"Finally Leaving Afghanistan?"
Danny Sjursen on the Biden Administration’s Afghanistan Plan
The Scott Horton Show (March 13, 2021)

Scott talks to Danny Sjursen about the leaked Biden administration plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The document evidently represents the Biden administration’s new take on the deal reached with the Taliban during the Trump administration, which laid out a May 1st deadline for withdrawal. But Sjursen stresses that this plan isn’t really new—in fact, there’s nothing “new” to be done or said about Afghanistan at all. The Kabul government simply doesn’t have widespread control over the country, and the Taliban are in a position of relative strength. Nothing America can do, short of utterly destroying the country, can change the facts on the ground. We should have left years ago, but the best we can do now is leave as soon as possible.

Scott Horton: "On the line I've got the skeptical vet, Danny Sjursen, [who] was in the Iraq AND Afghan surges. He wrote Ghost Riders of Baghdad: patriotic dissent. He's the most prolific writer in the anti-war movement. ... Welcome."

"... I'm pretty sure that you must have read this proposal, the "new peace" deal for Afghanistan that was published by the Washington Post. ... What the hell is going on here, man?"

Danny Sjursen: "Well, I mean, of course. The thing about folks like us, we can't stay away from it. Sometimes I wish that I wasn't keeping abreast. Some of the things that are going on. It's inevitably always disappointing. And I think that one of the interesting things is, everything when it comes to, like, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the American forever wars, the word "new" gets thrown around a lot, right?. There is always a new something. This is the new plan for this, or the new strategy. And you know, nothing is new under the sun. Every time it's like the old is new again. And the reason I say this is not just to play with the language, but to make a broader point that, look, everything has been tried before, you know, for the most part. And most of the stuff that gets branded as 'this is the new political deal' or 'new settlement' or a 'new compromise' to satisfy the Biden adminstration's hedge, needle-threading, the reality is that it's not new at all. It's often something we've seen before that has aleady failed, or failed multiple times. And I think that that is one of the big things that kind of jumps out at me."

[2:49] "So, OK. This is an eight-page proposal. Like, I wonder if there are three, you know, unique and new thoughts in the entire thing. And the answer is usually: No.

Scott Horton: "Well, but I mean they are talking about scrapping the Constitution and starting over including the Taliban, which is new, right? Or, not. ... I mean, the Taliban and their friends have been in the parliament in one way the other for awhile. I know that, but still ..."

Danny Sjursen: "Right. What's interesting about it is that it's new for the latest phase of America's actual troops-on-the-ground war. And what I do think is interesting is, it's -- "

Scott Horton: "That's the real question, Right? Is this cover to leave, or not?

Danny Sjursen: "Well, I hope so. I mean, look, it's nasty to say that but I'm kind of over caveats. This to me, in some ways, is a recognition of realities, sort of. Right? And when I say nothing is new: We've put the Taliban in power before. And we've abandoned Afghanistan before. And I sort of reject the idea of 'abandon' in many cases because it implies that we could have done something. But the fact that this was leaked or the fact that this was shrouded in secrecy, I think, does tell us something. Because this looks nothing like what the Afghanistan Study Group put forward, for example, right?"

[4:12]: "This to some extent is a recognition of reality, like, as you mentioned, the Taliban has already been in the parliament, they just couldn't run under the banner of the Taliban Party platform. I mean, I paid the Taliban to dig ditches in Kandahar. This is not particularly new in that sense but what I think is interesting about it, again, is that for the American involvement where it was always built on the facade of, like, Kabul legitimacy, constitutionalism, much of that was a lie. But it was always built on that. We fought on that lie, right? It's like in The Wire where Slim Charles says something like: 'Well, if it's a lie then we fight on that lie.' And that's how the last twenty years have gone for the United States and it is time to recognize some of the realities on the ground, which is, of course, that the Taliban is in a stronger position than they've probably ever been in, in that Kabul has never really been legitimate. And it has just been another group of warlords, largely, so I think that that is interesting. And new for the last nineteen years that we've had troops on the ground."

[5:14] Scott Horton: "Yeah. I wondered if that was what you meant with 'Well, it's the same thing again.' In other words, we're right back where we were in 1998. With the Taliban in charge, and with the Northern Alliance refusing to accept their authority, right? "

Danny Sjursen:"Wouldn't it be interesting to think of it that way? Becaue that is exactly what I meant. You and I have a long enough arc of studying this stuff to kind of get it. But I think maybe it's misleading to certain listeners who are thinking just since 2001 October. But, isn't it interesting if the Afghan war, such as it is, the American phase of the last twenty years ends with the status quo largely what you just described, which is the Taliban seizes maybe the lion's share of Afghanistan, certainly the south and the far east, and a new Northern Alliance that just happens to be re-branded as a legitimate government and maybe holds Kabul a little longer and basically controls the north. So we could end up in the situation, like you said, where it's 1998 all over again. And then you're left wondering ... "

Scott Horton:"And now [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar is inside the gate already."

[6:21] Danny Sjursen: "And then, what was it all for, right? And then I'm always left asking that. I mean the money and the blood and the 2400 American lives and whatever Afghan lives which are countless, because we don't bother counting. And maybe they would have died anyway in a certain, sort of, civil war. But nevertheless, it does leave you feeling very very dark, right? Like fatalistic.

Scott Horton: "Look, Danny, it's unfair what they asked you guys to do over there. Never mind how unfair to the people of Afghanistan (who never heard of New York City) to have to go through this for something that they had essentially nothing to do with whatsoever. And then on what was obviously an impossible task from the very beginning: to create a central government for a nation of countryside. I mean, what the hell are we even talking about? The whole thing is stupid.

[7:11] Danny Sjursen: "I use the analogy all the time and I almost wonder why no one else does. The all-volunteer force, the American active duty Army, we'll say, and Marine Corps is basically 700,000 Don Quixotes for the last twenty years just tilting at windmills all over the world, being adulated for by the American people -- except not really because no one really pays that much attention, but they say the right things and put us on jumbotrons -- but the reality is, it's not 'Woe is me.' It's not to say that the U.S. military doesn't have some complicity in this and that we shouldn't question militarism and the reasons you mentioned and all that. But in terms of what we have actually been asked to do, as you mentioned, there is a tragic, tragicomic element to it. It's almost Greek. We're really out there on impossible ventures and then constantly rebranding them, and constantly coming up with 'Well, this will work.' 'This new snake-oil strategy will work.' or 'We'll try it this way.' 'Now we'll have a polite emperor in charge.' 'Or we'll have a buffoonish emperor in charge.' 'Or, not we'll have a middle-ground Biden emperor in charge.' But again, when I say that nothing is new under sun, I mean that nothing has worked."

[8:17] "We've tried a lot of this before. And if the answer is to go back to 1998 in Afghanistan, that sucks, but maybe it's a recognition of reality. And the limits of power. The limits of American power and agency to control things especially in distant lands that aren't ours."

[[8:37] Scott Horton: "Man, if they'd left ten years ago . . ." . . . "

[22:11] Danny Sjursen: . . . “and this is the question: 257 Afghan security forces were killed in February, not the fighting season and during a time when, ostensibly, there is supposed to be a decrease in violence because of whatever deal. But now, of course, the war never really stopped. Now, 257 dead in the shortest month of the year, under those conditions, is a lot of Afghan security forces. That’s 3, 084 in a year. For many years now the Afghan government has not been able to replace their casualties at the rate they’re losing them. So then they just made it secret. We classified it, basically, but the New York Times reported on it because they use open-source reporting to get close to the number. No one has an answer to that. And no one has an answer to the fact that Kabul can’t pay its own police. Like, they require foreign aid to maintain their budget, even just to field an army to do our bidding, sort of, or to do their own self-protection. I just think that there are no options on the table that have an answer to that. Because the surge of 100,000 Americans couldn’t really answer that. So what’s a surge of 2,000 or staying two extra years, or you name it, going to do? The only thing that can answer that is a degree of surrender to fatalism and busting the whole paradigm and jumping out of the matrix. And jumping out of the matrix is partly what I think the leaked state department letter does to some extent, which is admitting that the facts on the ground are such that we can’t even pretend anymore. Twenty years of this charade is about to blow up in our face.”

[24:03] Scott Horton: “Isn’t it telling, too, that there are some “hawks” who say “we can’t leave,” but where are all the usual suspects? Where is Condoleeza Rice saying “No! We promised we would never leave again!”? She’s not saying a damn thing. Because everybody knows The Gig Is Up. We could win with H-bombs or we could lose. We could win with genocide. Or we could call it off. And the game – look at what year we’re talking about. And so the silence of a lot of the people who got us into this, in both the Bush and Obama years, is pretty telling to me. But … I’ve got to wedge one other question in here first:

[24:49] “One of the recent times we spoke about this, say in the last three or four interviews, The Washington Post said that JSOC, that is top-tier special operations forces, or air power, is flying as the Taliban’s air force fighting ISIS. And they say that they’re not in direct contact with them, but they know who is who on the ground and they’re just flying above as air cover and bombing the hell out of ISIS targets for the Taliban as they’re fighting in the Nangahar province. I mean, talk about upsetting the whole everything going on over there now. If we leave on that note, you know “You guys beat us but we’re being good sports about it and hope that you guys can be, too. A handshake on the way out, high-five kind of thing and leave. But we’re going to ruin all that and turn this into another little mini-war against them and leave anyway later? … But then also, politically speaking, how can they do anything but kick the can down the road somehow? Even by sending another 50,000 troops. Isn’t that better politically for a Democrat than knowing that two years from now, at minimum, the Taliban are going to rule all the capital city and there are going to be refugees everywhere and massive, horrible fighting? That then all those silent people who now don’t dare speak up are going to start saying: “Oh, yeah. I told you you shouldn’t leave,” and all of these things, and make them look bad, and make them look weak. As George Carlin said: “What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We pulled out.” That’s not a very manly thing to do. So you can’t. How is Biden going to run for re-election, or Kamala Harris, when Afghanistan is in chaos? Because it will be. Almost certainly. Not that it isn’t, now. As long as we have forces there, well, that’s just despite our best effort. But then if we leave, it’s because we left. And that’s unforgiveable.”

[27:03] Danny Sjursen: “Well, there’s so much that’s interesting and valuable in what you just said that you don’t see reported, or that people don’t have this discussion, The Democrat Dilemma than I’m always talking about: of Toughness. And the language is fascinating, not just because I love prose, but in the Cold War, there was a scholar and he wrote a whole article about the language used by Cold Warriors, like Cold War “hawks” and talked about the sexuality of it, now that you mention George Carlin. In other words, to be, if you weren’t strong enough on Communism you were “soft.” Right? You were, like all of this was very sexualized, and “manliness.” And I think that matters because with Democrats in particular, they’re afraid to look weak because they believe the Republican talking points even though they’re not very accurate – Democrats start all kinds of wars, maybe more wars – but they’ve begun to believe the pejoratives that have been thrown at them because the Republicans are good at one thing, for sure, and that’s staying on message to a certain extent. So what you’re talking about with that is that they’ve started to believe that they are the weak party. And because they believe that they’re so afraid of it. The fear, of course is that they’ll look weak when they run for re-election. But what I hope is different this time is that The Gig Is Up. Twenty years in and I have to believe, for once – and I’m going to be disappointed -- but I have to believe that for once they’re not going to play the game and just do this script again where they’re like: “Well, we’ll just stay a little longer because of political gain and we don’t want to be the ones who lost Afghanistan. But Afghanistan has already been lost. It’s a zombie war. Just no one told the people who are going to still die in it that the war is already lost. Like the young people who don’t know, the walking dead who are just rolling around in this zombie war. And I think that that is sort of an important point.

“We’ll see what happens. And we’ve talked about those flying for the Taliban and all that. You raise an important point there. The bottom line is, that if you want to know the way a war is really going, watch what the special forces are doing. Because the special forces guys are usually a little more honest. The nature of their mission is like, they’re usually in the vanguard of where it’s really going. Like whether, for example, they were forming the local police, which were really just warlord militias, as part of the village stability operations like when I was there. That was the way the war was going, towards proxies and accepting the reality that the Kabul government is really warlords anyway. It was going there. And if you keep your eyes on what the Green Berets are doing, they don’t just grow beards and look cool, they’re usually on the forefront of what’s coming and they’re a little more honest about it. Not because they’re great guys. It’s just the nature of their mission. . . .

“I think this is really important. I have a feeling we’re going to be talking more about it. There are going to be responses to the response. There is going to be a response to this memo. There are going to be actions taken, and I think that what you brought up is so important. It will be interesting to see how Biden plays this. Is he going to get out of the Matrix or is he going to do the same thing again?

[30:10] Scott Horton: “And May 1st is coming fast.”