(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal published before the fall of Kabul. Our ongoing coverage of the situation in Afghanistan can be found here.)
Many of us passed through Afghanistan like tourists, staying just long enough to fulfill preconceived notions of what we should experience while there, or to become exasperated by the locals for not meeting our expectations. This was true for soldiers and reporters alike.
In January of 2009, my unit was deployed to Afghanistan as a precursor to the impending buildup – the “Afghan Surge” – and when we got to Kunar Province along the Durand Line, which separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, reporters were already cycling through at a blistering pace. After years spent covering Iraq, they were now in Afghanistan to cover the so-called “good” war, but most came with very specific ideas of what they needed to see and what type of stories needed to be sent home. Kunar Province was a particularly attractive destination for journalists, as it contained the Pech River Valley and, more specifically, the Korengal Valley, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war was taking place. As part of an infantry task force holding the eastern side of the province, we welcomed them all, from pasty American pundits to savvy foreign freelancers.
Identifying quality reporters became fairly easy after a few months. Anyone in the khaki vest and cargo pants uniform made famous during the first Gulf War was most likely a prima donna writing a personal adventure travelogue. The good ones showed up in a t-shirt and jeans, and knew that more essential than an elaborate sunhat or a vest with multiple pockets was a small flashlight for finding the way to a latrine in the middle of the night and thick shower shoes for surviving what might be found there. But even the good ones had trouble escaping pre-determined narratives. When a friend and former Marine rotated through with his camera crew, we sent him up to embed with an infantry company in northern Kunar that was operating to the east of the Pech River Valley. He called me after a week, telling me he had been impressed with the company’s outreach to the local population, the meetings with tribal elders and government officials, and the constant patrolling with Afghan counterparts. Unfortunately, he said, “I can’t go back to my editors without footage of a firefight.” He wanted help getting to the Korengal.
It was easy enough to criticize reporters for rotating through Afghanistan in search of stories determined before they even arrived, but it took much longer to recognize the military’s similar attraction to what a war “should” look like. Luckily for those seeking to understand the dynamics of the fight in Kunar beyond the heavily reported battles, and for those wondering how all the heroism portrayed in those stories led to an overall outcome in Afghanistan that fell far short of U.S. aspirations, there are two new books that seek to make sense of the war. The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan and Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War by Christopher Kolenda will both serve as touchpoints for understanding American failures for years to come.
Morgan and Kolenda have very different backgrounds and have written two very different books. Both, however, share the experience of having seen the challenges of Afghanistan, and Kunar particularly, firsthand. Both have also written books that exceed, and sometimes defy, what we expect from war reporters and career Army officers, respectively, and for that we should be grateful.
As a student and aspiring reporter at Princeton University, Morgan seized an invitation from David Petraeus to embed with American troops before he had even graduated, and, in 2010, made his first trip to Kunar Province, where he got to see firsthand the fighting in the Korengal and other tributaries to the Pech River Valley. What made Morgan different from other reporters is that instead of only reporting on a snapshot of the war or cutting his chops writing about a specific battle in detail, he decided, with his book, to take on the entirety of the nearly two decades of American involvement in the Pech River Valley. With this sustained focus, Morgan gained an unparalleled knowledge of the area and how the fight unfolded over time, and he shares that perspective in The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley. That his perspective is unique, even for the soldiers who deployed to Kunar and the Pech, is itself something of an indictment of the military’s personnel systems, which rotated Americans through Afghanistan in increments that were typically counted in months, not years. In conversations with Morgan since our time in Afghanistan, I learned that whenever I would bring up obscure elements of what my unit had encountered, such as the security implications of the illegal lumber trade, he would be ready to fill in the gaps of what had transpired before and after my time there, providing the nuanced perspective the U.S. military seemed to always lack.
Morgan uses The Hardest Place to describe the arc of U.S. military efforts, from the daring hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his deputies in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to the massive buildup of troops between 2009 and 2011, to the refined use of drones to continue the fight long after most American troops had left. Running through this arc is the evolution of the military’s capability to kill and its attachment to that effort at the expense of the mission at hand. Originally the domain of small, classified special mission units, the concept of blending high-technology assets with specially trained strike forces expanded beyond secretive units to the military writ large over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conceived, in Morgan’s words, as a “global counterterrorist decapitation machine,” by the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the military was using these assets on anyone that could be loosely defined as a threat. In that sense, the military’s focus on targeting became not much more than an updated way to pursue a strategy of attrition and body counts, but without the negative baggage such terms had earned in Vietnam.
But, like in Vietnam, the U.S. military could never kill its way to victory in Afghanistan, despite over a decade of massive, conventional military operations and “terrorist decapitation” efforts. Morgan quotes one U.S. Army Ranger, who, observing drone operations in the Pech late in the war, said, “You’ll never run out of people to kill there.” Reading that quote, I was reminded of the Army’s senior strategist telling my unitn early 2009, that we needed to keep in mind that the average age of the fighters we were facing was 18-20 years old. The implication was that, seven years into the war, the United States was already well-behind in its efforts to prevent new recruits from joining the fight against it. And Morgan’s book makes it clear that, despite the influx of tens of thousands of American troops and billions of dollars spent over the next 10 years, that effort never got any better.
Morgan does not directly offer his own criticisms of the U.S. military beyond a few comparisons with its failed military advisory efforts in Vietnam, but several examples make clear where the U.S. military went awry and points to the need for further introspection.
Very little of the Afghan perspective is included in the book, but what is there offers a needed corrective to how a lot of Americans viewed Afghan culture. Too many American service members have experienced the aftermath of civilian casualties inflicted by American forces, generally followed by attempts to reconcile those mistakes via payment to surviving family members. And, an unfortunately large subset of U.S. service members took from those experiences that Afghans did not value life in the same way as Americans, as surviving Afghan family members appeared seemingly content with such payments to ameliorate their loss. Morgan exposes that misperception via several examples of how Afghans did not “forgive and forget” but instead deeply felt those losses and were sometimes motivated to either directly or tacitly support future attacks against American forces to avenge the loss of loved ones at American hands, with the accumulated effect of years of civilian casualties leading to an irrevocable loss of trust, no matter how well-intentioned the most recent American forces to rotate through the country were.
This political and cultural blindness had further repercussions. Despite the stated importance of training the Afghan forces in official statements from U.S. military leaders, putting together effective Afghan security forces was never taken seriously by the U.S. military. In Morgan’s book, it’s clear the Afghans fighting on the side of the Americans in the Pech are a target of derision when mentioned at all by U.S. service members, and they see little attention from American units beyond an entrepreneurial captain who takes on the training mission at the tail end of the American presence in the valley. However, it is not at all clear that the Afghan security forces would have been more effective with more attention given the unhelpful way the United States designed the Afghan military.
By trying to create Afghan forces that were a mirror image of the U.S. military, the United States designed a national army for its own country, not Afghanistan. And instead of accounting for local politics and incentive structures, many U.S. officers assumed that the Afghans should naturally adhere to the chain of command structure that the U.S. military laid out for them and to follow the lead of Americans in tactical and operational decisions. In what should be viewed as a blinding flash of the obvious in retrospect, it takes a political adviser to U.S. military leadership to outline how Afghan commanders weighed the sentiments of local political leaders above those of the American military in pursuing operations in the Waygal in 2013.
How we in the military could miss such cues or, if aware of them, press on with no significant changes to our approach will be the key question for understanding U.S. military failures in Afghanistan. And while Morgan’s book provides an exceptional overview of actions on the ground in Afghanistan, Kolenda’s book, Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War, takes a broader view of the military’s role in American foreign policy dysfunction.
Bureaucratic Silos & Strategic Narcissism
Like Morgan, Kolenda could have written a much different book about Afghanistan. In 2008, he commanded a U.S. Army unit responsible for the area directly to the north of the Pech River Valley. Later, he served as an adviser on Afghanistan to senior U.S. military leaders and, ultimately, participated in negotiations with the Taliban. Had he merely written about these experiences he would have provided a valuable service, but instead he chose to go well beyond his personal story to write an ambitious book that seeks to understand U.S. failure in Afghanistan in the context of the overall American approach to war.
While the book is informed by his personal experiences, Kolenda concentrates on the larger policy processes that drove U.S. decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan. He also integrates academic theory and perspectives, but in a way that is accessible to readers not steeped in international or civilian-military relations. In doing so, he highlights how many of the challenges that Morgan identifies in the Pech were emblematic of the entire U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Unlike Morgan, who is more circumscribed in his own judgments of American military efforts, Kolenda is direct.
In Zero Sum, Kolenda places the obliviousness of American military units when it comes to local Afghan political dynamics within the larger context of strategic narcissism, whereby the world is judged only in relation to American interests. He also deftly outlines how the U.S. military’s focus on the goal of “winning decisively” leads, paradoxically, not to clean military victories but, in many ways, guarantees the kinds of quagmires we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Viewed in isolation, it is admirable that the military would seek to “win decisively” – but only if wars were decided primarily by tactical proficiency and set piece conventional battles.
Kolenda lays out a compelling argument that, in the case of our post-9/11wars, this outlook unfortunately led to “substituting destruction for negotiation.” The result was being stuck with suboptimal outcomes after years of chasing the impossible goal of a clear-cut victory on the assumption that, “military objectives deliver political results …[instead] … Military objectives are unlikely to deliver political results during irregular war interventions because the most critical issues tend to center on political legitimacy rather than force-on-force battles.”
Amplifying this dynamic is the fact that execution of American foreign policy tends to fall to bureaucratic silos, with each agency being able to pursue its own strategy – and grade its own performance. This is particularly true for the U.S. military, whose leaders could simultaneously claim the loudest voice in the interagency process while also avoiding responsibility for the overall direction of the war. In the military, we could pursue the kind of war we wanted to fight, and demonstrate progress via tactical operations and a steady increase in the number of enemy fighters killed, without ever being asked – or truly asking ourselves – if those efforts were part of a coherent overall strategy and leading to the successful resolution of the conflict.
Kolenda ends his book with a pointed call to “question the military’s elevated position in wartime.” Hopefully, this is a conclusion that readers will also take from Morgan’s book. Too often our examination of warfare begins and ends with tales of battlefield heroism. Hearing of the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers, many Americans mistakenly believe that their role as citizens is to offer the obligatory “thank you for your service” and avoid questioning the utility of that service. The opposite is true.
Both Morgan and Kolenda clearly care deeply about the American military and its role in the world, and, with their books, have demonstrated that true respect leads to deep introspection and critical examination, of both policymakers and military leadership alike. That critical examination is the first key step by which the United States can learn from its mistakes and ensure that it pursues a foreign policy that merits the sacrifices and service of its soldiers.