[Note for TomDispatch Readers: For today’s “Best of” entry, I’ve turned to the remarkable Ann Jones, who has written a little introduction/update to her memorable 2010 piece, “There Be Dragons.” A year after she finished it, she was back in Afghanistan again (at age 73) following wounded American soldiers, fresh off the battlefield, into a trauma center at a major U.S. base and then on their many-thousand-mile journeys, via a medical facility in Germany and then Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, back to their homes. She then wroteThey Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, which Dispatch Books proudly published last year. As a book, tiny as it is, it’s an odyssey of the first order. In all these years in which Americans have spoken reverently of “our wounded warriors,” no one, reporter or otherwise, thought to examine up close-and-personal the human costs of American war in this particular way. It is — excuse the contradiction — both beautiful (in the writing) and devastating as well as unforgettable. If you haven’t already gotten a copy, I urge you to do so. Tom]
Remember Afghanistan? It’s all over but the shouting, right? Just a few details remain to be worked out before the last American soldiers head for home. Like that irksome unsigned Bilateral Security Agreement to permit the U.S. military to leave roughly 10,000 trainers and special ops forces on the ground after the official departure of its “combat troops.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long refused to sign the agreement, leaving that task to the new president. Small problem, though: now, no one has the power to sign because there’s no legitimate government in this “democracy” of America’s imagination. Karzai’s term expired on May 21st, though he’s still sitting in the presidential palace, while the rolling wreck of a presidential election enters its fourth month with a vote “audit” — “brokered” by Secretary of State John Kerry — in a twilight zone amid accusations, threats, and the assassination of the leading candidate’s campaign manager, a Karzai cousin.
Taking stock of such “nation building,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) — perhaps the only American still paying attention — notes that the $104 billion Washington has spent on this single still-failing state since 2001 is more than it expended on the post-World War II Marshall Plan, which successfully promoted the recovery of all of Western Europe.
Meanwhile, taking a page from the American playbook, the Taliban “surges” in one province after another, gaining control of key roadways, intimidating the populace to vote the way it wants in the “free” election, and apparently sizing up the right moment to go for broke. The Afghan National Security Forces, armed and trained by the U.S. at a cost of $64 billion and now taking the “lead” in combat, have been winnowed by casualties commonly described as “staggering,” although no figures are released anymore. As a result, some Afghan soldiers desert, while others hole up on their bases in tacit cease-fire understandings with the Taliban. In the meantime, American soldiers, preparing to leave, have been busy destroying their own equipment so that the U.S. arms industry can sell them new stuff, while also searching with increasing desperation for millions of weapons once supplied to the Afghan security forces and now “misplaced” — probably long gone to angry brothers fighting for the caliphate elsewhere.
As for the Afghan women that George W. Bush claimed to have “liberated,” and Hillary Clinton swore never to abandon, they have been ignored and excluded from all negotiations surrounding the disputed election and the future of their country by Afghan and international men alike. Mahbouba Seraj, a prominent leader of women’s civil society organizations, writes from Kabul: “We [women] have been shut down by the oldest, most effective, and most familiar means: by force. Many of us believe that this is just the beginning of what is to come.”
And there’s more to the current dismal state of affairs in Afghanistan: the growing power of narco-traffickers, rising rates of crime and drug addiction, increasing violence against civilians, the continuing exodus of those with the means to flee the country. In this ominous climate, the piece you are about to read, dispatched from an American forward base in Kunar province where I was embedded four years ago, seems — even to this reporter — like ancient history, but it is also a marker on the road that led us to this moment: an account of the waste, incompetence, cluelessness, and arrogance that lay at the heart of the American war in Afghanistan, with just a glimpse of the bottomless sorrows of war.
One thing I learned on that base back then was this: in the U.S. military, no matter what actually happens, the after-action report sent up the chain of command must be positive. It’s part of a perverse and particularly American process of can-do self-delusion, so profitable to those at the top in so many ways, and it has carried us through four more years of “good war” to where we, and the Afghans, are today.