Disastrous Blundering: A War in Afghanistan Reading List

Since its first issue in 2004, n+1 has been committed to publishing clear-eyed writing about the endless and ongoing war on terror. This week, as the US presence in Afghanistan comes to some kind of end, we’re looking back at pieces from the archives about the origins, consequences, and failures of the US’s long and catastrophic military occupation of Afghanistan—a project that Richard Beck, in 2017, memorably attributed to “a combination of historical ignorance and disastrous blundering.”

A Combination of Historical Ignorance and Disastrous Blundering by Richard Beck

Worse than this basic political misreading was America’s failure to account for the way its military presence in Afghanistan would distort the country’s politics. That the appearance of the mightiest army in world history in an economically undeveloped country—one organized to a large extent around tribal allegiances—would have a seismic effect on that country’s politics should not have been any kind of a surprise. Yet the US military was blindsided again and again by the effects of its own presence.

Defund the Global Policeman by Stuart Schrader (from Issue 38)

Even in a single country, like Afghanistan, it is unclear where the ultimate responsibility for training and equipping police forces rests. No US official maintains paramount oversight. Instead, an ombudsman, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, is left to calculate costs — $137 billion total spent on reconstruction since 2001, with at least $21 billion since 2005 spent on police, plus since 2001 over $8 billion more appropriated to control narcotics — and to catalog US mistakes. Among his conclusions: the United States was “ill-prepared,” resources were “wasted,” and the resulting police capabilities remain “grossly inadequate.”

Base Culture by Lyle Jeremy Rubin (from Issue 33)

I now conceptualize the society I came from and the war to which I went as part of the same grotesque amusement park ride. If I have discovered anything since my homecoming, it is not that I never came home. It is not that my soul resides in Afghanistan. It is that my home has lost its peaceful veneer, stripped bare, like Twentynine Palms. An American who leaves for war never leaves America. The war that is America, rather, comes to the American. The war is the society and the society is the war, and one who sees that war sees America.

The Violence Is the Victory by Jessie Kindig

More recent examples of trophy collecting continue to emerge out of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The Abu Ghraib digital photographs that surfaced in May 2004 showed American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, giving thumbs-ups in front of a human pyramid of prisoners, smiling and holding the end of a leash around the neck of an Iraqi man. In November 2011, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was convicted by court-martial of leading an Army unit in the sport-killings of Afghan civilians, and the evidence included photographs soldiers took while posing with dead bodies. In January 2012, four Marines filmed themselves posing with and urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.

The Drone Philosopher by Marco Roth (from Issue 17)

The asymmetry of the conflict — our safety, their vulnerability — debases even the most well-intentioned American writing about the war on terror. When it comes to actually committing thoughts to paper and attempting to make an existentially responsible job of it, my sense is that no matter what register I choose — polemical, realist, satirical, exoticizing — it all comes out wrong in the end. With so much real suffering occurring for so many stupid reasons, my very civilian efforts to picture the war as it now enters its twelfth year become obscene by their very nature as imaginative acts.

A Very High Degree of Certainty in Future Military Operations by Daniel Bessner

H.R. McMaster is one of the United States’ most astute theorists of modern warfare. Unlike so many other military thinkers, he understands that history is complex, contingent, and irrational, and that no amount of technological superiority could tame the real world’s unpredictable dynamism. He also rightly feels an ethical responsibility to the people who live in countries the United States invaded. So how could he have gotten it so wrong? Why, in spite of his sophistication, did his solutions to the American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately fail to produce even medium-term victory?

Why Are We in the Middle East? by Richard Beck (from Issue 26)

The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both officially advertised as nation-building projects, so it makes little sense that the people who planned them shortchanged the nation-building part. The US failed to appreciate the full depth of the difficulties facing democracy’s emergence in those countries. “Time and again,” Bacevich writes, “when confronting situations of daunting political complexity, the United States has personalized the issue.” In no case has “the decapitation strategy,” as Bacevich calls it, delivered the promised results.

Here and There, by Keith Gessen and Megan K. Stack

I just felt really lost. I understand now that when you cover a war there is a period of time after you have left the war zone, you feel cut off, you feel strange, you feel uncomfortable, you’re sort of retroactively coping with a lot of things that you’ve seen, things that you experienced that maybe you weren’t totally aware of at the time. When I first got back from Afghanistan I didn’t know what I was experiencing, I didn’t have any frame of reference, I felt so out of sorts and really lost. I had been out of the country for some very crucial months. I didn’t get back until January [of 2002]. The country had gone through a shift in public discourse, of the way we were thinking about politics and our lives.

Coalition of the Willing by the Editors (from Issue 34)

When Trump took power, he inherited a rationale for global war that had been worked out and institutionalized by the two Presidents who preceded him and that had the full support of both political parties. All of Washington has spent the past eighteen years working to expand the set of circumstances under which it’s acceptable for white people to observe and harass and kill Muslims, and to minimize the justifications that are required to do so. To date, the climate of hatred and fear they have produced is the 21st century’s most important bipartisan achievement.

Special Journey to Our Bottom Line by Elizabeth Schambelan (from Issue 34)

These hyperbolic archetypes are the true ideals of reactionary American masculinity, embodying a dynamic equipoise between transgression and authoritarianism. We should take fraternity hazing seriously as a kind of counterinsurgent practice in its own right, a violent resocialization that better equips young men to wield privilege, put down challenges to existing hierarchies, and police the status quo—which is what is happening whenever a bunch of frat guys decides to commit a rape or a hate crime or to express their “revolutionary creed” via some sort of offensive provocation. Such acts constitute participation in the irregular warfare by which privilege has always propagated and defended itself.

Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy; or, Heroes Without War by Mark Greif (from Issue 1)

The hagiographic literature of special operations forces in Afghanistan is both unilluminating and extensive. Many of the Afghan engagements are classified, but the few that are not resemble storybook tales. Heroes come roaring out of a curtain of precision explosions—as at Mazar-i-Sharif—on horseback, surrounded by faithful Northern Alliance fighters, to overwhelm a Taliban stronghold. Or heroes radio home the GPS coordinates for targets, or paint them with lasers, and moments later the enemy vehicles, or houses, or men, are vaporized by munitions dropped from Stealth bombers; the heroes melt back into the landscape, blending in with the natives. Rumsfeld himself, in a policy article in Foreign Affairs, likened the new forces of transformation to an opportunity to take an M-16 back to the Middle Ages. You wouldn’t joust with the knights you met—you’d machine-gun them. Such was the curious charm of the special forces in Afghanistan.

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