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No amount of technology and power can conceal the humiliation and catastrophe the US suffered in Afghanistan

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

If there are any military-strategic lessons to be learnt from the US’s departure from Afghanistan, it would be that information technology and robotics provide only a veneer of invincibility and a feel-good factor.

It’s curious that when all is said and done the US was beaten or, to put it more politely, did not quite reach its main objectives: to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age and get rid of the Taliban. The county is effectively back to where it was in 2001. From Vietnam to Somalia and now Afghanistan, The New York Times makes no bones about the fact that the world’s biggest military killing machine has been humiliated

The Taliban seem to be stronger, apparently more “sophisticated”, more savvy and more emboldened. Taliban leaders said it straight off the bat: Afghanistan will not be a democracy, it will be governed by Sharia law. In the meantime they are pretending to make like a state – to borrow a phrase. But, as always, we have to insert a heavy caveat. Only time will tell whether the Taliban will be a force for good. Given its commitment to Sharia law and its conflict with the freedoms of social or liberal democracy it is difficult to imagine peace, stability, prosperity, justice and respect for others (most notably women and non-Muslims) in Afghanistan. The Afghans will have to solve Afghan problems. I am sure that there will be non-military assistance from foreign sources….

The Age of Cyberwarfare and Battlespace

What went wrong for the US in Afghanistan? Well, the story will be spun and woven into the language of formalism and wilful obscurantism. At the more sober end of a bewildering spectrum of opinion, there are thoughtful discussions among a range of scholars and thinkers on how wars end. Do they end with the signing of peace treaties? Do they end when one of the aggressors is completely defeated and simply surrender? Do they end when there is nothing left to destroy and no one left to kill? Do wars end when the guns fall silent? Opinions differ. 

For what it’s worth, I come out on the side that believes World War 1 ended in 1945. In fact, the first 50 years of the last century gave credence to the Sartrean idea that the Europeans (including their kinfolk in North America) inflicted great misery on themselves in the process of “engineering the human soul”. The Europeans were no longer interested in fighting over territories or conquering others, but, instead of making history, Sartre wrote, “it is now being made of us”. It’s not unfair to say that with colonisation Europeans embarked on what Kipling in 1899 referred to as “savage wars of peace” which paved the way for their own imaginaries of progress. 

One of the great fallacies of the early 21st century is that you can actually fight wars without boots on the ground. Actually, it may have started with the “bullshit bombing of Serbia” when the US, quite unprepared to deploy its military on the ground, “led” from the air. This was one of the earliest indications that we were entering the “age of cyberwarfare”, an outgrowth of which was the use of drones and “smart bombs”. 

That the US and its allies preferred to bomb parts of the former Yugoslavia from the air sat well with the Europeans, who fully understood the “nature and scale of resistance from an army steeped in the partisan traditions of the Second World War, when Tito rallied a guerrilla campaign against the Germans and the Italians”. Washington itself was still reeling from the “body-bag syndrome” acquired in Vietnam. This (perhaps) gave greater impetus to the development of technological innovation, the belief that war can be “fought” by individuals sat at computer monitors thousands of kilometres away. A little more than a decade after Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of Serbia, Barack Obama (in 2011) launched a drone strike every four days over the skies of Pakistan.

The world had finally entered the age of cyberwarfare. There was no longer the need to flood a foreign country with soldiers when progressively advanced information technology and robotics could do most of the killing. And so, sometime in December 2001 the US military introduced two technology-enhanced initial brigade combat teams, units that were lighter and more agile. Although they still used the same military hardware (Humvees, Bradleys, M1A1s and M16 rifles), they were “different” in the sense that the units were all “wired”. It was all about information technology, baby.

Being “wired” means that, “We can share information vertically and horizontally, and we will be able to respond to near real-time intelligence as no army has in the past,” Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Baker explained. (As reported by Dennis Steele in “Soldiering Outside the Box” on page 25 of Army Magazine in 2000.)

The key, Steele would write in 2014, is to understand that “the firefight is now in cyberspace” and the US armed forces need to ramp up their efforts at “attracting, keeping and ‘growing’ smart, mentally agile soldiers, civilian employees and leaders…” for cyberwarfare. 

The idea is that being “wired” is to control more territory and inflict more punishment on an adversary because your soldiers will have access to a tactical internet known as Battlespace – which serves the primary purpose of giving political leaders a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, so to speak. Battlespace is a 3-D terrain image that purportedly enhances identification of “the enemy” and soldiers of invading forces, all of which is carried onto the battlefield with laptops, mobile theatres and individual eyepieces to provide an omniscient view of the battlefield in real time, by day and night, allowing “vital manoeuvre and devastating firepower to deliver the coup de grâce in a single blow”.

Time is on my side, yes it is…

If there are any military-strategic lessons to be learned from the US’s departure from Afghanistan – setting aside the humiliation and its persistent “savage wars of peace” – it would be that information technology and robotics provide only a veneer of invincibility and a feel-good factor. What technologists need to understand is that simulations need to incorporate into their designs things like empathy and understanding of the cultures of the people (of the country they intend to invade) and the contexts they’re in. Also, artificial intelligence is not the same as intelligence, which involves not just visualisation and smart algorithms but also comprehension. (For a good discussion on these factors, see Mary Kaldor on “Framing War, the Military-Industrial Complex and Human Security”). 

Battlespace may be useful (and fun), but it is not a replacement for the irrationalities and normative constraints of people who are willing to die for their beliefs because “something better” awaits them in heaven. Consider the reported Taliban claim that the West has watches, but they (the Taliban) have time on their side. The idea that with Battlespace the US and its European allies can rationalise or tap into the “logic” of war has immanent contradictions. For one, there is too large a gap between Battlespace and reality on the ground. In societies that are culturally complex and dynamic, Battlespace (and drones) might direct death at “the enemy,” but that enemy could quite easily be a wedding party

All of this notwithstanding, we may have to accept that AI and robotics, including cyberwarfare and especially drones, are not a negation of our humanity. They simply extend our abilities to better deal with the world around us. It does not take an evolutionary biologist to accept that the human body itself, and in its external relations, is full of promise and possibilities, and that technology can improve the way we wage war and peace. In this sense robots are indeed our evolutionary heirs. What remains missing, for now, is our scientific ability to programme robotics with ethical algorithms that will allow us to extend and enhance our morality. We ought to at least acknowledge that people and machines have co-evolved for decades. Human-Machine Interaction specifically studies the interaction between people and computers, while Actor-Network Theory claims that machines form part of our social networks and are not standalone.

What then can we conclude from all of the above? Since Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1896 that the destruction of indigenous Americans was justified because the natives were “backward” and the settler colonists were engaged in “a war with savages,” the US continued to fight Kipling’s “savage wars of peace”. Fast-forward to Afghanistan, where with the aid of more than a century of knowledge and now information technology the US has surprisingly failed horribly. The “left” and the “right” agree that the US was “humiliated” in Afghanistan and has left nothing but catastrophe and disaster behind it.

There is a belief among military brass that the US army was becoming “too dependent on this new technology and, as a result, is losing sight of the fundamentals,” according to Jimmie Spencer, director of Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldier Programmes. All of that may be true, but in Vietnam, Somalia and now Afghanistan the world’s best-oiled and most effective military killing machine was beaten by people who were considered to be children of a lesser god. DM

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All Comments 8

  • agreed – but also consider young people have tasted certain freedoms for the last 20 years in terms of female education, ability to socialise and conduct business etc that they were not afforded under the Taliban in the 90’s. This may alter the course of history in Afghanistan. Maybe. So I dont agree they are back to 2001. Its too early to tell.

  • The US failed to get rid of the Taliban, but their objective was never to “bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age”. The hope and belief was that the Afghans would prefer the freedoms of democracy to the joyless authoritarian repression of the Taliban. Mistakes were made, but the conditions for democracy to take root were created. Unfortunately, after a two decade effort we see that having been led to water, Afghanistan is the horse which will not drink.

    • Of course the USA never wanted to bomb Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages but if they had wanted to, make no mistake they had the power to do so! On the other hand it is absolutely true that the Taliban WILL take the Afghan people back to before the Middle Ages. The USA was not defeated in Afghanistan-it was the Afghani people and inexplicably their Army that simply gifted the country to the bizarre and sinister men of the Taliban.
      Inexplicable!

  • from the NYT today – very poignant last paragraph that summarizes this point: “People’s expectations have grown dramatically after the past 20 years of freedom and liberation,” said Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest broadcaster. “And the pain is yet to come. Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?”

  • Closer to home and absolute humiliation for South Africa was SA’s foray into Angola. How many young people died and had their lives ruined by this episode of the Nationalist government? bear in mind that very, very few of the instructors had been to war themselves, so all went in blind and for what?

    • I agree to the extent that the foray into Angola showed government that the old military equipment wasn’t going to crack it, the permanent force was hopelessly inadequate as they had performed a training function and had no combat experience and most important of all was that the politicians were hopelessly out of their depth. But by the time of what is generally called the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, realistically a series of military operations carried out over 9 months, the army had been re-equiped, modern tactics had been learnt and the NSMs and civilian force largely carried the day on the battlefield. The politicians generally remained out of their depth throughout.

  • The one fallacy that this analysis failed to highlight, is the claim of this being the “longest war” the Americans have waged. Except for the ‘boots on the ground’ approach here, the longest & most expensive one is the one Americans have been conducting against the Palestinians since the mid 1960’s after the so-called 6 day war. The only difference is that it has been outsourced to the Israelis to conduct, with the unquestioning support of the Americans. They have even used their spyware to spy on world leaders like Merkyl-remember that embarrassing episode ! The Israeli state is a prime example of the ‘surveillance & thug state’, which makes a Soviet and Chinese ones look ‘amateur’ by comparison. In that respect, this analysis is pertinent. Is it any wonder that suddenly following the Afghan exit, efforts are afoot to ‘consult’ with the Palistinians via the Palestinian Authority, which like the Karzai’s in Afghanistan, is a Americanese project ! The people’s choice is Hamas (no comment whether this is good or bad) ! Not very different from the current situation in SA with the now totally corrupt ANC. The only American leader who had the guts to call on the Israeli’s to stop their ‘land grabbing’ with the expansion of illegal settlements (UN call) was Obama. Even that call was regarded as ‘too much’ for a regime that considers itself ‘above international law’ as do the Americans! These two ‘partners in crime’ have treated the ICC with contempt, as have they the UN.

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