How to lose a war…

Afghanistan eats bombs.  It eats rockets, too, and bullets, mortars, IEDs, RPGs, souls.  Its hunger is immediate and insatiable, and while thrashing for more, it uncaringly kills men, women, children, foreigner, and local.  Who taught this monster to crave flesh and gunpowder?  We weren’t the first–a history of conquest and cruelty map across the mountains and deserts–but we feed it, and in doing so only strengthen this beast.

Institutions matter.  If there is one fundamental rule, drilled into me through both schooling and the real world, it is this.  In Afghanistan, we undermine institutions, weakening them with sticky money; in Afghanistan, we refuse to commit to our endgame, if an endgame we ever had; we don’t believe in time.  We decide on six-month, one year, two year, cycles.  Yet what builds institutions?  What builds community trust?  What builds laws and faith in human endeavors?

Not the Mother of All Bombs.  Not bunker busters.  Not smaller bombs.  Is security important?  Absolutely, but we conflate security with destruction.  Critics would say I wasn’t there, I don’t understand the vital need for security that necessitated the dropping of yet another bomb into some forgotten valley, I don’t have the full details.  But I was there.  Not on this particular mission, not in this particular area, and not with the particular threat of Islamic State Khorosan.  Yet, I’ve heard these arguments before.  We call in bombs to support a local security force that has little interest in dying for this or that ridge, so far from their homes.  And I don’t want to discount the sacrifices of the Afghan National Security Forces or the International Security Assistance Forces–their blood has fed the beast.  But how many bombs will win the war?  In 2015, we dropped nearly a thousand bombs–and the Taliban gained more territory.  In Gereshk in 2013, I remember the hunger in our leaders’ eyes when thinking about moving into the Upper Gereshk Valley–the fighting, the glory, the chance for promotion.  Men died there.  And what were we prepared to do had we won the watershed of poppy and deep conservatism?  The Afghan government was not prepared for the Upper Gereshk Valley; it wanted no part of governance.  It had no institutions to build there, no foundation for peace.

Leadership takes risk.  In Taghaz in 2012, we tried to bring the Afghan government to the “Wild West.”  My friend and partner, the District Governor, took the risk to reach out to Taghaz; for his sins, he was killed in an IED ambush.  For a brief, shining moment, here was the picture of the Afghan government–with little capacity to create change–reaching out to the tribal elders of this contentious soil.  He had little to give, and he gave all.  There, on the edge of Afghanistan and maybe the world, we saw the bright flare of possibility, and the snuffing of that flame.  To the credit of the Marines and ANSF, the response was not simply more bombs and more guns.  We waited for Afghan leadership, for Afghan systems to work, for time to allow institutions to react.  I’d like to say it functioned properly, but…this was Afghanistan.  Corruption pervaded the government, a corruption we fueled through our Money As A Weapons System, through our need for shortened timelines and quick successes.  Yet, and I will always give credit to the leadership that sat hungry yet patient, we refused to step in–we had to let the Afghans deliver on their own promises.

Where is that leadership now?  Why are we debating body counts and precision of force?  A bomb by nature is not smart, not precise–not in the Afghan context.  In Vietnam we won every fight, and lost the war–why do we think that we can qualitatively win with quantitative results?  We have become enamored with our military machine, the beautiful flames of destruction it can unleash upon any threatening corner of the globe.  Our faith is that of Special Forces and midnight raids, targeting and elimination, air power and “our guys.”  Where in there is the breathing room for institutions?  For the long, slow slog of state-building?  For the pain of failures that will inevitably accompany risk?  It was sucked into an explosion on some barren hill, leaving us gasping for air that will never rush in.

Security is necessary; Afghanistan’s suffering is a symptom of the lack of security.  But we need to consider security as holistic–not simply killing the enemy or force protection, but support for that which allows parents to sleep at night.  They lose faith that their children will live better lives, they become fatalistic, and–to turn a phrase on its head–“cling to their guns and religion” to make sense of a desperate situation.

I would challenge our current President to confront his generals, as we have abdicated the responsibility for our prosecution of war to military men–a detachment of civilian leadership by all of us that edges on moral reprehensibility.  What is the strategic goal for dropping bombs?  What do we accomplish in the long-term for short-term gains?  What is our end state?  This last question haunted me through two years in Helmand Province–what has the beast grown into under our care?  What do we hope to leave behind?

Instead, we bomb and we bomb and we bomb.  We slaver over the size and power of these bombs, the awesome destructive ability.  We smell the butchery of the Soviet Union’s slaughterhouse approach, and we take a step closer.  The beast gets hungrier, bigger, more cruel.  I may not know how to win a war, but I do know how to lose one.


Your author spent two years (2011-2013) in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as a USAID General Development Officer.  He served in Marjah, Khan Neshin, Kajaki, and Gereshk (Nahr-e Serraj) districts, working closely with the US Marine Corps, British and Danish forces, Afghan government, and a number of civilian agencies.  He was most recently a Rotary Peace Fellow concentrating on conflict, stabilization, and disinformation.

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