In Tim O’Brien’s celebrated anti–Vietnam War novel Going After Cacciato, a deserter is pursued by the narrator and his squadmates in a fever dream. The chase breaks out of the southeast Asian country, taking the war on tour around the world. Indeed, after the last helicopter left Saigon, the Vietnam War’s legacy did pursue the United States across multiple continents.
Defeat in Vietnam haunted the military and security establishment — but they bounced back stronger. The United States’ conventional war machine was overhauled, as the Cold War entered a new phase. The inflexible Pentagon buckled enough for theories of maneuver warfare to take root that tried to learn from insurgents. This was combined with a new technological plan for aerial supremacy, realized in Vietnam through blunt instruments like mass defoliation and carpet bombing.
In the 1991 Gulf War, this finally produced a devastatingly effective war machine involving satellite technology, fast-moving armored columns with close air support, more destructive and accurate munitions, and the ability to manipulate the broadcast media (e.g. through providing weapon camera footage) to present an idealized version of the war. This gap between image and reality led sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard to declare that “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.”
Military innovation following the defeat in Vietnam was combined with geopolitical responses. Struggling in Asia, the United States ramped up attempts to retain control in its own backyard. This meant embarking on a renewed decade of sponsoring right-wing terror in South America, adapting and deploying the lessons from torture and murder projects in Vietnam like the infamous Phoenix Program.
At the same time, the United States took steps to safeguard its post-1975 position in the rest of Asia. As communists began to tip the balance of power in Afghanistan during 1978’s Saur Revolution, the US intervened to undermine the Afghan state and support the reactionaries’ insurgency before the full-scale Soviet intervention arrived. Taking a more hands-off approach, it attempted to remotely turn the country into the Soviets’ own Vietnam, empowering local proxies, many of whom later fought for the Taliban, working with and through regional powers like Pakistan, and developing key tactical headaches for opponents like providing anti-air missiles. (Some scholarship argues that the impact of the latter is overrated — attributing the insurgents’ success primarily to their organizational form, a reading supported by recent events.) Albeit with some trepidation, liberal screenwriter Aaron Sorkin still treated this as an essentially heroic episode in his 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War.
NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan will have similar long-range implications. Vietnam comparisons like the Wall Street Journal breathlessly describing Kabul as “Saigon on steroids” are overwrought, but there are some broader similarities. As in Vietnam, the spectacle of departure is being made into a case for developing the power to never experience defeat again. As in Vietnam, refugees leaving the country in droves are seized on by “humanitarian interventionists” as an argument for more muscular policy, even if the great powers are doing almost nothing about refugees beyond trying to stop them, or creating more of them. And as in Vietnam, defeat in Afghanistan will contribute to a reassessment of how best to wield military power. In short, they are already preparing for the next war.
The stated motives for the Afghan War — catching Osama Bin Laden, then defeating the Taliban, then building a stable country with Western-style institutions — were in constant flux. But with political direction confused, a similar choose-your-own-adventure approach took place in warfighting as well. Military traditionalists who believed that the army was there to kill “bad guys” and little more often found themselves arguing for a less expensive and less protracted war than liberal militarists who wanted to use an expanded army to enforce their conception of the good.
These contradictions persisted. The 2010 troop surge escalated and expanded the war, supposedly to bring it to a swifter end. Units in some areas would focus on battlefield aggression, others on “hearts and minds.” Field Manual 3-24, the counterinsurgency (COIN) document circulated by David Petraeus and James Mattis became gospel. The Commanders’ Emergency Response Program involved an unprecedented militarization of aid, with $2.6 billion disbursed between 2004 and 2011 through US field commanders identifying and funding schemes designed to win over local populations.
Such approaches squared poorly with the torture regime at Bagram Air Base and beyond (extensively documented by Human Rights Watch [HRW]). They were also belied by the routine drone strikes on civilian targets including a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in 2015, and a number of incidents of individual or unit-level criminality from the Panjwai massacre to recent revelations about Australian special forces.
The military utterly failed to build sustainable partners. Between strategic confusion about which Afghan groups to support; stories of Afghan rivals accusing each other of Taliban links; unpleasant or unreliable figures backed by US forces through various supposed lesser-evilism strategies; and even reports of farmers making pretend Taliban camps to collect the scrap metal from US airstrikes, identifying friend from foe became impossible. From combat troops to Donald Rumsfeld, the same exasperation was repeatedly voiced; “we have no idea who the bad guys are.”
Joe Biden’s story of Afghan National Army (ANA) recalcitrance is unfair — Afghan troops fought and died in huge numbers and miserable circumstances, comprising the overwhelming majority of overall allied military death figures. But it was incapable of even paying its troops and collapsed instantly without its American umbrella. Finally, Taliban forces advanced into Kabul with hundreds of captured US military vehicles and even stolen biometric tools that could provide access to data the military collected on its Afghan staff and contractors.
The civilian operation didn’t go much better. Veteran war reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran provides an enlightening account of how billions in public money were pumped into farming to discourage opium growth and reduce farmers’ dependence on the Taliban with little to show for it. In one case, a seed distribution program was derailed swiftly by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s strange ideological obsession with forcing farmers to grow melons rather than the cotton they were used to.
This obsession arose in part from a capitalist aversion to the state-run cotton gin (which conveniently ignored the involvement of vast quantities of US state money and power in shaping outcomes.) USAID’s analysis claimed the gin was inefficient and unproductive. Unfortunately, the analysis was based on figures which accidentally substituted kilos for pounds and confused refined and unrefined cotton.
Andrew Mackay, the British officer who directed an effective 2007 offensive in Musa Qala but resigned after just months as a divisional commander, would brand the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) “institutionally incapable” of warfighting and influence-wielding. US three-star general and Bush/Obama adviser Doug Lute meanwhile privately posed a question which would never be answered: “What are we trying to do here?”
Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard — a forthcoming book fiercely critical of military leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq — has prompted frightening intervention in the publishing process, with Penguin Random House canceling Akam’s contract and removing his advance after he refused to be subject to MoD sign-off.
There was a period when it was widely accepted in military circles that the chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan was an inevitable result of maintaining an unpopular long-term occupation without viable local partners, outside the usual sphere of influence, and with few cultural ties. But it is easy to pick targets for blame, whether it’s coalition partners blaming each other (as in the 2009 row over allegations of Italian troops bribing the Taliban), blaming the ANA (who can’t really fight back in Western media), hawks blaming doves (who had no actual control over anything), or the Atlantic’s op-ed pages blaming you. If some group or individual’s ineptitude or malice is to blame, then things could have gone differently. And for some commentators, if things could have gone differently, then one last heavily armed heave in Afghanistan could work.
If things could have gone differently, then the onus is on the military to adapt, à la Vietnam. The United States’ post-2014 army shakeup and the UK’s current Defence Review both engage with new concepts such as regionally aligned forces — in other words, maintaining a permanent military presence in countries across the globe so armies have the cultural and geographical know-how to start and scale warfare anywhere.
The British document explicitly calls for more, longer, and bigger deployments. The drone warfare machinery and tactics developed in Afghanistan remain at the heart of strategic thinking — the contemporary answer to the massive “strategic bomber” wings of the first Cold War. Various other “new toy” strategies from space domination to new air combat systems are also floated as means of avoiding future defeat.
In sum, there is a growing implicit account of the Afghan defeat that focuses on correcting past “mistakes” through hybrid tactics, cultural depth, leaner use of force, and technology to aid both intelligence-gathering and offensive action. But weapons are little but inert objects until they are wielded in a specific way in the pursuit of specific aims. And the broad political and strategic conclusions drawn from the Afghan War are even more concerning than the straightforwardly military ones.
“Technically, this isn’t a war, boss.”
“No? Soldiers. Bombs. It does feel quite warry.”
Around the time this exchange was aired in Bluestone 42, the British comedy about a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan which this exchange comes from, American and British operations were formally ending. But sixteen thousand NATO personnel were to remain deployed across Afghanistan, and there is enough material on Green Beret operations alone since 2014 to fill war reporter Jessica Donati’s recently-released book.
Most viewers in the West who are not directly imbricated in the war have largely experienced it as a background hum. It has conferred upon us a siege mentality, a vague sense of unease and threat, but never the sense of a full-blown war. It has even generated surprisingly little war fiction even of the propagandistic kind, and what does exist has tended to zero in on vignettes, whether the kitchen-sink British grit of Kajaki or Hollywood’s Zero Dark Thirty, rather than trying to define the war in the sense that post-Vietnam cultural output did.
In short, despite more access to detailed and constant information than at any point in history, viewing publics in the West have either been told that the war is not happening or been given a deeply disingenuous account of it. As Baudrillard’s Gulf War essay put it, “no one will hold this expert or general or that intellectual for hire to account for the idiocies or absurdities proffered the day before, since these will be erased by those of the following day.” Politicians remain ill-informed; a British MP this week raised concerns about the Taliban potentially making Afghanistan a safe haven for ISIS — a group they have been shooting at for several years.
If nothing else this lack of good information is because throughout the Afghan War, the powers-that-be lied consistently, unabashedly, and industrially. From the 2010 WikiLeaks documents, which revealed the cover-up of hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, to the 2019 Afghanistan Papers in which successive figures across the military and civilian hierarchies frankly and repeatedly admit they have no idea what they are doing while reporting boundless progress to the public.
But deception aside, the disastrous nature of the conflict was always clear. Too few journalists took those responsible to task, and those who did found it hard to make their stories stick. And of course, more efficient procedures for controlling the media are another legacy of the post-Vietnam learning period.
This con was as efficient off the battlefield as on it. Routinely, wells would be built and torn down a day later so the contractors could get themselves hired to repair it, schools would be opened with no teachers to staff them, and a great many press releases about progress would be churned out from these events. Insofar as the war was presented at all, portrayals often took the form of an aid mission in uniform. Undoubtedly huge sums of aid money were spent — but Afghanistan remains among the world’s poorest countries, with poverty having risen.
The combination of lying and downplaying represent a clear strategy. Invisible wars do not generate protests or scrutiny. This will inform future policy too. The use of small special forces operations not subject to public scrutiny or parliamentary accountability has been rising and will continue to. The British government are openly preparing for a series of “permanent” conflicts operating “just below the level of war.” The millennium’s first Forever War seems over, but many of its children have yet to be born.
War Forever and Everywhere
Vietnam was a test bed for technologies of force and power that would shape future conflict. Afghanistan has been a test bed for redefining war itself.
A recent account by a former Pentagon analyst during the Afghan War period paints an unsettling portrait of collapsing legal distinctions between war and nonwar. For the first time, the state maintained specific kill lists of individuals presumed but not proven guilty, marked for extrajudicial assassination even in states with which the United States is not at war.
The White House’s lawfare documented by HRW and brought frighteningly to life in Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice provides blueprints and strategies for authorizing torture and tearing through laws, rules, and norms. These days, much commentary talks about the rules-based order having changed, and Western powers needing to catch up lest China and Russia exploit such confusion.
Of course rules are now more contested in a more multipolar world, but such commentary tends to ignore how US-led powers ripped up the rules in Afghanistan, and granted themselves both the political and legal space and technical capability to strike at any time and in any place without accountability either to other countries or their own voters.
Conventional warfare, information warfare, and economic rivalry now exists in a continuum without boundaries, and an increasing multidisciplinary school of thought is beginning to regard essentially everything as warfare. There was always a military-industrial complex, but in Afghanistan it struck gold, with a war that cost $300 million-a-day in public money delivering 1,200 percent returns on stocks to the biggest arms conglomerates. (Meanwhile the outsourcing of the war is now being used an excuse not to settle refugees employed by contractors.)
After Afghanistan there is now military involvement in everything from producing games and fiction to training judges. The Afghan War locked aid and force tighter together than ever before, and the UK government now talks more openly than ever about aid as a geopolitical tool in general terms.
States always had the ability to trade at gunpoint — but not to use counterterrorism rubric to access all internet traffic coming in and out of the United States, or to block access to global financial systems like the SWIFT interbank loan system not only from hostile states but from any of their trading partners. Every power always attempted strategic dominance, but not the development of a global technological panopticon capable of identifying and weaponizing almost anything.
Afghanistan and Iraq have not only defined the foreign wars of the future, but have also defined the transformation of Western cities and borders into battle spaces. The “war on terror” understood the enemy as essentially the same everywhere, meaning a continual exchange of ideas between the battlefield and the home front. Surveillance technology used to filter supposed combatants from supposed civilians in war is now an everyday feature of domestic policing. The contractors that made tens of billions from the Afghanistan war now sell their battle-tested wares, from AI and biometrics to drones and straightforward killing machines, to police and border forces.
In The New Military Urbanism, Stephen Graham has reproduced an advert for thermal sensors from the mid-2000s which claims that their products would “have your back whether in Baghdad or Baton Rouge.” On one side of the image is an Army gunship, on the other a police helicopter.
The forever war has followed us home.