We’ve All Deceived Ourselves About Why We're Fighting In Afghanistan

The Long March
Jared Keller

It took me a long time to work out what was going on in Afghanistan. What I saw in front of me—everyone’s behaviour—did not match any of the narratives describing the war. This mess was thrown into stark relief when I observed British company commanders in charge of the predominant fighting unit, a company of approximately 120 soldiers. My job was to train and advise such commanders, and I often worked with them from pre-deployment to the end of their tours in Afghanistan.

Before going to Afghanistan these men spoke, and mostly believed, in an ideologically defined war. By this, I mean the contemporaneous ideology in the army, the organizing principle to our actions: counter-insurgency. The population was the prize to be won, and the Taliban were a scourge on that population. In other words, they felt it really was about democracy, women’s rights, and defeating the extreme Islamist ideology of the Taliban.

This idealism never, except in very rare cases, survived the first casualty. Then, subtly, the rhetoric would change, and the war would be stripped back to its essentials: killing the other side, and making sure that your comrade had not died in vain. The war became more visceral. I also saw something else: teams pulling together in a way that I have not seen before or since. This dissonance also extended to the people trying to kill us. It was most obvious with so-called insider attacks when the Afghan army or police that we were trying to train and mentor turned their guns on us. At first, we explained these as ideologically motivated: the Taliban had ‘got to’ certain recruits, and their ideology had caused them to attack us. But, in all the instances that I investigated, there had always been a previous incident involving the killer. Perhaps one of their trainers had slighted them, or they had endured some other humiliation; perhaps revenge had been inspired by something, like their brother’s accidental killing in a coalition airstrike.

More widely than this, the people who shot at us daily were described as Taliban who, to a greater or lesser degree, were motivated by either religion or Islamist ideology. Yet, again, when I looked into it, I would find that small groups were motivated by feuds over land or were avenging a dead relative. Militias were fighting to keep the police out of their areas because the police stole their opium; people fought because the rest of their village was fighting. The ideology of jihad was merely a justification for a multiplicity of disputes over more immediate concerns.

This dissonance between what we said and what we saw was clear to many who fought the war. But, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance minimization, we ignored evidence that did not fit our prisms for understanding the war. The UK ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, described it to me as ‘self-deception’—he felt that we all saw what we wanted to see. We all self-deceived to a greater or lesser degree.

For all the combatants, the frameworks of the Afghan war(s) (1978–) represented an ideological landscape of attraction. For the NATO soldiers, had they unpicked a foundational premise of the war—for example, that we and the Afghan government were on the same side, and that appalling police behavior was an aberration rather than the norm—this would have led to the unraveling of a whole host of other narratives about the war, including our position within it in support of the Afghan government. I term this the self-psychological security argument. It was impossible to question the explanatory frameworks surrounding the war without removing our own raison d’être for being there.

The ideological narratives fitted the essence of the war extremely loosely, and actors on all sides cherry-picked evidence from their respective ideological frameworks. Truly, the underlying driver of the war remained the survival of each actor and their immediate group. So how did all these frameworks, narratives and ideas interact with the main point of the war: to survive? Essentially, the character of the war was one of manipulation, specifically four manipulations used by pretty much all of the Afghan actors: side-switching, betrayal, denunciation, and collaboration.

This meant that—during every era of the conflict—Afghans pursued their own personal and group interests, yet justified them in the dominant ideological narrative of the outsiders. Thus, an old personal enemy would be described to the foreigners as a Talib, or a Mujahed, in order to get the foreigners to kill them. When actions of the foreigners were deemed to impinge upon the interests of a particular Afghan actor, appeals would be made to the defense of Islam. In short, pursuit of personal interest—accruing power (status) and allies (belonging) in order to survive—was always justified by the prevailing ideological framework.

Excerpted, with permission, from Mike Martin’s Why We Fight, published by Hurst. © Mike Martin, 2018. All rights reserved.

Mike Martin is a visiting research fellow at the Department of War Studies, King's College London, having previously studied biology at Oxford. Between these experiences, he served as a British Army officer in Afghanistan. He is the author of An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, Crossing the Congo: Over Land and Water in a Hard Place, and most recently, Why We Fight.

Islamic state members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. (Reuters/Rodi Said)

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) - The Islamic State appeared closer to defeat in its last enclave in eastern Syria on Wednesday, as a civilian convoy left the besieged area where U.S.-backed forces estimate a few hundred jihadists are still holed up.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 317th Airlift Wing walk to waiting family members and friends after stepping off of a C-130J Super Hercules at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 17, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Mercedes Porter)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The U.S. Air Force has issued new guidelines for active-duty, reserve and National Guard airmen who are considered non-deployable, and officials will immediately begin flagging those who have been unable to deploy for 12 consecutive months for separation consideration.

Read More Show Less
Pictured left to right: Pedro Pascal ("Catfish"), Garrett Hedlund ("Ben"), Charlie Hunnam ("Ironhead"), and Ben Affleck ("Redfly") Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A new trailer for Netflix's Triple Frontier dropped last week, and it looks like a gritty mash-up of post-9/11 war dramas Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker and crime thrillers Narcos and The Town.

Read More Show Less
Army Sgt. Daniel Cowart gets a hug from then-Dallas Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty. Photo: Department of Defense

The Distinguished Service Cross was made for guys like Sgt. Daniel Cowart, who literally tackled and "engaged...in hand to hand combat" a man wearing a suicide vest while he was on patrol in Iraq.

So it's no wonder he's having his Silver Star upgraded to the second-highest military award.

Read More Show Less
A small unmanned aerial vehicle built by service academy cadets is shown here flying above ground. This type of small UAV was used by cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored competition at Camp Roberts, California, April 23-25, 2017. During the competition, cadets and midshipmen controlled small UAVs in "swarm" formations to guard territory on the ground at Camp Roberts. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drones have been used in conflicts across the globe and will play an even more important role in the future of warfare. But, the future of drones in combat will be different than what we have seen before.

The U.S. military can set itself apart from others by embracing autonomous drone warfare through swarming — attacking an enemy from multiple directions through dispersed and pulsing attacks. There is already work being done in this area: The U.S. military tested its own drone swarm in 2017, and the UK announced this week it would fund research into drone swarms that could potentially overwhelm enemy air defenses.

I propose we look to the amoeba, a single-celled organism, as a model for autonomous drones in swarm warfare. If we were to use the amoeba as this model, then we could mimic how the organism propels itself by changing the structure of its body with the purpose of swarming and destroying an enemy.

Read More Show Less