Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

War Without End: The Pentagon’s failed campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan left a generation of soldiers with little to fight for but one another.

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C.J. Chivers paints a grim but realistic picture:

Second Platoon did not hide its dark mood as its soldiers waded across the Korengal River in the bright light of afternoon. It was early in April 2009 and early in the Pentagon’s resumption in earnest of the Afghan war. The platoon’s mission was to ascend a mountain slope and try to ambush the Taliban at night. They were about 30 men in all, riflemen and machine-gunners reinforced with scouts, a mix of original platoon members and replacements who filled gaps left by the wounded and the dead. Many of them considered their plan foolish, a draining and dangerous waste of time, another example of a frustrated Army unit’s trying to show activity for the brass in a war low on focus and hope. They muttered foul words as they moved.

Specialist Robert Soto had been haunted by dread as the soldiers left their base, the Korengal Outpost. His platoon was part of an infantry unit that called itself Viper, the radio call sign for Bravo Company, First Battalion of the 26th Infantry. Viper had occupied the outpost for nine months, a period in which its soldiers were confined to a small stretch of lower valley and impoverished villages clinging to hillsides beneath towering peaks. Second Platoon had started its deployment with three squads but suffered so many casualties that on this day even with replacements it mustered at about two-thirds strength. With attrition came knowledge. Soto knew firsthand that the war did not resemble the carefully considered national project the generals discussed in the news. He had enlisted in the Army from the Bronx less than two years before, motivated by a desire to protect the United States from another terrorist attack. But his idealism had turned swiftly into realism, and the war had become a matter of him and his friends surviving each day as days cohered into a tour. He was doubtful about the rest, from the competence of the war’s organizers down to the merits of this ambush patrol. There’s no way this works, he thought. The valley felt like a network of watchers who set up American platoons, relaying word to those laying traps.

Soto sensed eyes following the patrol. Everybody can see us.

He was 19, but at 160 pounds and barely needing to shave, he could pass for two years younger. He was nobody’s archetype of a fighter. A high school drama student, he joined the Army at 17 and planned to become an actor if he survived the war. Often he went about his duties with an enormous smile, singing no matter what anyone else thought — R. & B., rap, rock, hip-hop, the blues. All of this made him popular in the platoon, even as he had become tenser than his former self and older than his years; even as his friends and sergeants he admired were killed, leaving him a burden of ghosts.

He faced the steep uphill climb, physically ready, emotionally spent. We’re just trying to get out of here in two months, he thought. He and his fellow soldiers had been in the valley long enough that they moved in the sinewy, late-deployment fitness of infantry squads seasoned by war. Sweat soaked his back. His quadriceps and calves drove him on, pushing him like a pack animal for the soldier beside him, Specialist Arturo Molano, who carried an M240 machine gun. The two fell into a rhythm. One soldier would get over a hard patch, turn around and extend a hand to the other. “Hey, man, you good?” Soto would ask. Molano would say he was fine. “You want me to carry the gun?” Soto would offer. Molano declined every time. Soto considered Molano to be selfless and tough, someone who routinely carried more than men of much larger size. He liked being partnered with someone like this.

After a few hours, Second Platoon reached the crest, high above the valley. The soldiers inhaled deeply, taking in the thin air. Away from the outpost’s burning trash, the air tasted clean.

A few soldiers went forward to check the trail before the rest of the platoon moved to the ambush site. With little more than whispers, the soldiers arranged themselves in a triangle astride a mountain footpath. Second Lt. Justin Smith, their platoon leader, put Molano at one corner and a second man with an M240 at another, with their machine guns angled back toward each other so their fire could create an interlocking zone of flying lead. Other soldiers set claymore mines on small stands.

Everything was ready before dark. The air was chilly and the ridge raked by gusts. Soto was shivering. He pulled a dry undershirt and socks from his pack, changed clothes, ate a protein bar and washed it down with water. He saw his company’s outpost below, across the open space, and realized this must be what it looked like to militants when they attacked. A distant call to prayer floated on the mountain air.

In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.

More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

Almost two decades after the White House cast American troops as liberators to be welcomed, large swaths of territory where the Pentagon deployed combat forces are under stubborn insurgent influence. Areas once touted as markers of counterinsurgency progress have become no-go zones, regions in which almost no Americans dare tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private military contractors or American military and C.I.A. teams.

Across these years, hundreds of thousands of young men and women signed on in good faith and served in the lower and middle ranks. They did not make policy. They lived within it. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US cannot afford this.

Denying reality is ultimately a losing strategy.

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