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There are a lot of people in Afghanistan who have volunteered to return here, looking for closure.
There are those who have experienced their own direct trauma; I am fortunate to not be counted in that number. I am not stalked as some are. Some have their indirect trauma to work through, such as seeing friends and comrades dead or dying, grievously wounded, or pushed beyond limits. I call this indirect as — no matter how close you are — it could have been you, and there’s a healthy gratitude that coexists in a corrosive cycle with survivor’s guilt. I have some of this.
There’s also a cohort who were true believers in the earlier mission set. The mission changed over time, for all the right reasons, no matter how doomed or how poorly executed the misson may have been. The problem here arose when the mission stopped changing while the goal kept creeping away. The mismatch between words and deeds is an unfair and dishonest approach to a task which takes some lives by design, and takes others by misfortune.
When I came to Afghanistan the first time, I trained to partner with Afghan military officers, Afghan contractors, coalition counterparts, and US military folks. I was steeped in the exciting new (old) notion of counterinsurgency. We studied. We exercised. We ate peas with a knife.
While I was here the last time, I noticed a growing disparity between the stated mission and the effective goal. That was frustrating. The things that should have been easy were hard; the things which could have been found were missed; things that could have helped did not happen. We subverted our stated goals to the lethargy of bureaucracy and bean-counting, to the fiction of a competent Afghan government as a partner — a prophylactic to protect us from charges of colonialism — and to our support of thoroughly despicable people.
I don’t just mean the warlords, many of whom weren’t as bad as the alternatives. I had Afghan soldiers raping boys in the facilities I built for them. Not that we ever saw it, of course — all rumors, officially — but the source made it credible to me. And it was credible to those I reported it to, and it’s the sort of thing that just goes up into the policy and realpolitik world and then disappears. It’s cultural, you see.
It is, of course, and that’s the problem. And now we officially accept it in our own federal diplomatic culture, because we find it less bad than the alternatives. Everybody knows, few say anything, and absolutely nothing will ever be done about it. And after all, we must build them more facilities.
The difference between effective counterinsurgency and our approach is illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal explanation of the “tradition” of burning women in India, and the British retort, “When men burn women alive, it is our tradition to hang them…” Well, if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And if you’re not, then for God’s sake, don’t play at it.
In Iraq, our current unfolding disaster regarding IS is incredibly frustrating. It’s particularly galling to see this predictable farce doled out by the people who threw away everything that had been gained. While the cameras focus on Syria’s Kobane, Anbar Province is falling. Anbar, the home of the most profound lesson available about the impact of United States power in the Muslim world: that we are genuinely here to help. That lesson has been cast away, inverted. Perverted. Our enemies have converted victory into defeat. They have turned the good guys into the bad guys. They have shriveled sacrifice to mere carnage.
I do not believe this was incidental. I believe that this was intentional: that it is yet another goal at odds with our stated mission. There are those who so despise American power that winning is unacceptable. The object lesson that the United States is not to be trusted is not lost. Now IS is calling the bluff of a man who crumples and burns his cards for spite.
Think of Benghazi and look at Iraq. Now, look at Afghanistan and realize that it will look like Iraq — or worse — some time after we leave. Our enemies are patient, more patient than we, and they are determined, more so than we. Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have crucial interests here, and the well-being of the Afghan people (whatever that is) does not figure into it.
This is so completely scripted that if it were a thriller it would be panned by the critics. It was always hard to engage the locals from across our gulf of space and time — what do you give to the man who has… nothing? — and now it is impossible. In counterinsurgency, you don’t peas with a knife; you eat them with your fingers, while others eat nothing at all.
I didn’t lose anybody I knew in Iraq — my dead friends were killed in Afghanistan. I’ve elided that distinction before, “for a number of reasons,” which matter less as time goes by. Things are drawing to a close. Achieving a goal may not be so much about the goal itself, but about obtaining closure by whatever means are available. Completing a thing which stands alone is no more difficult than achieving half of a thing twice as difficult, but it is much more satisfying. Closure is what people pay for when they buy a book or rent a movie, play a game or engage in a sport. And, perhaps, when they go to war.
Closure comes in many forms. Sometimes, you don’t get what you wanted, and you don’t even come close. The wisdom to know the difference in Niebuhr’s plea is not an end, but a means. Acceptance brings closure. Change brings closure. Knowledge does not. We focus on knowing, and treat it as a goal, but neither debate, nor knowledge, nor wisdom brings satisfaction.
God grant me the cowardice to hide, the hypocrisy to lead, and the indifference to sleep soundly.
If not you, whom? If not now, when? If not possible, well, that’s where you’re wrong, so get busy. This is a productive mindset for staring down momentous decisions, daunting tasks, and unwelcome facts. I will not accept defeat; I will win. I will make the change, master the change, be the change. I will attack the unpleasant and destroy the unwelcome, and after a balanced breakfast, I will protect you all, conquer death, and reverse the flow of time.
Well, maybe not, and acceptance is not so bad a thing as it may once have seemed. I do not quarrel overmuch with my former opinions. They seemed good enough at the time, and who needs that kind of self-doubt anyway? Acceptance doesn’t change things, but it does bring closure. All those frustrating problems are still out there, from the failure to ensure that soil compaction tests were conducted, to the fact that any number of ridiculously small changes would have allowed my friends to live instead of dying. A minute earlier. A rusted bolt. Trivial changes, millions of them, each with the power of life and death, and here I sit.
I came back to a war zone to find peace. Mission Accomplished.