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Why We Lost Afghanistan

Regardless of who wins this election in a few years the final planes carrying the last soldiers will shake off Afghanistan's dust and take to the sky. They will leave behind a limited number of advisers, ex-military civilian contractors and a whole bunch of diplomats running out the clock in Kabul. A few years later when Islamist mobs are roaming the streets and rocket attacks on the US embassy have become routine, the helicopters on the roof will be back and the surviving diplomats will be on their way to new assignments in more peaceful parts of the world like Baghdad and Cairo.

The war in Afghanistan is lost and that loss is mostly unspoken. Had Obama never been elected then the left, in coordination with their Democratic big brothers, might have elevated the defeat to the level of another Vietnam. But that dream, nurtured in the early years of the Bush Administration, is a done deal after the Son of Jimmy Carter who ran on a platform of beating the Taliban. Instead of another Vietnam, the long war will be an unremarked defeat.

Neither side wants to talk about it and the American people just want to leave. The ending is written the cemeteries are full and all that's left is to shake off the dust and go home.

Defeats however have to be learned from and no one intends to learn the lessons of Afghanistan. The people responsible for 1,500 deaths in implementing a directive to beat the Taliban without breaking a single fingernail on an Afghan civilian, even if he's a Taliban gunman hiding behind a Burqa, will not pay the price for this. They will go on to lucrative gigs as lobbyists or leadership trainers, herding corporate executives around golf courses and trading on anecdotes about the time they almost came under fire.

They will not be held accountable, because when they sacrificed 1,500 American soldiers they were just following orders and the orders came from generals and the generals were following orders from Valerie Jarrett and Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and the entire diploarchy on a desperate quest to win the war and end the occupation by getting the Taliban to the negotiating table and getting Obama to the Mission Accomplished jet in time for the election.

There's no General Westmoreland to hang here. The closest thing to him is General McChrystal, a man who badly wanted to be the hip cool general, the Obama of Afghanistan, and cost far more lives than General Custer did in the process. McChrystal was just following the new trend that said that wars aren't won by violence, but by winning hearts and minds changing social conditions. The new warrior was no longer a soldier, but a social worker, a diplomat and a comparative religions scholar. And if 1,500 social workers had to die so that the Afghans would come to love us... then so be it.

The war in Afghanistan was lost because it became a kindergarten with guns, a social welfare agency with heavy artillery that couldn't be used in the proximity of  civilians. And it was run by the same type of people who turned domestic urban centers into hellholes by pandering to criminals while making it impossible for law enforcement to do their job.

Don't think of Afghanistan as a distant country. Think of it as New York in the 80s. Think of it as Detroit or Chicago. Think of all the social workers constantly shouting about justice and demanding an end to police brutality. Think of the lawyers helping grinning thugs out of prison. Think of the slimy pols pressing the flesh with neighborhood gang leaders and paying homage to them. That's what happened in Afghanistan.

But that's not why we lost the war. It's why we lost so many good men losing it.

We didn't lose the war in Afghanistan. When we went in the Taliban were crushed, driven out and broken down. It took them years to recover, but they were always bound to recover so long as there were neighboring Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iran who were invested in their recovery. The futility of fighting a proxy war against an insurgency in a country with a high population and a low income was known before Vietnam. It was certainly known before we tried to secure Afghanistan.

Ten years ago we didn't beat the Taliban by patrolling roads and having tea with the local elders. We did it by finding people who wanted to beat the Taliban and providing them with supply lines and air support. We didn't do it by winning hearts and minds, we did it by dropping bombs and more bombs. We won by winning.

The idea of winning by winning has become antiquated. The post-everything sensibility is to win by losing. To win by making so many concessions and bending over so far backward that the enemy either comes to love us or is completely discredited. This never works, but it's the properly liberal war to approach any conflict with people who aren't rich white men.

Winning by winning, a deep thinker will tell us, is futile. Trying to win by winning is the road to defeat. You may kill one terrorist, but a thousand will take his place. You may win a battle but by going to war you have already lost the war.

Don't laugh. Such deep thoughts are the intellectual DNA of the diplomats and the generals, the experts in regional studies who sneer at the idea of winning wars instead of lining up all the stakeholders in a conflict and convincing them to build a working society, instead of blowing themselves up outside police stations. 

So we didn't try to win by winning. We tried to win by convincing that it was in everyone's interest to let us help them win by living in peace. This has worked out about as well as expected in a society where winning is a zero sum game and cooperation is a temporary truce in which each party waits to stab the other in the back. Instead of winning by winning, we lost by losing. It's the Post-American way.

And yet that isn't why we lost the war either. It's why we don't understand why we lost the war.

Before these pernicious doctrines took hold, we had already adopted a nation building model that relied on restoring stability through occupation, rather than shattering the enemy's main strength and moving on.

We didn't lose the war in Afghanistan. We lost the nation building. We lost the hopeless effort to cobble together coalitions of the corrupt and to patrol the resulting territories while pretending that a democratic election in a country with no concept of legal equality or civil rights meant that we were making progress because the savage lands were now turning out to be just like us.

American soldiers became Karzai's security guards. American soldiers became Afghanistan's army. American soldiers were tasked with trying to keep the peace in a society where peace is alien and life is cheap. We lost that war to stabilize and democratic the land, but there isn't anyone who could have won it. Even the Russians proved not to have the stomach for the kind of massive bloodshed that it would have taken to stabilize Afghanistan under their kind of government. We certainly don't.

Our mistake was resetting our victory condition from inflicting massive damage on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while empowering their enemies, to turning Afghanistan into a stable and healthy society. We had drunk the stability snake oil and come to believe that Afghanistan was just like Germany and Japan, that if we could teach the natives to build healthy democratic institutions, stability would follow. We were wrong.

We lost Afghanistan because we forgot that we never had it. We lost the war because we forgot that it was a war and decided that it was a humanitarian mission. We lost because we had come to believe that no war was moral unless it ended in the moral redemption of the foe. We lost the war because we could no longer justify a war to ourselves in the interests of our own defense, only in the interests of saving another people and another society from themselves. We lost Afghanistan because we still knew how to fight, but we no longer remember why we fought.


  1. We're constantly reminded that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. And that is largely correct, not because they're unbeatable but because the empires eventually come to understand that it's not winning. That any victory is at best hollow. That success looks more like a Potemkin village of not too many atrocities while the swarthies warm up for the next round of fanaticism. Because they're fanatics. They don't operate according to the same principles as the rest of us. They operate according to the principles of fanaticism. It would be as if every single German citizen in WW2 was an SS stormtrooper. You'd have to kill every last person to declare victory because as long as there any of them left they'd fight you until you killed them.

    And in practical terms you can't turn their whole country into rubble. It's already rubble. They like rubble. The more rubble the better. They WANT to live a thousand years in the past. You don't serve your aims by sending them back there faster.

    You can't reverse engineer medieval fanaticism and to understand how to arrive at some less than horrible barely not psychotic culture that isn't made of up maniacs who kill and eat each other. Jump-starting them into their future, our present is PRECISELY what the Shah of Iran did and what lead to current regime. It cannot be done in Iran which was already pretty close to modern, it can't be done in Afghanistan.

    All that can be done is quarantine the disease. Wall off the monster and leave them to their fate.

  2. Anonymous15/10/12

    beautiful article, knish

    --- spanky

  3. Anonymous16/10/12

    Leftists are often idealists but the Republican Party has plenty of them too. The who believe that all humans are intrinsically good (whatever "good" means; Islam considers abusing women to be "good" and the left including its die-hard feminists approve) and that if everyone is treated "fairly," that the enemy will stop setting off car bombs and enslaving women.

    They will never believe that Islam is a collectivist system of life where respect for Allah and the Koran is forced on pain of death. Completely incompatible with individual rights.

  4. A paradox that shows why any war between good and evil or evil and good is un-winnable.

    .....and you shall erase all the Amalakites, their women their children and their live-stock.....
    .....and even if one Jew shall remain alive we shall have lost as conscience shall not have been eradicated from humanity.......

  5. I'll sometimes click on the combat videos over at Weasel Zippers- the ones showing a missile strike, or a J-dam drop on some taliban or other. But it struck me that these hits, while gratifying to see, were much like watching someone swat flies around an outhouse.
    What you need is a massive cloud of insecticide, several hundred pounds of quick lime, and then indoor plumbing to keep the pestilence away for good. Not going to happen with a people whose custom is to wipe their ass with their hand, and rape little boys.


  6. Anonymous16/10/12

    Add to this clusterfarck that our troops are told that as soon as they arrive in Afghanistan, they are fighting for the afghanis and, not for or on behalf of the USA.
    Add then also, that suicides and murder of our troops is at an all time high as one mother recently stated - before her son died, he told his mother that he needed a 'new' presient!

  7. Anonymous16/10/12

    This no-win situation has been military doctrine since Korea. If we are looking for lessons look no farther than 1950.

  8. 2banana16/10/12

    I agree with a lot of this article having been in Afghanistan several times.

    Looking back - we should have left the place to the Special Forces and Northern Alliance. The ROE should have been “go out and kill the enemy and have some fun.”

    Instead, we conventionalized the war, instituted insane ROE policies and brought in PC rules to win over CNN, liberals and Europe. No wonder we lost.

    The Taliban will not “win” Afghanistan back however. The Northern Alliance were fighting them pretty good without ANY foreign help. With minimal aid, light air support and just a few SF advisers, they will easily keep control over at least half of Afghanistan to include Kabul.

    Any maybe that is the best outcome we could ever achieve.

  9. Anonymous16/10/12

    Great commentary Mr. Knish. The idea that our brave men and women had to go over there and start building schools, etc. instead of killing the enemy was the main reason for the failure. The U.S. Army when they entered German territory early in 1945 did not go about trying to win the hearts and minds of the Nazi population - our goal was to defeat the Nazi armies and to rub the German civilians face with that knowledge that their might Reich was kaput!

  10. I still don't understand why we invade the country in the first place.

    Shouldn't we have invaded Saudi Arabia after 9/11?

  11. Oops. Not that the Cullens beat the Volturi, they just convince them that they're wrong.

  12. Anonymous16/10/12

    You cannot win a war playing by PC rules. The speed and power of our initial moves had bad guys the world over quaking. (Remember Gadaffi giving up his nuclear program!) But the followup was run using PC/UN rules. THAT IS NOT HOW YOU WIN WARS! It's not that we can't. We won't.

  13. Anonymous16/10/12

    Afghanistan should have been razed to the ground from the off.

  14. Keli Ata is right. The original mistake was invading Afghanistan rather than Saudi Arabia.

    Bombing the Taliban flat was a good idea, and should have been pursued a la WWII when we made German and Japanese civilians targets. But, the actual invasion of Afghanistan was and is a logistical nightmare that put our troops at the mercies of Russia and Pakistan. So, a war that was unwinnable in principal is now lost in fact.

    In contrast, the lightly populated, easily accessible Saudi Arabia would have been a snap. It still is. And it should be on the table.

  15. The United States has become weaker for the efforts we have made in the Middle East. Our enemy now laughs at us. Anyone think the US is weak is right. If China were to attack the US mainland, CodePink would propbably be out in full force protesting the instant a single Chineese invader's blood is spilled. Our National debt, the fact that we produce almost none of our own fuel, and those countries that do hate us (not just the middle east, Brazil and Venezuala too.) Even the Canadians would have to think twice about coming to our aid.

    If one of or more of our enemies decide we are weak, as we clearly are, and decide to attack the US, it is only a matter of time before our Government runs out of money and there is no military to defend you and your family.

  16. Anonymous16/10/12

    A great article, but the critical thinking skills of the American public have been too dumbed-down by their media overlords, who feed them Reality TV stars,celebrities for no reason, and stupid punditry passing as deep intellectualism. And so it will be if our great father, leader of the nation, spear of the 47%, Abu Obama, wins re-election on the perceived promise of free cell phones and avoiding muslim terrorism through appeasement, so that the lumpen can continue to shop big box stores for trinkets peacefully, and grow obese on giantic sodas and fast food. (No I am not saying Obama is a closet Muslim, but in my opinion he does pine for the absolute power of the muslim despot (see: Obamacare).

  17. What we're doing in Afghanistan could be called many things. War is not one of them. We began losing the day we swapped daisy cutters for public works projects.

  18. Worker16/10/12

    I think you are wrong about one thing (other that the most excellent on-going essay's): while we have the best weapons, highly trained man power, we none the less do not know how to fight a war and sadly have expended vast sums (both in money and blood) for nothing. By the way, just how much have we spent on this disaster? not with standing lives lost, wounded people and futhre debt?

  19. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    As far as "shattering the enemy's main strength and moving on",
    and recognizing that the enemy is not just Afghanistan,
    it seems that the enemy's main strength is its 1400 yr old ideology.
    (it's not anything technical, that's for sure)

    How are we going to smash that?

  20. Been there, done that...

    See what happen when muslims take over(the tally ban beating death of Najibullah, or the coming fate of Karzai)

  21. Anonymous17/10/12

    There is some hope that we learned from Afghanistan that changing hearts and minds is a worthless goal.
    Looking back to Vietnam, it seems a fair statement that one take-away message was the farce of a president saying, "They can't bomb an outhouse without my permission" or some such. Since that time, the US military has been pretty strong in resisting micromanagement from the CIC.
    Is all hope lost that we'll remember the take-away message from the Af being "foreign hearts and minds will never become US possessions"?

    Bill K.


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