not understand why the generals and politicians were so reluctant to send troops. Days and weeks had gone by with Berntsen and his men repeatedly requesting, even begging, for reinforcements over and over again.
If the Bush government had sent the marines after al Qaeda at Tora Bora, they could have captured or killed them in short order. But, would the American people have cared about all the claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Laden if bin Laden was already dead and the war was over, justice done, mission accomplished? Who would have supported the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan if al Qaeda’s leaders had already been killed?16

And so began our forever war.

Distortions of Power:

There is no way to sum up the tragedy that has befallen the people of Afghanistan in the ensuing years after bin Laden “slipped” across the border into Pakistan and the full weight of the U.S. military apparatus came crashing down on them. The only thing left holding the country together is the continued influx of foreign donor states flush with tax money and an endless foreign military presence, which unequivocally, the locals despise and that which is one of the most important reasons for continued insurgent attacks in Afghanistan and so-called “homegrown terrorism” back in the mainland U.S. We are always told the simplistic answer that its radical Islam. It’s never that we blew up someone’s family; it’s never the fact that the U.S. is the foreign invader.

What is left in Afghanistan is a plurality state with never ending instability due to continued American presence which only serves to induce continual proxy wars from local competing factions. There is an oft-repeated claim from the talking heads that once the U.S. leaves, civil war will break out. This is a true statement, but one that is guaranteed by the fact that the U.S. has propped up the National Unity Government with boatloads of cash and the might of its military; without it, that government could not exist on its own. Despite our lofty intentions, “whether the U.S. government throws in the towel now or years from now, the result will be the same: the Pashtun population will throw off whatever degree of rule the National Government attempts to maintain over them, and then, in all probability, they will be right back where they were in the 1990s, with a bloody civil war, possibly leading to Taliban dominance in all but the far north of the country.”17 Furthermore, since the puppet government exists solely because of the U.S. and other outside factions that are propping it up, the very people who are the alleged benefactors are completely left out of the process. There is zero accountability and no recourse for the people of Afghanistan. Adding insult to injury, once we do leave, all the “good work” of infrastructure projects, schools and roads (among other multifarious projects) that existed only with outside support will fall into disrepair and non-existence, leaving nothing but a wasteland ghost town.18 This should be an obvious question: how could anyone have faith in an illegitimate puppet government propped up by a foreign invader? Not only that, why would anyone trust the U.S., who will undoubtedly overthrow any “democratically elected” leader that isn’t to their liking? For reference, take a look at the recent history of Egypt, where “the loyal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was overthrown in a popular revolution in 2011, which ended when the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency and a bare majority in Parliament. America and Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Egyptian military overthrew the new government in a violent coup and bloody massacre a little more than a year later.”19 Sadly, this is all to common practice in the realm of U.S. foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, there is such a patchwork plurality of factions after thirty years of war, there is no way to back one side without creating an enemy on the other side; there is no way to “win” this war. But, for some reason, leaving is never entertained as an option. In fact, it is roundly dismissed as crazy talk. As with most government programs, reducing the size is never the goal and there is a tremendous incentive to game the system in your favor. Simply provide faulty intelligence, collect your cash and watch your old enemy meet his doom. Apparently, as Horton states, “the conclusion…is always that the government should do more. And when more does not work, it only proves to them that more should have been done sooner and more must be done now and in the future. It is acceptable to adjust strategies or excuses, sure, but never to give up.”20 Hell, I’ll do it. I give up. But, there is so much more to uncover and I encourage you to dig into this heroic and important book on your own. I’ll leave you with this one final passage from the book that really hammers it home. It ultimately comes down to one rampaging empire, drunk on hubris and power and we all just sit back here at home, ever sure to “support the troops,” keep quiet, watch Jeopardy and maybe march around with a pussy hat to “protest” a mean person (never a war), all the while half way across the world people die unimaginably horrible deaths for everyday that we continue this pointless war.

In short, America “fell for it.” U.S. political and military leaders exploited the September 11th attacks to get away with pursuing unrelated agendas, ultimately to the point of imperial over-extension and the detriment of American power, just as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were hoping and betting they would. By granting these leaders the writ to “keep us safe” at any cost in this new, fearful age, the people of this country have instead placed themselves in much greater danger. Our government helped create this international terrorist movement that they then provoked into turning against the American people. Then they exploited the blowback terrorist attacks, using them as an excuse to spread the war to countries that had nothing to do with al Qaeda or their war against America. In playing the role of the rampaging empire, America’s leaders have not only created the space for the spread of bin Ladenite fighters across the Middle East, but have allowed some of these most savage and formerly marginal groups of criminals and terrorists on earth to portray themselves as brave heroes who saw the danger first and would dare to stand up to such overwhelming military power. In doing so, America’s leaders have helped to add tens of thousands of combatants to the enemy’s ranks and guarantee blowback and backdraft against the U.S. and its allies into the indefinite future, all the while using terrorism as an excuse for further erosions of our freedoms. And they did it all in the name of keeping us safe.21

Permission to republish granted by Denver Libertarian.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan