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The War Nerd September 22, 2006
Afghanistan: Let 'Em Eat Hams
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO, CA -- If your exterminator says he just killed 200 rats down in the basement, is that good news or bad news?

On the one hand, it's good those rats are dead. On the other hand, I thought we got rid of them years ago, and now there's hundreds? What's going on?

That's the Big Question everyone should be asking in Afghanistan. NATO's claiming we killed 500 Taliban near Kandahar this month. That's a mighty impressive body count, sure, but if Nam taught us one thing, it's that body counts are a bad sign. For all sorts of reasons, starting with basic common sense: if we're killing that many, how many more are running around out there?

They say with rats that if you see one, that means there's about 40 more in the vicinity. I suspect you can use the same ratio for Taliban. That's what Mohamed Arbil, a former Northern Alliance commander, said the other day: "If [NATO] killed that many, the Taliban must have thousands of fighters on that front."

Afghanistan is now enemy territory again. The Taliban have re-formed (as opposed to reformed) and according to one Brit officer who's fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against the Talibs is already WAY hotter than the war in Iraq.

The truth is, Afghanistan's been slipping away for some time now. I'll own up; I should've been doing more columns on it myself, because I could feel vaguely it was going bad. But other places were hotter or funnier, and I let it go. Besides, as hard as I've been on my country's war leadership, I didn't really believe that we could possibly be so stupid as to blow the one thing we did right. But as far as I can tell that's what happened to the US command: they lost interest in Afghanistan, Iraq's got them paralyzed, and any energy left over is going into finding a way to invade Iran. Which won't be easy, seeing as how we have exactly zero troops left over from Iraq.

So it's like our command got one of those brain puzzlers Captain Kirk used to use to fry alien computers: how do we pacify Iraq (impossible) while invading Iran at the same time (double impossible, does not compute, frying noises, smoke coming out of computer). Right now there's so much smelly smoke coming out of the Pentagon it looks like another Boeing hit the place, but it's just the DI sections' brains frying. There just isn't a lot of high-command brain power left to pay attention to Afghanistan.

That's the key here: paying attention. I'm starting to think that we just don't have the patience and focus to do CI warfare. It's much easier to deal with enemies who know when they're beaten. Who know the rules, as laid down in history books. You pound them into the ground, shake hands, dump a few planeloads of foreign aid on them, and everybody's friends again. It's like a nice clean boxing match.

CI warfare is more like that style of fighting the Brazilians introduced into the UFC: the game only starts when you've got the guy down. You know how those guys like Royce Gracie fight? If you've never seen it, it's like this: you throw a punch at him, and the next thing you know he's on his back kicking you in the legs. If you're expecting a stand-up fight, you're doomed. Your only choice is to jump onto him and grapple it out, which will take a half hour at the very least. That's why they don't run UFC on TV much any more: too damn boring and slow. It's more like watching bad gay porn, two guys lying on top of each other sweating. Except they don't even move enough to make good porn. It's all in the wrists, slow as molasses, getting a little advantage until the other side taps out.

We were spoiled by initial success in Afghanistan; we got the Taliban down and then just stopped paying attention. Dunno if you remember this far back, but after 9/11, when it was obvious we had to go in there and root out Osama, everybody was saying Afghanistan was unwinnable, "the graveyard of empires," etc. And the campaign seemed to stall at first, till we took Mazar-I-Sharif and sent the Northern Alliance rolling into Kabul. Boom, game over, victory party, let's go home.

Except the new wars just don't work that way. The tough part was really just beginning. The biggest problem once we took Kabul was tribal. Reporters are always calling the Taliban "Islamic extremists," but it's way simpler than that: the Talibs are Pushtun, and our allies in the Northern Alliance were their old tribal enemies the Tajiks, Uzbeks and a few free-agent Hazaras.

The Pushtun are the biggest tribe in the country, if you can call it that, by far. Afghanistan is 42% Pushtun, and the second-biggest group, the Tajiks, are only 27%. Pushtuns are -- now how can I say this nicely? -- insane. The craziest Taliban rules, like demanding every man have a beard that was at least ZZ Top length, aren't Mohammed's rules; they're just Pushtun tribal ways.

It's like if the Baptists took over in Fresno, they'd make it God's rule that every guy had to have an extended cab on his pickup, and if you asked where in Scripture it says that, they'd shoot you. That's the Pushtun way: total tribal insanity, all the time. They're so "sexist" that feminists might like them, because they don't even think of women as "sex objects." To a Pushtun guy, nine-year-old boys are the sexiest thing on earth.

Professor Victor Davis Hanson might approve, because from what I've read, his classical Greek heroes felt the same way. The Pushtuns are so classical that to them, women are just labor-saving and baby-making machines.

And never mind peace; these Pushtuns may be gay but they sure ain't sissies. They love making war, and they're real good at it.

Also, they don't get the whole "literacy" thing. They're not interested in becoming entrepreneurs or learning self-esteem or personal hygiene or compassion or any of that crap. And let's be honest, the joy they felt running around Central Asia blowing up Buddhas and blasting infidels is the same joy a frat boy feels running around a 10-kegger party with a bra on his head. It's pure fun 'n joy, Pushtun-style.

So once we'd taken Afghanistan we had this leftover problem, which was that nearly half the population consisted of these lunatics who had no stake in "peace," didn't want "peace," and thought "peace" was a lot of newfangled nonsense only fit for heterosexuals, foreigners, and assorted sissies. Especially because "peace" came to their town on tanks and APCs driven by their old enemies the Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Worse yet, right behind those tanks came American do-gooders whose idea of pacifying the Pushtun was doing incredibly naive stuff like starting a TV news show with female anchorpersons or whatever you call them. I'm not making this up. First thing the US occupation officials did in Kabul was start a news station with some 19-year-old Pushtun girl as anchor. That was our idea of winning hearts and minds. That's what was going to calm down those bearded angry dudes: seeing a perfectly saleable daughter telling them the news, as if she was the one laying down the law.

I get tired of having to say it, but: not everybody thinks like we think. Not everybody wants what we want. The Pushtun want (a) somebody to kill; (b) women kept in their place, somewhere between a the clay oven and the livestock; (c) nobody reminding them that there are other ways to live.

And our idea of pacifying them was to rub everything they hate right in their face, with their old enemies as enforcers. You have to wonder why the Pushtun didn't explode even bigger, even sooner. Well, basically because we handed off the job to some of our allies who did a pretty decent job of keeping the lid on as long as they could. There was a good British contingent up there, who not only did their usual great job of soldiering but handled tribal relations pretty well. Along with them, the Aussies and even the Canadians were on the job.

Too bad we didn't give the Brits total control of the so-called GWOT and let them play it their way. I can tell you what the old 19th c. Brits would've done. Problem: huge, restless tribe (Pushtun) smarting from recent defeat and totally uninterested in "peace." Solution: ship every Pushtun of military age to Sunni Triangle as honored guests of the British Empire and give them enough ammo to make the place as quiet and boring as Mary Poppins's bedroom.

The Pushtun would be happy as the Seven Dwarves, whistling while they worked on quieting down the Sunni; the Sunni would be...well, maybe not happy but definitely quiet -- "quiet as the grave," as the saying goes. And the Brits would step back into the shadows and let them fight it out till the end of time. A great system, worked for centuries.

Of course nobody we sent up there was cold-blooded enough to do anything like that. We figured, once the Pushtun warriors saw that anchorwoman up there -- Mary Tyler Moore in a burqa with five-o'clock shadow -- they'd see the American Light and start eating hot dogs and apple pie. Great plan.

That left the whole mess to those poor bastards, our Brit friends. You know, we should get down on our knees and apologize to the Brits for making them trust us, making them believe we Americans actually had a clue and were leading them somewhere. You can see they've finally figured it out, that Bush and Cheney never did know what they were doing, but now the poor trusting Limeys are as deep in the shit as we are. I guess it's some kind of poetic justice, because we've done to them what they did to hundreds of other tribes: luring them into doing our dirty work for us. But it's no way to treat an ally.

Afghanistan was slipping away month by month, while those Commonwealth officers tried to hold it together with rubber bands. All the money and troops were fed into Iraq, which was hopeless from the start, instead of Afghanistan, where it might have worked. The Americans just couldn't pay attention once the big showy campaign to take Kabul was over.

In fact, I just saw a movie that showed we weren't even paying attention in Iraq. It's called Gunner Palace, and it's one of these hand-held documentaries by an embedded ham. The idea is, the reporter hangs with a unit of GIs whose HQ is one of Uday Hussein's former playboy mansions in Baghdad. There's a huge swimming pool and a lot of glitzy decor and you can tell the reporter thought he was going to get famous for the irony or whatever: gritty gory soldier stuff with a background of Saddam-era luxury, etc.

I don't think this reporter even understood what he was filming. Seriously. There's a voice-over about how this unit of typical American young men copes with the dark and violent chaos of Iraq, bla bla bla, but that's not what the movie shows. What it shows is hams. Showoffs. A bunch of dudes who don't know where they are, don't care, don't speak a word of the language and don't want to learn it.

The only thing these dudes are interested in is hamming it up American-style for the camera. The only time they get excited is when the reporter lets them do their little routines: heavy metal solos or comedy skits from the whites, rap rhymes from the blacks. No, let's be fair here, in a wonderful sign of advancing integration, there's one scene where a black GI does a rap with backing electric guitar from this white guy, the class clown type who's onscreen for what seems like an hour. I personally would have had his humorous ass shoved up against the nearest wall and shot, but this cameraman embed loved him, couldn't get enough.

Halfway through the movie, there's a scene where the unit learns its lead interpreter, their go-to guy when they're asking for info in the neighborhood, the guy who translates every word they hear, is a traitor. An insurgent working for the other side.

That blew me away! But in the movie it's treated just like a little setback, another ho-hum problem of life in Baghdad.

Jesus, doesn't anybody have a clue about CI warfare? Your interpreter is EVERYTHING. He's worth more than all the Bradleys and Strykers you have. He's more important than bullets. He's the whole war. If he's a traitor, everything you've done has been worse than useless! Your local sources are blown. Your plans are known. Every local who was naive enough to trust you is dead or soon will be. The rest have learned a big lesson: never, ever talk to the Americans.

But in the movie, the scene where they arrest the interpreter is just another excuse to ham it up. The officer in charge ties the plastic cuffs on his wrist and keeps asking, "OK, do you want to be my GUEST or my PRISONER, Ahmed?" And Ahmed doesn't even answer, it's such a stupid question, such an insane question.

Ahmed is worrying about how long he'll have his fingernails, what they'll use to remove his eyeballs, how hot the poker they jam up his ass is going to be, and this ham is actually trying to be his pal. Finally Ahmed mumbles, "Your friend, your friend..." and the ham gives him a big smile, all pleased. Nobody in the unit from the commander on down seems to realize what a disaster this is. They don't even seem to want to extend their intel network in the area.

Even in the middle of a firefight, guys turn away from their machineguns to ham it up for the camera, like this is their big moment, their screen test, instead of combat.

I don't think it's pork that the Muslims hate so much, it's all the hams we've imported into their land.

I'll tell you something I don't usually like admitting: the first time I saw Apocalypse Now, I hated it. I thought it was pure libel against all the GIs who fought so hard in Nam, making them out to be ADD types who couldn't focus on the war for more than ten minutes. Because that's what that movie is about as a military document: showing how if you don't focus in CI warfare you can't win. The only guy in the whole movie who focuses on the war is Martin Sheen. That's why he's totally alone, while the rest go surfing or have their BBQ or jerk off over the Playboy bunnies USO choppers in.

Well, I still think the movie was unfair to Nam vets, because at least till Tet, a lot of our guys worked hard at learning the language and blending into the landscape. But I have to admit that maybe that hippie bastard Coppola was right in the long run. Maybe we just can't pay attention long enough to win in the long slow grind of CI.

And maybe Coppola's point about Kurtz was right: it's not that we need more troops in Iraq. Fuck no. After watching these hams screw everything up, I'm dead sure that's the last thing we need. We need a few thousand men who speak the language and don't have any qualms about doing all the dark, bad things that have to be done to hold on to occupied territory. And backing them up we need maybe 10,000 guys trained for the Phoenix Program: pure assassins who will kill anybody they're told to kill, on the quiet, without anyone ever finding out. Basically, we need warriors who don't want to make it in show business.

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Gary Brecher
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