American Amnesia In The Afghan War

May 27, 2014

Editor’s note:  The purpose of this column is to inspire a conversation about the arts and what they can tell us about statecraft and national strategy.  Which, of course, means that I want you guys to actively take part in the discussion.  Monologues tend to be pretty boring, after all.  So I’ll be posting response pieces (as well as your other interesting submissions) as often as possible.  Email me at to join the conversation.

This is a response to “Afghanistan and the Colonel Kurtz Effect,” recent published here on Art of War.


As a military servicemember currently deployed to Afghanistan, I was intrigued by the themes presented in the article “Afghanistan and the Colonel Kurtz Effect.”  In particular, Conrad’s notion of governmental and societal “amnesia” in Heart of Darkness resonated with frustrations that I have experienced in only two short tours.

In particular, U.S. policy in Afghanistan seems consistent with a kind of selective “amnesia” – one that we read about in Conrad’s work.  In Heart of Darkness, the narrator Marlow’s disgust with the “sepulchral city” – his European homeland – centered on just this “selective” aspect of imperialist amnesia, a kind of “turning a blind eye.”  For Marlow, this disconnect was expressed in the Europeans’ enormous wealth and their corresponding disregard for the harsh reality of its unintended consequences.  In other words, the selective amnesia of 19th century European societies was characterized by a dangerous shortsightedness in imperialistic policy.

Modern events in Afghanistan do not directly parallel 19th century imperialism – the U.S. is not colonizing Afghanistan like Belgium did the Congo.  And perhaps this frustration I feel is a natural outgrowth of any drawn-out conflict.  Nonetheless, there is a consistent trend of shortsightedness evident in U.S. policy governing decisions and actions in Afghanistan, from the initial invasion to the present.  And all this leads to a frustration that makes one ask, as I have, why are we here again?  And what have we accomplished in all this time?

Why Are We Here Again?

There was a clear impetus for the initial invasion of Afghanistan: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  This is expressed in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional bill that empowered President Bush to execute the Global War on Terror.  The AUMF specifically targeted the individuals, organizations and nations who were in any way involved in the 9/11 attacks in order to protect the homeland.  One will often hear that the U.S. is laudably “bringing democracy” to the Afghans, as if this is its primary reason for being there.  But 9/11 and the AUMF show that the U.S.’s overarching objective was and remains national security.  Like the 19th century social activism of European imperialists, Afghan democracy is a means to an end – a sub-goal that has been politically exploited to further national policy.  As Conrad observes in Heart of Darkness, imperialist policy was subsequently blind to the full reality of its implementation and consequences.  Unfortunately, a similar shortsightedness is evident when we broadly trace the series of events and decisions that led to the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

When the U.S. invaded in 2001, the initial results were positive.  By 2004, U.S. forces had driven the Taliban and al-Qaeda from power and helped to establish a new Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).  But in 2003, we witnessed the first obvious sign of American shortsightedness: the Iraq invasion.  With respect to operations in Afghanistan, this invasion and the resulting drawn-out conflict diverted critical resources, absorbed the national attention, and sowed feelings of discontent concerning American “unilateralism” among the international community.  This in turn opened the door for a Taliban resurgence that is still being fought today.

While the war in Iraq thus had serious consequences for the one in Afghanistan, it does not tell the whole story of Taliban resurgence or of American lack of foresight.  In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the resulting war saw the CIA working with Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to facilitate anti-Soviet fighters known as mujahadeen, many of whom later became leaders in the Taliban and other terrorist groups.  In his insightful case study, Douglas Livermore discusses how, for the ISI and Pakistan, facilitating the mujahadeen represented the first stages of an unconventional warfare campaign that they have been waging ever since.  The ISI helped to create the Taliban, employing them as a proxy force in this campaign.  Once they were ousted from power, the Taliban (along with their terrorist allies) simply retreated to their historic safe havens in western Pakistan, where the ISI covertly began to help them rebuild.  Fast-forward to 2009, and the Afghans were fighting a persistent Taliban-driven insurgency headquartered out of western Pakistan that had made substantial territorial and political gains.  How could the U.S. have failed to anticipate or act on the possibility of a Taliban resurgence aided and abetted by Pakistan, despite very recent history and its own involvement in that history?  The failure to do either is a testament to both a dangerous amnesia and egregious shortsightedness.

Additional evidence of this lack of foresight can be found in examining the origins of widespread corruption in Afghanistan.  During the initial 2001 invasion, the U.S. used unconventional warfare doctrine by leveraging the Northern Alliance, a group that opposed Taliban rule.  In doing so, American forces achieved a rapid victory over the Taliban while simultaneously planting the seeds for the formation of GIRoA.  However, these methods also planted the seeds for the corruption that currently pervades GIRoA.  As a Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) report explicitly describes, U.S. support of Northern Alliance warlords, its reliance on contracted logistics, and its inundation of funds and aid created an environment that could not help but foster corruption.

The full extent of American shortsightedness is further highlighted when one recalls General Stanley McChrystal’s initial assessment as commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in 2009.  McChrystal observed that the security threat of the Taliban insurgency and GIRoA’s corrupt environment were the two greatest challenges facing coalition forces as they transitioned to a strategy of counterinsurgency.  American actions had in large part contributed to the very challenges they now faced.  Today, I think about Pakistan every time U.S. forces go after insurgents on the ground, knowing that we are targeting the wrong part of the snake.  And when we are told to train and support the Afghans, I think about how we see them and they see us: corrupt and untrustworthy.  The evidence suggests that both of us may be right.

What Have We Accomplished?

The history of the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan has not yet been fully written.  However, with the troop withdrawal set for the end of 2014, an evaluation of major U.S. efforts so far provides insight into what the end results are likely to be and into the nature of the decision to withdraw.  The Obama administration has focused attention on the recent Afghan presidential election and the overall improved state of security and “democracy” in Afghanistan.  While it is true that the presidential election represents an encouraging step forward, the reality of the security situation in Afghanistan, the continuing corruption in GIRoA, and the global resurgence of al-Qaeda reveal that the pending withdrawal of our troops is another in a long line of strategically shortsighted decisions.

While Afghan security forces are vastly improved from 2009 and now capable of autonomous operations, it remains to be seen how they will fare without U.S. support in key planning, leadership, and intelligence roles.  The details of an enduring American presence are still pending the results of the Afghan presidential election, but it is likely that the number of troops left behind will not be enough to make a difference when it comes to fighting.  Still today, the Taliban leadership operates with impunity out of western Pakistan.  Every time I see reflections from a U.S.-enabled operation, I know that for every insurgent we take off the battlefield, they recruit two more in their safe havens.  Furthermore, the JCOA corruption report notes that, despite increased anti- and counter-corruption efforts by coalition forces, a continuing lack of political will on the part of GIRoA has thus far precluded all efforts to solve the corruption problem.  Imminent U.S. withdrawal does not leave any realistic opportunity to further these efforts.  It would be even more unrealistic to expect GIRoA to continue to do so, given that their “lack of political will” is the primary cause of failure.

The most damning evidence illustrating the shortsightedness of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan concerns the overall status of the fight against global terrorism, specifically al-Qaeda.  In a recent study, Mary Habeck argues that, despite Obama administration claims to the contrary, al-Qaeda, like the Taliban, is actually resurgent.  Since 2011, a growing number of countries in Africa and Asia have faced increased threats, from either al-Qaeda directly or groups who are sworn to, affiliated with, or espouse an ideology consistent with that of the global terrorist organization.  Afghanistan is one of those countries, and the Taliban is one of those groups.  While it is still not certain what the outcome in Afghanistan will be, these trends suggest that, on a global scale, al-Qaeda is winning the Global War on Terror.

What Have We Learned?

Over a century ago, Joseph Conrad identified a shortsighted quality of European imperialist policy that wreaked havoc on the African peoples and sowed seeds for future conflicts a century and more away.  He immortalized this sentiment in Heart of Darkness, possibly hoping to speak to future generations about the perils of such an attitude.  Judging by its conduct throughout the Afghan war and its current strategic position, the United States government has not been listening very closely.

Regardless of what the final outcome in Afghanistan will be, the majority of U.S. troops will leave at the end of 2014.  Should GIRoA eventually fall to the Taliban, the security risk posed to the United States would then be at least similar to what it was in 2001.  Indeed, it is not national security but domestic politics that is driving U.S. withdrawal.  The American people no longer want to be at war, and the Obama administration is obliged to accommodate them.  How is U.S. policy now any different from European imperialism, which frequently abandoned its holdings once profits were too low or costs too high?  It may ease the national conscience to think of bringing “freedom and democracy” to the Afghans, but a comparison to Pakistan is more truthful.  Just as Pakistan sees national strategic value in maintaining a destabilized Afghanistan, the U.S. sees national strategic value in making it democratic and pro-Western.  Afghanistan is geopolitical “ivory” that is now too costly to pursue further.  To gain a measure of the truth of this comparison, we can ask ourselves whether the average Afghan is now any better off than he or she was prior to 2001.  While the April presidential election speaks to progress and increased freedom and empowerment of Afghan citizens, that still leaves rampant corruption, virulent drug trade, widespread poverty, and regular insurgent violence.  Not so different from how imperialists left their vassal states, is it?

Moving forward, the United States would do well to remember the shortsightedness of European imperialism.  America can ill-afford continued amnesia in its foreign policy, any more than it can afford to allow public opinion to dictate national security policy.  Because regardless of whether we want to be at war or not, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and those like them across the globe are far from gone, and they are not going anywhere without a fight.


Jacob Rozich is a Naval Officer who has deployed twice to Afghanistan.  He works as an explosive ordnance specialist.  The views here are his own.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army