On Contact: The Debacle in Afghanistan
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the debacle in Afghanistan with Danny Sjursen, a graduate of West Point Military Academy, former US Army major and author. He is a combat veteran who served in Iraq and later as an Army captain in Afghanistan I command of B Troop in Kandahar Province from February 2011 to January 2012.
The debacle in Afghanistan is one more signpost of the end of the American empire. The two decades of combat, the one trillion dollars we wasted, the 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high-resolution cameras. Then there is the Special Operations Command composed of elite rangers, SEALs and air commandos, black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites and train an Afghan army of 350,000 that has never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 75,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on earth.
Like any empire in terminal decay, no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else. Not the generals. Not the politicians. Not the CIA and intelligence agencies. Not the diplomats. Not the obsequious courtiers in the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics and area specialists. Not the defense industry. Empires at the end are collective suicide machines. The military becomes in late empire unmanageable, unaccountable, and endlessly self-perpetuating, no matter how many fiascos, blunders and defeats it visits upon the carcass of the nation, or how much money it plunders, impoverishing the citizenry and leaving governing institutions and the physical infrastructure decayed.
Danny Sjursen is the co-host of the podcast Fortress on a Hill, director of the Eisenhower Media Network and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He is also the author of the new book, ‘A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism’. See discussion on August 14 show.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the debacle in Afghanistan with former Major Danny Sjursen who served a combat tour in Afghanistan.
Danny Sjursen: I was at least told that I had to increase the standard of living and the stability and the security of individual districts and sub-districts. I never achieved any of that for the most part obviously of the Afghan War, the entire American effort never achieved that. But we did have one really effective nation building and that was surrounding Washington, DC, which have seen their wealth exponentially explode since 9/11 because when you know that’s where the strategic consultancy people live, that’s where the military industrial complex executives and mid-range managers live. So this was a great, you know, stimulus and nation building program for those people. Not for my soldiers who lost their lives and limbs for $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
CH: The debacle in Afghanistan is one more sign post signaling the end of the American empire. The two decades of combat, the $1 trillion we wasted. The 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, reaper drones, armed with hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high resolution cameras, the special operations command composed of elite Rangers, SEALs, and Air Commandos. The black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites, and train an Afghan army of 300,000 that never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 70,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on Earth. Like any empire in terminal decay no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or anywhere else. Not the generals, not the politicians, not the CIA, and intelligence agencies, not the diplomats, not the obsequious court hears and the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics, an area specialist, not the defense industry, empires at the end are collective suicide machines. The military becomes a late empire, unmanageable, unaccountable, and endlessly self-perpetuating. No matter how many fiascos, blunders, and defeats, it visits upon the carcass of the nation or how much money it plunders. Impoverishing the citizenry and leaving governing institutions and the physical infrastructure decayed. Joining me to discuss the American defeat in Afghanistan and what it signals for the American empire is Danny Sjursen who graduated from West Point and is a combat veteran who served in Iraq and later as an Army Captain in Afghanistan in command of B-troop in Kandahar Province from February 2011 to January 2012. He’s the co-host of the podcast Fortress On A Hill, Director of the Eisenhower Media Network and a Senior Fellow at the center for International Policy. He’s also the author of the new book, A True History of The United States: Indigenous genocide, Racial Eyes Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism, and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism, which we discussed on my August 14th show. So, Danny, it’s in the details that one understands the absurdity of the occupation itself. And you came to Afghanistan from Iraq, so you came with a kind of historical knowledge of the failures in Iraq, which you then, of course, saw replicated in Afghanistan. Explain to us what it is you saw. Because what you saw and what you spoke about once you left the military quite publicly was not exposed by most of the media. Was not part of the narrative that Americans were fed about Afghanistan.
DS: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. The fact that I and most of my peers who are at the mid-level of officers had been in Iraq first, informed the way we fought the Afghan War and the way we viewed it and not a lot of people really noticed that because what was being told to the American people was coming out of the mouths of for example General Stanley McChrystal or more so General David Petraeus who I had the privilege or lack thereof to serve under in both surges. I’ve been in the Iraq surge in Baghdad, now I was kind of in the heartland of the new surge, the Obama surge in Kandahar. This is the home turf of the Taliban. And what we were hearing was that there was always light at the end of the tunnel if we applied this sort of polite counterinsurgency formula. Petraeus literally wrote the book on it along with General James Mattis who of course becomes Trump’s Secretary of Defense. We were told that it’s working, that it had worked in Iraq which I had rejected already by 2011, I had saw at the time that it was--it was a lot of snake oil, there was a lot of massaging of numbers and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do, which is to kind of create the space for a political reconciliation which would ultimately be victory. But what we saw from General Petraeus all the way down to my Colonels, you know, who had for example my Brigade Commander had been a Battalion Commander one rank lower during the Baghdad surge. My Battalion Commander had been the second in command of a battalion during the Baghdad surge. And they tried to replicate what they had done in Iraq. Now of course what we did in Iraq didn’t work. But Afghanistan was a totally different scenario, it lacked the ability to sort of term one of the, you know, the Sunnis against the Shia, it didn’t--it didn’t really have the element. So while at the same time I’d go on CNN.com when I got to a computer and I would read about all the successes of the Afghan surge and we just stick out a little longer, in reality, in the key theater, one of the three key theaters in Afghanistan where the surge was supposed to be proven right or wrong, just, you know, I was right in Kandahar, we were at best fighting the Taliban to a standstill. No one could explain to me and I asked, you know, for my sins and was dismissed by my Colonels, told not to be a troublemaker. How--if the Taliban is initiating 90%, I’m sorry, more like 99% of all engagements. If they attack us every day including our base and if I have to fly my soldiers from one base to another because we literally can’t walk, they’ve made it so dangerous. How can I be reporting, how could my Colonels be reporting that we are contesting the district or we’re getting it away from the Taliban and we’re showing progress? And this was being fed all the way up. So my on the ground reality kind of informed my later study and a lot of what we hear today just to finish on this point from the people like General Petraeus who still get a hearing in the New Yorker just recently and from plenty of other folks is that the golden age was back when I was there. If when we had a hundred thousand troops on the ground, the problem is we didn’t stay long enough, we didn’t do that long enough, we should’ve left a residual force and what I say is that is a farce, that’s humbug, because at that point I was watching us lose. I was watching myself fight to a draw and the--my Taliban enemy bested me and did it every single day.
CH: Without any air support at all. Taliban had no air power.
DS: And that’s right, I mean, if I went down what I had--I had the support of the following, drones, 101--105 and 155 millimeter artillery, A-10, F-16, and B-52 bombers, Apache and Kiowa helicopters, a Navy SEALs team for a month, a Green Beret 18 for about four months. A hundred soldiers with various small arms and mortars of my own, 40 to 60 Afghan National Army soldiers, 30 to 50 Afghan National Police, and 15 to 30 Afghan local police essentially a militia that I helped raise under my command. They had none of it and they only had an effective mortar for about a month before we destroyed it and they fought us to a standstill.
CH: And yet in all of that time you had no intel--local intelligence, you never found the staging areas or the arms depots of the Taliban units that were attacking you, is that correct?
DS: That’s right. And if we’re going to have an effective counterinsurgency, you know, and counterinsurgencies are really hard to win with foreign occupation troops, massive conventional forces. As I’ve said before it kind of drives resistance that builds the Taliban narrative. But in the cases when counterinsurgency works, when in--when it’s done effectively, whether it’s by a brutal regime or US advisors help, the Green Berets are taught this, they’re specialist in it. They’ll tell you that it’s--if the--if you’re not getting any of the support from the people, if you’re not getting informants, if people aren’t telling you something about the enemy there’s real limits to what you can do. Part of the reason that we never initiated attacks is because the locals were really never willing or able, right, out of fear and pressure, to tell us what was going on. And, I mean, it is instructed that of course over the course of a year not one time did I find a massive Taliban weapons cache or some sort of staging area to destroy them. And yet if you were to read my evaluation and the evaluation of my unit, they would say that we won the war essentially, it’s the most glowing report of all time and that’s an absurdity.
CH: One of the main tactics that the United States used in Afghanistan to try and garner support was replicating Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. We always joked in the Middle East that it had no foreign policy just handed out money. That’s of course what you did on the ground and one has to believe that a significant percentage of that went almost immediately into the pockets of the Taliban. Can you explain how that worked?
DS: Yeah. There was really two programs that I was a part of. And one of them we called Cash For Work, CFW. We should’ve called it CFPW, Cash For Pretend To Work, because the reality is, you know, they wouldn’t do a whole lot of work and I don’t blame them. But we would give out money every week, a massive line up to a thousand different locals. And sometimes they’d paint the one road in the districts and they clean the canal, and they do a little bit of work. But really, it was a--it was a stimulus program. So the idea is if we’re paying them then they won’t have, you know, the motive to go to the Taliban to get paid to put a bomb on the ground. So they gave out a lot of cash there. And the second area where I threw a lot of money around, up to like a $100,000, $150,000 at a time, were to local contractors. And we would pretend like we got multiple bids to follow the regulations but the reality was the Colonel will tell you, “You need to get this done, you need to build an airfield to do medevacs, you need to build this new police station.” Or whatever or we built a market at one point that no one ever came to because it was never safe enough. And everyone just patted each other on the back and wink and nodded. In both of those cases though whether it was the contractors bringing their trucks and it was all local nationals, it was all Afghans, down into the sector to build something, very vulnerable thing to do. We could protect them some, but not always or whether it was the massive single file line that would go about a half a mile. In zero cases was anyone attacked or killed by the Taliban and one would think that if we were really a threat they would, right? Because that’s a threat to them, that we’re getting the support of the locals, that we’re helping the economy and that told me upfront and I told my bosses, clearly the Taliban is on the take here. Clearly they’re profiting, they’re paying the Taliban off not to attack them or they’re in on it and the thing once again it’s not that my bosses didn’t know, it’s that they said, “Let’s not talk about that. That’s not important right now. We just gotta get this done, don’t worry about that, don’t mention that when you get to brief the Brigade Commander later, like, do not mention that.” that would be specific sometimes, and I think that that tells you a lot about how a war like this goes on for 20 years. How it self-perpetuates and how the media and the politicians are so surprised and what I’d say is, “Well, we’ve been lying to ourselves, diluting ourselves for 20 years.”
CH: And yet from the Afghan papers that were published by the Washington Post, there was a wide understanding among the people in charge of the war that what they were saying publicly had no relation to what was actually happening on the ground.
DS: Right and that’s an utter lack of integrity, that’s, you know, dereliction of duty. I mean, you know, West Point, right? I’m not much for platitudes, but since 1802 they’ve been saying, “Duty, honor, country.” A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, and they tolerate those who do. And I would say that at every turn, from--and I’m not omitting myself, there were things I could’ve and should’ve done to be louder frankly. I was often just a petulant officer trying to poke and maybe get some, you know, small changes at my level so I can get the heck out of there, you know, so I was complicit. But from the rank of like mid-level officer all the way to the top this was a big wink, nod, there was a lot of lying, there was a lot of deceit, there was even more omission and dissembling and to me that--that’s a dereliction of duty and I do not like when the Generals hide behind, “I’m apolitical, I do whatever I’m told.” They owe it to the nation and they owe it to their soldiers to state the truth about what’s doable, what’s not, what’s sustainable and what’s not and the fact that didn’t happen shows the rot in the American civil military relationship and within the military itself and that needs to be said.
CH: Oh, wasn’t there--isn’t there a statute to Westmoreland at West Point I believe?
DS: There are certainly to the very least there are portraits and plenty of honorifics for Westmoreland.
CH: Right, well, there is a man who lied his way to the top. When we come back, we’ll continue our discussion about the American defeat in Afghanistan with former US Army Major and combat veteran Danny Sjursen.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion with former US Army Major, West Point graduate, and author, Danny Sjursen about the defeat in Afghanistan. So let’s talk about the Afghan Army and I know this is a point you have raised, Afghanistan is really tribal broken into, I think, 20 different ethnic groups. So one of the things that you encountered was that the Afghan Army soldiers and, of course, there were all sorts of ghost soldiers that were on the roles that didn’t actually exist. So the higher ups could steal the money because we were paying the salaries, but in many ways, they were as foreign a force as US soldiers and Marines.
DS: Absolutely. So I was down in the Taliban heartland in Kandahar, 100% Pashtun down there, Pashto speakers. One of the four main ethnic groups, you know, Pashtos, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, there are others, but those are the four main ones. About 95% of the soldiers in my partner unit and across that entire kandak or battalion, were Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, they spoke a different language. They were from the northeast, the north central, or the central of the country in the case of the Hazaras. The Pashto folks in the area saw them as foreigners sometimes couldn’t communicate linguistically. Now, some of the soldiers from the north could speak some Pashto, some spoke it fairly well. But almost none of the Pashto villagers could speak Dari, which is the common language up north. Sometimes they needed to use the same interpreters that I did. Senior officers in command of my units and in command of the entire south of Afghanistan seemed to not understand that when I would explain it, which was staggering. Stag--my Lieutenants did, because they were assigned books by me on the basic demographics and history of Afghanistan. I guess they couldn’t find any time, you know, between their meetings. But this was really staggering. They also were abusive in both directions. I mean, they weren’t loved by the Pashto villagers either. They had lived through the Taliban kind of control in the 1990s. Many of this--the officers like their captains would be like 55-years-old, my counterpart in the Afghan Army, he was, like, 55 and he had fought the Russians, and then he had fought the Taliban as part of the Northern Alliance. But they abused their own soldiers. One of my first days, one of the soldiers on my base tried to--one of the Afghan soldiers tried to desert. They shot at him and then they had him, you know, crawl in like a--like a dress, just the dress in the gravel. And my captain counterpart was beating him with a stick and kicking him in his sort of private parts and I had to stop that. There was abuse of locals. I wasn’t--I was able to--to my knowledge, there weren’t straight up murders, although it’s very difficult to know what happens because you’re not on every patrol, definite abuse and just the general tone of occupation. In other words, it was an internal occupation of the Pashto heartlands and a lot of that builds up the resentment and fuel the Taliban narrative and fuel that--we were their best recruiting sergeants in many ways.
CH: There was also no coherence to US policy. And I think the best example of that is the response to the growing of poppy, poppy production for heroin. Afghanistan is now the leading exporter of heroin in the world. Can you speak about that?
DS: Absolutely. I mean, it’s funny you should say that I was literally just showing a friend photos from Afghanistan because I’ve been doing so much of this and explaining some of these things. And as I was going through the photos, I have a photo of us--a massive fire. We’re burning a big source of supply. That’s the only cache we ever found, right? I wish there have been weapons, but it was just, you know, opium. So big fire like an inferno, you know, almost like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket thing. And then the next photo that I showed her, she--one of my lieutenants is holding some, like processed, you know, so opium that’s ready to go to--ready to go to market, ready to go to New York probably, as heroin, smiling, you know. And then in another one, it’s me laying in a poppy field, a beautiful one, frankly, because there were at least three shifts during the time I was there within my own brigade, basically saying, “Okay, we’re going to burn it. We’re going to destroy it. We’re going to seize it.” And then, “No, we’re not going to do anything about it because it hurts the locals because that’s their livelihood and that’s how they pay off the Taliban.” Who by the way, are allied, like tribal leaders, basically, and our allied local police officers who were in many cases were self-appointed, by the way. The power brokers that we palled around with particularly my Colonel and his Colonel, they were also drug dealers. They own some of the largest poppy fields in the entire district. They didn’t work them. They basically had tenant farmers on them, but they were profiting from it. And one has to assume that there was some payoff to the Taliban potentially, just because of where this was happening. And so the drug war is a perfect example of the United States never really knew what it wanted to do with Afghanistan, never knew what its strategy should be, could never really decide, kept shifting, and then constantly moving the goalposts. And that’s just one anecdotal, but I think constructive example at the ground level. And it was nationwide, by the way.
CH: There--there’s a great deal of kind of pity expressed by public figures and the media over the plight of Afghans at the airport. And yet, there’s been no pity expressed for what Afghans have endured for two decades. Our alliance with these warlords who are corrupt, violent, don’t treat women well. For instance, the whole business of child brides, of young boys in terms of sexual slavery, the whole discussion for me about human rights once you start using Hellfire missiles goes out the window, anyway. Yeah, and as repugnant as the Taliban might be in many of its practices, the idea that we had built an alliance with forces that were somehow more moral, I think doesn’t hold up. Can you address that?
DS: Of course. Look, in some of the urban centers, particularly Kabul, there was real progress. I mean--and a lot of the people who flocked to Kabul or who already lived there were sort of more--the more urbane and small L-liberal folks. Women had a better situation there and there were some gangs. This is a country that had a primarily rural population, especially before the war began. And in most cases, there was only a sliver of light, if any, between the people we were allied with. Whether it was the warlords, the militias, the local police, the local powerbroker, tribal leaders that I was told are the key you must get close to them. They cloistered their wives away. They abused their own kind of militia members. They invited me, the tribal elders did, to a Bacha Bazi party, essentially, a boy--a child--a prepubescent boy rape party fueled by hash. But I didn’t know what it really was. I had heard the term and I wasn’t really sure what they meant because I’ve forgotten in my interpreter say, “Well, you cannot go to that.” And I’m glad I listened. But also, what you also mentioned is what about the role of the United States in fueling so much of this for the 30 years before we ever got there, essentially. At this point, you know, we’re talking nearly 40 years, or more than 40 years, and what I mean is, during the Soviet occupation, wouldn’t you know, that women saw a lot of gangs in Kabul too and in Herat, and in Mazar-e-Sharif, and in some of the big cities, because whatever you want to say about communists, good and bad, when it comes to women’s rights, they were pretty strong. So a lot of the same games that we saw, but we instead thought that we should have backed the Soviet invasion, but we backed a lot of the most extreme reactionary warlords, especially because we fueled our support or funneled our support through the Saudis and the Pakistanis, who favored Hekmatyar, and the Sayyaf group, the Saudis, and these were--these were folks who end up becoming the Taliban, or were like the Taliban before the Taliban. These were warlords who also had child brides, and torture, and murder, and human rights abuses. So we were fueling these reactionary elements right up until, you know, the mid 1990s when the Taliban forms. And then when the Taliban is executing women in stadiums in 1998, 1999, 2000, you notice, I don’t remember any--you know, I was old enough. I was in high school. I was reading a lot of books, watching a lot of news, and there was no calls to invade Afghanistan. So this whole thing feels like a canard. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking except its years later. And I really reject it. And we have to understand the backstory to understand the hypocrisy of that argument.
CH: And once the Soviets withdrew, it was 1989, I believe, then the United States washed its hands that spent $9 billion supporting the most retrograde elements of the resistance, including let’s--Osama bin Laden, and what would become Al-Qaeda, and let Afghanistan sink. And I think we’re seeing that now, the IMF cutting off loans, humanitarian assistance, the Afghan, the Taliban not being able to access, I think it’s a $9.5 billion in reserves, which I think exposes the hypocrisy of the United States as somehow caring about the Afghan people. I mean, half the country needs assistance, malnutrition is wide spread. I think there’s--what? Four million people internally displaced. Afghan--Afghanistan is about to go through a very serious humanitarian crisis.
DS: What I’m really worried about is just that, now what we’re going to see is a combination of pettiness and callousness from the United States that we’re going to be upset that we lost and we’re not going to be able to accept it. And we’re going to refuse to fuel the needed humanitarian aid, or loans in the case of the IMF because the Taliban is in charge. And you’ll hear the Biden administration, I fear, say things like, “Look, we really like to help these Afghans. We feel awful about it.” But the real fault lay with the regime, just like we do in Venezuela, just like we do in Iran, and we refuse to fuel it through the Taliban, which in the end, of course, just hurts Afghan people. But the thing is, we were never there for the Afghan people. The war in Afghanistan never had all that much to do with Afghans, and that really is the problem. As for the internally displaced and the refugees who have now left the country. But it’s important to remember that many of these groups including the Taliban, terrorist groups, extremist groups, they are--they’re founded in refugee camps, right? The Taliban, Talib means student, they were going to, you know, local, like sometimes just intent madrassas along the border in Pakistan. That’s where a lot of these folks kind of got--I don’t want to say necessarily just radicalized, but that’s where they--that’s where they got their education, that’s where a lot of their trauma came from, that led them into the Taliban. So even from a strategic point of view, forget about the ethics because I don’t think that’s a real calculus for us. It would behoove us not to go in the direction I fear we will.
CH: Right. Well, those madrassas were largely funded by Saudi Arabia, 200,000 Afghan students who did become the Taliban. Just very quickly to close there are people that profited from this war, most of them lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and for them, this war has been great. Can you just address that?
DS: Absolutely. Well, I was always told that I had to increase the standard of living, and the stability, and the security of individual districts and sub-districts. I never achieved any of that, for the most part, obviously, the Afghan War, the entire American effort never achieved that. But we did have one really effective nation building, and that was surrounding Washington, DC, which have seen their wealth exponentially explode since 9/11. Because wouldn’t you know that’s where the strategic consultancy people live, that’s where the military industrial complex executives and mid-range managers live. So this was a great, you know, stimulus and nation building program for those people, not for my soldiers who lost their lives and limbs with $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
CH: Great, thanks. That was Danny Sjursen, author, former US Army Major discussing the American defeat in Afghanistan.