When I launched this blog back in 2006, Canada's war in Afghanistan was very much on my mind. The trauma of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York was still relatively fresh. Even if we didn't want to admit it, we were keen on dishing out a little payback.
We'd chosen not to join Bush/Blair in the Iraqi adventure but we could still bang away at something in Afghanistan. Those were heady days. Remember Rick "The Big Cod" Hillier, the general who sweet talked prime minister Paul Martin into authorizing the Kandahar gig? Canada was going to step up to the plate. No more wimpy peace keeping. We were going to kick some Islamist ass. As the Americans put it, we were "gonna git some."
We were gonna git a lot. Kandahar province to be precise. That's the city of Kandahar and the province of Kandahar - a big and nasty chunk of the nation of Afghanistan. Canada hadn't fought a war since Korea but we were warfighters now.
It just didn't feel right. I had long been fascinated by insurgency/guerrilla warfare - Algeria, Malaya, Viet Nam, that sort of thing. I had read Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic wars and the memoirs of T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia) in WWI. I'd read about the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, Attila and Theodoric, and how they operated. Patterns emerged, mistakes were repeated again and again.
Then I heard about his guy named Petraeus, US Army general David Petraeus. I read about Petraeus and this team of experts drawn from military and civilian ranks whose job it was to glean all the lessons on unconventional warfare from the past two millennia. They were going to boil it all down. We were going to learn from all the mistakes and the less frequent successes of the past and digest this wisdom in a new field manual for the United States Army and Marine Corps, FM 3-24. The Economist published an intriguing review:
"FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency” makes awkward reading for those trained in the notion of out-manoeuvring and annihilating an enemy force. Now American troops must be “ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade” and must be “nation-builders as well as warriors”. Under the new doctrine, fighting insurgents involves “armed social work”.
“Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction,” says the manual. The best weapon is sometimes none at all. The prime objective is not to kill as many insurgents as possible but to maximise support from the local population. Above all, troops must adapt quickly.
"Instead of isolating themselves in large camps and driving around in armoured vehicles, the manual advises American troops to live “close to the populace”, move on foot, sleep in villages and patrol by day and night. Each company should have a political as well as a “cultural” adviser. Platoons should assign their best soldiers to intelligence and surveillance, even at the cost of firepower. Forget the chain of command: decisions should be taken by consensus where possible.
Soldiering is only one strand. It must be entwined with others—including providing essential services, promoting good governance, building up local security forces and devising an information policy to counter insurgents' propaganda.
"The 282-page manual reads at times like a litany of the things America has done wrong in Iraq. But those arguing for withdrawal will find little solace. Insurgencies, it says, “are protracted by nature”. America and its allies must show the “ability, stamina, and will to win”.
"Moreover, counter-insurgency cannot be done on the cheap. It requires large amounts of manpower—some 20 to 25 members of security forces for every 1,000 civilians. The 483,000 combined coalition and Iraqi forces (of dubious quality and loyalty) fall well short of the 535,000 to 670,000 required to secure Iraq.That's 20 to 25 foot soldiers for every 1,000 civilians. That's not including the support personnel. Boots on the ground. Kandahar has a population of 1.15 million. At 20 soldiers per, that would be a combat force of 23,000 gun-totin' soldiers.
But the Big Cod assured Paul Martin he could handle the job with a total force of 2,000 personnel. Out of that number he'd be lucky to field 1,000 to 1,200 combat soldiers on any given day. Not 23,000. Maybe, on a good day, 1,200.
There's only so much you can do with numbers like that and not much of that very effectively. We became a garrison force, popping up here and there during the day with our armoured vehicles and our artillery and our air support and scurrying back behind the safety of the wire in our garrison camps at night. It was a big pointless, futile game of "whack-a-mole."
Canadian journalists reported that we were winning the war. How? How in hell were we winning the war? One name comes to mind, PostMedia's Matthew Fisher. To listen to him tell it, we were bagging one decisive victory after another. Operation Medusa, the battle of Panjwai, dealt a mortal blow to the Taliban insurgents in Kandahar - supposedly.
I contacted a journo from the old Knight-Ridder news service, a guy who ran the hills with the Mujaheddin during the Soviet occupation. He said the only way you won is if you've got a mountain of dead bodies to prove it. Otherwise they've just used the intricate network of irrigation canals to fade away until they're ready to return. And so they did.
Our war was largely cruising around in light armoured vehicles, trolling for IEDs and we did find our share of those. And then we mustered on overpasses along the "Highway of Heroes" to honour their returning caskets.
As this orgy of pointless deaths continued a few inconvenient truths began to leak out. There was one young Canadian subaltern, a lieutenant as I recall, who said that back when we were supposedly whipping the Taliban's ass we were in fact nearly overrun by a force of illiterate Afghan farmboys with their Korean War vintage assault rifles and RPGs. Oddly enough we didn't hear from him again.
We got familiar with some new names - Haliburton, Blackwater and such. These were corporations who provided "contractors" to assist military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. These contractors, however, weren't engineers and medics. They were retired combat veterans and they carried guns, often better stuff than the military forces had. They were paid a lot too and it wasn't for building roads either.
Then along came former US Army commander turned academic, Andrew Bacevich's 2010 book, The New American Militarism (reviewed here, here and here). The author explored how what Eisenhower once labeled the military-industrial complex had metastasized into something far worse, a military-industrial-neoconservative-evangelical/fundamentalist-commercial warfighting complex. The corporate sector was no longer just the arsenal of America's military, it was the military's 'for profit' warfighting partner and its riches were vast enough to keep the party going.
Which brings us, nearly a decade since Bacevich's expose and double that since this fiasco started, to what are being called the "Afghanistan Papers." The common take on this story is that the folks back home were fed a rich diet of lies to conceal that we, our young people, were fighting unwinnable wars.
But there's a darker side to this business, one that's not mentioned in the news reports, one that corroborates Bacevich's denunciation of America's commercial warfighting complex that has its fangs and claws sunk deeply into America's "bought and paid for" Congress.
This revelation comes straight from the mouth of retired general, Trump national security advisor, convicted felon, Michael Flynn.
The “Afghanistan Papers,” as the Post calls the report, have drawn comparisons in their scope and granular detail with the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, published in the New York Times in 1971. In both wars, “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people,” Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, told CNN’s Brian Stelter.
Positivity bias. Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, was the director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He provides just one of many disturbing takes on the U.S. war effort. “There is an inherent bias in the intel community because they want to get money, they want to exist, and they want to grow,” he said in an interview.
Expanding on why field intelligence reports were more negative than the upbeat progress reports presented to the U.S. public, Flynn said that policymakers “are going to be inherently rosy” in their assessments. Later in the interview, he said, “There is a machinery that is behind what we do, and it keeps us participating in the conflict because it generates wealth.”"Because it generates wealth." Quelle surprise. It goes on and on and on because no one in high office and no one in the top ranks of the military has the integrity to stand up and expose it, to say "enough, no more."
1935. Smedley D. Butler. A retired US Marine Corps Major General. A two-time recipient of America's highest military achievement, the Medal of Honour. There was a man with enough integrity to warn that "War is a Racket."
In War Is a Racket, Butler points to a variety of examples, mostly from World War I, where industrialists, whose operations were subsidized by public funding, were able to generate substantial profits, making money from mass human suffering.
The work is divided into five chapters:
War is a racket
Who makes the profits?
Who pays the bills?
How to smash this racket!
To hell with war!
It contains this summary:"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes."We got dragged into a place we never should have gone. Our dead and our wounded, their families and their loved ones, and every other Canadian worth their salt deserve an accounting, some explanations, facts not lies. We need to know we have military leaders who won't try to play us, who won't put their ambitions ahead of the national interest. We've got some housecleaning to do.