Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Afghanistan’s Maidan Wardak province, following accusations of civilians being tortured and "disappearing" under U.S. oversight.
This is a familiar echo in a decade of disappointments and military failures in the region. It will hopefully signal a realization, that no scenario exists in which we can ever consider our campaign in Afghanistan a victory. Americans have grown increasingly apathetic about the war, eagerly looking to put the bloody chapter in our history. Meanwhile, even as the troops prepare to fully withdraw, they face an increased onslaught of attacks from Taliban forces with renewed confidence.
So what really happened there? Has our supposed defeat of the Taliban and implanted democratic elections improved the region? Is the area any less chaotic or violent since our arrival? The lack of evidence in these recent murders mean that they could be the work of regional warlords eager to frame U.S. forces, just as easily as they could actually be retributional attacks by American soldiers.
We’ve unfortunately seen both scenarios play out over the years.
In 2010, Michael Hastings published an eye-opening Rolling Stone piece on special forces operations in Afghanistan led by General Stanley McChrystal. The surprisingly candid General painted a bleak view of the country. He highlighted the immersive and brutal tactics that would be required for an actual victory, as well as his frustrations over a lack of insight by the P.R.-sensitive administration. The global press pounced on the last part, and a media feud between the President and McChrystal led to him being called back to Washington to be fired.
In Hasting’s book The Operators, which followed the article, he painted a broader picture of the war effort and included a detailed perspective of Afghanistan’s political, military and tribal landscape. Independent of the American and U.N. forces in the region, the country seemed to have a vast array of its own troubles that made tranquility and peace seem impossible.
Afghanistan is riddled with dozens of conflicting tribes, languages and landscapes. It is the world's largest opium producer. Throughout the war, villagers would frequently lie to American forces about their neighbors’ affiliations with terrorist groups - taking over their farms and houses after they were abducted for interrogation. Many of the soldiers recruited into the new Afghan military are corrupt, frequent drug users or child abusers. Too many of them harbor secret loyalty to Taliban forces, and regularly attack their own troops as well as American soldiers. Various regional tribes are turning on each other now that the Taliban has been weakened in order to secure their own dominance. Most troubling of all, sitting at the top of this crazy mountain is President Hamid Karzai — a paranoid, drug using egomaniac who mistrusts the Americans who put him in power — as much as he does his own cabinet.
What possible victory could be had in this "Graveyard of Empires?" Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British Empire were all bested by this land of a thousand Hells. What lessons have we learned that we couldn’t have garnered from Vietnam or Iraq? This isn’t WWII, and we aren’t fighting nationalist Nazis, fascist Italians or imperialist Japanese forces. Our enemies aren’t invading neighboring countries, they are corrupt despots and tyrants whose victims are their own citizens.
The 9/11 attacks had to be avenged. But we squandered our righteousness and the world's good will when we turned our sights onto a resource oil grab in Iraq — trying our hand at neocon nation building. We ignored the reality that Saudi Arabian money and clerics were equally responsible for financing and orchestrating the attacks, because breaking economic relations with our biggest oil supplier was too daunting a task. That is the biggest lesson we need to learn about the future of warfare in our modern world: we have moved past the era of invasive battalions swarming through a country to fight villainous tryannies. You're never gonna get to run across the trenches and punch a Nazi in the face. The enemies we face now are smaller groups with varied ideologies who don't recognize national borders.
No country exhibits that chaos better than Afghanistan. As a result, we have adapted our fighting style to focus on technology, economics, and clandestine and high-tech special forces avenues - all tools better equipped to face the melting pot of global terrorism. The few remaining antagonistic countries in the world — like Iran and North Korea — have also learned a lesson from Afghanistan: attacking a foreign power will result in a reprisal invasion. It is better to face economic sanctions and diplomatic sword-rattling then actual all-out war.
I personally welcome the evolution Afghanistan offers us. The drone, spy and special forces battles of tomorrow might be less accountable due to their hidden nature — but they also offer us a reprieve from the bloody theater of military warfare. Considering the devastating weapons available to most advanced nations, does our generation ever want to face the possibility of WWIII? Let Afghanistan keep its title as 'defeater of empires,' and let us ensure that we never commit thousands of American soldiers to a needless bloodbath again.