A pointless exercise from day one
In the back of an army Blackhawk helicopter in Kuwait in 1997, author Tom Buchanan (with camera) accompanies wrestlers Davey Boy Smith, Bret Hart, and Owen Hart to visit troops on the front line with Iraq.

A pointless exercise from day one

The war in Afghanistan is not a war for Americans to wage, and it’s not a war that Afghans want to wage. It never was.

LONDONDERRY — This is a story about Afghanistan, but I'm going to start in in Kuwait City. It's a long story, mostly because Americans have been dying in pointless “welfare” wars for a long time, yet even a long story can't convey the layered intricacy of the failures of U.S. military and political power.

I'll start in 1997. I was working as a photographer for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWF/WWE) in Kuwait City and escorted several wrestlers to the front line between Kuwait and Iraq for a meet-and-greet with U.S. troops during a years-long cease-fire.

It turned into two separate trips over two mornings during my week-long time in country. I got to drive through the desert in Jeeps and Humvees, I flew in a Blackhawk helicopter, drove an M1A1 Abrams tank, and held a Stinger missile launcher.

Along the way, I was briefed on many potential risks, including unexploded ordinance abandoned in the desert, but never once was I briefed on chemical or biological threats, nor did I see American troops preparing for that kind of threat.

That last bit didn't seem odd at the time, but it gained relevance a few years later.

* * *

My time in Kuwait wasn't long, but damn, I learned a lot.

Iraq had invaded Kuwait in August 1990, prompting the United States to mount a blisteringly fast multi-nation attack that repelled Iraqi forces back into their own territory by February 1991.

Iraq President Saddam Hussein refused to formally surrender, which left the region under a tenuous cease-fire with American troops holding the front line, while also training Kuwaiti troops to handle that task themselves.

In the United States, we spoke of this mission as “the Gulf War,” but locals called it “the American War” and mostly thought it was driven by our desire to maintain oil supplies, rather than altruistic support for the Kuwaiti people.

When I visited the front line during the long cease-fire, it had been about seven years since that “American War” began. Kuwaiti troops had been fully trained by then and were standing by in their own garrison, supposedly ready to protect their own territory.

The U.S. troops I visited were stationed nearby on a hair-trigger alert for another invasion, but technically in a training-and-support role.

While on that tour, I was shown a tape of a war game held a few days earlier in which simulated “bad guys” attacked. The Kuwaiti troops were supposed to engage and call in the Americans only as a last-ditch effort if they couldn't handle the job themselves.

The tape showed the initial engagement, then a rapid pullback by the Kuwaitis and a successful engagement by Americans.

The U.S. officers who showed me that tape were disgusted and said the Kuwaitis didn't have the heart to fight. They said most were conscripts or illiterates without any other life options and claimed that none of them cared about their nation as a whole.

While in country I passed a few of the Kuwaiti deployments, and they looked every bit the part of a hapless military crafted by Hollywood to make the opponent look good. It was a crying shame.

From that point in 1997, it was obvious that Kuwait couldn't defend itself and that American troops, deployed as a mercenary force, would be there forever unless something drastically changed.

* * *

Flash forward to Sept. 11, 2001. Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which prompted the United States to go after them in Afghanistan, where they had allegedly been trained.

The United States stormed into Afghanistan in October of 2001. Our initial mission was to destroy Al Qaeda and destabilize the Taliban government, which had given them sanctuary. We did so quickly and effectively.

Then our mission shifted to standing up a new Afghan army and training Afghans to defend their own country, while providing temporary stability and propping up a government favorable to our interests.

We spent 20 years in that fuzzy mission, with the training of Afghans front and center. That mission spanned an entire generation of Afghans and Americans, but it's been a pointless exercise from day one.

Afghanistan is a mishmash of territories without any sense of singular nationalism, and the hapless soldiers have had no desire to fight for the government the United States gave them.

Iraq had nothing directly to do with the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but the underlying hostility that brought us 9/11 can easily be traced back to that earlier fight in Kuwait.

And, most importantly, it can be traced back to Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by Saddam Hussein and was therefore partnering with the United States in isolating Iraq.

U.S. troops were stationed in and around Saudi Arabia as part of our effort to maintain stability and protect the oil assets, and that enraged many Saudis, which, in turn, animated the development of Al Qaeda.

So that's the connection: Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States repelled Iraq while leaning on Saudi Arabia for support, and Al Qaeda grew in opposition to the endless U.S. presence in the Middle East, ultimately threatening the government of Saudi Arabia and regional stability.

The government of Saudi Arabia wanted us out of their country and the entire region, and the Kuwaitis wanted us out, too, but both knew Iraq would invade again if we left.

Thus, a full-bore attack on Iraq was devised to eliminate that threat once and for all, and it was falsely tied to weapons of mass destruction. We launched that strike in March of 2003 and quickly routed the Iraqi military.

For the most part, Iraqi forces had no more heart for defending their country than the Kuwaitis did. Nor did the people of either country want a foreign force lodged in their territory, and many Iraqis were willing to rally and skirmish and die to drive us out.

* * *

The U.S. occupation of Iraq became a long and bloody engagement that provided none of the hoped-for regional stability. Although formal fighting ended in 2011, American troops stuck around for another nine years in what was described as a training and support role.

Does that sound familiar?

Americans were finally kicked out of Iraq by its government in 2020, with the country in the throes of an undeclared civil war in which gangs, warlords, terrorists, insurgents, and various opportunists were fighting one another without any commitment to unifying values or any specific government.

It's a mess. It always has been.

Afghanistan is like Kuwait and Iraq. The locals have no heart to fight for their nation. The United States could remain in Afghanistan forever and train another generation of Afghans, and then another, but we'll never change the basic reality.

This is not a war for Americans to wage, and it's not a war that Afghans want to wage. It never was. We should have learned that lesson in Kuwait, or Iraq, or maybe way back in Vietnam.

Americans can't win a war for people who don't want to win it for themselves. I figured that out quickly while watching a short tape in a hot tent on the Kuwait-Iraq border during a long cease-fire more than 20 years ago.

It's time to put that lesson to use.

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