Why are U.S. troops still stuck in Afghanistan?

December 17, 2010

Rory Fanning, a former U.S. Ranger, describes the day-to-day realities of the U.S. war on Afghanistan--and the larger context that frames the occupation.

I REMEMBER trying to keep my eyes open on patrol in early morning's grey light. We were 12 hours' drive from our firebase in an isolated valley somewhere in southwest Afghanistan. We passed a little girl sitting alone, outside of a mud hut, with no jacket despite the cold and rainy conditions, singing to herself. The year was 2004.

We soon entered a village, and a young boy ran and hid behind his mom's leg. A flock of children started chasing the patrol asking for bottled water. Their faces had no one universal characteristic. Dozens of countries were represented in their collective countenance--Turkish, Greek, Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Hungarian, English, North African. I wondered what the children of the U.S., also part of a melting pot, would think if the roles were reversed, and it was the Afghans that were occupying the U.S.

U.S. troops will be engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan for a minimum of 13 years, if the Obama administration has its way. The official transfer of "security" from U.S. to Afghan forces has been scheduled for 2014.

U.S. troops respond to an explosion in Kabul

The Senate's Foreign Relations Committee calculates the to-date price tag of the U.S. war in Afghanistan at close to $290 billion--almost five times the annual federal budget for education in the U.S., and 20 times Afghanistan's gross domestic product of $14 billion. By comparison, Apple's 2010 fourth quarter earnings were $20 billion.

The White House figures that it costs $1 million to send a soldier to Afghanistan for a year, so Barack Obama's decision in February 2009 to send an additional 30,000 troops raised the war's annual price tag by $30 billion.

The cost of war in Afghanistan has long been a U.S. obsession, dating all the way back to the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979. At that time, the U.S. hoped to raise the cost of the war so that "the Reds were bled white" both financially and militarily.

To that end, the Reagan administration secretly supplied right-wing religious extremists--recruited from around the world--with stinger missiles, billions in cash and terrorism training manuals (like this one).

"When the CIA funneled arms to the Afghan Mujahideen via Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the ISI gave preference to the radical Afghan Islamic parties--which could more easily be turned into an engine of anti-soviet jihad--and pushed aside moderate Afghan nationalist and Islamic parties," according to Wall Street Journal reporter Ahmed Rashid.

Fighting the Russians without the approval of Congress required creative financing. The CIA sought out and protected Afghan warlords who forced local farmers to turn their food crops into poppy fields. These warlords then imposed minimum poppy yields under the threat of death. The CIA would ensure a large percentage of the profits were accrued by men like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghanistan's most powerful warlord in the 1980s, who then channeled funds to anti-soviet jihadists.

It was men like Hekmatyar whom Ronald Reagan called, at a press conference in the Rose Garden, the modern equivalent of the U.S. founding fathers (Hekmatyar turned down a personal invitation to the White House from Reagan because he thought it would compromise his standing back home). U.S. officials now seek Hekmatyar as a "specially designated global terrorist."

Alfred McCoy, in his book The Politics of Heroin, outlines "the expansion of drug production in Afghanistan to the political cover provided by the CIA-sponsored covert proxy war with the Soviets." In 1979, Afghanistan was responsible for 5 percent of the world's heroin sales; by 1989, Afghanistan originated 75 percent of it. The Afghan poppy fields continue to run at full production--under the guard of U.S. Marines.

Up to 2 million Afghans and 15,000 Russians lost their lives during the 10-year Russian invasion. As the Reagan administration hoped it would, Afghanistan became the Soviets' Vietnam.

When the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, Osama bin Laden took the credit. Bin Laden as well as the Taliban were further emboldened by the Clinton administration, which wanted to protect the development of a UNOCAL pipeline. "Who paid for the [Taliban's] weaponry ammunition and vehicles?" the Los Angeles Times asked on October 4, 1996. "Who organized its training and logistics? Many are sure that the Clinton administration is supporting the Taliban."

I LEFT Afghanistan for the last time in 2004. I expected I would have a small window of opportunity to write a newsworthy piece about my experience--most wars historically don't last more than a few years. Six years and billions of dollars later, reports from the front line suggest that a soldier leaving the country yesterday could have written this very report.

Afghanistan is as universally governed and controlled as the U.S. was in the first days after the Louisiana Purchase. Identifying Afghanistan as a single country neglects the tribes that exist independently and out of the reach of the administration of U.S.-backed puppet Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Villages are largely disconnected from each other due to poverty, a lack of modern communication and treacherous terrain. It is not uncommon to find an almost self-sustaining town of 50,000 people living atop the jagged ridge of a 16,000-foot mountain, thus making it next to impossible to impose the authority of a central state without the constant threat of violence.

Although illegal, bacha baz, literally meaning "boy player," is the practice of buying boys as young as nine years old for sexual slavery in Afghanistan. According to a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers...In Kandahar, population about 500,000, and other towns, dance parties are a popular, often weekly, pastime. Young boys dress up as girls, wearing makeup and bells on their feet, and dance for a dozen or more leering middle-aged men who throw money at them and then take them home. A recent State Department report called "dancing boys" a "widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape."

Bacha baz is only for men who can afford it--warlords, high-ranking military officials and the political elite. Even members of Hamad Karzai's family have been linked to the practice. At the beginning of our deployment, we would enter villages and wonder why three out of every 10 boys wore orange fingernail polish. By the end of the deployment, we knew these were the "dancing boys."

This practice is a clear violation of human rights, but it was not something we ever dreamed of controlling--no matter how troubling we as individuals found it. That would mean targeting the elite that the U.S. was there to protect.

The plane ride to Afghanistan from Fort Lewis in Washington state, where my unit, the 2nd Ranger Battalion, was stationed, took 21 hours. We landed at Bagram Airfield, which is about 50 miles west of Kabul, and then flew another three hours or so by helicopter--over valleys, rivers and mountain ranges that looked like the computer-generated images made for the set of Lord of the Rings. We landed at another base, then hiked a few more hours--uphill--to another, even more remote, firebase.

When we got there, we were isolated and shut off from the rest of the world. The only technology we found in most of these villages were PA systems that amplified daily Islamic prayers, eerily echoing down the valley that we staged our missions from.

We became late-night or early-morning targets of rocket or gunfire from civilian-clothed snipers. Shooting from hundreds of feet above our already elevated position, the Afghans always seemed to have the high ground.

SATELLITE U.S. firebases are maintained throughout Afghanistan, many in locations once occupied by the Russians. The firebase my company occupied was the scene of a significant Russian defeat. The opening of our tents stared out at a crude stone wall where two dozen Russian solders were lined up and killed in the 1980s. They were attacked from the hill that stood like a malignant tumor behind our tents.

After being attacked, we would exit our tents and return fire with machine guns, mortar rounds and rocket launchers. We aimed into terrain features rather than specific targets. If the attack was large enough and fighter planes or helicopter gunships were available, air strikes would be called in to target a broad, sometimes "guesstimated" location. Many livestock, rocks and innocent civilians have been on the receiving end of our multimillion-dollar, 500-pound bombs and rockets.

After the dust settled, we spent hours, usually in the dark, lugging up to 120 pounds of gear per person up the side of mountains to search suspected villages. Helicopters were usually unable to drop us anywhere near target locations due to the thin air of the higher elevations.

When we attempted clandestine offensive missions in these remote, mountainous regions--where it was believed many "high value" targets were holding out--an efficient and nearly undetectable grapevine lookout system comprised of goat herders, children and other seemingly disinterested pedestrians often alerted the target to our presence, compromising the missions' element of surprise.

Russian tanks, airplanes and landmines littered the dusty valleys where modest earthen homes are surrounded by 24-inch walls, which were made of the same organic materials as the homes and can withstand blasts from rocket-propelled grenades. UNICEF estimates that there are more than 6 million landmines buried in Afghanistan, which explains why there are so many children limping around with the help of crutches made from tree branches

Our Humvee caravans drove at a snail's pace through these lower elevation towns, zoned like a game of 52-card pick-up, always hoping to avoid roadside bombs and sniper fire.

The Afghan men, many sporting religious beards dyed orange and pakol hats, stared back with ever-growing suspicion, anger and fear.

The smell of rotting fruits and vegetables and sweat--there is not a lot of running water for baths in Afghanistan--hung in the air. In many places, the sand was so fine it could be mistaken for a gas when stirred by boots, tires or a breeze, and along with the smells, it would thicken the air even in areas like Kabul and Jalalabad.

City streets were stuffed with "Jinga" trucks decorated in brightly colored tassels and beads, which would engage in a crowded dance around craterlike potholes, livestock and pedestrians. It was rare to find a paved road that went on for more than a few kilometers anywhere in the country. Most of the high-rises and hotels in Kabul, the country's largest city, are still pockmarked by holes caused by Russian mortar fire and the civil conflict that followed the USSR's withdrawal in 1989.

Afghan security forces accompanied us on many of our missions. Although eager and brave, they felt like kid brothers. Military professionalism and training was practically nonexistent. Many were excellent scouts, but U.S. soldiers feared having to count on them in a firefight.

According to a recent 60 Minutes report, at least 80 percent of the Afghan police, which the U.S. has spent nine years and $7 billion training to take over security by 2014, is illiterate, and 20 percent of these men are addicted to drugs.

Notably, the Soviets also delayed their exit from Afghanistan by four years because they too felt the need to "train" Afghan security forces. The years 1985 to 1989 were some of the bloodiest of the Russian campaign.

THE OBAMA administration knows that the U.S. war in Vietnam, which killed more than 2 million Vietnamese and 50,000 mostly poor U.S. soldiers, was lost when it was felt at kitchen tables. Evening news reports on television regularly showed mortally wounded casualties on both sides.

Few who have seen it can ever forget the iconic photograph of the little girl running down the street with Napalm melting the flesh off her body. Americans asked themselves, "What if that were happening here to my children?" And the policy changed.

Today, the horror of rising casualties on both sides in Afghanistan is difficult to fully grasp because there are far fewer reporters "embedded" in the country. There is almost a media blackout on showing the war's dead and wounded, which has only tightened since the Obama administration took over. When the media does report on the war, one could easily mistake military operations in Afghanistan for NASA's work on Mars--with its billion-dollar missions and unmanned drones aimed at questionable goals in far away places.

Personally, I don't remember seeing a single media outlet during the two tours I spent in Afghanistan.

There are some images of the horrific human cost of war available, but their very existence--and how few have seen them--is itself a testimony to the media's failure to report on this aspect of the war. As long as these images are censored, the daily realities on the ground are ignored, and the history of this land is forgotten, the Obama administration will keep us on the same dead-end track that the Reagan administration helped pave for the Soviets.

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