In September of 2017, an obscure government official stood before a small audience at an obscure think tank and described a catastrophe that was unfolding. “Obscure” to the average citizen, that is — but not at all obscure to the “insiders” and journalists who attend these sorts of gatherings in DC, or sign up for the pertinent email lists, or read acronym-filled trade publications.
It was only a few weeks earlier that a president, his first year in office, had been persuaded by “the adults in the room” — those sagely Generals again — to authorize yet another escalation in a war these “insiders” largely knew was unwinnable. Curiously, the “adult” decision always seems to entail prolonging fatally doomed military interventions, as though that were the obviously sober and mature course of action. This same ritual had also occurred with the previous president his first year in office, albeit with even more catastrophic consequences.
The obscure government official, reserved in his manner but about as candid could be expected under the circumstances, relayed a few anecdotes:
“One US officer,” he said, “watched TV shows like COPS and NCIS to learn what he should teach Afghan police recruits.”
That would be a reference to the Afghan National Police, one of the country’s US-subsidized security forces which just evaporated this week.
The official continued:
“We heard horrible stories about the widows. Of Afghan soldiers. Who have to give sexual favors in order to get the pension benefits.”
That would be a reference to the Afghan National Army, another one of the country’s US-subsidized security forces which just evaporated this week.
“Would any American put up with that?” the official asked. “So we’re trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. We first got to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan security forces.”
The official in question is John F. Sopko. He is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and has occupied that role since 2012. Despite his obscure public profile, everyone in DC with any significant policy interest in Afghanistan knows him. He is required to audit and assess American-led state-building efforts in Afghanistan, and for the past nine years the reports he’s published have grown increasingly dire. I’ve been subscribed to his email list for a long time. The pundits and politicians who now flood US and international TV airwaves decrying the Afghanistan withdrawal as one of history’s greatest catastrophes — do they subscribe?
Because if not, they likely would’ve missed SIGAR’s final report. It was released just this month. And here is Sopko’s ultimate conclusion — after nine years on the job with the most birds-eye holistic view of the US Government’s engagement in Afghanistan — about the overall nature of such “reconstruction” efforts:
1. They are very expensive. For example, all war-related costs for US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan over the last two decades are estimated to be $6.4 trillion.
2. They usually go poorly.
3. Widespread recognition that they go poorly has not prevented US officials from pursuing them.
4. Rebuilding countries mired in conflict is actually a continuous US government endeavor, reflected by efforts in the Balkans and Haiti and smaller efforts currently underway in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
5. Large reconstruction campaigns usually start small, so it would not be hard for the US government to slip down this slope again somewhere else and for the outcome to be similar to that of Afghanistan.
If you detect a bit of morbidly dry humor in that summation, you’re not alone.
Can someone explain why the policy warned about over and over again by Sopko — the futility of which was known to all the relevant actors in the US policy-making apparatus — is not what’s being portrayed in wall-to-wall corporate media coverage as a “catastrophe”?
Why aren’t his outlandishly damning anecdotes about the utter incapacity of the Afghan security forces — anecdotes Sopko relayed in 2017 to anyone who would listen — being presented as emblematic of a “catastrophically” flawed policy in Afghanistan?
Why wasn’t it declared “catastrophic” when the war was escalated by presidents of both parties, even as these fatal flaws were meticulously documented in the public domain?
Why is it only a “catastrophe” when the underlying policy — a failure of epic proportions — is belatedly terminated?
Doesn’t it seem strange that what the public’s being told is truly “catastrophic” about US policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan is that the US is finally withdrawing, thus putting an end to the policy the Government’s chief investigator was screaming from the hilltops was completely farcical?
US military personnel were training Afghan police by watching dopey American TV shows. The same police force whose collapse we’re now supposed to be mystified by; a collapse which gave rise to circumstances where US withdrawal could not be conducted with the pristine “orderliness” that politicians and TV commentators are flamboyantly demanding.
You’re suddenly outraged about the precise operational details of US policy in Afghanistan... but only as it pertains to the long-delayed evacuation mission? Not so much about the operational details which led to a situation where widows of Afghan soldiers had to perform sex acts to get their dead husband’s pension? We’re supposed to be surprised that this appears to have sapped the will of these soldiers to resist a Taliban offensive — thus giving the US withdrawal suboptimal “optics”?
Why isn’t having engaged in this intervention for so long, despite full knowledge of its foundational lunacy, what harms American “credibility” or undercuts its “reputation”? Why is the withdrawal — but not the war itself — provoking such sustained shrieks of “catastrophe”?
Some of the most esteemed journalists in the world are proclaiming this the worst US foreign policy fiasco since World War II. Worse, you know, than the fiasco of the war itself. Or Iraq. Or Vietnam. How did we lumber into this upside-down Bizarro World?
Well, here’s one theory. Because as much as the elite political and media class wants to act like they’re on board in theory with “ending endless war,” they’re more than happy to abandon that pretense at a moment’s notice if the “optics” look bad, or if there are cheap partisan points to be scored, or if there are fake “experts” on call (many of whom just happen to have direct personal, reputational, and financial investment in the failed war).
They’ll posture as sympathetic to the “war-weariness” of the public, but then, when that “weariness” actually culminates in the cessation of a war, they go completely nuts. Maybe because they’ve benefitted, one way or another, from the status quo. And they wouldn’t much mind, as Sopko warned, if the whole process repeats itself sometime in the near future. That $6.4 trillion squandered over 20 years didn’t put a dent in their pockets.
And you wonder why it’s such a rarity for “endless wars” to actually “end”?
I’ve produced a video version of this post exclusively at Rofkin.