In an email to my father on July 18th, 2013 from my computer on Forward Operating Base Wolverine, I wrote, “This country is the hopeless dream of arrogant experts.” To this day, that line sums up my feelings about the entire war in Afghanistan. Now that the war is decisively over, journalists and historians are hard at work framing how America’s Afghan war will be written into history. The experiences of those who executed the war on the ground are missing from these accounts. I am documenting my experiences because I feel it’s my obligation to future generations.
In the summer of 2013, the U.S. was approaching the end phase of General Stanley McChrystal’s grand counterinsurgency strategy, which was supposed to turn the tide of the war following the U.S. surge in 2009. Counterinsurgency (COIN) begins with the recognition that fighting an insurgency is not just about disrupting networks and killing bad guys, it’s also about building strong government institutions and winning over the civilian population. An insurgency depends on the support of the population. If the population rejects the insurgency, the insurgency can not survive, which is why COIN is frequently summed up as war for the hearts and minds. The often-repeated slogan, clear-hold-build, explains the basic framework of how COIN is implemented. First, clear an area of insurgents, then hold that area, then build civilian infrastructure and security forces. The idea is to deny insurgents any space to operate while building resilient communities to isolate insurgents from a population.
My platoon was deployed to FOB Wolverine in Zabul province, which is Taliban country in the Pashtun tribal heartland. We were conducting Village Stability Operations (VSO)—a bottom-up approach to COIN designed to bridge the gap between the centralized government the U.S. had built and the historically decentralized structures of power that existed in Afghanistan. Village Stability Operations aimed to strengthen relationships between the villages and the district government while building a village defense force, the Afghan Local Police (ALP).
The transfer of power from U.S. forces to the Afghans—which was always conspicuously absent from the slogans of COIN—was the final act in America’s counterinsurgency mission and I had the privilege of front row seats to the finale. My platoon’s mission was to retrograde FOB Wolverine, which housed a few thousand coalition soldiers, down to a manageable size and transition security responsibility to the local Afghan forces. Four months after my arrival, my platoon handed the base to the Afghans, which marked the end of American presence in the district.
Critical to the VSO mission set was Key Leader Engagements (KLE). My platoon would patrol into a village and invite the elders to a Shura (meeting) where we discussed local issues and promoted the district government. Sometimes we brought local government officials along to help forge a relationship. Gaining meaningful trust was difficult for us. It probably didn’t help that the symbol of our troop—which we wore on our hats and our kits—was a crusader cross from a Germanic Teutonic Knights’ battle shield. I’m sure the locals noticed the disparity between our insistence that our war was not a holy war against Islam and the imagery of the crusades we chose to drape ourselves in.
At some point during every Shura, my lieutenant would ask, “Have you seen any Taliban because we’re looking for bad guys?” To no one’s surprise, the answer was always no. The villages were not going to betray the Taliban—it would be against the Pashtun code of honor (Pashtunwali) to do so. Most of the villages had personal relationships with the Taliban, many of whom came from the same places. Plus, the Taliban were known to deliver violent retribution to anyone who was caught talking to the Americans. There was simply no incentive we could provide to gain the loyalty of the locals. The idea that a bunch of crusader-cross-wearing English-speaking white Americans with guns were going to isolate Pashtuns from their Pashtun neighbors by giving them infrastructure projects and a liberal democracy seemed delusional.
I don’t remember many of the issues discussed during those Shuras. However, after I returned home, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal which explained that FOB Wolverine was built on top of a karez system that supplied irrigation water to the surrounding villages. The construction of the base severely damaged the karez and angered the local Afghan farmers whose livelihoods depended on a functional karez system. This bit of information would have been nice to know before my deployment, especially because I was firing warning shots at the locals every morning for trying to take down the exterior constantine wire after we had already moved the base walls inward. Maybe they were just trying to reclaim access to their karez to repair the damages.
The irony was not lost on me when I learned about the karez fiasco. According to the U.S. Army’s Special Warfare Center, VSO should “promote critical local development to improve the quality of life within village communities and districts.” Irrigation is the most critical piece of infrastructure that determines the quality of life in a rural agricultural district. My platoon had the gall to go around to the local villages to discuss local issues in the name of VSO, yet it was likely that the villagers’ biggest issue was our presence on FOB Wolverine.
Our Village Stability mission was predictably insufficient to isolate the Taliban, who roamed freely about the villages when we were gone. We still needed to develop good targets and take the fight to the Taliban. But as our deployment dragged on, our frustration with our inability to generate good targets grew. So we turned our KLEs into a two-part mission. At the time, the Taliban had complete freedom of movement in the early morning hours. They would travel from village to village on a motorcycle, usually—but not always—armed. In response, the district governor banned the use of motorcycles. In classic military logic, we concluded that the only reason anyone would ever be riding a motorcycle in the district was if they were Taliban, and therefore, anyone on a motorcycle could be targeted (and we thought Taliban justice was harsh!).
With that airtight logic, we began setting up our KLE’s by infilling the night before to set up ambush positions overlooking roadways into a village. More often than not we had no luck, and we would head down to the village for the KLE. However, on occasion, we would successfully kill some sorry motorcycle rider, then we’d head back to base. Sometimes an element of our platoon would spot a motorcyclist during or after a KLE and engage the rider with gunfire because nothing tells the locals “we’re here to help” like murdering their cousin during a Shura. Sometimes our recklessness caused so much damage that we never revisited a village; we just chalked it up as another village that would never support the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan.
The crown piece of Village Stability Operations is building a local security force in areas outside the reach of the Afghan National Security Forces. Our platoon was tasked with training recruits for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), who were recruited from the villages in our area of operation.
Like everything else in Afghanistan, training the ALP was just another way for our platoon to check boxes and send reports filled with meaningless numbers to the higher-ups in charge of the war effort. It never mattered whether those numbers reflected reality, all that mattered was that we were winning the war on paper. Our leaders told us the war could be won with just the right amount of ALP trained, ALP checkpoints built, and dollars spent—but they never told us how many, or how any of these metrics translated to the success of the war effort.
For the ALP commander, our training program was a way for him to inflate his roster with ghost soldiers because his funding was connected to the number of policemen under his command. The ALP would send recruits through our training program multiple times and, presumably, the ALP commander would skim the excess funds provided to him off the top. We even found out that some recruits were ALP members from other districts. When we brought this up to our platoon leadership, we were told not to worry about it. Corruption like this is par for the course in Afghanistan.
We had little interest in training the ALP for many reasons, the most important one being that the biggest threat to U.S. troops at the time was green-on-blue attacks (Afghan partner forces turning their guns on American soldiers). The general attitude of our platoon from the lowest ranking guy up to my lieutenant was that we didn’t want to teach the ALP how to shoot straight or any tactics in case they decide to turn their guns on us.
Here’s how our program worked. We met the ALP recruits at our base entrance, where we instructed them to lay down their weapons unloaded. Some of us inspected the weapons, while a few others searched the recruits with metal detectors for stray bullets or bombs, and the rest of us stood back behind barricades in case there was a suicide bomber in the group. The recruits remained separated from their weapons while we transferred them to our shooting range. Unbeknownst to the Afghans, our snipers were tactically placed overlooking the range so that they could shoot any recruit that might attempt an attack. For the most part, the training consisted of pointless exercises designed more for our entertainment than for the benefit of the Afghan recruits.
The weapons portion of the training program included no real instruction. The ALP recruits’ magazines were loaded with five bullets each. The recruits were lined up on the firing line, five at a time, with their unloaded weapons laying on the ground in front of them. The recruits were instructed to pick up the weapons. When ready, we handed each recruit one magazine then we stepped back—with our weapons at the low ready so that we could shoot the Afghan recruit if necessary—and instructed the recruit to fire in the direction of the target. After five terribly placed shots, the recruit was done with his weapons training.
Our paranoia was justified when we learned that an ALP member in our district murdered his fellow policemen at a checkpoint and took off with all the weapons to join the Taliban. I had met this ALP member multiple times, he spoke nearly perfect English, which was strange for an Afghan in a remote district of Zabul Province. Before his murderous rampage, I shared a few lengthy conversations with this ALP member when I was stuck holding security for the construction of another ALP checkpoint.
It was clear that many ALP held deep sympathies for the Taliban. On multiple occasions, the ALP would tell us that another one of their guys had joined the Taliban as if the ALP was simply a farm league for the Taliban to recruit from. VSO often felt like a humiliating exercise of shaking hands with people who would put a bullet in my back if given the opportunity.
It was hard to tell whether the ALP was incompetent or colluding with the Taliban. On one occasion, we visited a checkpoint only to find IEDs buried in plain view within a few hundred yards from the checkpoint, which should have easily been noticed had the ALP at the checkpoint been paying any attention. On another operation, the ALP killed a Taliban fighter then immediately started smashing the Taliban fighter’s cell phone, which made us wonder if those ALP members had something they were trying to hide.
The ALP patrolled around the villages like a bunch of thugs. One day a man came to our base with bruises all over his body. His shoulder was dislocated, which we reduced for him. He explained to us that his injuries were from the ALP beating him to a pulp over some trivial offense. On another occasion, I noticed that the water from our showers had a noxious odor of gasoline that made taking a shower intolerable. Our water service was contracted out to an Afghan with a water truck. The next time he came on base, I confronted him. He explained that the ALP had taken his truck to transport excess gasoline they had received from the Americans. The ALP had given him no choice, they simply threatened him and took his truck by force.
Every week we supplied the ALP with about 15 drums of gasoline. We assumed the ALP sold much of it for profit, which we accepted, but it was a pain to bicker with the greedy ALP commander each week over how much free gas he was going to get from us. Something felt wrong about handing over so much taxpayer money to a clearly corrupt organization. Some of us hypothesized that one way or another, a lot of the gas ended up in the possession of the Taliban. The obvious question no one bothered to answer was, what was the ALP going to do when the American gasoline gravy train dried up?
Zero trust existed between us and the ALP. The trust was so low that when we conducted operations with the ALP, we wouldn’t even tell the ALP where we were going or what we were doing until we were about to step off on the operation—even then, we only told them what they needed to know because we had a suspicion that the ALP was tipping the Taliban off. The ALP only tagged along because we were required to meet an Afghan to American ratio for each operation. In theory, this was because the Americans were supposed to mentor the Afghan security forces so that they could be prepared to take over security when we left. In reality, very little mentoring was taking place.
Mistrust was not unique to our platoon nor was it just between the ALP and Americans. Unlike the ALP, the Afghan National Army (ANA) was comprised of soldiers from all over Afghanistan. Often, ANA units had no Pashtuns. The ANA soldiers were instead ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, and many did not even speak Pashto. To the local Pashtuns, the ANA units probably seemed almost as foreign to them as us. The previous platoon had a standoff with the ANA during a village clearance, guns were drawn down on each other over who knows what. My platoon nearly found itself in a similar situation when the ALP protested our demand to enter a home with women in it. In Pashtun culture, it is unacceptable for men to barge into a room full of women. Eventually, we backed off, avoiding what would have been an explosive situation.
If we had entered that house, that would have been the first time we had seen women in the countryside. Women were never visible when we visited villages, they were always confined to their homes. I found this strange, considering women’s rights was one of the big propaganda narratives of the war yet women only seemed to be liberated in the cities where less than thirty percent of Afghans live. Did we not care about women’s rights in the rural villages, or did we realize that fighting for women’s rights is a nice talking point for a western audience but isn’t a winning strategy in the Pashtun countryside? Supposedly, we were fighting a war to rid the villages of the Taliban for the benefit of the Afghans, but most village elders enforced a social code that was remarkably similar to the Taliban’s social code. Whatever the real objectives of the war were, equal rights for the majority of Afghan women was not one of them.
The running joke I shared with my friends was that nothing we do matters because the Taliban is going to take over when we leave. It was a joke but it was also a conviction. We knew how incompetent the ALP was. We knew that the Taliban was transferring all sorts of weapons in our district that we never saw on the battlefield because the Taliban was simply waiting us out. We had also seen firsthand what happens after Americans leave a district.
A few months into our deployment, we planned an operation to go back into the district of Naw Bahar, which the previous SEAL Team had left five months prior. This district was now teeming with Taliban fighters. We helo’d into Naw Bahar on MH-47s loaded with ATVs, then convoyed to an ANA base that previously housed American troops. The next morning, our platoon set up in various overlook positions to disrupt the travel of insurgents. Before long, motorbikes began traveling along the routes, and our guys engaged and killed a handful of the riders. Upon exfil, elements of the platoon were pinned down by DShK fire, before being able to bound away with the help of air support. Luckily no one was killed in the firefight, and the only injury was an ANA soldier who was shot in the thigh who I patched up back at the ANA base before getting him on a medevac helo.
The Taliban in Naw Bahar was strong and confident. It was clear that there was nothing we could do that would permanently change the facts on the ground. We could take and hold the district again and clear every village, but we had already tried that during the surge, and look where it got us 4 years later. It was like trying to dig a hole at the shoreline, progress could be made for some time but eventually, a wave would come and fill the hole back in. Digging harder or faster would make no difference in the end except for a lot more wasted energy.
Once a week, our platoon would convoy to FOB Davis in Qalat for a resupply. It was twenty miles up Highway 1 and it was a miserable trip. It was always the middle of the day in the scorching heat and I was stuck in the back of a MATV with broken A/C. As we approached Qalat from the south, I could see FOB Davis on the far side of the city; it sat high above the city on a tabletop. Adjacent to FOB Davis was the ruins of an ancient base constructed by Alexander the Great. This same terrain feature housed the troops of every great empire that tried to pacify the Afghans: the British, the Russians, and now the Americans. The terrain feature was a perfect location for a base—easily defensible, great visibility on all sides, and a perfect place to observe the activity of the city. No wonder every would-be conqueror snatched it up, it beckoned occupiers like a topographical Trojan Horse.
When we drove through Qalat City, I always thought it was strange that the people seemed to be going about their business as if no war was going on. Their country had been war-torn for so long that it was basically embedded in their DNA to know that soon enough the American base that sat above their city would be just another ruin, a shrine for them to look up at representing every empire that died on that beautiful piece of terrain.
The Afghan concept of time is different from ours. They don’t count the days until their liberation from foreign occupation because they know that it may not be in their lifetime, they just know that it is inevitable. As a collectivist tribal society and an honor culture, they accept that sacrifices of self must be made for the generational struggle for liberation. Americans, on the other hand, expect results within the span of a deployment cycle. With a perspective like the Afghans, time will always be on their side. They will outwait any invader—no matter how powerful—because their time preference is lower. They hate foreign occupiers, they want to rule based on their customs and culture which reaches back a thousand years. It doesn’t matter how much modernity and liberal democracy we try to jam down their throats, it will never stick because it’s not their culture.
The only thing out of place on that brief drive through Qalat City was the faces of the children. Children are the worst liars, they wear their emotions right on their faces. In this case, the children’s faces also translated their parents’ emotions, likely passed on to them in the privacy of their homes. The emotion I read from the faces of those children was pure hatred. The kind of penetrating hatred that forces you to look away in shame. Sometimes the kids threw rocks at our convoy as we passed by, and sometimes a jackass in our platoon would toss a smoke grenade or a CS canister back. It was clear that we were an unwanted presence in their lives. It didn’t matter how much COIN theory General David Petraeus could cook up, the war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people had already been lost. Our mission was futile.
In the weeks and months leading up to our departure from FOB Wolverine, we frantically located every item of value on the base armed with packets of inventory sheets—not for the U.S. military, but for the defense contractor DynCorp, which owned nearly everything on the base. During these exhausting hours of inventory, I put a lot of thought into the Military-Industrial Complex. Here was paper evidence that DynCorp was milking the American taxpayer for everything they could. Afghanistan was crumbling around us but DynCorp was standing there with a collection jar like the taxman in Robinhood. They leased out millions of dollars worth of equipment to the military and they wouldn’t be satisfied until they got every last item back. As a bunch of soldiers worked long hours just to make sure DynCorp got its investment back, it was clear that we lost the war but DynCorp sure didn’t.
In September 2013, our platoon drove off FOB Wolverine for the last time. On the drive off of the base, we took turns guessing how many days until the Taliban occupied our beds. We drove to FOB Davis. After a few days on Davis, we flew two hundred miles northeast to FOB Shank in Logar Province, before finally arriving at our new outpost VSP Baraki Barak. I would spend two more months in Afghanistan losing the war for the hearts and minds in Baraki Barak before redeploying back home.
My deployment was filled with frustration, anger, a few moments of hilarity and excitement, and a constant desire to get back home to enjoy modern life again. But when I finally arrived home, something was missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. America was a letdown, and I wasn’t sure if it was America or my expectations. I still don’t know where that strange depression came from but after a few months, it was gone.
A few months after I returned from my deployment, I was home on leave in Massachusetts and I decided to visit Harvard with a friend. I saw a poster advertising a discussion with an Afghan New York Times journalist called “Afghanistan: The Way Forward” which was taking place that same evening. Of course, I convinced my friend to attend the discussion with me. At the event, I listened to the speaker’s presentation about how strong the Afghan security forces were, how well trained and well funded they were, and how optimistic he was that success was just around the corner. I couldn’t believe the rosy picture he was painting, it was like he was talking about an entirely different country than the one I had just returned from.
During the discussion part of the event, I decided to challenge the journalist respectfully. I told him that I had trained and worked with Afghan security forces in rural districts and that they were woefully incompetent and corrupt. I told him that the numbers of ALP—at least in rural districts—were inflated. I told him about how the Taliban was running rampant in districts that Americans were leaving. And I predicted that the U.S.-backed Government of Afghanistan may hold on to the cities for some time, but the Taliban will take over rural districts as we leave, and in the end retake the whole country. The journalist simply assured me that I was wrong. He was just another arrogant expert who was too committed to his hopeless dream to listen to the perspective of a person charged with implementing that dream. To the rest of the Ivy League-educated audience, I was just some crazy veteran ranting about things I knew nothing about. I was an unwanted nuisance in the room, similar to how those children in Qalat saw me. Others had asked challenging questions—but I was challenging the entire mission.
America has a strange relationship with its veterans. Veterans are glorified: holidays are dedicated to their service, discounts are handed out everywhere, sporting events have become military ceremonies, and everyone says their obligatory “thank you for your service” when they meet a veteran. Most Americans are under the impression that supporting the troops simply means supporting the wars because that’s what the media implies.
When a veteran speaks out against the war, no one is eager to give him a platform. There’s no incentive to be anti-war. There are no giant corporations making huge profits lobbying for peace. Aside from a few notable exceptions, there are almost no think tanks in the Washington beltway looking to decrease America’s military presence in the world. Journalists spend their time gushing over military men with stars on their collar, trading puff pieces for access to the decision-makers, which always results in hawkish coverage of the war with criticisms reduced to minor policy debates and no one asking the obvious big picture questions.
Anti-war veterans are simply ignored, and if addressed at all, they are labeled crazy or unpatriotic. The military constantly reminds its soldiers not to believe their own eyes when analyzing the war because soldiers can’t possibly understand the larger strategy that the ten-gallon heads at the American Enterprise Institute cook up.
Yet we anti-war veterans were right the entire time, and there’s more of us than the media led the public to believe. By 2019, 58% of veterans believed the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. At the end of 2019, the Afghanistan Papers revealed that even the generals and civilian leaders privately admitted to having very little optimism about the war throughout the entire campaign. Somehow, the war chugged along despite no one believing in it. Meanwhile, those courageous enough to expose the brutality of the war, such as Daniel Hale and Chelsea Manning, were punished harshly.
As the emotions of the war in Afghanistan fade, it will leave more space for sober analysis. My biggest concern is that history will be written by the very same people who were responsible for the last twenty years of failure in Afghanistan, and those accounts will blame the failure on a lack of resolve or political will, or a lack of resources or time. Each of these is a convenient lie for leaders to hide behind to avoid accountability. Achieving real accountability requires the effort of veterans because all other institutions have failed the American people. The stories of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan must be documented and studied. Every veteran has a story of the absurdities of the war and the false premises the strategies were built upon.
The war failed because the mission was dead on arrival, not because we stopped trying. There was never a clear vision of what victory even looked like, and almost everything we did was a contradiction. We built a system of government that the average Afghan didn’t want. We put people in power who were more corrupt and arbitrary than the Taliban. We said we were fighting for hearts and minds while killing the family and community members of the people we were trying to win over. We pretended we were fighting for human rights while turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of our allies. We bribed Afghans with infrastructure projects while destroying the fabric of their society. We brought violence and fear to their villages in the name of peace. We approached the Afghans with paranoia and mistrust but expected them to trust us. We pretended that those whose loyalties could be bought were the worthy beneficiaries of the nation we were building. Most egregiously, we assumed we had a God-given right to impose our will on a country of forty million people, living on the other side of the planet, for the past twenty years.
We must demand accountability. We must document the history of the war properly. We must learn the real lessons of the Afghanistan war. For this to be possible, veterans must tell their stories—not the stories about valor and glory, but the stories of the absurd and the cruel, about the contradictions and the hypocrisies, the stories that expose the lies the war was built upon. If we fail to get this right, we doom our children and grandchildren to the same fate that our generation of warfighters met—sacrificing everything only to meet an inevitable and humiliating defeat.
Kenny MacDonald served as an enlisted Navy SEAL from 2009 to 2015. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 as a member of SEAL Team Ten. He was a medic in his platoon. Since his honorable discharge from the military, Kenny has been a vocal critic of the Global War on Terror. You can follow him on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.