The U.S. in Afghanistan: A Fractally Stupid War

Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy is a gripping account of the war in Afghanistan circa 2009. Reading the book made me want to facepalm every five minutes. Like a fractal, the stupidity exists at every single zoom level: from the tactics of the soliders patrolling the streets, to the mission of the platoons taking a city, to the overall theater strategy, all the way up to the objectives of America herself.

The First Delusion: The War Objectives

Ben Anderson recounts how a Captain Sparks gave a rowsing, hoo-rah filled pep-talk to his troops before embarking on a major campaign. Sparks summarized the official reasons for the mission:

Islamic fundamentalism has caused problems all over the world…They’re [the Taliban] controlling the people, destroying their freedom, imposing a way of life that is not comfortable. They are not free. At the tactical level this operation is about the people. The people of Marjah every day live under the iron fist of Taliban law.’

It’s more important not to hurt the civilians than it is to kill the enemy…. Most importantly, what it comes down to is: we’re the good guys. We’re here to spread freedom throughout the world. We’re here to ensure our way of life at home and give everyone else in the world a chance at democracy.’ … We’re about to … go out and free these people from an oppressive fist that they’ve been dealing with for a long time. Victory is inevitable. When the enemy chooses to fight us on the battlefield, we’ll win the direct firefight right now with overwhelming surgical firepower. Destroy him, immediately, so that he doesn’t come back tomorrow and get in the way with the civilians.

…when I go home to them [my family], I want them to be proud of what I did over here. I don’t want them to feel ashamed because I’m the new Haditha story.

Those on the anti-war left tend to be very cynical about U.S. intentions to bring “freedom” and “democracy” to Afghanistan. But I actually think that political and military leadership did intend to leave Afghanistan a better place than they found it.

The problem is that “intentions” count for little in life. What matters is pressure. There were in fact real intentions to help build roads and schools for the Afghans, to have Marines build relations with villagers. But when forced to choose between helping the Afghans or helping the troops, the American chain of command is always going to choose benefiting the troops, because the pressure comes from the voters. A six month tour of duty is too short to build relationships with villagers. But it is long enough to burn out the troops, and family back home wants their boys not to be away for too long. Thus any relations were built were quickly lost. When Marines need to clear out IED’s, the chain of command will give the go ahead to blow up the houses of villagers. When the government asks for funds to build bridges, Congress drags its feet. When the military asks for more safety equipment for the soldiers, Congress rushes it through – who wants to be against keeping our boys safe?

The American leadership did not secretly plot some black-hearted corporate imperialism. They meant what they said. The real problem was that the goal of bringing freedom and democracy to Afghanistan was completely crazy, and the execution was even more insane.

Freedom means nothing if brigands rob you blind and men rape your daughter. Marines giving out candy is a hollow gesture when the mere presence of Marines means land mines, bombing, and war. Trying to establish both a strong national government and a democracy, at the same time, was a logical contradiction. Nations are forged by a strong leader, who unites people by force.

Since the objectives were impossible, the result was years of bloodletting that accomplished nothing.

Building the Afghan Army

By 2009, the American objective was to pacify Afghanistan, build the Afghan army, and prepare for a transition of control over to the Afghan army.

Throughout history, the normal logic of building an army is as follows. The solider is enticed to join an army because the salary is worth the overall risk of death. But in the moment of battle, the obvious incentive is for the soldier to defect. The risk of death at that moment is worth no salary. Thus most armies have extremely strong penalities for defecting during battle - at minimum imprisonment, and often execution. 1 Armies with little esprit de corp, in which soldiers bear no social penalty for defecting, must compensate by making the formal penalty extra harsh. Naturally, the Afghan army is going to be a mercenary army, since no concept of a nation worth dying for previously existed.

Unfortunately, the Americans clutched to the insane idea that they were only there to help. They were midwifing the birth of the Afghan nation, not forging the nation. The Americans were only helping to achieve what the Afghans really wanted.

Of course, what the actual members of the Afghan military wanted was a paycheck and to not to get blown up. Anderson recounts multiple times when the Afghan National Army (ANA) refused orders, or refused to fight, and the Americans do nothing about it.

After one battle, Anderson speaks with Major David:

I’d have had an easier time if I’d had only had British troops under my command. The ANA have come on leaps and bounds but their command and control isn’t quite as advanced as ours. My men took significant risks yesterday to push them forward. Or should I say pull them forward? As such, it’s a significantly harder battle to wage.’ While their job was supposed to be to act as mentors for the Afghan Army, they were still commanding them. When I asked what had happened to the ANA’s company commander, Major David couldn’t quite stop himself from breaking into a huge smile. He was a bit more diplomatic than most of his men: ‘He manages to locate himself in the safer rear areas on most occasions. Yesterday, he was not present and I had to command his companies.’ (page 41)

Any sane leader would court martial the absentee Afghan commander for his derelicion and cowardice. If the goal of the American presence is to build an Afghan force, but the commanders are not doing what it takes to build such a force, then American soldiers are dying for naught.

Anderson recounts a time with British soldiers:

We walked to the old British patrol base. The marines were working in a long line, like a chain gang, filling sand bags. The Afghan soldiers sat in an outbuilding, three feet away from the marines, smoking and watching, not caring what anyone thought about them not helping. (p. 247)

These lazy soldiers should have been flogged. But they were not.

Another time Major David tells Rocky to clear out some Taliban in the trees. The ANA captain refuses:

Rocky, the ANA Captain, didn’t want to clear Rahim Kalay, because he thought the Taliban had just moved into some nearby trees, and were waiting to attack. ‘These poor soldiers have not come here to die in vain. War has its own tactics and I am not going to be in the front. I’m not a boy of fear , I wouldn’t go back to the womb of my mother from where I have come. I would obey you and go to anywhere you send me, even unarmed, because you are my boss. If I don’t go you can shoot me but please let us fight this war with our own tactics. The enemy has entered those orchards. If I move forward I will be destroyed.’ Major David, one of the most thoughtful and considered soldiers I’d ever met, lost his patience. He interrupted this speech, snapping: ‘The best thing is just to do what you’re told’ and walked away.

That was translated as ‘Yes, that’s fine, do whatever you want to do.’

(Note that the interpretter misinterpretted the American’s command - this was a recurring theme in the book.)

The official fiction is that the Americans and the Afghan National Army (ANA) were partners. Thus the Americans could not order ANA troops what to do. The need to maintain this fiction, thus made it impossible to build a strong Afghan Army. To build such an army, you would need to issue orders and court-martial those who do not follow the orders. Since the entire rationale for staying in Afghanistan was to build up the national government, this means that need to maintain a lie negated all the work the Americans were doing, and made all the blood spilt go to waste.

Even worse, often the Afghan National Army troops simply recieved the weapons and training, and then drifted off to join the resistance:

There was such desperation to increase the Afghan National Army’s numbers (‘ There’s a certain quality to quantity’, General Nicholson had said at the ROC drill) that just about anyone could get in, especially since the desertion rate was so high. Recruits received three months’ introductory training, which for anyone with questionable loyalties meant three months of being taught how their opponents operated. Often, they used the weapons and uniforms they’d been given to attack real security force members or their foreign mentors. This happened more and more , suggesting both the police and the army had been heavily, albeit easily , infiltrated. But the problem was not properly addressed, because that meant admitting that the absurdly ambitious goal of having a national army able to secure every province of Afghanistan , on its own, by 2014, was a fantasy. But that goal was the exit strategy, so publicly, everyone had to say it was plausible. Shortly after Operation Mushtaraq, President Obama said something he could only have believed if he’d been badly misled: ‘Not only have we succeeded in driving the Taliban out of Marjah but it also is a model of the partnership between US forces and Afghan forces.’ (p. 172)

Lies, mistranslations and games of telephone

A recurring theme of Anderson’s book is mistranslations. Over and over, the interpreter softens the words on both sides, thus giving the military a completely perverse sense of what is going on. Only when Anderson got back home, and had his tapes professionally translated, did he realize how badly the troops were mislead.

There were also lies that got reported up the chain. For instance:

They thought they’d killed around eighty Taliban fighters. I regularly heard such assertions but the overall numbers of Taliban never seemed to drop. I never saw anywhere near enough bodies or blood to back up the claims of enemy casualties. The Taliban were very good at evacuating their dead and injured, but not that good. I assumed they exaggerated their losses on the radio, perhaps to ease their escape or possibly to keep the British focused on buildings that had long been abandoned. (page 43)

And in another case, the Afghan National Army was credited with retaking a city, when in fact, the operation had been American led. And of course, taking the city meant nothing, since as soon as they left, the rebels returned and punished those who had collaborated with the Americans:

General McChrystal’s claim that Mushtaraq was Afghan-led, a claim repeated by President Obama, a claim widely-spread and never seriously challenged, a claim backed by a massive media campaign, was the biggest fallacy of the entire operation. The Afghans were nowhere near ready to lead any military operation, leave alone in the Pashtun south. Certainly not one as big as Mushtaraq. Sadly, facing a public that had lost both interest and hope, it was too easy to say the Afghans had led and would soon be leading completely. That meant that the troops could come home. I returned to Marjah just after McChrystal’s visit, roughly four months since the marines had first landed there. Bravo Company was in the last month of its tour. The new district governor, Abdul Zahir, was revealed to have spent time in a German prison; he’d allegedly stabbed his son as he tried to prevent his mother being beaten. There were regular battles and IED strikes, and there were many reports of local people who co-operated with the marines being intimidated, beaten, or even murdered. (p. 175)

The lies or delusions go all the way up to the top. Anderson continues:

These basic facts, and what they say about the future, are so obvious they are barely discussed among those who live and work in Afghanistan. It would be unnecessary, gratuitous even, to point them out, were it not for the fact that, officially, the policy is working. ‘We are meeting our goals’, said President Obama. ‘We have basically thrown the Taliban out of their home turf in Kandahar and Helmand provinces’, said the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. This last claim was jaw-dropping several times over, because it was repeated by many journalists I had once admired and respected. And plans are ‘on track’ for Afghan national forces to take charge of security by 2014. These, and many other dreamily upbeat claims, sometimes make me wonder if I ever saw the Afghan war at all. In the war I did see, nowhere has been cleared of the Taliban. Armed men are no longer seen in the (literally) few square kilometres around the urban district centres that were focussed on but that is all. Even within those areas, the Taliban attend, unannounced, most of the shuras held by foreign troops. They have access to the population, often because they are the population, and they can still plant IEDs within a short walking distance of most bases, which they do with barely-believable frequency.

Rules of Engagement

The Americans and Britsh did indeed hold to the rules of engagement. These rules were likely stricter than have ever been seen in warfare. But these rules merely prolonged the war and encouraged the Taliban to use civilians as shields:

The rules of engagement meant the marines couldn’t fire on anyone unless they saw an undeniably hostile act being committed. General McChrystal had made the prevention of civilian casualties the top priority, even if it meant the marines took more casualties themselves. He called it ‘courageous restraint’. The Taliban had already worked out how to use it to their advantage, moving around without revealing weapons, mobile phones or radios. (p. 94)

Day three in Marjah . The Forward Air Controller, Ben Willson, was almost having a nervous breakdown….What drove Ben to the verge of that nervous breakdown was that he requested up to forty air strikes a day but almost all were denied. The few approvals that came through took so long – one took two hours, by which time the planes had run out of fuel and flown away – that the little figures he saw on the laptop screen laying IEDs simply escaped. Ben, like all the other forward air controllers in Afghanistan, had to go through five levels of approval for an air strike, including a lawyer and ending with the general and his staff. (p. 130)

One American officer recounted:

’But we always try to minimise collateral damage. Yesterday, I agree we were reasonably lucky that the family weren’t injured but these are the risks in this kind of combat. When the ANA spoke to that family afterwards, they said the Taliban had forced them to stay in that compound. They are very canny. They understand, probably more than our public at home, that any collateral damage plays directly into their hands. The civilians yesterday said that the Taliban said “we won’t kill you, we’re just here to protect you”, but they also made them stay in the compound, knowing that they would probably be killed or injured by the coalition air strike.’ (page 41)

Ben Anderson later writes about trying to target rebels who are laying an IED:

They [the marines] were scared of making the wrong call because everyone thought that the lawyers now decided how wars were fought. They were afraid they’d end up as the subjects of lengthy investigations, and could even face prison. (p. 154)

The four figures on the laptop screen walked north, to a building they’d used for the last three days. They’d now been tracked for forty-five minutes. Picc and Nascar received initial approval, then set up a live feed to the general and his staff, back at Camp Leatherneck, so they could give the final approval. It took Nascar twenty minutes to make contact. Several marines had gathered around Nascar, Picc and the laptop. I asked why he couldn’t get approval when they’d seen four men laying an IED. ‘That’s an outstanding question’, said Nascar, not amused. The figures were digging the road again. Greenlief said this was exactly what they’d been seeing, four or five times a day, for the last three days. He said that two guys buried the IED, while two stood sentry at either side of the road. As soon as something appeared in the air above them, they’d move women and children alongside, making it impossible to get air strikes approved. (p. 155)

One case Anderson recounted was particular tragic, and demonstrated the insanity of trying to police an entire country by using marines who rotate every few months: A couple Afghans had helped out a marine platoon in identifying IED’s. These Afghans were known to the marines, and thus were relaxed about farming and digging in their own fields, in sight of the marines. But then a new batch of marines rotated in. They saw the farmers digging, thought they were planting IED’s, and shot them dead.

Winning the hearts and the minds of Afghans

The American military certainly made an effort to win the proverbial hearts and minds. For instance, they would attend Shura’s, the meetings of village elders. They would dole out money to compensate for damages, they tried to create a police force. But such actions meant nothing. The residents could never ally with the Americans, because they knew the Americans would leave, and the Taliban would remain, and the Taliban would kill them for collaborating. Furthermore, the American talk of “democracy” and “freedom” was meaningless. They simply wanted order, peace, and no crime, which is something the Americans could not provide.

Since the American’s were in fact also fighting a war, any attempts to make peace with the civilivians took a back seat. And the act of fighting war meant many marines hated the the Afghans for harboring militants who planted I.E.D’s. Troops generally wanted to spend as a little time out in the open as possible due to their own fears for safety.

When walking around a city, Anderson heard people say:

‘The situation is getting worse day by day. We are afraid. Our women and children are being martyred. Americans are entering houses. When they see someone with a beard they accuse him of being Taliban . America should pull out its military and leave us with our elders and with our Muslim way of life. We don’t want them to be slapping this man or that man. Afghanistan is not going to be built this way. Where does the Taliban come from? The Taliban are the sons of this land, they don’t come from outside. The situation in the bazaar is better but as soon as I leave there is no security. The Americans were driving their tanks, someone’s stall was knocked over and dragged along the road. His money and his phone cards went everywhere. The marines drove on and didn’t care.’

When Americans did rule a city, they failed at the very basic task of maintaining law and order. To hear the high-minded talk of freedom and democracy is farcial when America could not even bring basic law. As Anderson quotes a resident of Marjah:

**‘When the Taliban were here it was fully secure. No one was allowed to steal or commit robbery. If anyone was caught stealing they would pour used engine oil on his head and parade him in the bazaar, so no one would dare commit robbery. I had a shop in this market, selling melon. I would leave them out at night and nobody would dare steal them.’ ‘If someone comes out of the house to use the toilet [a field] they are shot. Two people are not able to sit together at night.’ ‘I don’t think it will be of any use if they build a bridge or a school. I think it will be very good if they pack up and leave.’ **

‘We’ve been stuck in the house’, said the son. ‘We listened to the radio and they said to stay indoors. We haven’t been able to go and wash at the mosque. We’ve had to wash like women.’ When they’d finished, I asked him what life in Marjah had been like under the Taliban. ‘When the Taliban governed, there were no robberies. And they ran quick and fair tribunals to settle disputes. If you left them alone, they left you alone.’ An Afghan soldier who understood Pashtu listened and didn’t look the least bit surprised. I’d heard so much about life in Marjah under the Taliban that I asked everyone I could what it had been like. They all said similar things. ‘It was fine’; ‘it was not like under the government’; ‘there was no crime, no thieves and no robberies’. The only bad things I heard about the Taliban were that they smoked too much marijuana and didn’t spend enough time with their families. (p. 122)

Interestingly, a few Afghans in the national army revealed their methods for how they would handle insurgent IEDs:

I’d also caught a glimpse of how the Afghan National Army was likely to operate after NATO forces left. A small ANA unit had charged ahead of the American soldiers and found all the IEDs in a small village in less than an hour. ‘How did you do it?’ asked the American captain, astounded. ‘Did you offer the locals $50 for each IED they revealed, like we trained you?’ ‘No’, said the ANA captain, excitedly, ‘we told them “show us the IEDs or start digging your own grave”.’

When I told one Hazara man, paid just $ 700 a month, what I’d seen, he said: ‘Man, the Americans are being too soft down there . They need to go into the villages and say “if we see one Taliban here or if you help them once, we’ll flatten every building”. The problems would end that day.’

As a result, the Afghan natives generally raised no hand against the Taliban. In fact, they offered the Taliban help:

He [an American marine] told me that just before I’d come back, a local imam, who had been given more than $ 65,000 for repairs to his mosque, had helped a Taliban commander avoid arrest. The marines had reliable intelligence that the commander was in the imam’s village; they searched every building except the imam’s house. The imam agreed his house could be searched but asked if he could first usher the women into a separate room. The commander, the marines later found, was amongst them, wearing a burqua. ‘This is nothing against the people of Afghanistan’, Hillis told me, ‘but I fucking hate the people of Marjah.’

And of course the Afghan’s made the right bet, to bet on the Taliban. Four months after the Americans captured Marjah, things were not good:

There were regular battles and IED strikes, and there were many reports of local people who co-operated with the marines being intimidated, beaten, or even murdered.

Also keep in mind that the Afghan National Army was made of a different tribe than many of the towns they were occupying. Thus many in the army had no restraint in having their way with the town residents:

The aim was to show the people why they should side with the Afghan government and reject the Taliban’s rule. But the only representatives of that government were the army and the police, who wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for the Marines. The people were being shown what they already knew: your government is incapable of looking after you, so don’t burn any bridges with the Taliban. Even if the Taliban had been vanquished, there were few signs that the government would be embraced and plenty that it was hated and feared. People approached marines in the bazaar, saying: ‘Please don’t leave us alone with those guys’, referring to the police. The same thing had happened in every town I’d seen cleared. The fact that the people being liberated were asking for protection from those we were fighting to introduce ought to have raised obvious questions. But it was too late in the day to admit such a terminal flaw in policy. (p. 146)

The Americans promised the construction of schools and infrastructure. But then they had to stop, since the Taliban kept killling contractors. What little construction there was, occured only in the major city centers, while 90% of the population was rural. When attending one Shura, in which the Americans made more promises for more aid, “one man said this was the eighteenth shura he’d been to. He’d heard it all before and nothing ever appeared.” To add final insult and injury, the Americans did confiscate opium, one of the few sources of wealth that was actually viable.


After invading Afghanistan in 2001 and destroying the terrorist camps, there were two paths the U.S. could have taken:

1) They could have knocked some heads together, wiped the camps off the map, killed a bunch of Taliban, then gotten the heck out. Let the Taliban retake the country, just make it clear that if they ever host terrorist camps again, the marines will be back to crack some skulls. Then ban virtually all travel from Afghanistan to the United States. Want to go spend time in an “outdoor survival camp” in Afghanistan? Fine, but you are never coming back to the America. Many commentators argue that America cannot isolate the problem, you cannot withdraw into fortress America. But that is flatly untrue. The problem can be quarantined. Doing so is much cheaper and more humane than invading the country and pusuring a 12-plus year war.

2) Run the standard imperialist playbook. In each sector of Afghan, simply pick the strongest tribal warlord, and say, “You’re in charge. You must keep the roads safe, provide justice according to your customs, refrain from blowing up millenia old statues, refrain from beheading women, and provide no safe harbor to any members of Al Qaida. Do that, and we’ll support your rule with funds and arms. Fail to do that, and we will forcibly remove you. Should we trace terrorists back to your villages, we will kill you and your family.” Since the tribal warlord is not going anywhere, he is actually in a position to root out bad guys and restore order. Ruling this way is perfectly scalable. American troops do not need to police the country, they would only rarely be needed to take out a rogue warlord or help an ally warlord who was under duress. To the extent that a national army is needed, it should be Afghan under the command and control of American officers. Afghan army soliders who defect or fail to obey orders would be court martialed.

Of course, America, land of the free, and enemy of imperialism since 1776, did not run the imperialist playbook. Nor did she run the quick withdrawal playbook. Instead her strategy was based on delusion and myth. The strategy was based on the fiction of the Afghan army as partner, the fiction of Afghanistan as an actual nation.

And so America has fought a war for 14 years, all the while binding herself up with conditions that made it impossible to win. The prosecution of this war has been insane.

Reading Anderson’s book can give you a more vivid picture of the war than I can convey through this post. And you too can experience face-palms every five minutes. Purchasing the book also helps support such courageous war journalism.

  1. First-world armies with high es spirit de corps can get away with mere imprisonent, loss of accumulated benefits, and social ostracization.