As an embedded journalist in Afghanistan, Douglas A. Wissing wanted to know the ground truth about the war. What he discovered was that in contrast to the victory narrative US officials were trying to spin, America's strategy in Afghanistan was failing. His most recent book Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan details the greed, dysfunction, and waste that he witnessed.
Wissing's book concludes that the US should end its involvement in Afghanistan and let the Afghan people run their country as they see fit. But just last Thursday, Army General John Nicholson's told Congress he needed more troops in Afghanistan.
We asked Wissing to share his thoughts about General Nicholson's request for additional troops, what mistakes the US has made in the Afghanistan War, and why he wrote Hopeless but Optimistic:
Why did you choose to embed in Afghanistan, not once, but three times?
I initially embedded in 2009 with an elite team of Indiana National Guard farmer-soldiers, who were on a WHAM (military-speak for “winning hearts and minds”) mission in insurgency-wracked Khost Province, located in the volatile eastern Afghanistan borderlands. Their agricultural development mission intrigued me. Could you actually do development work in an active warzone? And would the US counterinsurgency strategy with its richly funded aid, development and nation-building component prevail against a traditional tribal society that has a storied thousand-year history of defeating foreign invaders?
I already had some experience in central Asia from my research for Pioneer in Tibet, a biography of a famous American missionary-ethnologist who lived in a wild part of Tibet during the Great Game era. A few years before 9/11, I had also traveled through northwest Pakistan’s restive tribal regions, where I garnered some understanding of the obdurate nature of the Pashtuns, who were then fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan proxy government. So I knew the US was facing a tough challenge.
During my first embed, soldiers revealed to me that the US counterinsurgency was grotesquely wasteful and riddled with corruption—so dysfunctional that our money was also financing the Taliban. We’d be out on missions in Taliban country and soldiers would be telling me, “We’re funding both sides of this war.”
I returned home and began digging through a mountain of reports while interviewing hundreds of people, from generals and ambassadors to combat soldiers, government bureaucrats and contractors. After a lot of deep diving, I realized there was a toxic network that connected ambitious American careerists, for-profit US corporations, greedy Afghan insiders—and the Taliban. I went back to Afghanistan, embedding with a number of units to confirm things. One day on an embattled forward operating base in Laghman Province, a smart intelligence officer said to me, “It’s the perfect war. Everyone is making money.”
That research resulted in Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, a meticulously footnoted critique of the counterinsurgency, which came out in 2012. Got media attention and had an impact on DC policymakers. But the war went on. Despite the clear indication that the Afghan insurgents were winning, the US government persisted with troops and goat-choking appropriations. Increasingly cynical soldiers on the ground repeatedly told me, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”
As the US began reducing troop levels, I was struck with the writer’s delirium: I wanted to know how the story turned out. After all the revelations, the congressional inquiries, the damning indictments, I wanted to know if the system had reformed; had there been any lessons learned? And I wanted to know how American soldiers on the ground maintained their honor and cohesiveness fighting in a lost war. I wanted to know the ground truth.
So I went back to Afghanistan for the third time, embedding in the war zones of the east and south, then researching in Kabul, the besieged capital. I wanted to tell a broad audience of Americans what it is like to be in a failed war. What the waste of American blood and treasure looks like. To show the terrible prices of war. To rebut the happy stories told from podiums in Washington and Kabul that bear no relation to the reality on the ground. And I wanted people to know about the courageous and resilient Afghans, who are perfectly capable of making their own way in the world. The result is Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan.
When you were in Afghanistan, you discovered that the situation was far worse than what US officials were telling the American public. Give us some examples of the contradictions you saw in the official narrative versus what was happening on the ground.
The phrase “truth deficit” describes much of what the US officials promulgate about the Afghanistan War. In some cases, “alternative facts” and “fake news” are also appropriate. One reviewer compared my tales of government untruths in Hopeless but Optimistic to 1984. I can say there were definitely times when it felt Orwellian.
To give an example: Just before I left for my third set of embeds, marine commanders in Helmand directed a public affairs officer to write an article for Foreign Policy entitled “We are Winning the War,” which was quite simply not true. Saying it didn’t make it so. There were clear indicators to the contrary: insurgent attacks had increased year after year; the number of insurgents had grown each year since the US invaded; the Taliban-led insurgency held increasing amounts of territory, including a substantial part of the countryside; the Taliban shadow government operated in virtually all of the provinces, and essentially controlled many. The marines in Helmand had just suffered a Taliban attack on Camp Leatherneck that resulted in the destruction of six fighter jets worth $200 million, the biggest loss of marine aircraft since the Vietnam War. And as I am sure the marine commanders knew the long-promulgated Special Forces dictum: If an insurgency isn’t shrinking, it’s winning.
Despite the US officials’ flack-spin, the US government’s vastly expensive nation-building campaign is close to a total loss. When the US invaded in 2001, Afghanistan was a basket case of a country, at the bottom of virtually every human development indices: life span, infant mortality, electric generation, literacy, etc. Beginning in about 2005, an avalanche of US development money, eventually more than the Marshall Plan, flooded into Afghanistan, a country of about 30 million people with a per capita income of about $400 a year. Most of the money was wasted or stolen. Phantom aid, critics call it. Despite countless (and wildly expensive) rule-of-law and nation-building programs, the US-backed Afghan government ranks among the most corrupt government on the planet—a feckless propped-up proxy government. And fifteen years later, after hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars were spent on development, Afghanistan remains at the bottom of virtually every human development indices.
Your previous reporting on Afghanistan and your book Funding the Enemy criticized the US handling of the war. But ultimately, despite getting the impression that not everyone in the Pentagon was a fan of your work, the US military gave you approval to embed a third time. Why do you think journalists are allowed this kind of access?
Beginning with the invasion of Grenada, the Pentagon recognized they could shape media coverage if reporters were embedded with the troops. Firstly, the same intense small-group dynamics that bond warriors together also anneals reporters to the soldiers they cover. And the military can keep better tabs on journalists if they know where they are. Few people know the Pentagon has one of world’s largest public relations organizations, and the military’s control of information is legendary: the public affairs officers call the press briefings “feeding the chickens.” This skillful media manipulation unfortunately often results in coopted coverage. All too commonly, the Pentagon story becomes the unverified and uncorrected media story.
So why did the military let me back in for my third embeds after my critical coverage? Well, I can only conjecture, as those decisions are pretty opaque. I did get denied for embeds a number of times, and even had approved embeds later rescinded. After a while I let it be known that I was just going to fly to Kabul and try to get embed approvals there. I don’t think the military wanted me running loose, so the embed approvals came not long after. Secondly, I think people in the military knew the critical story I told in Funding the Enemy and other published articles was the truth. I have never had a soldier claim my reporting or analysis was inaccurate. To the contrary, soldiers were most often supportive of my work. I can say that once I was embedded, they were professional, and except for a few naughty (and scary) incidents, were as respectful of me as I was of them.
In your opinion, what are the US's biggest mistakes in Afghanistan?
Changing the mission from defeating the Taliban government to eliminate Al Qaeda safe havens to completely reconstituting the Afghanistan government with the aim of reshaping Afghan culture and society into a Western-modeled one. It was arrogant and doomed to fail.
Also, privatizing the war and its attendant development schemes. The post-9/11 wars became corporate profit centers. The US has never privatized a war to the extent it has in these post-9/11 wars. And the result has been disastrous. The cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is approaching $5 trillion, not including the decades of interest on the immense public debt. And despite the horrific waste of money and lives, the US has failed to accomplish its stated military or diplomatic goals in these countries.
Despite the seriousness of its subject, parts of your book are rather funny. How did you manage to find humor in war?
Black humor is certainly a part of any war, as MASH and Catch-22 can attest. Some of the funniest banter I have ever heard came over the intercom as we rolled through “Indian country” (Taliban-controlled territory) in giant armored MRAPs with machine gunners up in the turrets. Relieves the tension, and highlights the surreal disparities between policy and reality.
There’s a chapter in the book entitled “Shitholes,” which depicts the often-humorous toilet challenges faced by soldiers in a primitive, war-torn country. I confess, the chapter is potty humor. There are tales of poisonous vipers, hyenas and giant jumping camel spiders at the Porto-Potties; the marine ban on audible farting because of the dire political implications; discussions of front-line latrines built extra big so soldiers can defecate wearing their body armor; FUDs (female urinary devices) so female soldiers can use their “artificial weenis” to STP (military speak for “stand to pee”).
One dark morning on a hardscrabble forward operating base in Taliban-dominated Zabul Province, I was in the immaculately clean and brightly lighted latrine, a vivid contrast to the grim reality right outside. There were two young soldiers shaving at the long line of sinks and mirrors. One said, “Man, I had a dream last night I was in the shithole.” His buddy retorted, “What do mean ‘dream?’”
What common experiences do you believe soldiers of all wars go through?
While Hopeless but Optimistic is about the Afghanistan War and America’s 21st-century way of war, it is also about the universal experience of war: humans going to battle, learning to love and hate, keeping it together when all is going wrong, the terrible prices they pay, physically, psychologically, spiritually. It’s about humans in extremis; what we learn about others and ourselves when we go to war.
Why should the American public pay attention to what's going on in Afghanistan even if, as you write in Hopeless but Optimistic, “it's a war that [they] increasingly want to forget”?
Fifteen years after the US invasion, there are still almost 10,000 US troops on the ground, as well as over 26,000 highly paid Department of Defense contractors, and thousands of uncounted contractors working on development contracts. Additionally, there are large contingents of Spec Ops soldiers cycling through that are seldom included in the counts.
And the mission is again expanding. The US is now back to bombing; 300 marines are headed back to Helmand, where they shed so much blood during the surge. The Pentagon is now requesting “a few thousand more troops” to attempt to break the “stalemate,” the PR term that the military is using to describe the failed war. They want to continue the Forever War.
The Pentagon and Dept. of State are requesting about $44 billion for the Afghanistan War for Fiscal 2017, by far the largest part of the war-related budget. In contrast, military operations against ISIS in Syria are only budgeted for $5 billion. The Afghanistan War budget request is bound to go up if the additional troop request is granted. The $44 billion is a lot of money, which will also go to no good end. It is, as the soldiers say, pouring more money into the Afghan sandpit. Americans have far better uses for the money.
Beyond the monetary waste, there are the horrific human costs of the endless war. America’s military sons and daughters are being ravaged by the war. The VA is overwhelmed with record numbers of brain trauma injuries. There were over 1,700 amputees from the wars. PTSD is rampant among vets. And the burden of care most often falls on our military families, who struggle to assist vets wounded in body, mind and soul.
Caught in the crossfires and bombings, Afghan civilians are dying in increasing numbers. The UN recently reported that in 2016 3,498 Afghan civilians died from the conflict, and 7,920 were wounded, including 923 children killed and 2,589 wounded.
So that’s why Americans should pay attention to Afghanistan. A congressman told me that sometimes citizens have to shame their representatives into doing the right thing. This may be one of those times.
What do you think about Army General John Nicholson's recent request for more troops in Afghanistan?
General Nicholson’s recent request for “a few thousand” more troops seems to be the Pentagon’s opening gambit to get the Trump administration to commit to continuing the Afghanistan War. At this stage, President Trump’s plans for Afghanistan are very unclear. As a businessman, Trump certainly understands the dangers of a sunk cost bias. Why throw good money after bad?
What does the future hold for Afghanistan after the US leaves?
Many knowledgeable people, both Afghan and international, tell me they see a period of upheaval as the now-conflicted Afghan interest groups sort out their differences. There is consensus that the Taliban and other allied insurgent groups have to be part of the overall agreements. I find few who speak highly of the current Afghan government leadership. And even fewer who speak positively about the US counterinsurgency, which has so obviously failed.
The title of your book comes from a conversation you had with an Afghan government official. We’ve covered the hopeless part, so what is there to be optimistic about in Afghanistan?
The title, Hopeless but Optimistic, came from a meeting on a cold gray day in Kabul. I was interviewing a suave Afghan official in his gloomy office, which was sequestered behind high-security walls. His life seemed to embody Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history: His family fled in the 1980s to escape the US-supported mujahideen war against the Soviets and the subsequent 1990s civil war. Like so many educated Afghan exiles, he returned to Afghanistan after the Americans invaded with their troops and endless development money. He’d witnessed the corruption and violence that followed. Sitting dapper in his government sinecure, the perky technocrat was weighing his options as the American commitment waned. When I asked him about the future, he looked me in the eye and confidently said, “I am hopeless—but optimistic.” Another government minister wryly told me, “We are optimistic. We’re Afghans. What else can we be?”
Through my experiences with the Afghans, I believe they will work it out in the Afghan way if greater powers don’t continue to use their country as a place to wage proxy wars. This is a valiant people with ancient traditions, a beloved religion and a vibrant culture. They deserve some peace. As I have reported in Hopeless but Optimistic, I have witnessed sustainable, Afghan-appropriate aid and development projects done by relatively low-cost organizations with long experience in Afghanistan. Good work can be done to help Afghans improve their lives. There are alternatives to self-serving phantom aid that mainly benefits the already rich. Like the Afghans, I am hopeless, but optimistic.
Watch Douglas Wissing discuss Hopeless but Optimistic in this book trailer: