War correspondent Michael Kamber paints a grim picture of the war in Afghanistan, which has learned nothing from the war in Iraq.
I left Iraq in January after covering the war on and off for nine years. Fortunate enough to be present at the withdrawal this past December, I learned many things in my years there. I have also worked in Afghanistan and, as I watch the news from there—the cold-blooded massacre of 16 civilians, the burning of Korans by American soldiers—I realize my painful lessons from Iraq are directly relevant to our current situation in Afghanistan. The most important of these lessons is the need for clear-eyed assessment and an end to what I term “magical thinking” on the part of American leadership.
For years, I listened as generals and politicians carried on about how the US was instilling democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Iraq, and how the Iraqi people valued the lessons we bestowed upon them. In announcing our troops’ final departure, President Obama lauded the vigorous democracy and free press we left behind.
In fact, nothing of the kind exists in Iraq, nor will it exist in Afghanistan. Let’s backtrack for a minute and get our facts straight. The plan as recently as 2010 was for the US—as a sort of benevolent big brother—to keep enormous military bases indefinitely in a free Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. We would maintain an armed presence in the heart of the Middle East alongside 16,000 US contractors based at the largest embassy in the world (US taxpayer bill: $750 million). These contractors would crisscross Iraq doing good works and looking after US business interests.
It has not turned out that way. The Iraqi government invited us in no uncertain terms to get the hell out, there is no free press, there are no US military bases and the mammoth embassy is already half shut.
In Fallujah, religious groups and government officials celebrated the US withdrawal with banners displaying burning US Army vehicles. It is an open secret that one political party or another controls every single news outlet in Iraq; intimidation and assassination of Iraqi journalists is routine. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country at 152nd in the world in press freedom, behind Pakistan and Russia.
The week the Americans pulled out, my access as a journalist shrank to zero. In neighborhood after neighborhood Iraqi police turned me away: “You can’t enter this neighborhood with a camera,” I was told repeatedly. My government-issued pass, guaranteeing me free movement, was worthless.
At a massive car bombing in downtown Baghdad on December 22nd, I ran into my Iraqi friends from the wire services. The soldiers, of course, threatened us if we took photos, but in years past we had always snuck photos, “shooting from the hip.” Now the photographers stood motionless.
“If they see one of us sneak a photo, we all go to jail,” my friend Mohamed from Reuters told me. “We don’t even try anymore, it’s not worth it.” On that day, the photographers waited into the night, then went home without photos of a bombing that killed over 60 people. So much for a free press.
The last US troops cleared the Iraqi border on the morning of December 18th; in an enormous affront, that same evening, Prime Minister Maliki issued arrest warrants for top opposition leaders. Within days, American contractors were being arrested, held for days and expelled from the country by Iraqi authorities. US food convoys were blocked and food ran low at the three quarters of a trillion dollar embassy. The message could not have been any clearer: as we used to say when I was growing up in Maine, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.”
Watching the news from Afghanistan—the deadly blunders by Americans, the killing of woman and children by an unhinged US solder, the needless affronts to Afghan pride, compounded by massive corruption and cynicism on the part of the Afghan government–it is hard to think we are witnessing anything but a rapidly accelerating endgame. This was, perhaps, inevitable. What is not inevitable is the same level of magical thinking and the fantastical statements from politicians and generals in Afghanistan that I witnessed in Iraq.
Repeatedly we have been told that the US is turning the tide in Afghanistan, that the Taliban are on the defensive. This is simply nonsense. After ten years of NATO pacification, one can no longer drive safely on many roads out of Kabul. While I was there last year, the grocery store adjacent the British embassy was destroyed by a suicide bomber; attacks are now commonplace in the capital itself and recently the US embassy was besieged for an entire day by determined attackers the Afghan forces were powerless to stop.
When I was in Sangin, in Helmand Province in 2011—where the British had been decimated in 2009 and 2010—the US Marines who took over from the Brits did not control even the perimeter of their firebase. On my first patrol, we walked less than 100 meters outside the wire before finding two IEDs buried in our path. Eventually, we continued on a short march through a hostile, silent village. The pathways were deemed too dangerous; the Marines blew holes, shortcuts in effect, through the walls of villagers’ compounds, further alienating locals, then quickly headed back to base.
The experiences of Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis recently confirmed my observations. With 27 years in the US Army, Davis returned last year from patrols in eight Afghan provinces; conditions were so bad that, in an extraordinary act for an active duty officer, he has publicly alleged a cover-up by American commanders.
Inevitably, commanders will point to areas that have improved. What they don’t repeat is the famous Afghan adage: “you have the watches, we have the time.” Obama’s surge, with its firmly delineated timeline for withdrawal in the face of a famously patient enemy fighting on its own soil, was an almost comically bad idea from the start.
Frankly, while I’m loath to criticize the US military (my father and grandfather are combat vets), a two-month period in which American soldiers videotape themselves urinating on corpses, accidentally burn Korans and wander off a base to massacre 16 Afghan civilians, betrays serious problems in a US military exhausted after ten years of simultaneous guerilla warfare on two continents.
After all these years, has no one in command realized that instruction number one to new recruits should be, “If you burn, step on or otherwise damage a Koran, your fellow American soldiers will die. If you even think something might be a Koran, leave it alone.”? Why, in 2012, do US service members not understand this? And it is clear that many American soldiers are near the breaking point. For those who have not been there, it is impossible to describe the stress of walking down heavily mined trails month after month as your comrades get their legs and genitals blown off. It is certainly no coincidence that the sergeant who massacred the Afghan civilians was on his fourth deployment and had reportedly suffered a serious brain injury in Iraq.
These disastrous occurrences are coming at exactly the worst possible time—as the US is seeking leverage to negotiate an Afghanistan departure from a position of power. In this now vastly weakened position, with the French (their soldiers murdered by Afghan soldiers, their supposed allies) already committed to pulling out a year early, the Americans are playing with an empty hand.
The urination video and the massacre of the 16 civilians—mostly women and children—eerily mirror the Abu Ghraib photos and the Haditha massacre, incidents that almost single-handedly destroyed Iraqi trust in the US mission there. It is worth reflecting on the fact that a mere several dozen US servicemen, in five separate incidents, have inestimably damaged the work and sacrifice of the millions of American soldiers who served in these two theaters for a decade. Much of the battle these days is public relations, a war the Americans have clearly lost.
The most recent point of contention between the US and the Afghans is the Afghans’ insistence that control of the country’s prison be handed over to them. This scenario is, quite frankly, absurd. Nonetheless, the US, reeling from the recent Koran burning, has this past week agreed to it.
The Afghan security forces, illiterate, incompetent, corrupt and drug-addled, have a terrible record of human rights abuses with prisoners. This past year, they somehow managed to overlook the escape of 475 mostly hard-line Taliban prisoners from a Kandahar jail. A tunnel, dug over a period of months, included lights and a ventilation system; even high-level Afghan officials admitted complicity from within the jail.
One often-parroted rationale for staying in Afghanistan is that we are transforming women’s lives. Personally, I find it fascinating that the United States, a nation that is less than 250 years old, can invade a society that dates back thousands of years and “teach” citizens to live—education of girls being exhibit A. Does one really think that the Afghans have always wanted to educate their females but were merely awaiting the arrival of a USAID school-building team to get the process started? When western politicians tell you the Afghans embrace our efforts to educate women, they are grasping for a rationale to distract and mollify a western audience
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for educating girls. And so are what I would estimate to be a minority of Afghans—in the Pashtun areas, a miniscule minority. But the Afghans have the means to do it themselves if they so choose. An extraordinary four billion dollars a year—more than 25% of the GDP—is flown out of the country every year, according to a March 13th New York Times article.
The larger question is whether our forcing western ways on a fiercely proud, violent and ultra-conservative population results in a counterproductive backlash. This past December, the Afghan government freed a woman imprisoned for adultery after being raped—on the condition she marry her rapist.
Our amnesia serves us poorly. The Soviets, too, touted their emancipation of Afghan women. It didn’t end well—for the Soviets or for the women.
The fact is, we are soon going to have to leave Afghanistan to President Karzai, who has famously declared his willingness to join the Taliban and invited Iranian President Ahmadinejad to give anti-American speeches from the presidential palace. If ever there was a more erratic, hostile “ally,” I can’t imagine who that might be—aside from possibly Pakistan, next door, who sold nuclear secrets to our mentally-unstable dictatorial enemies in North Korea, and are by all accounts funding the very Taliban that is killing American soldiers. But I digress.
Is it possible that functioning, independent democracies will one day stumble forth from the wreckage of our poorly-run occupations? I certainly hope so. Yet after 11 years, we can no longer endlessly await the day Afghan security forces are competent to take control. We must come to terms with the crucial fact that two opposing groups of fighters—taken from the same pool of Afghan men—are enormously divergent in their capabilities: those villagers that join the Taliban have fought the greatest army on earth to a standstill for a decade, those that join the US-trained Afghan army are incompetent, unmotivated and routinely turn their weapons on US soldiers.
There is a hard lesson in this—similar to lessons we failed to learn in Iraq. We have only to banish our leaders’ magical thinking and give it an honest listen.