Elliot Ackerman, who served as an adviser to Afghan special ops forces from 2008 to 2011, revisits the rationale behind the long-drawn-out American entanglement in the Graveyard of Empires. In his Afghanistan days, he writes, “words like ‘win’ and ‘end’ weren’t part of our vocabulary. These days, such words seem even less well suited to that war”:
John Paul Vann, a U.S. official in Vietnam and the subject of Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie,” said of that war, “We don’t have twelve years’ experience in Vietnam. We have one year’s experience twelve times over.” The same could be said of Afghanistan. Because Afghan commanders like Kareem often work in the same provinces for decades, they see an unending stream of their U.S. counterparts come and go, fighting smaller, months-long wars amid their unending one.
When Kareem and I sat for our meetings, neither of us ever offered a plan like this: “If we hit them in Mangritay, they’ll have to move south to Rarakaray. Then we’ll hit them there, forcing them across the border, securing the district, then maybe the province, allowing me to go business school and you to tend a quiet plot of land in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.” It just wasn’t that type of war.
For professional military officers, Afghanistan is an important stop in any career, a place to earn your combat bona fides. For many servicemen, those volunteering for multiple tours, it’s been a refuge from the drudgery of garrison life. For the Afghans, the war isn’t fought for the winning. It’s been going on since 1979, a beat to walk, something to police. Cops don’t talk about winning the war against crime. They fight it, but they don’t win it. Kareem and other Afghan commanders with whom I worked thought of war in the same way.
(Photo: U.S. Army soldiers carry the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base on August 7, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. By Patrick Smith/Getty Images)