Forward Operating Base Torkham, in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan (army.mil)
Scott Horton, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, The Libertarian Institute, 318 pages.
I was one of the first American officials to arrive in Kabul at the end of 2001. The war that seemed to be ending back then is currently in its 16th year with no end in sight, and for those of us who were there at the beginning it now sometimes seems like it was a lifetime ago. President Barack Obama not so long ago referred to Afghanistan as the “necessary war.” But now it might be more appropriate to refer to it as a “forgotten war,” as President Donald Trump has sent a few thousand more soldiers to Kabul—while also stating emphatically that he will not be discussing strategy or entertaining any questions regarding what might be coming next.
Scott Horton’s new book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, is a masterful account of America’s prolonged Afghan engagement. It reminds us that what began in 2001 was only the most recent phase of a decades-long struggle that began in 1979 when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Washington responded by arming and funding the mujahideen guerrillas, who effectively pushed back against Soviet control of their country but later morphed into al-Qaeda. Like the CIA’s ill-fated replacement of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, the meddling in Afghanistan has borne bitter fruit, a prime example of what has been referred to as “blowback.”
Scott does not claim to be an expert on Afghanistan in any traditional sense. He has never visited the country, does not speak any of the native languages, and has never been called upon by any university or DC-based think tank to discuss what has been unfolding in the country. He has, however, been asking some necessary questions about the American role in Afghanistan since that country was invaded by the U.S. military as a consequence of 9/11. In his capacity as the long-time host of Antiwar radio and the Scott Horton Show, he has conducted 4,500 interviews with politicians, soldiers, intelligence officers, journalists, and scholars, hundreds of which were focused on Afghanistan.
Scott is both a good questioner and a good listener and his programs provide alternative insights into what has been taking place in the United States and abroad since 2001. By virtue of always pushing hard on his guests, his interviews are learning experiences for participants and listeners alike. Through the process, Scott has himself grown more knowledgeable and confident, becoming well-known as a skeptic regarding military intervention, the responsibility to protect doctrine, nation building, and the global war on terror. And he has become extremely knowledgeable about Afghanistan, where the American imperium has seemingly been stalled for 16 years.
I approached Fool’s Errand with some reservations. The title itself telegraphs the book’s message—that the United States would best be served by ending the Afghan adventure tout suite—a viewpoint that is not exactly unique to Horton. So I expected to be revisiting a lot of things that I already knew or understood, but I was pleasantly surprised that the author dug deep and did his homework. The entire text is meticulously footnoted with the notes appearing on the same page as the text, something that is very welcome and not seen as often as it should be. There is also a considerable amount of unique content derived from interviews conducted by Horton since 2001.
Horton begins his tale with a thorough discussion of the origins and motives of the al-Qaeda brand of Islamic radicalism, stopping along the way to discuss various aspects of Islam itself. He then takes the reader all the way back to the origins of the conflict starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He provides a fascinating detail about how the Russian intervention in Afghanistan actually started, of which I was unaware: In July 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski convinced the president to sign off on a finding that authorized the agency to begin arming and training the Afghan mujahideen to destabilize the pro-Russian government of Hafizullah Amin in Kabul and provoke the Soviet invasion of the country. Whether the Soviets really needed much pushing is debatable, but there was a clear perception in Washington that the Russians had taken the bait. Shortly after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in December, Brzezinski sent a memo to his boss gloating over how “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” meaning an endless quagmire that would bloody and weaken the Soviets, thereby “containing” the spread of communism.
Little did Brzezinski, an Eastern Europe-obsessed Cold Warrior, appreciate the different dynamics of a war in the middle of Asia fueled by religion and a tribal culture that would turn what was envisioned as a straightforward conflict using proxies into something quite different—though he did get the quagmire part right. And he was also prescient in terms of its impact on the Soviet Union. The Red Army retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the war having contributed to Moscow’s virtual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union itself came apart two years later.
And there was also a significant downside for the United States. The mujahideen, also funded and otherwise supported by feckless allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were at best difficult to control, evolved into al-Qaeda, and eventually produced the Taliban. It is quite reasonable to suggest that the fire that Brzezinski ignited has burned continuously since that “opportunistic” intervention back in 1979.
Fool’s Errand is at its best when it carefully follows developments subsequent to the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country. Scott describes all the missteps in some detail, with full notes that enable the reader to consider the validity of his judgements. He discusses the failure of the United States and its allies to comprehend the type of society and culture they were dealing with and the tendency to be taken in by Afghan leaders who were canny enough to pretend to be advocates of western-style democracy in order to keep the money and political support flowing. He describes the inability of a series of generals who had made their reputations in Iraq, often based more on hype than on achievements, to comprehend the different conditions in Afghanistan. To his credit, he explains counterinsurgency doctrine in such a way as to make it comprehensible to the non-specialist reader. And he also explains why it failed.
Scott concludes that:
After more than a decade and a half, the results are in. The U.S. government has been unable to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. Even worse, what state it has been able to establish there is completely unsustainable and is certain to fall apart when the occupation is finally called off, and America does come home. The politicians, generals and intelligence officers behind this unending catastrophe, who always promise they can fix these problems with just a little bit more time, money and military force, have lost all credibility. The truth is America’s Afghan war is an irredeemable disaster. It was meant to be a trap in the first place. America is not only failing to defeat its enemies, but is destroying itself, just as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda always intended.
I don’t know to what extent the American involvement in Afghanistan, our country’s longest war and still running, is even taught in universities in international relations courses. If it is part of the syllabus, it should properly be a “lesson learned” in what can go wrong when one wants to combat a global adversary like the Soviet Union by creating a potentially worse threat through the expedient of arming and training Islamic militants. It occurred to me that if there is such a course, it would be well served by using Scott Horton’s Fool’s Errand as a textbook. It tells the whole story of Afghanistan and is full of information that will serve to educate the uninformed reader about the Afghan war and its background. Yet it also including some surprising and unique insights derived from his hundreds of interviews that will keep the more advanced student turning pages. It is highly recommended.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.