For coalition forces in Afghanistan, it’s always been hard to tell who’s shooting at them. In two decades of war, the US military and its allies have battled Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Islamic State, to name a few groups. Tribal warlords, sometimes friend and sometimes foe, control small armies. Some former militant leaders have ascended to powerful positions in the Afghan government, leaving coalition intelligence puzzling at those leaders’ enduring ties to combatants. Foreign interference and aid to insurgents, especially from Iran and Pakistan, is commonplace; reports that Russia may be arming the Taliban came not last week but in early 2018.
What we learned last week is that Russian operatives might also have paid militants bounties for killing US and coalition troops in 2019, according to a report by The New York Times that was quickly confirmed by the Associated Press and others. Reporting initially indicated that Donald Trump was told in the spring and did nothing, while he also lobbied for Russia to be readmitted to the G7.
The pursuant outrage has played out as if by script. News organizations have scrambled to determine what the president knew and when he knew it. Righteous op-eds were written. And on television, commentators said it was a “new low” for the president, words that are getting awfully old. Former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent this fall, added his bit, writing on Twitter: “Donald Trump’s entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”
I was deployed twice to Afghanistan, in 2013 and 2014, as a US Navy intelligence officer assigned to special operations units. I am not a combat veteran and, like most Americans, I cannot imagine the anger these developments may trigger for those who are, much less for Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan, some of whom have come forward in recent days. Those groups aside, I’m not really buying the outrage.
It’s not, if the reports are true, that the bounties aren’t bad. They are, and if Trump knew about them and failed to act, it would constitute a clear dereliction of his role as commander in chief. But in view of everything else that is awful and tragic about the Afghan war—which some term a “forgotten war” because it has continued while remaining almost absent from the national discourse—the bounties strike me as minor. It’s left me wondering: As we fume, is it because we care about “our troops” and the fate of a far-too-long war effort? Or is it because, on some level, suddenly, the fact of the troops being in harm’s way makes Donald Trump look bad?
Twenty-four American service members died as a result of the Afghan war in 2019. Fourteen in 2018. Fifteen in 2017. And in all the years before that, 2,385, per Department of Defense figures. Add to that the deaths of thousands of contractors (who often outnumber uniformed military in Afghanistan but whose deaths are not included in official estimates) and hundreds of coalition troops.
The coalition has bumbled from one farcical, ill-fated strategy to the next, failing to gain the trust of the Afghan military it created and trained. Attacks on US forces by their Afghan counterparts—so called “Green on Blue” attacks—have become a leading cause of death for coalition forces. This February alone, an Afghan sergeant killed two Americans with a rifle issued to him by the United States.
All war is marked by senseless death. But in a war that is also marked by poor strategy, willfully repeated for years on end, the losses become indefensible.
For the Afghan public, meanwhile, the war has proved a generational catastrophe, with 43,000 civilians dead, tens of thousands more wounded, and accelerated rates of ill health and poverty, according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project. Last year saw the deadliest three-month period in the country in more than a decade.
In December 2019, The Washington Post published reports based on thousands of pages of previously confidential documents, termed “the Afghanistan Papers,” that said in so many words that America’s leaders had long believed the war in Afghanistan to be unwinnable and willingly misled the public. In the words of one three-star Army general quoted in the papers: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.… We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
What’s more, the papers showed, waste and fraud were rampant. One US government review of contracts issued from 2010 to 2012, which totaled more than $100 billion, found that roughly 40 percent of funds wound up in the hands of insurgents, criminal syndicates, or corrupt Afghan officials. In other words, to the tune of billions of dollars, America was funding attacks on itself, routinely. A Russian bounty seems decidedly less outrageous.
Here’s the thing about the Afghanistan Papers, though: To the veterans I know, they weren’t news. For the few days that the Post’s reporting made headlines and prompted discussions on nightly news programs, it felt like watching the American public (or the media, at least) wake up to something as self-evident as the air we breathe. Indeed, veterans interviewed by the Post in reaction to the revelations expressed as much. “We felt that there was no plan, there was no strategy and there was no will to change anything about that,” one soldier told the Post. “It’s strangely comforting,” another said of the papers. “I’m glad that we were right.”
National security watchers were similarly unimpressed. The Afghanistan Papers offered “vivid details and sometimes shocking assessments, but few surprising insights,” said The Atlantic. The war’s folly had after all served as inspiration for scores of articles, books, and movies, all while the American public continued to celebrate its veterans at football halftime shows, season in and season out.
That is all to say that it is not only Trump who has grievously failed the troops. It is America, all of us, for a long time. Said differently: What puts our troops unduly in harm’s way is first and foremost the complacency of a nation that has allowed the war to continue to this point.
Now, with Afghanistan once again in the news, many veterans are once again unfazed. “I’m not really surprised by Russian ‘bounties,’” Paul Szoldra, an Afghanistan veteran and editor in chief of the military news site Task & Purpose, wrote on Twitter. “We often assumed that the IED in the road was placed by someone who did it because they were a zealot, paid, or coerced.” Elsewhere, I saw a veteran share a version of the James Franco “First time?” meme downplaying the news. (“U.S. military finds out they have bounties on their heads,” it reads, over an image of Franco smirking. “[Explosive Ordnance Disposal] techs: ‘First time?’”)
But, alas, the discourse around the bounties doesn’t seem to be about Afghanistan or the systemic failures of America’s war effort at all. For all the tweets and viral videos claiming concern for “our troops,” this is unfolding essentially as yet another Trump scandal—fodder for critics to call him unfit for office, as if more evidence of this could possibly be needed, and another opportunity for the president’s Republican allies to deflect and dissemble on his behalf. A rhetorical question: If this involved another country and not Russia, would we be nearly as upset?
If we do care about service members in the way we profess to, we might use this moment not just to get another one over on Trump but to begin, finally, a hard conversation about America’s use of force abroad. Across the last three administrations, the troops have been in harm’s way in Afghanistan, often needlessly because of our indifference and ineptitude. How did this happen, and how can we ensure it doesn’t again? We might also take this opportunity to notice that the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban for a swift and uncareful exit from Afghanistan, perceptibly in hopes of benefiting the president’s reelection campaign. (Whether you believe America should have left Afghanistan many years ago or not, the history of America’s first foray into the country in the 1980s teaches that how we leave matters.)
But having watched Afghanistan blip into public consciousness many times over the years, I’m not holding my breath. Experience shows that a lot of Americans will keep the yellow-ribbon car magnets, but when the Trump outrage cycle moves on to another fixation, so, probably, will they. Afghanistan will then do what it has done well for 19 years: fade from attention.