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Data-Driven Defeat: Information versus Interests in Afghanistan

In the Spring of 2012, my battalion arrived in western Afghanistan as the Obama troop surge, meant to break the Taliban, drew to a close. The Taliban remained unbroken, but our new mission was training and assisting the Afghan security forces. Like all supposed changes in policy for Afghanistan, this one amounted to less than advertised. Our “train-and-assist” phase of the war coexisted with a decade of nation-building programs, counterterrorist operations, on­going counterinsurgency efforts, and assorted other State Department and government-backed nonprofit initiatives—which, together, pulled in many directions and arrived nowhere. The state of confusion ate at me for months until, finally, I had a eureka moment when we started getting orders to locate equipment left behind by other units and pack it off to shipping yards.

Then I understood: the generals’ metrics of success for the Afghan security forces we were assigned to train were only aspirational. The Afghans would never meet them; that was why we were leaving. In the meantime, we could buy a bit of time and space assisting our Afghan partners while doing some cleanup before the inevitable transition of authority set the stage for the final exit. Not long after that realization, our deployment was cut short, and our battalion loaded up again on C-17s and flew back to the states. I got home in the fall of 2012, believing that the war was in its final days.

Standard accounts of America’s longest war simply cannot explain why it still continues in its eighteenth year. More than 2,300 American service members have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and over 20,000 have been wounded there. An estimated 65,000 Afghan sol­diers and police, and thirty thousand civilians, have been killed since 2001. The United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars on the war with few concrete accomplishments to show for it.

The Taliban controls more of the country today than it did a decade ago, despite enormous investments in Afghanistan’s security forces. Clearly, more U.S. backing is not the secret ingredient that will turn the Afghan military into an effective proxy for American interests. And if the war is only a cover for policy directed at another regional threat, like Pakistan’s nuclear program, then why have we invested so much on road networks, women’s empowerment pro­grams, and educational initiatives in Afghanistan?

Where official explanations broke down, the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers,” published last December, suggested an alterna­tive theory of the war. In a series of articles based on previously un­seen transcripts of closed-door interviews with key decision makers, numerous U.S. officials privately acknowledged believing that the war was unwinnable. “Your job was not to win; it was to not lose,” one former member of the National Security Council staff said in 2014. Numerous officials described how the war’s all-important “metrics” of success were systematically falsified.

The Afghanistan Papers are damning, but they don’t substantively alter the picture of the war available from the public record. Evidence of fraud, deception, and waste has been trickling out steadily for more than a decade—much of it in reports from the Special Inspector Gen­eral for Afghanistan Reconstruction (sigar), the government watch­dog group that the Post had to sue in order to gain access to the inter­view transcripts that form the core of the Afghanistan Papers. The Papers’ greatest value is to provide an impressionistic portrait of the generational worldview and shaping illusions of an American elite—Democrats and Republicans alike on both sides of the civilian-mili­tary divide—who responded to a long public record of defeats, blun­ders and missed opportunities in Afghanistan by doubling down. In an interview with sigar, a retired Navy SEAL who served in the White House under both Bush and Obama reflected, “collectively the system is incapable of taking a step back to question basic assumptions.” That “system” is best understood, not simply as a military or foreign policy body, but as a euphemism for the habits and institutions of an American ruling class that has exhibited an almost limitless collective capacity for deflecting the costs of failure.

This class in general, and the people in charge of the war in Afghanistan in particular, believed in informational and management solutions to existential problems. They elevated data points and sta­tistical indices to avoid choosing prudent goals and organizing the proper strategies to achieve them. They believed in their own provi­dential destiny and that of people like them to rule, regardless of their failures. They believed that generating a vast machinery of lethal power, surveillance, and administration to impose order in places far outside the United States was better than devising means to manage instability in a way that would protect America’s direct interests. Many did not believe in American interests at all, a formulation that thinking people of both parties found crude and sinister through both the Bush and Obama years.

Consequently, liberals and conservatives alike believed, until very recently, in defining the resolution of an American war in terms of the conditions of civil society in Afghanistan. They believed that classical concepts like beginning and end, victory and defeat, were obsolete and no longer governed the modern world. They mistook war as a matter of process, when its nature is ruled by paradox.

Means versus Ends

“We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!” wrote Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, in a memo to his staff unearthed by the Washington Post. Those were the days when America was winning the war with a smart combination of air power and special operations. Yet the seeds of protracted failure were already planted.

Was Rumsfeld prescient? Only if he can be credited for predicting the outcomes that his own administration’s policies made inevitable. Conditioning the end of the war on a vague state of stability in Afghan society was not a strategy to achieve a victory that restores peace—the classical aim of warfare—it was the avoidance of a strat­egy, a stalling tactic in what was confidently designed to be a long war until a deus ex machina answered the defense secretary’s plea for there to be “something going on.”

From the outset, the war’s leaders, already distracted by the planned invasion of Iraq, advanced the idea that the internal stability of Afghanistan was essential to American security. A stable country, they reasoned, was one where al-Qaeda would not be able to launch attacks on America. Perhaps, but while many countries are unstable, only a minuscule number have provided a base for international jihadist plots. Furthermore, they measured stability not only by an absence of violence, or a rough equilibrium of countervailing power, but by advances in forms of governance and social arrangements imported from the United States. American policy after the invasion amounted to a forced modernization. It attempted to leverage local elites to create a government in Kabul capable of administering state services over the patchwork of ethnic and tribal formations through which Afghans form their real substate identities.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan,” said three-star Army general Douglas Lute in 2015. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” By necessity, then, most of the lies told about Afghanistan involved self-deceit.

In another Rumsfeld memo from 2003, the defense secretary wrote, “Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” It would have been more accurate to say that Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the war’s strategic planners lacked the wisdom and political will to enunciate a theory of winning aside from the continued expansion of the multiagency apparatus of the “war on terror.” In the absence of such a policy and the strategy to support it, there was a constant, desperate search for more data and raw information to fuel the administrative apparatus.

In 2006, as he was preparing to leave his post, Rumsfeld reflected on the state of the war. “During the active combat or conventional phase of any war, there are clear signs of progress: battles won, key strategic points taken, enemy forces captured or killed,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. “In the post-battle phase, however, the measure of progress is not as clear.” Despite the lack of clarity, he identified an ambitious goal: “Success requires a strong and capable Afghan government that can provide services and opportunities for all its people.”

Rumsfeld, a vocal and, in his own mind, sincere opponent of nation-building who once reportedly threatened to fire anyone who made such plans for Iraq, was aware of the challenges: “Building a new nation is never a straight, steady climb upward,” he remarked.

Pursuing nebulous, open-ended concepts like stability in the course of “building a new nation” in Afghanistan proved a poor sub­stitute for older ideas like victory. It did, however, create a lot of jobs through an expanding military-government-corporate-NGO admin­istrative complex that employed many tens of thousands of people whose best intentions, funded out of the war’s trillion-dollar budget, blurred the natural borders of warfare and contributed to a state of indefinite imperial occupation.

This was the war the Obama administration inherited. The initial military campaign had forced most of al-Qaeda’s operations, along with much of the Taliban’s leadership, over the border into Pakistan’s loosely governed western frontier. There, the Taliban had used its haven in Pakistan—along with material support and guidance from the Pakistani ISI intelligence service—to create a shadow government, the Quetta Shura, and reconstitute its power. In 2006, the resurgent Taliban launched an offensive that recaptured much of Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland in the country’s south and along its eastern border with Pakistan. The limits of Taliban control also marked out the ethnic dimensions of the conflict. “Devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan,” as one general put it, America played blind kingmaker in Afghanistan’s fractious civil war.

Already at this stage, it was clear that any war against the Taliban also involved a complicated game of indirect conflict with Pakistan, our nominal ally, whose government and military we subsidized as insurance against their nuclear program, and so they would keep a lid on the Taliban, our enemy, whom they funded. While the United States attempted to build up an independent government, and made ending the war dependent on Kabul’s ability to effectively block a Taliban takeover of the country, Pakistan continually sought to undermine the Afghan state. Pakistani policy reflected the country’s central security rivalry with India. An American-sponsored government in Kabul that was not explicitly aligned with Islamabad created the potential for an Indian sphere of influence on Pakistan’s doorstep—an existential risk in the view of Pakistan’s military and political leaders.

The Obama people looked with understandable horror at what the Bush administration had wrought across the Middle East and vowed to do the opposite. Where Bush focused on Iraq and allowed Afghan­istan to deteriorate, Obama campaigned on pulling American forces out of Iraq while recommitting them to what he cast as the good, necessary war in Afghanistan.

Almost immediately after taking office, President Obama sent an additional seventeen thousand troops to Afghanistan. By the end of 2009, after a long period of strategic review, and following the puta­tive success of the surge in Iraq, Obama approved a similar policy for Afghanistan. He committed another thirty thousand soldiers for a new counterinsurgency campaign, bringing the total number of troops in the country to around a hundred thousand. The surge aimed to deprive the Taliban of its strongholds, and sufficiently weaken the group so that the Afghan government and security forces, financed and trained by America, could take over responsibility and finally ensure stability. It was, in every essential sense, a continuation of the same national security and foreign policy doctrines that had governed the Bush era. Crucially, it upheld the reliance on internal conditions in Afghanistan as the criteria for American success, while mandating deadlines for the withdrawal of American forces.

“Going forward we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable,” Obama said, announcing his new Afghan strategy in 2009.

Of course, the metrics were better for signifying progress than for measuring it. “There was constant pressure from the Obama White House and Pentagon to produce figures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was working, despite hard evidence to the contrary,” recalls a National Security Council official quoted by the Post.

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said Army colonel and senior counterinsurgency adviser Bob Crow­ley in a 2016 interview with sigar. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

Surveys and data points are the language of corporate managers and educated professionals. They can be useful when treated instrumentally to answer questions with clear parameters, but when they creep into higher-level thinking as ends in themselves, it indicates the absence of real purpose. “Metrics” were a hallmark of the war in Vietnam. In that war, the search for quantifiable ways to measure progress in a struggle aimed at hearts and minds settled on kill counts and reflected a counterinsurgency cut off from a sound strategy.

The Afghanistan war accelerated the development of state-of-the-art digital systems of technocratic management. Data analytics tools at the fingertips of anyone with access to an operations center or situa­tion room seemed to promise the imminent convergence of map and territory. U.S. forces could measure thousands of different things that we couldn’t understand. To compensate for the lack of understanding, we measured them down to ever finer degrees and displayed them in high-speed heat maps and other cutting-edge infographics. In an update to Vietnam, the metrics of the new digital platforms were combined with the pseudosophistication of Human Terrain Teams and other departments in the military’s expanding school of social science. Attempting to bring the insights of anthropology and socio­logy to bear on the war, these programs tended to miss the forest for the trees in an environment already drowning in information but lacking the ordering clarity of judicious goals. The result was a thoroughly opaque and fraudulent decision-making matrix that ob­scured the obvious gap between U.S. policies and Afghan realities.

It’s a difficult and intensive process to train a foreign military, but it can be a valuable investment if the foreign force’s self-determined goals align with America’s strategic objectives. We had far more ambitious designs for Afghanistan. Our train-and-assist models were ostensibly intended to provide a specific set of skills and logistical needs, but to succeed they required the Afghans to internalize Ameri­ca’s desires and strategic ends as their own.

The Blob

The catastrophic illusions of the Bush era about America’s role as a transformative agent of world-historical progress led directly to the brain-melting arrogance of the Obama foreign policy clique, who railed against a national security establishment “blob” from which they were inseparable—nowhere more so than in Afghanistan.

The blob was not just Bush and the dreaded neocons. It was larger, even, than the overlapping consensus that unites establishment Re­publicans and liberal interventionists. What the Obama people called the blob—a cliquish world of D.C. policy wonks, think tankers, staffers, journalists, and political flacks, who had first championed the Iraq war and then, as it collapsed, closed ranks to ensure that no one could be held accountable for its failure—was not just a creature of bad ideas about politics and national security. It reflected deeper trans‑partisan assumptions about who had a right to rule in America and by what means. The blob was a self-protecting vehicle for the ambitions of an American ruling class cut off from the consequences of its own policies, whether it came to wars or decades of offshoring‑driven wage stagnation on behalf of woke capital. Evidence of failure often led to bitter intra-class recriminations along partisan lines, but it did not shake the broadly shared faith in this class’s right to rule by grand design.

A theological substrate in American foreign policy unites nominal enemies like the Bush and Obama administrations in their shared belief in America’s calling to redeem the world. Bush’s early speeches to the Muslim world and Obama’s famous “Cairo Address” form a single contrapuntal arrangement. Just as Bush of­fered reassurances about the true nature of Islam and his faith that “the peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation,” Obama promised the world a new beginning and pledged the “President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

Strategic confusion was inherent in the Bush era rhetoric about an indefinite “post-battle” phase of war. Obama added to this by echo­ing an idea popular among the media and foreign policy elite that victory was an outmoded concept and no longer the aim of modern warfare. “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to [Douglas] MacArthur,” the president told an interviewer in 2009, at the beginning of his own Afghanistan cam­paign. When it came to fighting a group like al-Qaeda, Obama said, success would result from “assisting the Afghan people and improving their security situation, stabilizing their government, providing help on economic development.”

After initially signaling that he would end the war before leaving office, Obama instead reduced the number of American forces in Afghanistan and tightened the parameters of their mission, nominally ending their combat role. By the time he left office in 2016, around 8,400 troops remained in Afghanistan—a little less than are there now. It was a significant reduction, but not at all the same as “ending the war,” as the former president has claimed in interviews.

Like his predecessor, President Trump got elected by campaigning against the legacy of the president who came before him and promised to get America out of wars in the Middle East. Afghanistan was his first real test. In January 2017, General John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, called the war a “stalemate.” In June of that year, former Marine general James Mattis, newly ap­pointed as Trump’s secretary of defense, told Congress, “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now.” Both Mattis and Nicholson offered their assessments as reasons for the U.S. to stay the course.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like follow­ing my instincts,” Trump said in August 2017, reportedly following the counsel of military officials like Mattis. The new Trump plan amounted to a discount copy of the Bush-Obama playbook: a mini troop surge to bring the total forces in Afghanistan to just under fifteen thousand, combined with a more aggressive air war.

By 2019, however, Mattis was out as secretary of defense, a depar­ture triggered partly by disagreements over what he viewed as Trump’s reckless efforts to extract American forces from the Middle East. In February 2019, the president floated a plan to get out of Syria and Afghanistan. Immediately, a bipartisan majority formed in Con­gress to oppose the move. From the Senate floor, majority leader Mitch McConnell warned of “the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal,” shoring up Congress’s two-decade-long record as a bulwark against precipitous moves in Afghanistan. McConnell’s amendment, rejecting Trump’s plan in favor of continued stalemate, passed with an easy 70–26 majority.

McConnell’s demand for “diplomatic engagement and political so­lutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan” belied his real objective—an endorsement of the status quo. In fact, Trump plenipotentiaries and the president himself held repeated meetings throughout 2019 with Pakistani officials and leaders of the Taliban. “Pakistan’s going to help us out to extricate ourselves,” Trump said in July 2019, after meeting with Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. “We’re like policemen. We’re not fighting a war. If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. But I don’t want to kill ten million people. Afghanistan could be wiped off the face of the Earth. I don’t want to go that route.”

After months of talks with Taliban leaders, on February 29 of this year, at a meeting in Doha, the United States signed a conditional peace deal with the Taliban. The framework agreement commits the United States to a prisoner release and a withdrawal of American forces over the next fourteen months. The terms are dependent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of its own obligations. Already there have been complications, resulting in a U.S. airstrike and threats to suspend funding to the Afghan government. But the deal is still alive for now.

As soon as it was announced, Trump’s plan was met with a swift and ecumenical round of condemnations. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton declared it an “unacceptable risk” and derided it as an “Obama-style deal.” Obama’s former national securi­ty adviser Susan Rice shot back on Twitter: “Except we never agreed to a deal that excluded the Afghan Govt, subcontracted our counter-terrorism efforts to the Taliban, released 5k Taliban prisoners in exchange for 7 days of reduced violence, and sold out Afghan women. A Republican named Trump did.” The shrill partisan bickering added up to a harmonious chorus. Trump is supposed to be the reality show, pro-wrestling heel. But here were the serious people of Wash­ington jumping off the top ropes in a bit of kayfabe while doing a tag team to discredit a plan to end the war in Afghanistan.

In 2018, Rice, whose own administration chose not to end the war after two terms in office, lamented that Trump had “signed us up for an indefinite commitment” in Afghanistan. The war “will not end on the battlefield,” Rice wrote in the New York Times. “It can be re­solved only at the negotiating table. So, the bold offer last month from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban ‘without preconditions’ is a welcome initiative.” But here is Rice again in March of this year, responding to the Doha agreement with another New York Times op-ed: “In the long run, the fundamental weaknesses of the U.S.-Taliban agreement will most likely endanger America’s national security and doom prospects for a just and lasting peace in Afghanistan.” She continued, “Under President Trump, the United States is widely seen to be committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan under almost any circumstances.”

Just when you think that you have the blob beaten, it turns out that all along the blob was you.

It is not my interest here to litigate the details of the Trump peace deal, but I offer the following observations: America must accept instability as a consequence of ending the war just as we have spent the past eighteen years accepting instability as a consequence of our decision to stay in Afghanistan. Instability is not always the worst outcome. Pakistan is the key to any peace deal, but India has a role to play as well. None of the other major stakeholders in Afghanistan—Iran, China, India, and Russia—want to see the country devolve into a level of chaos that could spill over into their borders and preclude the management of their local interests. The United States has been targeting al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen for many years without committing to open-ended wars in those countries.

The Next Chapter

Let’s not kid ourselves: whatever the nominal terms of a deal, the United States will keep some contingent of special operations forces and intelligence assets in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. This is fine and good in the near term, as long as the chapter of the war as an open-ended commitment is drawn to a close. A broad consensus among the D.C. foreign policy establishment has held that America’s success in Afghanistan should be determined by the internal conditions of Afghan institutions. This has been a fatal mistake. American citizens have no reliable frame of reference to evaluate how incremental developments in Afghan civil society relate to their national securi­ty. Neither, for that matter, do American policymakers.

The long duration of the Afghan war does not prove that it is vital to U.S. interests. It goes on sputtering at low frequency because of a misalignment between its perceived symbolism, its actual importance, and its cost, which has been unbearably high for a small percentage of Americans with direct ties to the professional military, and imperceptible to the vast majority. Stuck between a sunk-cost fallacy and this low-cost reality, no president has yet felt it necessary to end the war when it could instead be managed indefinitely.

In their ancient starkness, ideas like victory and defeat provide cardinal directions to navigate through the fog of war. Without them we drift, not only due to our illusions, but because reality itself is strange and disorienting. It is not the failure to win the war in Afghanistan that has precluded its end. Paradoxically, it was the inability of the American ruling class to choose clear ends connected to the security of Americans within their own country that precluded the possibility of “winning.”

Trump may be a fool, but if he ends the war in Afghanistan in the service of protecting Americans, he will be a wiser fool than the presidents who came before him.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 2 (Summer 2020): 107–17.

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