THE BIG IDEA

Why Afghanistan? Why Now?

The reason we first sent soldiers to Afghanistan—to hunt bin Laden and al Qaeda—is long gone, yet we’re sending 4,000 more troops there. Is it time to rethink our 16-year war?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis went to Brussels last week to convince NATO allies to send around 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan, where they will likely join between 3,000 and 5,000 more American troops expected to be sent there (that’s in addition to the more than 8,500 US and 5,000 other NATO troops already in country).

The number of U.S. troops isn’t official yet and probably won’t be until mid-July, but according to a White House leak last month, that number is 4,000. The mission will be basically the same, “to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces,” but the intention will be to break what General John Nicholson, current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has called a “stalemate.”

“We are not winning in Afghanistan…” Secretary Mattis said in June, “and we will correct this as soon as possible.”

You might be forgiven for feeling some déjà vu. You might also be forgiven for being surprised to hear that we’re still in Afghanistan. And you’d most definitely be forgiven for wondering why.

The reasons that the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan almost 16 years ago—to hunt down Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—no longer hold. Special Forces assassins killed Osama bin Laden six years ago in his house in Pakistan. Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and while according to some accounts the organization maintains a presence in Afghanistan, it’s probably only there because we are, much like the cadres of ISIS-affiliated terrorists who are said to be behind a recent series of attacks in Kabul. U.S. soldiers in Islamic countries tend to draw jihadists like honey draws flies.

The Taliban—consistently the biggest problem for U.S. forces in Afghanistan—are indistinguishable from the Afghan people, because they are the Afghan people, and despite years of counter-insurgency rhetoric, the likelihood of a foreign invader forcing the Afghan people to stop shooting at them is pretty close to zero. The Afghan people have a long and honorable tradition of killing foreign invaders, and we’re not likely to change that. The fact is, there has been no clearly articulated national security interest justifying U.S. military forces remaining in Afghanistan. Yet there they are. And now we’re sending more.

The sense of déjà vu around this new promise to “win” Afghanistan is captured well by David Michôd’s recent film, War Machine, in which Brad Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, a thinly-veiled fictionalization of General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan whose career famously flamed out after he and his staff were caught trashing the Obama administration by Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.

McChrystal, like General David Petraeus, who replaced him in Afghanistan, and General “Mad Dog” Mattis—now Secretary of Defense—was worshipped by the media as a “warrior scholar,” a Jedi Knight, and a “warrior monk,” who perfectly embodied the repressed desire establishment liberals seem to have for a hard-bodied daddy to tell them what to think and who to kill. He was brought in to take over the American mission in Afghanistan in 2009 because we weren’t “winning,” and the Obama administration needed somebody to change that.  

As Hastings recounts in his book The Operators, which War Machine is drawn from and based on, McChrystal was more than happy to fill that role. McChrystal was a West Point graduate who’d made his career in the Army’s insular, hyper-competitive, swaggering special operations community, and made his mark as the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command during the bloodiest years of the war in Iraq. His greatest public coup was hunting down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq; his biggest public scandals came from his overseeing torture at Camp Nama in Iraq, and his signing off on a factitious Silver Star award for Pat Tillman which omitted the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

Scandals like that should have sunk McChrystal, but in the early days of the Obama transition, holding people accountable for torture or outright lies was seen as partisan and unproductive. The president believed we needed “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” and when he looked forward in Afghanistan, he saw McChrystal as someone who could “win.” Like General Mattis, whose call sign in Iraq was “Chaos,” McChrystal was believed to have the discipline, wisdom, and drive a new president needed. We seem to think, post-9/11, that our generals can save us. That sense of déjà vu you might be having is the haunting reminder that they never do.

Afghanistan is symbolic of bigger problems in U.S. foreign policy, and Michôd’s War Machine embodies some of the key problems of Afghanistan. Like the war in Afghanistan, the film can’t decide what genre it belongs to. It swings from slapstick to combat film to tragedy to political satire to drama, then back again, in much the same way as the story we’ve been told about the war in Afghanistan. Are we there to bring democracy to the Afghans? Are we there to hunt terrorists? Are we there for women’s rights? Are we trying to “win,” or just trying to get out? We’ve “turned a corner” so many times we don’t even know which way we’re going.

Another way that War Machine embodies the problem of Afghanistan is in its confusions about who we’re supposed to sympathize with. From his first scene, Brad Pitt plays McMahon as a blustering fool; obviously he’s not our protagonist. Nor are any of McMahon’s cronies very sympathetic, not even Anthony Michael Hall’s choleric General Pulver (a caricature of General Michael Flynn, who served on McChrystal’s staff). Ben Kingsley’s Hamid Karzai is a one-note joke, and Aymen Hamdouchi’s Badi Basim, McMahon’s Afghan aide, has little to do besides act, you know, Afghany. The voice-over which begins the film is revealed about an hour too late to belong to Scoot McNary’s reporter Sean Cullen, the film’s version of Michael Hastings, which suggests he might be our hero, or at least a surrogate who can help us make sense of the story, but Cullen disappears off-stage almost as soon as he arrives, and we’re dumped into a firefight sequence which seeks to enlist our sympathies for both the American marines fighting in Helmand and the Afghan villagers whose lives are made hell by those same marines. Yet more confounding, when Cullen’s Rolling Stone story costs McMahon his career, the film seems to want us to sympathize with the general.

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It’s the same with Afghanistan. Who’s really to blame, and who’s the victim of circumstance? Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing, but no one is innocent, not the hunter-killer teams, not the killer general, not the Taliban’s killers, not even the Rolling Stone journalist looking for the killer detail. 

People have lots of feels for the soldiers, of course, and the poor Afghans, but those feelings are mostly pity, and largely abstract. Does anyone really care about Afghanistan? Does anyone without a professional or personal connection to the war in Afghanistan give a rat's ass what's happening there, or bother themselves about the fact that it's been going on for almost 16 years? I have a hard time believing it. The problem of how to get American viewers invested in a complex story about Afghanistan is less a problem of narrative than a problem with how we think about the war itself—which is mostly not at all.  

Finally, there’s General McMahon. Brad Pitt plays the general with out-sized, lip-chomping brio, but the performance never quite gels. Part of the problem might be that Pitt is too introspective an actor to pull off the kind of bull-headedness that the U.S military inculcates in its officer class.  

But the problem is deeper: no matter how outrageously Pitt and Michôd played up McMahon and his war, they’d never be able to give us a caricature that could match the brutal arrogance of American military leadership, especially self-styled Caesars like McChrystal, Petraeus, and Mattis, or make a movie as FUBAR as the real war in Afghanistan. It’s impossible to satirize the absurd. 

Why are we still in Afghanistan? Why are we sending more troops there? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg. The ongoing U.S. mission in Afghanistan doesn’t make any sense, or at least none that officials are willing to articulate, but the sad fact is just how widespread this is, and how used to it we’ve become.

American foreign policy stopped making sense 16 years ago, when we turned the hunt for a group of criminals into a global war without end, and it grew even more absurd when we launched an aggressive war against a sovereign nation on a pretext of lies. The chaos of American foreign policy today under Donald Trump is no more than the consequence and continuation of the last 16 years—“For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” What really doesn’t make any sense is why we keep letting it happen.