Commentary by Maj. Danny Sjursen, USA (ret.) / AntiWar.com
WASHINGTON, DC (February 24, 2020) — Tune in to Episode#46 of the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) show, folks — at least those (few) who still care about America’s longest, ongoing, war. The latest installment just dropped, and I promise it’s a gem: replete with the all the dramatic suspense of “Homeland,” the dark comedy of a rebooted “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and the sappy tear-jerking of “This Is Us.”
OK, maybe I’m overselling that; it’s a pretty abstruse government document, at root. Still, this particular segment from the congressionally-appointed organization charged with “independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities,” is pretty darn profound if anyone bothered to read it. But few will.
See, Americans will binge-watch anything — no matter how banal — put in front of them by Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, especially if it means they can avoid (gasp) any of that messy face-to-face human interaction stuff. Sure, there are now 46 SIGAR installments, but what’s that compared to 201 episodes of the beloved “Office?”
But read even the 1-2 page executive summaries of quarterly reports that increasingly, and vehemently, conclude that the nation’s longest war — which still kills American troops — is failing? Fat chance. Never happen. That, like “voluntary” service in the war itself, is somebody else’s job. Not that reading even the entire (most relevant) “Security” section would take very long. After all, the current top New York Times bestseller, Open Book — by the always riveting and relevant pop star Jessica Simpson — clocks in at 416 pages, compared to just 26 (with ample pictures and charts) in this security report.
Now, luckily for you, the reader, I’ve neither the space, energy, nor inclination to recount, again, the holistic failures, obfuscations, and contradictions of this absurd, endless war. Rather, in this moment — well into year 19 of a war Americans now ignore — the real story is SIGAR#46 itself: specifically what this remarkable (if insipid) report contains. See, what’s profound about the document is threefold: what it says, what it doesn’t say, and (most fascinating / disturbing of all), what it says it can’t say. No need, even, to read between the lines — the document literally lists what it won’t let out.
Coming from a notoriously (and increasingly) furtive Pentagon, and government more generally, this 46th internal report card is at times astonishingly forthright — even about what it “legally” refuses to be forthright about! It’s all rather stunning, and, in a macabre way, almost refreshing.
So why be so straight-up, Uncle Sam? It sure ain’t due to any principled attachment to the public’s right-to-know. Nah, call me cynical — conspiratorial even — but I’m increasingly persuaded that the report is almost some sort of dark inside joke. It’s like a dare-you-to-care, slap-in-the-face to a cowed citizenry whom the powers-that-be know don’t care about, or even pay attention to, this forever war. See, they count on, maybe even laugh at, such public apathy.
So, to hit only the highest of the highlights: let’s review just what’s (sequentially) in, the security section of SIGAR-46 — with particular attention to what it says, doesn’t say, and says it doesn’t say. The darn think begins with a instructive admission from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in which he admits the Afghan War is “still” in “a state of strategic stalemate.” Not too comforting, that — especially after 19 years of killing and dying. Then, it quotes a January 22, 2020 White House statement that President Trump’s goal is for the Taliban to demonstrate “a significant and lasting reduction in violence . . . that would facilitate meaningful negotiations on Afghanistan’s future.”
Presumably, this would allow the US to — Vietnam-style — declare victory and go home. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t sayis that the Taliban holds the strongest hand right now, controls or contests more of the country than ever before, has time on its side, and thus has no incentive to oblige Mr. Trump. Nor does it say that (and this is awkward) the “sovereign” Afghan Government categorically rejects negotiations with the Taliban on Trump’s — admittedly oscillating — terms.
Furthermore, the report says that Taliban-initiated attacks were actually higher this fourth quarter than in any year since data collection began in 2010. Furthermore, it admits that more American service members died in 2019 (23) than in any year since 2014. SIGAR doesn’t say, what, precisely, those soldiers died for! The report then goes on to list out a bunch of fairly vital information that’s recently (for the last few years) been “classified.”
Instructively, SIGAR feels obliged (read: forced) to place the following verbatim statement before each and every datapoint it says it can’t say: “US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) continued to classify or otherwise restrict from public release the following types of data…” These minor items include, well: Afghan Security Forces’ casualty numbers, performance assessments (how these US-trained units are, you know, doing), and overall personnel “attrition” (from desertion, books-cooking, and battle deaths).
I know what you’re thinking: so how are the American people to know how the war is going, and thus how to assess it, and thereby which candidate for commander-in-chief to vote for? Short answer: they won’t — and that’s the idea! The national security state doesn’t want an educated, informed, active citizenry. That’s not in their interest. Here’s a thought experiment to demonstrate just how off-the-democratic-rails the system has gone: Imagine the outcry if on June 7th, 1944, the US Government announced — “Sorry, folks, we can’t tell you how D-Day turned out, but, please keep sending your precious boys across the Atlantic to fight anyway!”
Oh, and there’s so much more inside SIGAR’s treasure-trove of tragedy: violence is still highest in the traditional Taliban heartland of the Afghan South, West and Mountain East, but, in 2019, increased and even spread into the non-Pashto North and Capital-bordering regions. Indeed, enemy attacks were up in 13 of 34 provinces (38 percent), seven of which aren’t even Pashto-majority (most all Taliban hail from this ethnic group) districts.
Then the document says that Afghan Security Force numbers were up seven percent this quarter, but didn’t say that much of that increase came from finally auditing and fiddling with the byzantine Afghan “books,” or that the total force is still — after 19 years of raising and training that force with American cash and human effort — only manned at 77.5 percent of authorized capacity, a mere 79,000 man shortfall.
Finally, the report vaguely says that a “general” — exact Afghan casualty counts remain classified — DOD “assessment” showed that local security force casualties “increased slightly.” What it doesn’t say anything about are two defeat-clinching details:
2) That the Afghan GDP is insufficient to pay the bill for its own security forces (which runs at $5 billion annually against $2 billion of domestic revenue).
More specifically, foreign aid still accounts for more than 95 percent of the national GDP. It’s the sort of mental math my 5th grader is capable of: an unsustainable formula for perpetual US involvement in the conflict.
So there you have it, folks. It’s all in there: open admissions, obvious omissions, and forthright admissions-of-omissions — which all point towards a failed war that has long ago been lost. Clearly, if America was still an even marginally functional (ostensible) republic, every single Congressman would have felt duty-bound, and voluntarily read these (and past) reports.
My guess is few bothered. Then, in my democratic fantasy world, there’d be hardcore hearings on the Hill and every relevant national security figure of the last two decades would be called on the carpet with some awkward explaining to do. But there won’t be any of that, either.
Only it isn’t just a derelict-in-its-duty, busy with “dialing-for-dollars” Legislature that’s to blame for Afghan War inertia (though Congress-bashing is rather cathartic!). No, a slew of other organizations and institutions — universities, churches, unions, and veterans’ groups, for starters — ought to be devouring every word of these crucial reports, planning, assembling, and then hitting the old streets in response to the rank ridiculousness revealed therein.
Yet it just doesn’t seem — on any substantial scale — to be happening. And, while I know it isn’t strictly true, in my darker moments of despair I genuinely wonder if I’m the last citizen left with a functioning highlighter and a f**k left to give.
Look, that sounded self-righteous, and it likely was. Still, remember, always remember, that the “owners” of the US National Security State (and thus, this whole country) count on our apathy, and can’t smoothly rule the roost without it. And they’re so certain, here in the year 2020, that they’ve got that locked down, that they aren’t even afraid to (insincerely) pay fealty to transparency through assenting to such a remarkably candid SIGAR admission of “stalemate” and failure.
The warfare state elites may as well roll-up hard copies of the report and poke us right in the eyes, folks. They’re laughing at you! So please, get pissed; fight back. Read . . . rally . . . and, if necessary . . . revolt!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order.Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen
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