Oh What a Lovely War!

Back in autumn 2006, I attended a conference at the Chateau Laurier here in Ottawa at which a Canadian general waxed lyrical about the just completed Operation Medusa in the Panjwai District of Afghanistan. The Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were the best the country had every produced; the Taliban had been utterly crushed; it was now just a matter of some final mopping up. Victory was ours!

It was a glorious display of triumphalism, echoed in just about every other talk at the conference. It was also completely unjustified. The Taliban were far from defeated, and the Canadian army had to go backwards and forwards in Panjwai for several more years (“mowing the grass” as they called it) before packing up and going home.

Now, the tables are turned, with news emerging from Afghanistan that Panjwai has fallen fully under Taliban control. It’s estimated that Canada spent $18 billion in Afghanistan. 159 Canadian soldiers lost their lives – many more were injured. After the country paid such a price, you might imagine that our press would be interested in the news that the Taleban have captured Panjwai. But not a bit of it. On the CBC website, there’s not a word. In Canada’s premier newspaper, The Globe and Mail, not a word. In my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, not a word. It’s as if it all didn’t happen.

To my mind, this is deeply problematic. If we are to learn any lessons from the fiasco of the Afghan operation, we first have to admit that there’s a problem. Instead, we seem intent on forgetting.

The military campaign in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very start. It’s tempting to believe that we could have got a different result if we’d committed more resources or tried different tactics. But political limitations meant that more resources were not available. Afghanistan simply didn’t matter enough for the government to be able to persuade the public to commit significantly more to the conflict. As for tactics, different commanders tried a whole succession of different methods; none worked. Failure wasn’t a product of military incompetence. The war was fundamentally unwinnable.

Against this, some might argue that winning was never the point. Canada, like many other NATO members, wasn’t there to defeat the Taliban but to be good allies to the United States. But this isn’t a very effective argument. The only point of showing oneself to be a good ally is so that you get something back in return. But Canada – like, I suspect, other US allies – appears to have got diddly squat. For instance, helping the Americans in Afghanistan didn’t stop Trump from tearing up the NAFTA treaty or stop Biden kicking Canada in the teeth by cancelling the Keystone and Line 5 pipelines (both of great importance to the Canadian economy). Besides, if the point of fighting is to be an ally, you achieve your strategic goal just by turning up. Consequently, what you do thereafter doesn’t matter. Military operations thus get entirely detached from strategy. The result is inevitably a mess. In other words, it’s a poor strategic objective. It’s not one we should have set ourselves.

There is a simple lesson to draw from all this: we shouldn’t have sent our army to Afghanistan. It didn’t help Afghanistan, and it didn’t help us. Let’s not repeat the same mistake somewhere else in the future.

20 thoughts on “Oh What a Lovely War!”

  1. “Against this, some might argue that winning was never the point.”

    [Lyt raises a hand]

    As per Ye Olde Western concept of the “Grand Strategy” (codified in many, many works ages ago – e.g. see “Strategy: a Reader” (1980, NDU). Grand Strategy per them fine gents is deciding in the peacetime *before* you start the whole mess with war and shooting and whatnot, as to what kind of peace you want to have *after* you stop with the shooting and whatnot… and plan accordingly.

    Kicking the doors and offing “potential insurgents” is tactics. Offing “potential insurgents” in order to “pacify key provinces” is strategy. Pacifying some piece of clay to the graveyard stillness in order to then have a fair shot of calm and gradual “nation building”… might, actually, NOT be a real Grand Strategy, if you decided from the get go that, to quote one Leader of the Free World, “take the oil” (c)

    But, to quote the same Leader of the Free World:

    […]

    Taliban: All troops must be gone by Sept. 11 deadline

    Saaaaay, which Canadian business interests (I include NGOs here, obviously) are involved in Afghanistan? Taliban says they are still welcome! What is it if not a victory?

    “Let’s not repeat the same mistake somewhere else in the future.”

    […]

    There is Mali. Oh, and the Ukraine.

    P.S. I’d like to thank in Mr. Robinson’s person all anglo-saxon servicemembers who fought for years in the Afghan front of the “Global War on Terror” either on the frontlines or in other capacities. Thanks to you now, 20 years later, after new wave of technological progress and interconnectivity, People of the World have unique opportunity to bear witness to the objective process of the state complete annihilation and localized return of the Middle Ages.

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    1. Lyttenburgh, it’s a pleasure to hear from you again. The Professor’s interesting site is immeasurably more so with you participating in the discussion. With all due respect to the regular commentators here, it’s usually an echo chamber.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “ To my mind, this is deeply problematic.”

    Then you don’t understand the objectinmve.

    “If we are to learn any lessons from the fiasco of the Afghan operation”

    Why would it’s architects want that??

    “we first have to admit that there’s a problem.”

    That would impede the next pointless expenditure of blood & treasure. Pointless, that is, for the rest of us. But for its architects, it was extremely profitable.

    “ Instead, we seem intent on forgetting.”

    And for very good reasons.

    Repeat after me Paul.

    War is a racket.

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  3. Well, Canada, ones in a while can say no to the Americans. That was the Chretien government when America asked for the “willing” to join them in the Iraq fiasco. As to why we went to Afghanistan, it was out of a feeling of sympathy for the Americans after the 9/11 tragedy. But we came home in 2011 well before anyone else.
    Most countries went because they wanted to be seen there on the side of USA. Now they all balling out. Their logic for being there ends with the American withdrawal. To them Afghanistan never mattered.

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    1. While not a fan of Chretien or the Liberal machine, you have to remember that Bush Jr shut the border to the Canadian live cattle market, which devastated W Canada. Chretien held out for a while, but once he caved in, the flow of cattle magically resumed to the US. Nice neighbours, no ?

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  4. I have told many people multiple times what the real purpose of presence in Afghanistan (and to larger extent, everywhere else) means and what is the function of military in this operation. They simply wouldn’t believe me and ignored it because it is so stupidly audacious that no law abiding citizen can possibly imagine the idea. It is an entire industry, a conglomerate, it required law enforcement, workforce, transport infrastructure and administration – what it does not require is the functioning modern society or law.

    It goes to the point of when “maybe we should stop bugging everyone with limitless supply of illegal substances” is countered by a perfectly senseless argument “but what about the farmers”? No, since last time I checked, it went even further, the farmers are not only struggling peasants, they are actually developing, growing community of honest at heart capitalists employing latest environmental practices, according to this article.
    https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53450688
    Excuse me, what? WHAT did I just read?

    The question remains however how the US is going to handle the new owners of the country, and it is entirely possible for them to revert the strategy to Cold War status and support a new regime like it does with many other Middle East serfdoms, or will it just do what it always does – breed one catastrophe after another, leaving nothing but scorched earth.

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  5. Afghanistan is a problem not only for Russia (Chechens) but also for China (Xinjiang Uyghurs).

    This is the beauty of being shielded by two oceans – the USA can create a bloody mess everywhere on the planet without being negatively affected more than marginally.


    If Russia would engage in Afghanistan, the CIA would instantly start supporting Islamic State and Taliban, using existing communication channels in Syria. It would be Charlie Wilson’s War II. It’s another story, if China steps in, because they are perfectly capable to cut the radical Islamists to size with the help of drones and AI.

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    1. “Afghanistan is a problem not only for Russia (Chechens)”

      Care to elaborate that? Surely, you made this comment because you, as aregional expert, are privy to some relevant important data of which some of us might not be aware. And not, you know, because you are just your typical highly opinionated universal dilettante from the Net operating on half-remembered half-arsed outdated “truths”.

      Please, share with us!

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      1. Hello lyttenburgh, Dr asatar bair ,an American professor on twitter is supporting stalin just like you, if u didn’t know already. I like uyour comments.

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  6. Completely on-topic for once in my life: I just posted this timely piece . As America retreats, they have a Plan B, which is worrisome to Russia. Most likely, Americans will try to insert their Afghan quislings into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where the latter will man surveillance stations to spy on — guess who?

    P.S. – as to the question of what should Canada do in the future? How about pull out of NATO, you chumps?

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    1. How about pull out of NATO,
      Not as easy as one would like. I’d settle for just not believing US lies. Current PM is reasonably good on internal matters and rather clueless internationally.

      We had no business in Afghanistan but I suspect PM Chrétien could not figure a way out.

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      1. Pretty Boy Trudeau is good on internal matters? Doesn’t he oppose a new investigation into the abuse and murder of First Nation children in boarding schools?

        It’s amazing, people keep finding mass graves at these Canadian schools by ground-penetrating radar. The current tally is 1000+ kids. This sounds like the Balkans in the 90s. I bet you that most if not all of these schools have a mass grave.

        I think countries that have mass graves of the natives on their territory should shut up internationally and clean up and atone for their sins before lecturing others. That would of course apply to basically all of Western Europe. And what would we do without Canada and Co. spreading their ‘rules-based civilization’, such as mass graves for the savages’ kids, around the world?

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      2. Chrétien agreed to put “peace-keepers” in Khabul — fairly cushy. Paul Martin (with Harperite support) traded 10 years in Khandahar and Panjwai and a lot of killing for better trade relations with the US (in afailed bid at effective military diplomacy). Martin and Harper were also of one mind in supporting the rendition of Canadians and US-sponsored torture — really just cogs in the imperial machine. Chrétien was less interested in holding the bully’s coat, and J Trudeau appears to have learned from Freeland’s idiocy as regards Ukraine, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela etc., and that is why she was moved first to intergovernmental affairs and then Finance (rumour is that she has long cultivated Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s friendship, starting years before Trudeau was named leader). Freeland was, of course, tightly tied to Hilary Clinton’s team for a number of years, one of many Ukrainian nationalist hangers-on.

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  7. The Afghan war was probably illegal; a lesson might be: “Stay out of illegal colonial wars”. As for tactics, a lesson might be: “Don’t torture prisoners and abide by the Geneva Conventions. Don’t use the label “enemy combatants” to throw away legal protections”.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Professor,
    No issues with this. I would, however, like to quibble with some of your speculation yesterday on RT.
    You wrote – with all due caution, I grant – ‘Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the government held onto the largest towns in the country for several years before losing control … The regime fell only when the Soviet Union collapsed and Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government refused to provide further cash. Historical parallels are never exact, but this does suggest that the current Afghan state might be able to hold on as long as the Americans keep paying for it.’
    I’ll go out on a limb, and predict that the US-backed government and its armed forces will completely collapse within weeks, if not days.
    Today’s Afghan forces differ greatly from those Moscow backed 30 years ago.
    In 1991, Kabul’s armed forces were vastly better disciplined than they are now. Dr Najibullah actually won something of a popular base in Afghanistan’s cities, and commanded respect even among his enemies. For those and other reasons, the mujahideen – unlike IS and the Taliban today – were almost never able to bribe their way past multiple checkpoints into the heart of the capital to carry out bombings and assassinations.
    Truck bombings in the diplomatic quarter and massacres at mosques just weren’t a thing in 1991.Today such horrors are almost a weekly occurrence.
    A generals’ mutiny toppled the old regime from within, in April ’92 – after Moscow cut off funding, as you note. Today’s officer corps is so profoundly incompetent and corrupt (senior officers, for example, sometimes sell off ammunition stocks to line their pockets, leaving the troops unable to defend themselves) that I doubt whether any amount of money will keep them fighting, once foreign troops aren’t around to protect them.
    Hastily organized ethnic militias may keep the Taliban out of the big cities for a time. I doubt they can do so indefinitely. I expect the government and army to have vanished like a puff of smoke before autumn. We’ll have to wait and see how long the militias can hold out after that.
    Keep up the good work!

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    1. All good points. You may be right in your prognosis. Najibullah’s predecessors in the PDPA were a disaster, but he proved quite competent. Meanwhile, the current bunch seem extraordinarily incapable. Alas, this is to a large degree the West’s fault – it has pumped huge sums of money into Afghanistan, thereby ensuring the creation of an enormously corrupt system: there’s just no way that so much money in such a poor place could have any other result. In addition, the assurance of Western support has deprived officials of any incentive to act competently. It’s a classic case of the unintended negative consequences of aid. In the Soviet case, it was the knowledge that the Soviets were leaving that forced the PDPA to get its act together, at least a little bit. Perhaps the West’s withdrawal will have the same effect today? Who knows? I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Afghan security forces, and never have.

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    2. “Today’s officer corps is so profoundly incompetent and corrupt (senior officers, for example, sometimes sell off ammunition stocks to line their pockets, leaving the troops unable to defend themselves) that I doubt whether any amount of money will keep them fighting, once foreign troops aren’t around to protect them.”

      Well, uh, userperson John Jennings, I think it will hearten you greatly that a significant number of your fellow Americans think that “the commies regime” (c) fell ‘couse them brave Afghans fought Rambo-style “for their freedom”. How can you argue against that without appearing decisively unpatriotic before the bi-partisan juggernaut?

      As for the current Afghan “Top Brass”, well, ah… There are currently mire Afghan generals than there are American ones. Yup. I’d wager anything they’d have even more Admirals than them ‘Murikins (see the Ukraine), but SOMETHING is preventing from branching their ego-trips into that direction. Geographically-challenged chattering masses and commentariat-at-large wont help us to know the reason “why” in this respect. SAD (c).

      [BTW, if you are still not banned, you are free to go to that link and repost your comment in order to better the overall understanding of the reality as-it-is for the local worthies betterment]

      Back to the topic. Just yesterday I’ve read an article in the “Foreign Affairs” that is nearly 100% consonant with the one I’d read waaaaaay back in February by a different author(ess). The gist amounted to “Yeeeeeaaaaah, riiiiiight… Afghans are screwed, but, HEY, the regime we’ve set up done so much good there will be plenty of people defending it to the bitter end. Uhm, think of them brave Afghan women!”.

      [The same people said that Afghanistan needed one more year to come around]

      A-hem. In 2019, Abdullah Abdullah (current VP and old buddy of Panjshir leader Ahmad Shah Massoud) literally threatened secession and civil war after he got outvoted by Ashraf Ghani in the (admittedly really shady) presidential election. So much for “democratic” and “liberal”.

      Now, a black-heart deplorable soul (like yours truly) might make a point of (the official) “Kabul” loosing the war in 2004, when Karzai went back on his promise to limit the warlords’ power so the ones he’d allied with could secure him his votes (it is mind-numbing to learn that there was no real attempt to create a real Afghan military ‘till 2006).

      Less heartless but still wrong-thinking fellows might say it was in 2006, when Dostum tortured and raped his own second-in-command (a serving MP, at that) for voting against his orders in the national Wolesi Jirga, and got away with it scot free (which showed the people of Afghanistan exactly what kind of governance they could expect from Kabul and ISAF). 2006 being the year of Taliban resurgence and counter-offensive helped greatly by [checks the notes] US official ally Pakistan’s Intelligence community surely had SOME impact on the development of the, ah, “civil society” and “liberalism” in that country.

      Or you can take the approach of the barely-tolerated-ones, and claim, that the final bifurcation point was just in 2016, when good Ole Boye Dostum did the same thing again while serving as Ghani’s VP. Or the countless times in-between when the government and its Western backers failed one of the modern state’s most basic responsibilities: upholding the rule of law when it counts.

      Either way, it leaves you with the truly feudal reality on the ground: the Afghani “Army”, that, and I like repeating it, has more generals than its American counterpart, is a truly feudal establishment. Local “general” is “highly likely” (c) some kind of warlord “freedom fighter” from way back 80s or 90s. It’s just so happens that he collects via his armigers and ministerialestribute from the local peasants, run drugs and shake down passing motorists virtually unhindered.

      The only truly puzzling question remaining is – did the Taliban change over the years? Is it still same old tribal-clan superstructure of the southern tribes or did it became something else? The answer to this question would also mean whether Afghanistan will descend into yet another little bastions of “screw you, got mine” feuds… or it will march unified into Modernity… after an ethnic cleansing or two. Well, so-called “Northern Alliance” did massacre Taliban POW, sooo…

      P.S. In April 1992 the communist state of the USSR was no more, yes. What would be excuse of the still seemingly functional US-ian capitalist empire when its citizens will have their own “Saigon Evac 2: Electric Boogaloo”?

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  9. Because Canada sent 3000 or so troops to Afghanistan and let them get shot up for a decade, it should be entitled to send the US tar sands oil for 50 years to further glut oil and lower oil prices? Are Canadian Forces a for‐hire mercenary band? Keystone XL would have also helped shutdown more of the equally problematic US shale oil industry, so domestic US politics trumped a Canadian entitlement.

    And NAFTA has not benefitted the citizens of Canada, US or Mexico, only enriching the billionaire class and the CEOs with stuffed pockets of stock options.

    But not to worry, the KXL pipeline company is suing the US government for $15B using a “legacy NAFTA” ISDS settlement process. US taxpayers will probably pay:

    TC Energy commences NAFTA claim following revocation of Keystone XL Presidential Permit

    https://www.tcenergy.com/announcements/2021-07-02-tc-energy-commences-nafta-claim-following-revocation-of-keystone-xl-presidential-permit/

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