Michael's Dispatches

Afghanistan: A Bigger Monster


10 October 2013


Just months ago Pentagon officials dismissed the idea of a total pullout from Afghanistan.  Today we are on the verge of ending negotiations on our future there, leading to the “zero option.”  Total withdrawal.

If we execute a zero option, this is my basic worst-case prediction, which is not far from my most likely scenario prediction:

President Karzai and his government seem to believe we need Afghanistan and will not abandon him, or that we will cave to ridiculous demands.  We will not.  Remember Iraq.  Look at our own current shutdown.  The US is in serial crisis mode and Afghanistan is overplaying its hand.

Both the Afghan and US governments frequently behave irrationally, and some US decision-makers are looking for any excuse to drop Afghanistan.  Psychologically, we are in a perfect position to negotiate, regardless of the security consequence.

Without support, the Afghan economy will collapse.

Following the economic collapse and without Coalition military support, the Afghan government will also collapse.

If it remains vaguely intact, the Afghan “government” will be ineffective outside of Kabul.

Kandahar City will be the Taliban capital.  No international trade will occur in the south without Taliban approval.


The Afghans most capable of running the country will flee for places like Dubai.  Many have been gone for years.  Nobody will be capable of running the country.  The billions of dollars’ worth of roads and infrastructure we built will begin to crumble.  The cell phones Afghans have fallen in love with might soon be out of order.


New power will flow from guns.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces that we trained and armed will not be paid.  They will go home, work for warlords, or become warlords.  Many will take the weapons we supplied.


We have flooded the already well-armed Afghanistan with enough weapons to stand up an army and police.  In fact, we stood up a shaky army and police.  Warlords and ethnic groups currently are arming and preparing for the next Afghanistan “road warrior” era.


Local warlords will gain control of roads from Kabul to other major cities such as Jalalabad, just like old times.  Stretches of highway will be controlled with extortion checkpoints, ambushes, and their new IED expertise.

Large-scale business such as mining or the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline will become more expensive or extremely risky to undertake.  There will be few large, legitimate businesses.


The economy will be opium-based.  Opium production, which has been increasing over the past few years, will skyrocket.  Within just a few years, Afghanistan will become a true narco-state like the world has never before seen, accounting for nearly all of the world’s supply.  Worldwide addictions will climb, increasing demand, and yet more poppy will be planted.

When food crops are replaced with opium and international aid has mostly vanished, there will be famines without relief.  Refugees from war and famine might again escape to neighbors such as Pakistan.


There will be a multi-sided civil war with so many players and warlords that nobody but the most dedicated analysts will have a chance at tracking.

Chaos will reign wherein the Taliban is but one player, and likely not the most dangerous.  The Taliban will rule the south and some other areas but they will not rule the country.  Warlords and Taliban top leaders will become rich from opium trade.

IMG 0847-1000

Afghanistan will cease to exist as anything that we would call a country.  It will be a region divided into fiefdoms where warlords and ethnic groups prevail.  Drones that we may use will amount to little more than nuisances.

If narco-rich warlords put their minds to it, they might buy missiles to shoot down any drones we send.  Of course if they get their hands on missiles, drone hunting will be the least of our concerns.

Instability might spill over to other South and Central Asian countries, threatening regional chaos.

Afghanistan and the region might well become worse than when the Taliban was the dominant force.  No lasting changes will have occurred for women’s rights.


In summary, we are looking at a potential Afghan Armageddon, likely to be ignored until the next paroxysm.  Our blood, suffering, and treasure will not only be wasted in total; it will have created a monster.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    MarkDaBear · 8 years ago
    And 9/11 will only be a prequel . . . .

    Thank you, Michael, for your perspective and persistence.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      student · 8 years ago
      Learned a lot. Thanks!

      I am a student in high school and we took a test today. My military stress tolerance is ZERO, as it turns out here:

  • This commment is unpublished.
    in_awe · 8 years ago
    This is a situation that requires international leadership to address the horrible but likely outcomes you described. Unfortunately, the one thing in short supply in Washington is leadership and the long-view.

    After a decade of training the Afghan Army is still only sporadically functional and reliable, and seemingly incapable of controlling the country in the face of sustained Taliban and insurgent attacks.

    The one player not mentioned is China which signed lucrative mineral rights deals with Karzai. It may become a large funding source for the Taliban and warlords through the payment of protection money to preserve their mining site investments. But China faces an enormous risk in doing so because that same money may flow in the future to disaffected Muslims within China and underwrite independence movements. There has been an outbreak of Islamic terrorism in western China (Xinjiang province) where Uighur (ethnic Turks from Xinjiang province) Islamic terrorists have become increasingly active. The terrorists offer anti-Han Chinese a potent weapon in their desire to break from Beijing, so payment of protection money may be making a deal with the devil. Currently Pakistan is the source of many of the terrorists in China, but that might shift if the chaos Michael predicts occurs in Afghanistan.

    Like it or not, Afghanistan is not going to disappear from the world stage anytime soon. National leaders around the world need to formulate a plan for how to deal with a post-Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barry · 8 years ago
    Wholly agree with your assessment, Michael, and you would know better than most. I have never been to Afghanistan.

    Nevertheless, anyone with a brain could've pridicted this, along with the most likely undesirable outcome in Iraq. I was all for going aggressively, no-holds-barred after al Qaeda anywhere they might be found and killed around the world.

    But trying to "fix" countries like Afghanistan and even Iraq (post-Saddam, where civility is unlikely to ever return) was obviously, desperately a fool's errand. And what do the American people get for it? What do military families get for their sacrifice? How many universities, schools, infrastructure projects could we have funded with this trillion-dollar investment? And how many American military lives would have been saved?

    The whole sickening thing is a disaster for us spiritually, morally and economically. And despite the thrill and stunning visibility of an adventurous, near-live-TV war, I predicted it from the moment we said we were going to full-scale war with Iraq.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Barnett · 8 years ago
    "Our blood, suffering, and treasure will not only be wasted in total; it will have created a monster.". We as a nation have become skilled in heading in that direction, both at home and abroad. I wonder if part of the reason we've lost our way is because we are so far removed from actual conflicts here at home. Sure, we go and fight, but it can become of little meaning to those at home if the sights, smells, and screams of war are not absorbed first-person. We've had it so easy here, we don't know what a real battle is, while we fight petty little political ones and let them become the most important things in our lives.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Harry the Horrible · 8 years ago
    It isn’t worth our blood and treasure to keep it running. Our troops are being murdered Afghan “police” and “soldiers.” We have completely wacked out rules of engagement that fail to realize that the life any allied soldier is worth infinitely more that the live of any number of Afghanis.

    Pick up. Go home. Next time we have an issue like this, use nukes and nerve gas.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    matt · 8 years ago

    The day we announced that we were withdrawing was the day we lost Afghanistan.

    It was a 20-50 year project from the outset and the fundamentals of stability, property rights and the rule of law, were never implemented. It is more corrupt now than it was in 2001.

    Despite the PowerPoints and glad hands of our military and civilian leadership, we have been yanked on the state of affairs from @ 200 -2004. Ten years of unadulterated bullshit.

    Now the Northern Alliance will likely re-emerge and the delineation will be a Pashtunistan which Pakistan will dread and the rest of the "Stan. That is my guess.

    The same narco-traficantes who were playing both sides against the middle will be the money players in the new "Stan. My advice is to take a bunch of old C-1 0's and plumb them to deliver Roundup (it's EPA safe!) and hose down the poppy fields wherever we find them. F them and their f'ing drugs.

    12 years, ,000+ dead ISAF's and tens of thousands of Afghans, 50-60,000 of our wounded and trillions of dollars and we have accomplished exactly zero.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      in_awe · 8 years ago
      Reminds me of the old saw about when you take your hand out of a bucket of water what is left.

      Compare the results of 12 years of American presence in Afghanistan and 8 years in Iraq with what the legacy of our role was in WWII and Korea.

      Fundamentally, I think that Afghans do not think about a nation and societal progress in the same way westerners do. It seems like many are content with carrying on the way their ancestors did two thousand years ago and being left alone to live their simple lives. While we had a reason in 2001 to attack the Taliban and al Qaeda, our hubris has kept us there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    2banana · 8 years ago
    Support and arm the Northern and Central Militias(Old Northern Alliance).

    Support several SF bases and AF based in/around the place.

    Make the rest of the country a free fire zone.

    And a two-way Weapons Testing Range.

    And the place for the Special Forces Qualification Course Final Exam.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Harry the Horrible · 8 years ago
      We should have picked some new "big man" for Afghanistan, paid him off, armed and trained his troops, provided him air support, and turned him loose. Let him do the dirty work.
      But no, we had to "respect their culture," "nation build" and "bring democracy."
      What we really needed a nice, charismatic sociopath who would stay bought, and exterminate his (and our) enemies.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kodos · 8 years ago
    All could have been solved with a a dozen or so nuclear weapons with cobalt-iodine jackets.

    A lot cheaper, too.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    William Merrick · 8 years ago
    Mr. Yon,

    Thanks for an excellent photo essay. It was a very timely read.

    I've never been on your site before. I really have no idea how widely it is read. Too often I post comments about something on the web, only to learn that only the author and myself read anything I wrote.

    I heard today from a friend whose daughter is a Navy nurse in Afghanistan. She is seeing the horrors of American rangers dead and wounded every day.

    I say pull out of Afghanistan today. 100 percent of our troops--out, now. 11 years is ENOUGH training for the Afghans; if they cannot figure out how to defend themselves after all this time then let them die. There is NOTHING in your (admittedly excellent) essay that is worse than the drip-drip-drip dying of young Americans.

    LBJ and McNamara sent two of my brothers to Vietnam, one to be killed there, when LBJ and McNamara knew it was a lost cause. Aghanistan is a lost cause, sinking in tribal hatred and national ignorance and Islam.

    Get our kids out of Afghanistan. F Afghanistan.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shenji · 8 years ago
    Afghanistan, and most middle-east and far-east countries, never ever have real Democracy in their history. In most times they were ruled by cruel tyrants or self-claimed dictators (sometimes oligarchies). On rare occasions, some mob rebellion would have resulted a short-lived mob so-called-government (think about French revolution), but this will soon be replaced by another tyrant. In late centuries, tyrants were replaced by foreign power backed puppets, but without a powerful occupying-force, puppets could not hold their office long, since they have no match against ambitious wanna-be tyrants or angry mobs.

    So I think here comes the major problem- Afghans never had any chance to know: WHY SHOULD THEY ELECT THEIR "OWN" GOVERNMENT? OR, WHY SHOULD THEY MUST TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEMSELVES? Some of you Western people may not understand why people NOT take responsibilities for themselves. But to those who lived a thousands-year-long lifestyle under authoritarianism, there's one thing they can not easily let go- a simple life. All you need to do is following government's(or some glorious he-who-knows-everything leader's) edicts. You don't need to think, you do what they ask you do, other times you can waste your time on any officially-approved (or not legal but de fact 'entertainments' (like propaganda TV shows, faked knowledge, luxurious craps, gluttony, heavy drunk, drugs, prostitution, adultery...). Some of you may think this is all non-sense bullshits, but this is what really happened in those long-term authoritarian countries- Like Mr. Yon have told us, Afghan can own and use marijuana almost legally, and they enjoy it.
    Some people gave up their neutral rights long long ago. They are not few, they are billions in number.
    So what we can do? There's no easy way. You are trying to fight against a lifestyle, a way of thinking, which already lasts thousands years long, which stubborn like cancer, highly addictive like pure crystal meth. Anyone, who thought he (or they) can change this tide (even) in SEVERAL decades, is egomania.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Shenji · 8 years ago
      So back to the question- what can be done? Unfortunately there are so few cases we could learn from history. Maybe Timoleon can shed some lights, but we also know Syracuse fell back to tyranny soon after he died. Like I already said, to some people, authoritarianism is cancer coming with meth joy. So all I can imagine, only time can pure this disease, with a very long time correction (from inside or outside). First there must be some very strictly military laws, and must be carried out equally and firmly. No excuse, no exemption. After one or two decade(s), this will make more people feeling security, feeling the new way can be relied, feeling "maybe there's something I can do for myself?" Maybe some of them will abandon/forget the old style(likely the younger ones), then there will be spontaneous enlightenment movement(but they are vulnerable). Of course there also will be a lot of resistances, if you show any sign of weakness, you are done.
      Or, you can just shrug and leave them be, this is simple, but has guaranteed grave consequences.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sear Ebadi · 8 years ago
    Hi Michael. Interesting description of a doomsday. Though there is this possibility of Afghanistan plumeting into chaos as you described, it does not necessarily seem to be going towards what you have painted in your article. Things are much more different than they were when the Russians left here. There are a lot of arguments on the ground which can easily negate your description of Afghanistan without any US involvement. Had you been on the ground here in Afghanistan and in the mix of the situations, your research would have yielded a rather different climax. Thanks
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Colin · 8 years ago
    I suspect that we have poisoned the well for the Taliban as well. the people remember what happened when they did get into power. If things dissolve, focus on the groups near the Northwest border such as the Hazara and arm and help them. Deal with the most successful warlords and slowly push them towards cooperating and trading normal goods.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Afghanistan Expert · 8 years ago
    As someone who has lived through most of Afghanistan's recent history, and as someone who carefully studies contemporary Afghanistan, I find the perspective above to be one that is not only extremely depressing, but also careless and unrealistic. It is highly unlikely Afghanistan will devolve into the civil war it experienced in the 1990's or the anarchy of the early 1990's which is what the article suggests. Afghans have experienced a season of unprecedented prosperity and progress and those who have benefited from it most are not about to up and leave to Dubai - fortunately there is much too much at stake. Thirdly, cell-phones are only one aspect of irreversible development, but they epitomise that which cannot be taken away from ordinary afghans - a new mindset and openness to the possibilities brought about by peace and stability. I don't see Afghanistan's future as rosy, but I don't see it as going back to the Taliban times or the Mujahideen era. There are several parallel socio-economic polities within Afghanistan, and the most prominent warlords have become prominent businessmen - after all, business and trade is much more lucrative than war which costs men and money. All things considered, Afghanistan is ours to be prayed for and helped in every possible way!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Glenn · 7 years ago
    So, in other words, after 12 years, over 1 trillion USD, 400 coalition casualties and untold Afghani deaths - we will leave Afghanistan exactly as we found it. While I do applaud Michael at least bringing this up, I think the real lesson gets missed. We were never going to implant democracy and liberal values in Afghanistan or Iraq. Islamic culture and the other chauvinisms of the Arab world are simply not going to adopt what we call democracy.

    A real truth telling would conclude this. We wasted all this effort, all those lives, and changed very little for the better that is sustainable. Can we at least admit that? Am I somehow upatriotic for noticing that we have failed to accomplish anything lasting in Afghanistan?
  • This commment is unpublished.
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