• The Worst Day of the Afghan War

    September 11, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    The Kabul airport suicide bombing was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan War since 2011. It was a terrible day, but begs the question: what was the worst day of the Afghan war?

    It is hard not to consider the Kabul airport suicide bombing the worst day; 13 Americans and maybe a hundred Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Did any have parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans?

    All of the dead were so close to safety after who knows what journey to that moment together, a hundred yards across the tarmac and into an airplane out. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes real life. But was it the worst day?

    Shall we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties in Afghanistan was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died.

    There were a lot of other worst days.  On June 28, 2005, 19 Special Operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members died in an ambush and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter went down in an effort to help.

    — On July 13, 2008 nine Americans and 27 others were wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

    — On October 3, 2009 eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at Combat Outpost Keating when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

    — On December 30, 2009 a Jordanian double-agent lured seven CIA operatives to their deaths in a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

    — On September 21, 2010 a Black Hawk helicopter went down in Qalat, killing five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, three Navy SEALs, and one support technician.

    — On April 27, 2011 eight U.S. airmen and one contractor were killed at the Kabul airport. A U.S.-trained ally Afghan Air Corps pilot became angry during an argument and began shooting.

    — The worst day might have been one out of the other hundreds of green-on-blue killings, incidents when an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of proof we had lost and refused to believe that until belief was forced upon us.

    — Or maybe the symbolically worst day was February 8, 2020 when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last “combat” deaths. In between those deaths and the deaths by the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostiles,” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days, too.

    — The worst day might have been have been the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star/poster boy who ceremoniously joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies.


    — Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Would either have been proud to give their lives those ways, knowing what we know now?

    Maybe the worst day was when some soldier back home, thinking his war was over, realized he had been conned, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and neither did his buddy who died among the poppies outside a village without a name. Maybe it was when he realized his dad had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim those killed at the Kabul airport were actually “lives given in the service of liberty.”

    Or the worst day might be tonight, when some American veteran tells his wife after a couple too many he is going out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 vets take their own lives each day. On August 16, the day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Administration Crisis Line saw a 12 percent increase in calls.

    Of course the Afghans had some worst days too, though no one really keeps track of those. The Kabul airport suicide attack must rank high. Or it could have been when the U.S. bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when a U.S. drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike killed 47. Another airstrike against a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The Wech Baghtu wedding party attack took 37 lives. An airstrike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. A U.S. drone strike that destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

    Because the big days for Afghans were often covered up instead of mourned, no one knows which was the worst day. We hide behind an Orwellian term too macabre for Orwell, collateral damage, to mean violence sudden, sharp, complete, unnecessary, and anonymous. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

    Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side via a simple body count is wrong, there were just so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly took place inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured people to death.

    We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, shackled to the floor, in a CIA black site, for freedom, although no one can really explain the connection anymore. He’d been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA board recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death but was overruled.

    Those worst days highlight, if that word is even morally permissible here, the long series of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam, and…) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance the U.S. could capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. That’s why we lost.


    Because it is so very hard to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and symbolically fetishize that, turn it into a token, a symbol of the greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to acknowledge. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted across the decades of war in Vietnam but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s diligent Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply best-known because it was the one where lots of photos were taken, not the worst. And that’s before we zoom out to see Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    So it may be with the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Maybe they deserve their place in the coda of the war, a way to summarize things. The pieces are all there: tactical fumbling by Washington, Americans out of place, civilians just trying to escape taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one saw or knows well disrupting carefully planned out global policy goals, sigh, again.

    There’s also the hero element, the Americans were innocents, killed while trying to help the Afghans (albeit help the Afghans out of a mess created earlier by other Americans.) And of course, following the bombing, a revenge airstrike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter) followed by another which killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knives” bomb which shreds human flesh via six large blades. They may claim a bit of history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?


    The Kabul airport suicide bombing may be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A blue ribbon committee might tear into what happened, the intelligence failure, some bad decision by a first lieutenant on where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but maybe even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too far into reports the U.S. knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to appease Britain’s needs.


    We miss the point again. The issue is to ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another kid or another dozen Afghans, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity?


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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog

    July 7, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    This blog just loves Ryan Crocker, America’s ambassador to everything. The Crock is always firing off wacky statements from wherever he is ambassadoring from, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. It is what he does.

    The other thing Crock likes to do is have things named after him, like droppings at each post he leads. The State Department even offers an in-house award called the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy.

    Crock’s latest North Korean-like leadership example is what appears to be a makeshift hut in Kabul that is now known as the The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio, for making the teevee things that will win our war. Both Diplopundit and El Snarkistani have much more to say about all this.

    For me, however, this time I want to be on the team. Thus, I am officially renaming this blog “The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog.”

    Actually, nothing will change. This is partially because changing the graphics for this blog is a hassle, and partially because in a few weeks no one will care what was named after Crocker as it was just some short-term suck up move on the part of his staff anyway.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    Ryan Crocker Slips Quietly Away, Again

    June 3, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    Antiwar.com’s Kelley B. Vlahos uncorks an excellent essay on the never-ending leadership transition in Afghanistan:

    Washington’s foreign policy elite loves to mock the overuse of the cliché “graveyard of empires,” but it seems as though the last decade of our increasingly failed bid in Afghanistan is littered with lackluster epitaphs for American generals, envoys and diplomats.

    The latest, of course, is Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is leaving his post as early as July. Gen. John Allen, current commander of U.S. and ISAF in Afghanistan, will also be leaving, as well as Cameron Munter, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. All three leave records of little renown (complete with shifting goal posts and neon question marks) and earlier than expected. Crocker exits after only one year on the job, Munter less than two and Allen, perhaps a record, announced his departure after only eight months on the job.

    Referring to the similarly short reigns of Gens. David McKiernan, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room noted wryly of Allen’s early promotion to head the U.S. European Command, which will take him far away from the battlefield: “Afghanistan war commanders have tenures as long as Spinal Tap drummers.”

    The Crock has been an Administration favorite all through the years, and was well-loved by both Bush and Obama. Indeed, after Crocker as Ambassador to Iraq won that war personally, he was lauded as a “modern day Lawrence of Arabia.”

    Crocker’s tenure in America’s wars of choice in Iran and Afghanistan has been the subject of frequent fodder for this blog and others, as the guy just can’t stop himself from saying dumb things. It suggest perhaps Afghanistan might be better known in this century as the graveyard of assholes, as well as empires. But don’t listen to me, listen to Antiwar.com again:

    Turns out Crocker was just one in a line of diplomats who were put into a mission that was designed to fail, where professional legacies and even personal stamina appeared to wither over time against the perfidious Hamid Karzai, the labyrinth of Kabul’s corruption and always having to take the child’s seat at the military’s table.

    Read the entire piece on Antiwar.com. The Crock would want you to.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    Does Public Diplomacy in Afghanistan Work? Go Tell the Marines

    May 9, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    In my interview with John Brown about Public Diplomacy and social media at the State Department, reprinted here by the American Security Project and also on HuffPo and this blog, we talked about the need to measure in some way the impact of public diplomacy efforts.

    The Security Project wrote:

    On metrics, Van Buren argues that they are needed to help determine is a goal is being achieved. Furthermore, he perceives that the State Department has been using volume, not results, as a primary metric for success. Creating volumes of messages and projects is an ineffective metric, and new methods for actually measuring the achievement of goals must be developed to ensure effectiveness.


    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    Several Public Diplomacists at State wrote in, claiming that they were “sure they were effective” but said that there was no way for them to measure their effectiveness, apparently apart from some gut instinct they acquired in training.

    Yeah, right. Go tell that to the Marines.

    The Marines Man Up

    The Marine Corps decided their own public diplomacy strategy in Afghanistan (though they call it psyops, and other refer to it as propaganda) needed to be evaluated by a third party. They hired the Rand Corporation to review their programs, and then freaking published the results, good and bad, for the world to see. Some takeaways:

    — An assessment of the effectiveness of various themes in prior U.S. military psychological operations revealed that certain messages were never effective, and other messages were effective for only a limited amount of time.

    — Likewise, the methods used to disseminate these messages, as well as an understanding of the diversity and culture of target audiences, played a significant role in the reach and outcome of messaging campaigns.
    There Have Been Both Notable Successes and Notable Weaknesses in the U.S. Military’s Messaging Campaigns in Afghanistan

    — The most-notable shortcoming has been in countering the Taliban’s propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition activity, which has focused on civilian casualties and has found a broad national and international audience.

    — While the success of Taliban propaganda efforts has not translated into widespread support for the movement, it may have weakened support for the U.S. and coalition presence and activities in the region.
    The biggest successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and meetings with key communicators, such as local councils of elders, local leaders, and members of the Afghan media.

    Warts and All

    Now of course someone can bark that a third party consultant isn’t a proper metric, or that the report was biased or should have been written in Klingon, but the point here is that unlike the State Department, which conspicuously left even John Brown’s interview about metrics out of its daily media summary, the Marines were willing to seek an assessment, and then published that assessment, warts and all, on the internet. Sure, this is not perfect. But the assessment does include recommendations, and so now anyone concerned, including the entire Corps, is aware of the good and bad, and knows the way forward. One team, one voice kind of thing.

    It is of course more likely that I will awake tomorrow with a third nipple than that the State Department would seek such an assessment of its efforts in Afghanistan and then go on to announce the results publicly.

    In fact, with a great sigh of relief from the State Department, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was shut down in December 2011, closing off even that modest portal of review.

    Want $10 Million Dollars?

    Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Kabul is moving ahead, offering grants of up to $10 million a project for things as vague and broad as “Strengthen people-to-people ties to deepen the partnership between communities within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and the United States.” You can also get multi-million dollar grants to teach English to Afghans, a worthy goal considering the Government Accountability Office cited lack of language skills as one of the problems dogging State’s efforts in Afghanistan.

    Assessment? How about this self-assessment from a Public Diplomacy practioner in Afghanistan, headlined “NATO can win the war in Afghanistan with Pubic Diplomacy” (her typo in the headline, not mine, check the link yourself):

    This is a Facebook post from a young Afghan who just graduated from Kabul University. “Today was a beautiful day. Dancing, happiness, laughter and exchanging jokes, recording sweet memories, forgetting worries, and celebrating graduation from college… Life could some times be so beautiful and wonderful. What a feeling!!!!

    You will NEVER see such sentiments about Afghans in any of the major news networks or read it in the international papers. You will only read or watch the road side bombing and how everything is falling into pieces in Afghanistan. But in reality there is progress in Afghanistan and young Afghans are the future of their country.

    The Twitter Tells All

    And finally, no discussion of Public Diplomacy at State is complete with a word on social media, the newest flavor of Kool Aid at Foggy Bottom. Winning hearts and minds? Maybe not. Here’s some messages from today’s American Embassy Kabul Twitter feed, following Obama’s victory lap into Kabul announcing a new dawn or whatever:

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    Crocker to Taliban: Youse Guys are Wimps

    April 16, 2012 // 6 Comments »

    Ryan Crocker (seen dropping some killa ninja hand gestures on ‘ya at left), America’s Ambassador to Afghanistan is a dude, dude. He don’t take no sh*t from nobody. Check this smackdown:

    The Taliban, see, launched a wave of assaults on Kabul and three other provinces Sunday. Fighting in the Kabul district that houses allied embassies lasted into Sunday night. Bombs, suicide vests, AKs, the whole MFer.

    So what does America’s bad boy Ambassador have to say to ‘dem Taliban bitches: “The Taliban are very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting.”

    Da Man Crocker, is not the first time he lay smack on the Taliban. Following the all-day Taliban assault on the American Embassy in Kabul last September, Crocker said “If this is the best they can do, I find both their lack of ability and capacity and the ability of Afghan forces to respond to it actually encouraging in this whole transition process.”

    Crock’s bad-ass statements sound tough and cool, like a real manly diplomat should. Freakin’ Taliban, can’t do nothing right. But wait, gee, what’s it been for our war in Afghanistan, heading into ELEVEN FREAKING YEARS Ryan? After eleven years of fighting, trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and umpteen training missions for the Afghans, the Taliban can still stage a coordinated attack in central Kabul? That does not seem like a lack of ability or capability. The victories over the Taliban seem to be taking place closer and closer to home somehow. And how many more Americans have died in Afghanistan in between Crocker’s childish posturing?

    How well did grunting “Bring ‘em on!” work out when George Bush said it regarding Iraq? When he said it, only 23 Americans had died in Iraq. 4479 dead Americans and nine years later, he is still eating those words.

    What is lacking here is credibility. Lacking also is humility. Ryan Crocker, please just shut the freak up.

    (America, please note that my previous blog posting of some seven months ago about Ryan Crocker’s macho posturing was singled out by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security agents as a further example of my “poor judgement” and included in the Report of Investigation filed against me. Boy oh boy, seven more months from now am I gonna be in trouble when the next investigation uncovers this blog posting.)

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    Why We Lost in Afghanistan

    March 14, 2012 // Comments Off on Why We Lost in Afghanistan

    From the US perspective, a soldier in uniform, representing the United States to the people he encounters in Afghanistan, murders sixteen people including nine children and it is called an unfortunate, isolated incident. When the US accidentally blows up sixteen Afghan civilians with a 500 pound bomb, to the US it is just another day at the office, “collateral damage.”

    Meanwhile, only 36 hours after the murder of those Afghan children, the US Embassy in Kabul sends out this chirpy Tweet:

    It is obvious that inside the Embassy, as witnessed by their most public of faces, that the incident is already old news.

    Speaking to her collected Ambassadors, SecState Hillary Clinton said the same day without irony “Only America has the reach, resources & relationships to anchor a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

    Each time one of these horrors occurs in Afghanistan, the US response is that it is an isolated incident. How many isolated incidents must accrue before we acknowledge we have a collective problem?

    It is obvious to everyone in Afghanistan that the US really could care less about burning Korans, pissing on Afghan dead or even the murder of children, except perhaps as a PR issue to be managed.

    That is why we lost in Afghanistan. Time, now, after twelve years of war, to call it quits.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    Wanna Bet? Murder = Terror, Murder =Apology in Afghanistan

    March 11, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    Following the brutal murder by an American soldier of nine Afghan children and several Afghan women and children, the US Embassy in Kabul issued a cautionary message, stating:

    There is a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days.

    I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that no US Government official will characterize this cold blooded murder as “terrorism.” I am willing also to bet that had an Afghan killed American children and women, US Government officials would immediately characterize that cold blooded murder as “terrorism.”

    I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that US Government officials will apologize, as if that apology ends the issue (see Koran burning, peeing on Afghan dead, etc.). I am willing also to bet that had an Afghan killed American children and women US Government officials would not consider an apology the end of the issue. We’d bomb the shit out of someone in an act of vengeance.

    I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that had these Afghan children and women been killed “accidentally” by a 500 pound bomb dropped from a US warplane thousands of feet above them we would not hear much of an apology at all.

    I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that US Government officials will announce an investigation into the soldier who did the shooting, and that his ultimate punishment, if any (see Haditha) will be less than the punishment Bradley Manning will receive for his alleged Wikileaks disclosures.

    Any takers on these bets, hit me up in the Comments section below.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    American Embassy Kabul Uses The Twitter

    January 19, 2012 // Comments Off on American Embassy Kabul Uses The Twitter

    Social media is all the rage now at the State Department (for some old timers, this is all hilariously reminiscent of the late 1990’s when State suddenly discovered that the internet existed and set out to conquer what was then called e-Diplomacy by created some new-fangled “home pages”).

    But Geocities this ain’t Tweeps. Here, as an example of how “with it” the social media boffins at the American Embassy in Kabul are, is one of today’s Tweets:

    So that’s it– we just needed to clarify that for the Taliban, with the RT from the American Embassy Finland because, well, nothing says bureaucratic safety like following someone else, courageously.

    What do you think? Maybe needs more animated gifs? 🙂

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    US Embassy Kabul Features Las Vegas to its Muslim Audience

    October 10, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Who says the Embassy in Kabul is out of touch?

    On its Facebook page, the US Embassy in Kabul has run a feature on Las Vegas, noting that the place known to most Americans as Sin City is “synonymous with entertainment.” Entertainment here being synonymous with gambling, drinking and whoring.

    What could possibly appeal more to a Muslim audience?

    It gets better.

    When a commenter named “Smock” on Embassy Kabul’s Facebook page raised these same issues, some drone in the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy section actually wrote this:

    Dear Smock, Las Vegas is one of fifty-two cities being featured this year on Embassy Kabul’s Facebook. We appreciate your comments and feedback as to which future cities you would like to see featured.

    We’re winning! Viva Las Kabul!

    (I first learned of this piece of moral high ground from an excellent blog on US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan called Hamsters on the Titanic, well worth a look. Be sure to check out the regular focus on absurdity column, called “Today’s Helping of Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop”)

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    May 3, 2011 // Comments Off on The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    death or glory The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran (who wrote one of the better books about the early days in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, summed up the ongoing failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan in two simple paragraphs:

    US commanders and diplomats had hoped that the new programs would assist in cementing recent military gains against the Taliban, which have come at a significant cost of American lives. They believe that if Afghans have expanded access to jobs and can rely on local governments for basic services, many will renounce the insurgency.

    A development specialist who recently completed a year-long assignment at USAID’s mission in Kabul blamed the delays on a staff turnover rate of more than 85 percent a year, shifting priorities among senior officials responsible for setting policy, and an ongoing conflict within the agency between short-term programs and longer-range development work.

    If you really don’t want to read my book, or anything else ever about the failures of reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan or soon, maybe Libya or Yemen, just re-read those two paragraphs and you’ll have most of the sad story.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military