Letter from Washington — From the April 2018 issue

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

Download Pdf
Read Online

Lance Bunch has had an impressive year. In July 2017, he gained a coveted star, having been promoted to brigadier general while serving as the principal military assistant to James Mattis, the secretary of defense. His job put him at the epicenter of all US national security issues — and among the most pressing for Mattis at that moment was Afghanistan.

The prepresidential Donald Trump had repeatedly questioned the need for US forces to stay in the country. The military leadership felt otherwise, and once Trump was elected, they argued that he should send more troops and hang on for the long haul. This meant beating back efforts by Steve Bannon to hold Trump to his earlier isolationist instincts. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, reportedly even showed the president a Seventies-era photo of miniskirted women in Kabul as indication that the Afghans were not beyond redemption. Ultimately, the generals carried all before them. Late in August, Trump announced, implausibly, that he had “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” and concluded that the top brass should have the open-ended commitment they demanded.

An aerial view of Helmand province, Afghanistan © Pieter ten Hoopen/Agence VU/Redux

“We will also expand authority,” said the commander in chief, “for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.” For Bunch, this feature of the plan would have particular significance. The following month, he was awarded his own command position: director of Future Operations at the American headquarters in Kabul. This was a brand-new unit (inevitably reduced to the acronym FUOPS) established to implement the new targeting strategy.

Three months into the job, Bunch briefed the Pentagon press corps via video link on the novel features of his mission. “Before,” he explained, “we could only target essentially in defense or in close proximity to Afghan forces that were in contact. Now, with our new authorities, we’re able to target networks, not just individual fighters.”

In other words, airpower commanders could now operate autonomously, selecting and striking targets without reference to ground operations — the core doctrine of the US Air Force ever since it began its fight for independence from the Army between the world wars. Central to this approach is the idea of “critical nodes,” elements in an enemy system that, when identified and destroyed, will cause that system to collapse. Accordingly, Bunch explained, his command would now target the Taliban in their “so-called safe zones, command-and-control nodes, illicit revenue-generating ventures, and their logistical networks.” Among these, the drug trade had been classified as especially vital, supposedly generating $200 million a year — 60 percent of the Taliban’s annual budget. If his campaign went according to plan, proclaimed the ebullient young general, “the future of Afghanistan is one free of terror, corruption, and narcotic production.”

The campaign, in fact, was already in process. The attacks had begun on the night of November 19, in Helmand province, Afghanistan’s most bountiful opium-growing region, deemed by Bunch the Taliban’s “economic engine.” The US commander in the country, General John Nicholson, gave his own briefing in the immediate aftermath, supplying a running commentary for successive videos of individual strikes. One video featured the demolition of a “Taliban narcotics production facility” in the town of Musa Qala.

“As you look at this strike,” Nicholson told the crowd of journalists, “you’re going to see that inside this compound are multiple structures, and we destroy only two of them while leaving the third standing, which we did to avoid collateral damage.” The images followed the familiar pattern of such PR displays. A peaceful vista of assorted structures, apparently unpopulated, is violently interrupted by a silent flash that gives way to a cloud of thick, black smoke.

By the time Bunch made his remarks, three weeks after the campaign began, twenty-five such “narcotics production facilities” had been attacked. He noted the impact in very precise terms: the drug kingpins had lost $80 million in merchandise, and the Taliban had consequently been deprived of $16 million in “direct revenue,” meaning taxes on that merchandise.

Such certainty is questionable. Mike Martin, who spent years in Afghanistan as a British Army officer and then as a political adviser to the British forces, commented derisively to me: “Not long ago, the United States had over a hundred thousand troops in the country, plus a huge concentration of CIA and other intelligence resources. At that point, they couldn’t understand what was going on: Mullah Omar had been dead for two years before they found out. Today, they have a footprint one fifteenth the size, so do they understand? They don’t have a clue.”

Nicholson had proudly touted the intelligence efforts preceding the air strikes, which had involved “hundreds of analysts,” as well as drones, satellites, and spy planes “soaking the area for hundreds of hours to then find, pinpoint, [and] assess the targets.” What was missing from all this, Martin told me, was “human intelligence, which gives you context.” Without such context, he said, the video and signals were meaningless “pinpricks.”

For that matter, neither Nicholson’s audience nor those hundreds of analysts poring over pictures of the target area for weeks before the strike could have known for sure who or what might have been inside those buildings that night. As it happened, one house in Musa Qala had contained the sleeping family of a local opium trader, Hajji Habibullah. All of them were killed, including Habibullah, his wife, and six children, one of them just a year old. There was no mention of this collateral damage in US media coverage of the attacks, which was by and large uncritical and unquestioning of official claims that the Taliban had suffered a severe financial setback.

In any case, the claims of severe economic damage were highly dubious. According to information collected by local researchers for David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, considered by many to be among the world’s greatest experts on the Afghan opium economy, the results of the raid were considerably less impressive than advertised. Of the nine buildings hit in Musa Qala, for example, two were reportedly empty. Six were indeed used for cooking opium into heroin — but they, too, were probably empty at the time of the attack, since traders would be loath to leave valuable inventory in a lockup overnight. The following day, according to these on-the-ground reports, it was business as usual at the local drug bazaar. Prices for opium and heroin were unchanged, as were the wages demanded by workers in the “production facilities,” which consisted of little more than a few oil drums, a hot plate, and a connection to a water source. Children playing in the ruins found little trace of opium. Meanwhile, the unhappy fate of the Habibullah family was attracting wide publicity in the region, generating considerable outrage.1

1 A military spokesperson in Kabul said, “There have been no validated instances of civilian casualties related to our strikes against enemy financial targets.” He added that before air strikes, analysts are “able to tell if drugs labs are active or not.”

Mansfield has spent much of the past twenty years investigating the realities of the Afghan opium trade, traveling to the most remote and dangerous areas of the country. In a recent conversation, he pointed out that even if the destroyed labs had indeed been full of narcotics, the claims regarding the value of the merchandise were completely implausible, as was the argument that the Taliban would have collected $16 million in taxes. Such a claim presumed that the Taliban was an efficient, monolithic organization exacting unquestioning obedience from a compliant population. “The idea that the Taliban runs a tax system that the IRS would be proud of, in remote rural areas of a country that doesn’t have a centralized government and never has had a centralized government,” he told me, “just doesn’t make sense.”

In any case, Mansfield argued, intelligence assumptions about such fundamental issues as the opium tax rate have long been wildly off. If the Taliban had been due to collect $16 million from the traffickers’ $80 million, that would suggest a rate of 20 percent. But Mansfield’s own research indicates that the figure is much smaller and varies according to the bargaining skills on either side. Displaying a refreshing affection for hard data collected firsthand, he calculated that the true tax rate for a farmer’s opium crop is a maximum of 3 percent, while the heroin rate is 1.5 percent. Not that everyone pays the full whack. “Everything is negotiable in Afghanistan,” Mansfield said, especially since the farming communities are well armed and liable, if pushed too far, to eject the militia or strike a deal with a more accommodating Taliban commander.

Furthermore, Mansfield argued that the $80 million figure cited by Bunch was equally implausible. Even in the (unlikely) event that all the merchandise was high-value heroin, currently priced at $1,100 a kilo in the bazaars, the twenty-five demolished labs would have had to contain an average of three tons of product apiece, worth more than $3 million. As Mansfield saw it, the numbers simply didn’t add up, in this case or in others. In his commentary on another attack video, this time of a building being obliterated by 2,000-pound bombs from a B-52, Nicholson stated confidently that there had been no fewer than “fifty barrels of opium,” worth “millions of dollars,” destroyed. Yet if Mansfield’s pricing information is correct, those fifty barrels, as he reported in a paper for the LSE, “would have been worth at most $190,750, if converted to heroin, and no more than $2,863 to the Taliban in tax.” Overall, he concluded, “The idea that the Taliban are reliant on opium for the war makes no sense whatsoever.”

Rational or not, it is a proposition that has long appealed to Western politicians looking for excuses to occupy Afghanistan. Explaining his logic for joining the American invasion after 9/11, British prime minister Tony Blair assured Parliament that “the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime are funded in large part on the drugs trade.” In fact, the Taliban government had effectively banned poppy growing the year before, and Al Qaeda was largely Saudi-funded. When the burgeoning crops that soon followed the regime’s overthrow began attracting international attention, Blair successfully solicited the lead role for Britain in combating this supposed source of Taliban revenue. In Washington, too, bureaucrats at the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs division (known in Washington as Drugs and Thugs) were quick to promote the notion of the Taliban as a drug-fueled enterprise, as did the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The State Department had already developed a taste for such operations. On the other side of the world, the United States was sponsoring Plan Colombia, premised on a similar theory that the FARC insurgency was dependent on the cocaine business. The government used that as a rationale for spraying toxic herbicide across crops and people in coca-growing regions. William Wood, who as US ambassador to Colombia forcefully pushed the narco-terrorism narrative, moved to head the Kabul embassy in 2007, bringing equal zeal for this approach to his new posting.

For its part, the US military was initially reluctant to treat the conflict in Afghanistan as a drug war, as was the CIA. “Attacking the drug trade,” Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, told Congress in 2006, “actually feeds the instability that you want to overcome.” (At the time, in fact, the CIA was paying a healthy retainer to Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother and a major player in the local narcotics business.)

For those American officials who considered fighting narcotics as key to combating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, Gul Agha Sherzai, who had been appointed the governor of Nangarhar province in 2005, was a welcome and indeed exciting ally. “Their attitude was, ‘He’s a real tough guy, and he’s our friend,’ ” recalls Matthew Hoh, a senior civilian adviser in the province during those years who later quit the State Department in protest at the futility of the war. “They were thrilled to know him. He was ‘our Tony Soprano.’ ” Burly, famed for his record as an anti-Soviet guerrilla commander in the Eighties, Sherzai earned the nickname Bulldozer for his ability to deliver, especially on projects cherished by the Americans.

Most importantly, as US officials increasingly fixated on opium as the source of Taliban revenues, he was hailed for ridding his own province of the crop. In 2008, the UN declared Nangarhar “poppy free” — an achievement that earned Sherzai $10 million from a Good Performers Initiative fund set up by the United States and Britain to encourage communities fighting narcotics. Ambassador Wood, known as Chemical Bill for his eagerness to import toxic spraying to the poppy fields, nominated Nangarhar as a “model province.” American aid soon swelled to a torrent. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama dropped by in July 2008 and was so charmed that he invited Sherzai to his inauguration.

The reality was a little different. In his previous role as the governor of his native Kandahar, Sherzai had earned a well-deserved reputation for corruption and cruelty, as well as garnering a healthy income from his extensive involvement in the local opium business. Sarah Chayes, who arrived in Kandahar in 2001 as a journalist, later founded an NGO to help Afghans find an alternative to opium farming, and ultimately served as a senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, well understood the reality behind America’s favorite Afghan governor. “He was deeply involved in poppy in Kandahar,” she recalled recently, and when appointed governor of Nangarhar, “what he did was move into processing.” So while Sherzai was basking in plaudits for stamping out opium growing (and impoverishing farmers in the process), he was manufacturing heroin. “Those rewarding him should have known,” Chayes told me. “This was not just the Afghan rumor mill.” Her sources, she said, were at NATO headquarters in Kabul, meaning intelligence. “It was utterly typical of the double games we put up with and rewarded and thus became guilty of ourselves.” 2

2 Queried for his reaction, Sherzai, who currently serves as Afghanistan’s minister of border and tribal affairs, responded with copies of glowing testimonials from American officials going back to his Nangarhar days. Speaking through a representative, he further insisted that he had “fought against opium cultivation” in the Nineties and that he had “kept doing that his whole life,” even during his tenure as governor of Kandahar.

There is a truism about Afghanistan that gets updated every year. Currently it runs: America has not been in Afghanistan for sixteen years; it has been in Afghanistan for one year, sixteen times. The complete lack of institutional memory may help to explain why the fervor of the anti-opium crusade keeps waxing and waning with policy shifts in Washington. The military, for example, had at first declined to play a major role — but then got on board after counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) had supposedly helped to best Al Qaeda in Iraq. Applying COIN thinking to Afghanistan, they concluded that Afghan farmers should be weaned from growing opium, thereby lessening Taliban influence. To that end, the military eradicated crops whenever possible and induced farmers to grow something legal and supposedly profitable, such as wheat (though this is normally a subsistence crop in the country). However, Richard Holbrooke, appointed by President Obama to oversee Afghan policy, soon surmised that eradicating crops on which farmers depended for a living was a poor way to win support, and got that stopped, at least for a while. He also questioned the assumption that the Taliban depended on narcotics for funding, brandishing CIA reports that traced much of the group’s money back to our allies in the Gulf oil kingdoms.

Despite these zigzagging shifts in policy, the universal assumption, at least among Western officials and media, was that the United States and its allies were supporting a legitimate Afghan government, albeit one marred by corruption, against a cohesive Taliban insurgency controlled from Pakistan. More complicated narratives were not welcome. One officer who served multiple tours in the country told me that new arrivals were never clued in as to what was really driving the conflict in the area: land disputes, tribal feuds, competition in the drug business. “It was, ‘Welcome to Afghanistan, here’s where you do your laundry, there’s the chow hall. Do a check-fire of your weapon, then go out to your deployment area.’ There was no turnover of institutional knowledge whatsoever.”

This particular officer did make considerable efforts to understand what was going on, and eventually concluded that “Taliban” was “not really a useful term anymore.” In reality, he concluded, the conflict in Helmand province, where he was posted, was fundamentally driven by a long-standing clash between at least two powerful tribes, the Alizai (led by Sher Mohammed Akhundzada) and the Barakzai (led by Malim Mir Wali). Most pertinently, the rival leaders were rumored to head competing drug cartels. “Most of the violence that I saw was not really Taliban-driven,” the officer said, “but cartel-driven.” As he came to understand, each drug lord was constantly seeking to gain greater access to the opium crop at the expense of the other, principally by influencing local police chiefs and government officials. “I think these two individuals and others like them in Afghanistan use ‘Taliban’ to cover their tracks. They will say, ‘There’s terrible things going on, and I blame the Taliban, or I blame Pakistan,’ when they are the ones actually doing it. So on any given day, violence will either remain on the border between their two territories or else push into one or the other’s area.”

My informant added that the drug lords were expert at manipulating American commanders. “You find no greater friend to the American than Sher Mohammed Akhundzada,” he explained. “He speaks English, he rolls out the red carpet, he puts on a feast, and so everybody falls in love with him, never believing that he’s into anything bad. Same thing with Malim Mir Wali. If you go to see him, he’s going to give you the best rice, the best bread, the best chai, and you believe he’s the key to the future. They are master manipulators and excellent politicians.”

In fact, he recalled, there was a period when British troops in Helmand, influenced by Mir Wali, were assaulting Akhundzada’s territory, while the Americans, under Akhundzada’s spell, were doing precisely the opposite. They were carrying out “operations that were making our allies’ lives harder and vice versa because we were caught in the middle of a civil war between two Mafia families.”

To Martin, such manipulating is a familiar story. At once he recalled other cases in which these Mafiosi had exploited outside powers to serve their own ends. Mir Wali, for example, had a profitable line in picking up local men, handing them over to the Special Forces, and collecting the $2,000 bounty being offered for Taliban fighters. Some were sent to Guantánamo and languished there for years. Akhundzada, for his part, was removed from his post as the governor of Helmand after an antinarcotics squad discovered nine tons of opium in his office — a stash, as he later told Martin, that he had stolen from Mir Wali. Having revoked Akhundzada’s governorship, Hamid Karzai nonetheless appointed him a senator in the Afghan parliament. Yet even with this stake in the central government, the wily drug lord hedged his bets by sending several thousand members of his private army to fight the Western and Afghan forces as “Taliban.” Mir Wali, who also sported Taliban colors when it suited him, was a fellow member of parliament at the time.

Martin was a rarity among Westerners in the country in that he spoke fluent Pashto, the language of southern Afghanistan. After leaving the military, he spent years unraveling, through patient conversations with hundreds of locals, the real history of the war in Helmand, going all the way back to the Seventies. His research, infinitely more detailed than that of the American officer quoted above but leading to similar conclusions, is laid out in An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978–2012 — an astonishing chronicle of feuds, betrayals, greed, manipulation, cruelty, and (so far as the Americans and the British are concerned) stupidity and ignorance.

At one point, for example, Martin and his unit were asked by a district governor in Helmand to drive the Taliban out of a neighboring village, which they duly did, reinstalling the Afghan government police. He subsequently discovered that the “Taliban” were in fact a village militia formed to drive away the police — members of the governor’s tribe — who had been robbing people and raping local boys. Furthermore, this was the governor’s second stint as a local strongman: he had been chief of police under the Russians twenty years before. The “Taliban” whom he had sent the British to attack had been anti-Soviet resistance fighters in the earlier war.

As Martin recounts, such double-dealing agendas were the norm. The Helmandis adopted whatever label — police, Taliban, government militia — seemed most expedient at the time. Even when knowledgeable Westerners informed their superiors of the true state of affairs, as Sarah Chayes did when she heard of Obama’s visit to Sherzai (“I cringed and tried to convey why that was exactly the wrong thing to do”), the government-versus-insurgency narrative was almost impossible to shake loose. Hence Martin’s comment when I solicited his reaction to the recent strikes on the narcotics facilities: “How can they tell the difference between Taliban labs and government labs? Surely the intelligence came from drug factions pushing their own agenda. If you try and explain some of the complexities to Western officials and tell them, ‘You’re making things worse,’ their faces go blank.” (A military spokesperson said, “We are unaware of any report that says that the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is involved in the narcotics trade. The US military does not protect corrupt officials.”)

One spectacular example of making things worse can be found in the explosive growth in the 2017 Afghan opium harvest: an eye-catching 87 percent increase over 2016. It was this bumper crop that did much to bolster the American designation of the Taliban as a narco-insurgency and launch the subsequent targeting campaign. According to Mattis, enemy advances and crop growth were closely connected: “As the Taliban surged, we watched the poppy surge right along with it. There’s no surprise here — the intelligence community had warned us about this, so it’s exactly what we were told would happen.”

But why did Helmand farmers really grow so much more opium all of a sudden? In a supreme irony, the root cause would appear to be a multimillion-dollar effort by the United States and Britain to wean them away from opium. Agriculture in the region has traditionally been confined to areas irrigated by the Helmand River as it flows southwest from the Hindu Kush toward the Iranian border. But in the Fifties, Washington had fostered a large-scale irrigation project that produced more fertile land — along with tribal disputes over ownership that underlie much of today’s unrest and violence.

In recent decades, much of that land had been given over to opium. Beginning in 2008, the Americans and British began an ambitious project known as the Helmand Food Zone. The aim was to persuade farmers to shift from opium to wheat by means of inducements (seeds and fertilizer) and force (the prompt destruction of opium crops). Needless to say, the scheme was beset with problems, such as difficulties in seed distribution, which involved a major effort by overstretched British forces traveling over mine-strewn roads. Nevertheless, over most of the designated territory, amber waves of grain did begin to replace the poppy flowers. By 2012, the opium crop in the zone was one quarter of what it had been four years earlier. USAID alone had spent almost half a billion dollars in Helmand, but it did seem the project was working.

Opium, however, is a labor-intensive crop, while wheat is not. This meant that the farmers growing wheat had no need for the laborers and sharecroppers they had previously required. No one had thought about what might happen to the men who had worked on the opium plantations and were now without a livelihood. For many, the solution was to move to the dry desert north of the Boghra Canal — built by the Americans in the Fifties — drill wells, and start planting opium. According to Mansfield, the population in that region went from almost zero in 2008 to 250,000 eight years later. Land was cheap to rent or buy, and planters were free of the unwelcome attentions of the US and Afghan government forces. Thus, as opium production declined in the Helmand Food Zone — to the delight of the project’s sponsors and supporters, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein — the desert began to bloom. By 2012, opium production in the newly worked land exceeded the amount by which it had declined in the Food Zone.

Life in this desert paradise was not without challenges: early on, there were several years of bad harvests. In response, the farmers began switching from diesel pumps, which required expensive fuel and maintenance, to solar-powered Chinese models. Once purchased, these were essentially free to run and appeared to guarantee a limitless supply of water (although the long-term effects are likely to be catastrophic, since the northern Helmand water table is steadily sinking). Thanks to green energy, the farmers were soon pumping so much water that large ponds began appearing all across what had been desert only a year or so earlier. Mansfield recalls seeing these on aerial imagery and thinking, “What’s this? Afghans are getting into swimming in a big way?” To further boost yield, growers also turned to a wide range of herbicides, including such locally labeled brands as Zanmargai (“Suicide Bomber”) and Cruise (as in cruise missile).

Back in the Food Zone, meanwhile, all was not well. Though the presence of Western armies had for a while helped to suppress opium farming, the Afghan government had done little to endear itself to the local population, who complained angrily of everything from official corruption in wheat-seed distribution to bribery in the eradication program. Once the foreign troops pulled out in 2014, along with the hefty sums they had been injecting into the local economy, Afghan units were expelled from much of the area. Few farmers in the zone had been able to make an adequate living out of promoted alternatives like cotton or wheat. Now they eagerly began planting poppy again, thereby adding their bumper 2017 crop to the one sprouting in the new plantations.

In sum, the net effect of the most intensive effort ever to curb opium in Afghanistan was that the local crop almost doubled. Predictably, the actual reasons for this explosion went unexplored in official pronouncements, even as interested bureaucratic parties defaulted to familiar tropes regarding Taliban control of the business, which was now claimed to extend to processing. “I pretty firmly feel they are processing all the harvest,” declared William Brownfield, the assistant secretary for drugs and law enforcement (another graduate of the Colombian program), in an August 2017 interview. “Where was the evidence for that?” asked David Mansfield. “He felt it?” Nevertheless, Brownfield’s data-free hunch was now being translated into policy as the military, long dubious as to the merits of targeting labs from the air, finally signed on, and the bombs began to fall.

It’s very hard for people to integrate truth into the narrative,” Martin told me in a long Skype conversation from Ethiopia, where he was en route to Somalia. We had been discussing the intricacies of tribal politics in Helmand and how such knowledge was essential to an understanding of the situation. But absorbing, for example, the twists and turns of Barakzai tribal history, or exactly how a farmer negotiates tax payments with the Taliban, does not fully reveal the story of the current war in Afghanistan. That requires some additional knowledge of the various cultures and subcultures at play on both sides — American as well as Afghan — and what really motivates them.

For example, Air Force publicity about the initial drug-lab raids emphasized the role played by the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter supposedly capable of evading enemy radar and costing, once all charges are included, in excess of $400 million per plane. When asked why it had been necessary to include this plane in the attacking force, Bunch invoked its ability to carry the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, “which allowed us to be extremely precise, yet still target the Taliban narcotics labs and not cause any undue collateral damage.”

But that particular bomb, which is in fact destructive over a wide area, can be carried by other planes. There were more weighty reasons to send the Raptor all the way from its base in Qatar (requiring multiple and expensive aerial refuelings along the way) to destroy a $500 drug lab. Though in service for twelve of the sixteen years we have been at war in Afghanistan, the plane has hitherto played no combat role, prompting potentially awkward questions about the worth of such expensive high-technology projects in modern warfare. It turns out that the groundwork is currently being laid for a sixth-generation fighter, projected to enter service a decade or so from now, which will be equipped with many novel and inevitably costly features. Highlighting the relevance of high-tech machines, and the budgets they justify, was therefore a powerful incentive for the Air Force to put the Raptor on display.

While the Air Force’s zealous promotion of its bombing doctrine helps to explain why the United States apparently now believes that Afghanistan can be pacified from 20,000 feet, other features of American military culture, often unknown to outsiders, have also had their effect on the country. I’m told that the Marines, for example, pushed for a major role in Afghanistan partly because most of the force that had earlier been sent to Iraq had come from units based on the East Coast. Now the West Coast Marines wanted a chance to earn their share of battle honors, promotions, and so forth.

Afghans who find bombs landing on their heads may not necessarily understand that at least some of their plight is a byproduct of US military personnel practices, notably the competition-based system for promotions. “If you get violent,” the US officer quoted above explained to me, “if you call in an air strike, not only do you get a combat ribbon and possibly an award for valor, but it also makes your report a combat report. When you have multiple combat reports and others do not, you’re more competitive for promotion and assignment to prestigious billets.” So even though the best course of action might be nonviolent, the culture is predisposed toward violence. “When you suggest doing something else,” the officer told me, “guys will say, ‘You’re overthinking this. These people just need to be killed.’ ”

General Nicholson has said that the strategy endorsed by Trump last summer puts our side “on a path to win” in Afghanistan. He is at least the eighth senior American commander to pledge impending victory in those sixteen years of war. He will doubtless not be the last.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share
is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

More from Andrew Cockburn:

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2018

As Goes the South, so Goes the Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

No Exit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Unmusical Chairs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Death of a Once Great City

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.