Why America lost the war in Afghanistan

When you throw money at a problem, you end up with an expensive problem.

I spent four years on and off in Afghanistan. My first trip was as a technical advisor for the voters registration leading up to the 2009 presidential election. The existing voters register had failed all of the four primary tests as a valid voter register – essentially it was useless. 

It came as a bit of shock at the first meeting, when the United National team who were running the registration told us that this was a registration update. Our team looked at each other in absolute astonishment. How can you update something that really does not exist? But they were adamant. 

It took three months of digging to find out who had made that decision. President Karzai, the UN resident representative, and the American Ambassador.

In spite of having an excellent report spelling out the urgency of the logistics required to compile a new register, the UN had dropped the ball getting things ready for a complete registration, and we now were embarking on a very expensive exercise in the hundreds of millions of dollars that was going to achieve nothing.

And Karzai was re-elected in the least credible election that country has ever suffered.

All of this came back to me after a friend sent me a note telling that his nephew was traumatised after the police had burst into the school when a worker accidentally triggered an alarm. That made me think of the Afghans.

Before going to Afghanistan in 2010 we were sent on a course meant to prepare us for the hardships and dangers we might face there. Included in the training was a video showing American troops conducting a house to house search, bursting into family homes, weapons at the ready.

Now, weapons at the ready is necessary if you’re going to burst through the door, because every adult male in Afghanistan was entitled to have a fully automatic weapon, and many of them did. 

Winning war is about logistics[1]The British genocide. That is what makes a war against insurgents so difficult. The insurgents rely on the local populace for supplies, and to store their weapons and ammunition.

Often the locals don’t understand the purpose of the war, and why should they. Very often the people involved in them don’t either. But the important thing is not to make the local population want to choose sides, and when you terrify them, and their children, they will.

America spent hundred of billions of dollars trying to win hearts and minds, and then threw it all away.

As an eighteen year old, I’d been in another insurgent war. Again, one that made little sense, and had even less legitimacy. But we understood the importance of making friends with the locals. On patrol we would visit people, and if they invited us, sit down and socialise. 

That friendliness was invaluable. The locals provides us with snippets of intelligence that allowed us to track the insurgents, and meet them on our terms.

You don’t win a war of insurgency with bombs and heavy weapons. You win it with smiles, and a bar of chocolate.