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An Afghanistan Veteran Looks Back on the "First Postmodern War"
Adrian Bonenberger, author of "Afghan Post" and veteran of two tours, reflects on the withdrawal announcement, the MRAP boondoggle, and reporting fraud
I first met Adrian Bonenberger in 2014, after he completed two tours in Afghanistan. He’d published Afghan Post, a painful epistolary memoir about his experiences. Bonenberger started that book a breezy, confident, idealistic young officer, but as he came across more cruelty, waste, and corruption, started to break down, second-guessing not only the mission but himself, i.e. why he’d volunteered.
At the outset of Afghan Post Bonenberger referenced everything from the illustrated versions of The Odyssey and The Iliad he read as a kid, to All Quiet on the Western Front. But after years of head-scratching missions, circuitous contracting schemes, and lies sent down from above (and demanded in return), he seemed to realize, unpleasantly, that his experience was less Homer and more Catch-22.
He laughs some, but mostly the absurdity crushes him. A selection of passages gives a snapshot of his progression:
My life is in near-perfect harmony… This is what I’ve been aiming for, a sense of balance, of co-existing with the world. My job at this instant is precisely what it needs to be, no more, no less. I’m a good commander, man… Life feels correct.
We aren’t here to defeat the enemy; that’s impossible with our resources. We’re here to occupy them, to distract them from the women wearing blue jeans in Kabul.
No matter how many rifle-bearing insurgents we kill, they only seem to increase in numbers and proficiency.
I just want to keep bashing away at the Taliban until they quit. I refuse to stop. I will break them with constant patrolling…
What are we doing. This makes no sense. I feel my grasp on humanity slipping away. The army believes the solution to this is behavioral health. We’d do better with some religious/moral equivalent — sadly, our own multi-faith shepherd/ expert does not provide me with anything like the type of certainty I’d need to get me through this or buck-up.
He unravels, and as the diary goes on, seems to become more concerned with his own mental survival than with making sense of the mission, which becomes little more than an absurdist plot point. By the end, he writes, “Afghanistan is sending me out, as though I never set foot here, utterly unchanged,” adding:
The landscape is so harsh and unforgiving — on the one hand, the people I see trying to drag a living from the dust seem like heroes or madmen — on the other hand, they move slowly and without obvious desperation — it’s only after a great deal of time spent around them that you realize this transcends the fatalist predisposition of their culture… These people are the embodiment of despair; life without hope of improvement, waiting for an early death from disease, accident, or murder.
Can’t wait to leave this place and these thoughts behind.
I thought of Adrian after Joe Biden announced that “I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war.” The question that faded from view by the end of Adrian’s two tours was one of the first Biden addressed.
We went to Afghanistan, President Biden said, “to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again.” And “we did that. We accomplished that objective.”
Is that true? Less than a day after Biden’s speech, even would-be allies of the administration like former Clinton adviser Richard Clarke were saying that there was a “high probability” the Afghan government would fall, and Westerners would soon be chased out by the Taliban, in scenes likely to recall the scrum for helicopter seats in Saigon in 1975.
Is Clarke wrong? If not, what was the point? Was there ever one? I asked Adrian’s perspective, as a former soldier:
Matt Taibbi: Do you believe it? That we’re leaving?
Adrian Bonenberger: I'm just going to go full Charlie Brown and say, yes. Yes, I do. I think they're going to leave. Hold the football, Lucy. Here I come.
MT: What were some of the first things that concerned you about the mission?
Adrian Bonenberger: The first time I went, I was a first lieutenant. I think I became a captain after I got back from the first deployment. That was with the 173rd Airborne. It was a very kinetic deployment… The terrain wasn't as bad where we were. Most of the KIAs, the people who died were hit by IEDs in Humvees.
On that first deployment, I got to see the Humvees swapped out for MRAPs [eds. note: Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle]. I remember reading all this stuff about how Humvees were terrible, and they were. They broke down all the time. They weren't designed for 15,000 pounds of armor. They were not designed for a mountain environment. In this desperate attempt to field stronger-armored vehicles, we got MRAPs, which are these giant, lumbering mine-resistant vehicles.
I didn't realize at the time, but it was a $50 billion expedited program to swap out every up-armored Humvee with MRAPs. What they didn't know when we got the MRAPs was that here we are, on the border of Pakistan with a bunch of roads that we built that barely supported Humvees, so when we get these MRAPs… I was actually in a rollover in one.
There was a fill that collapsed because we were driving over in a vehicle that weighed about 40,000 pounds. The Humvee weighed 20,000 pounds. We blamed the Afghan contractor at the time. It sounds psychotic, but we were like, “Oh, yeah. The Afghans built this substandard road. It’s their fault.”
That felt so emblematic. It feels to me today so emblematic. We only had those MRAPs in service for five years. We spent $50 billion bucks for a five-year rental, and then sold them to police stations across America. Those MRAPs that did fuck-all for us in Afghanistan are now what the police are using, presumably, for their small towns.
MT: That’s via the 1033 program, where the Pentagon sells its surplus equipment to localities?
Adrian Bonenberger: Exactly.
MT: I remember in Iraq, they recalled the original Humvees and had heavier doors put in, I think to repel rockets.
Adrian Bonenberger: Right.
MT: So in Afghanistan, they did that, and then switched out the replacement Humvees for the MRAPs?
Adrian Bonenberger: When they up-armored the Humvee, they surrounded these things with armor, because obviously, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want, per the ridiculous claim by Donald Rumsfeld.
That armor was good at protecting you against RPGs and bullets. We were getting shot at, and I remember vehicles coming back from patrols, all of them had been shot up, and all of the windows were just spider-webbed, but the bulletproof windows would stop the bullets. The problem was when they started putting IEDs in the road, it would channel the blast through the cabin, and ended up just killing everybody in it. The thing that was good at keeping the bullets out ended up being the worst possible design for IEDs.
MT: Because it kept the blast inside the vehicle?
Adrian Bonenberger: Exactly.
MT: They didn't figure that out until later?
Adrian Bonenberger: I just don’t know, man. So many times, so much of our policy, so much of how we... I mean, if we even had a policy, it was reactive and responsive. It seems impossible that nobody, no chemist or no engineer, said, “Hey, if a bomb hits the bottom of this, it's going to turn these guys into Campbell’s Soup.” Nobody was in the room that said, “This is only solving this one problem, but this other problem, it's going to make it much bigger.” Insurgents, not being stupid, are probably going to figure that out.
With the MRAP, the big thing was the V-shaped hull. It's going to be V-shaped on the bottom so the explosion will go around it. Well, I think that certainly helped. That was better, and I saw IEDs that definitely would’ve killed people in Humvees, not kill people in MRAPs, but it didn't do away with the problem of IEDs. It created this other problem of these vehicles are so fucking heavy, you couldn't drive anywhere without rolling over and almost dying in a different way.
MT: Did they have to build new roads?
Adrian Bonenberger: I think what happened was we just left. We just got out before they could do that stuff. Eventually, yes, they would’ve had to have built the new roads, which we wanted to do anyway. Yeah, I think we were there for another two or three years in that place where my first deployment happened, and then we left. We haven’t been back.
That’s Taliban. The Taliban own that area now. They’ve owned that for a decade.
MT: Are there other contracting issues you remember?
Adrian Bonenberger: We only had the MRAPs for a few years. By the time I went back, they were already getting swapped out for something called the M-ATV, an off-road vehicle on steroids. It was a lot better.
There's always a new vehicle.
Another crazy angle was that Biden bragged in a 2020 campaign ad about his involvement in the MRAP push, and the myth of their effectiveness is so complete nobody interrogated the claim. I imagine if anyone registered it in Trumpland it was to grudgingly concede that Biden had played a leading role in fielding MRAPs, which they probably imagined was a good thing.
Another thing that I remember very vividly was when I was a commander on my second deployment, we had these crypto devices that would fill the radios so the radios could talk to each other via encryption. It’s not like the Taliban had signals, units, or anything else, but we were doing these things in case we ever fought a military that did have the capacity to crack encryption.
We would do this very religiously, and they’re these black boxes that you could throw them on the ground, they wouldn’t break. Everybody knew how to use them. Everybody had been trained on them, and they were a line item on my inventory as a commander, like $4,800, $4,900 bucks apiece. About $5,000 bucks apiece.
I think we had three months left on deployment when a contractor came into the office one day and said, “Hey, you’re getting new crypto devices.” I looked at them and they looked like... Do you remember, I think they’re called pen pilots...
MT: Palm pilots?
Adrian Bonenberger: Palm pilots. That's it. It looked like a palm pilot. This is the very end of 2010, early 2011, I already had soldiers who had smartphones. When we would get up to Tajikistan, and they could get cell coverage, they would be posting their statuses. I may be one of the earliest commanders to deal with the problem of a soldier posting on social media in the field. It was like, “Dude, text your girlfriend, whatever — I get it, but please do not give away our position to the enemy.”
Anyway we get these palm pilot things that are supposed to be the latest and greatest, and we were a week away from going out on a pretty long mission, a week-long operation, and so I told the contractor, “Thanks. We don't really need these. Why don't you just give these to the unit that's training right now to replace us? They'll have some time to get comfortable with them.”
His response was, “Maybe I didn't explain myself. You're getting these. I'm here to train you.”
I went to the battalion commander, and said, “This makes no sense to me. I don't have time to train everybody in my unit for these silly new devices that look fragile, they look like palm pilots. I’m very skeptical here.”
He answered, “My hands are tied. These are ours.” Basically, the contractor training you on these is now your commander, for all intents and purposes.
Now it’s $12,000 bucks a pop instead of $5,000 bucks a pop. I’ve heard subsequently that they are actually a far superior device to that original black box, but just the way it was done right before an operation was… I only had time for one soldier, the smart RTO guy, I think his dad was a professor at Princeton, to learn it. He enlisted for dubious reasons. He figured out how to do it, and he just was “the guy who did it,” because nobody else could figure out how to do it.
For the rest of the deployment, there was one guy who knew how to use the device, and whenever there was a new code that came out, he had to run around the battlefield, or drive around updating everybody’s communications stuff, which is the dumbest thing I’d ever seen. It also endangered lives. But, that to me was a very tangible example of the military not being there to do a thing, but as a receptacle, as somebody who was required to purchase expensive new stuff that was not wanted or even really needed at that moment.
MT: So it was the tail wagging the dog?
Adrian Bonenberger: That’s exactly right. The tail was wagging the dog.
MT: What was your conception of why you were there?
Adrian Bonenberger: They got bin Laden in May, 2011, which was probably the time we should've gotten out. The most generous explanation for our being there was that we were trying to get him and punish him for 9/11, and then we got him. Then we were still there, for no clear reason. We were all okay with that. I’m okay with that, apparently. That happened ten years ago.
Ten years ago next month. We're still there.
MT: I remember in the book of fiction you co-edited, The Road Ahead — I think it was Roxana Robinson in the introduction who talked about how when she asked soldiers if it bothered them that WMDs hadn’t been found, they gave her unexpected answers. What was the understanding in Afghanistan among the people you served with about why you were there? Did they care?
Adrian Bonenberger: That’s a great question. I think it really gets to the heart of the problem with Afghanistan. I was talking with Will Mackin, who was with the SEALs and wrote a really beautiful collection of short fiction… I was telling him that I think the wars on terror have been the first post-modern wars, which sounds so buzzy and annoying, like, “Shut the fuck up, nobody cares about that. That’s dumb.”
But, there is no explanation for why we're there. If you ask ten people why we’re in Afghanistan, or why we’re in Iraq, even, you’ll get ten different answers that are equally plausible. That wasn’t the case in Vietnam. You agreed with why we were in Vietnam or disagreed with it, but we were there to stop communism. A blisteringly stupid and failed idea, but our being there was related to communism in one way, shape, or form. You’ll find people who will explain to you that Afghanistan has nothing to do with terrorism, that it’s about minerals, or it’s about China, or it’s the great game, or it’s Bin Laden.
MT: Or women’s rights now.
Adrian Bonenberger: Women’s rights was a way that I rationalized being in Afghanistan. It’s a powerful rationalization. There were a couple of girls that I saw wearing blue jeans at the end of my second deployment, and that reduced me to tears, because soldiers get sentimental about dumb stuff, and that seemed like it was validating a narrative that I’d constructed in my head that was important to me.
But is that why we were there? No. No, absolutely not. That’s not why we went. That’s not why we stayed.
That’s what some people may think and say in the op-ed pages so that people feel better about us being there, much in the same way that that’s how I felt good about being there when I was a commander. That’s not why we went. We went to get bin Laden, I think, ultimately is what most people will say, or said at the time. That isn’t why we went there, but that's the story that’s probably closest to the truth.
The Taliban got caught up in it because they refused to hand him over, and nobody said no to the United States of America under George W. Bush. You say no, it’s time to go.
MT: Time to smoke you out of your hidey-holes.
Adrian Bonenberger: Right.
MT: What about the Afghanistan Papers story in the Washington Post? Did you and other vets talk about that when that came out? Military leaders were telling the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that the war was so expensive in lives and money, and wasn't getting things done. But the public story was different. What was your reaction?
Adrian Bonenberger: Reading it all laid out there, they just lied. The thing that I'm most worried about right now is, I’m already seeing it around the edges. Biden made the announcement this week, and you see email threads and you see it on Twitter, people are like, “But, what about all the progress? What about all the money that we’ve spent?” It's just like, “Guys, you've been deluding yourselves.”
There was this thing that we did, the officers did. It was kind of a joke to us, and I just didn’t put two and two together. It's called Red, Amber, Green Trackers. The joke was you would have these maps of your AO or your area of operations, and the places that the Taliban had were red, and then were permutations of this, so red-trending-amber meant that the Taliban had it, but maybe there were a couple of guys there that you could work with, whatever.
Amber was we patrol there, and we’re trying to flip it green. Amber-trending-green is like, “Oh, the Taliban haven't blown us up here for a few months, and we built them a well.” Then, green is just like, “We got this. The Afghans have it.” The colors would change sometimes. I think blue became a permutation that I saw later. The joke anyway was you would get to the end of the deployment, and all of the red places were listed as red-trending-amber, or amber, and all the places that were amber were now amber-trending-green or green, and all the places that were amber-trending-green were green, 100%. You give it to the next unit, and it all turned red again. It would downgrade one.
MT: They were juking the stats.
Adrian Bonenberger: I saw that and I didn't think to myself, “This is dumb.” I knew it was dumb. It was more like, “This is fraud.”
This should be illegal. We just all kind of did it all the time. We talked about it, and it’s not like this is a secret. The fact that people were seeing this in the Pentagon and were just like, “Oh, yeah. Of course, we’re just going to keep doing this forever.” There was no plan, and the metrics changed every deployment. They still wanted body counts, EKIA, enemy killed in action.
These frauds, the context changes, but it’s the same.
MT: It sounds like Daniel Ellsberg in his book “Secrets,” when he was talking about a tour with John Paul Vann. They had a similar system. I think it was something like, if the local South Vietnamese commander could sleep without a guard at his door at night, then that area was green. He found that every area that had been designated X was actually X minus one, or X minus two, security-wise… Was that basically what was going on?
Adrian Bonenberger: 100%. The only difference being, and this is one of the saddest things to me… Afghanistan, a parade of sad memories, the eternal bitch-fest… It might’ve been two years ago, it might’ve been three years ago, when SIGAR stopped doing a certain type of report, during Trump’s presidency, because they didn’t have access anymore essentially. They still did the report, but they were like, “Look, we can’t go out and survey 80% of these places, because they're under Taliban control. We’re going to attempt to do a QA/QC* of projects as they happen. We’re still going to be active in Kabul, but we just can’t get to half of these places.”
I saw that, and I remember thinking, “This should be headline news.” If we can’t go anywhere, we’re already out of Afghanistan in a sense. We're not there. We can’t even establish what is being done with the building that cost $50 million or $100 million bucks to build. What else would you call that, except fraud?
It’s as if somebody justified that thing being built. Oh, it’s a hospital. It’ll be great. Was it being used as a hospital? You go down there, and the Taliban are using it as a school or a madrassa or whatever. Honestly, at this point, I don’t care. I’m glad that it's being used for something, but don't say that it’s going to be a hospital if it’s not going to be a hospital. Just say, “We’re paying for madrassas.” That’s fine. Maybe that’s what Afghanistan needs? I don’t know.
MT: Did you see that? Would they build something, or bid out a contract for something, and it would turn into something else?
Adrian Bonenberger: My second deployment, the first mission I was on was a company-plus mission, maybe a battalion-minus mission, to QA/QC a school that had been built for, I believe, $20 million. It had been completed, but we needed to do a final review of it. It was in Taliban-held territory. We had to fight our way all the way out to QA/QC it. We did that, and determined that the Taliban was using it as a recruiting station!
Then, we fought our way out. I was never able to get back there. At the very end, we probably could've gone back out there if we wanted to. We really did “pacify” the province, because of the Afghans. The Afghans did all the heavy lifting. It didn’t last long. It was not something that you can transit again a year or two later, but for that moment, it was. But what is it being used for today? If we’re lucky, it’s being used for that. If we’re not lucky, it's being used for something worse.
MT: Was that mission just to determine if that building was being used correctly?
Adrian Bonenberger: Yes, and it wasn't.
MT: There was an article by William Arkin in Newsweek recently, arguing that just because the uniform boots on the ground may be withdrawing, doesn’t mean we’re leaving. We’ve already started to shift to a system where a lot of the people who are actually engaged in an occupation aren’t even in the country, because they're operating remotely, and/or they're private contractors who don't wear uniforms. Or, they work for some enforcement agency like the DEA or the FBI.
Did you see that process start to evolve while you were there?
Adrian Bonenberger: The most compelling argument against our leaving on a certain level is that it at least leaves the military as some type of official mechanism. Yeah, we’re going to read about them being there. There’s a way to tell when a soldier dies, at least.
I remember when Thomas Ricks went on Fox News, and the Fox guy was trying to rake him over the coals over something, and Tom asked, “Do you know how many contractors have died in Iraq?”
He paused for a second, and he said, “No.” Tom said, “Nobody does. There’s no way to know. We think 500 to 700 died,” but that's a private company. They keep their own statistics. We will never know how many contractors died in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no legal mechanism for determining that, and as a result, we’re just not going to know. Historians hundreds of years from now may be able to mount lengthy campaigns to figure it out. That’s a problem.
The DEA wanted me to do raids on certain militias that were smuggling weapons and drugs, and I refused point-blank. I said, “That’s not my problem. That’s Afghanistan's problem.”
Internally, I figured out, I would've drawn the line on human smuggling, like if I found out that one of my Afghan partners was trafficking humans or slaves, I’d say, “We can’t work together. You're my enemy now.” But with weapons and drugs, I don’t even think drugs should be illegal in this country, so why would I do anything there? But the DEA would ask me to pull security for their raids, and I’d say, “No, I'm not going to do that.”
Imagine one of the soldiers dying on that mission. You either would’ve had to lie about it and say that the Taliban was actually there and the Taliban ambushed us, or you'd have to explain that you were doing Colombia-style drug raids on an ally, because the DEA wanted it. It’s so complicated. It makes no sense. It made no sense to me then, and I’m proud that, however sneakily I accomplished it, I stood up for what was right.
MT: What’s your prognosis for what happens now?
Adrian Bonenberger: The Taliban already have, by fairly conservative estimates, the run of 80% of the country. So the Taliban are already there. I think the hope with Afghanistan was always going to be that we could support the Afghans who are interested in a non-Taliban government for enough time for them to get their act together.
If we continue to support them diplomatically and economically, they have a chance, but in the same way that the USSR supported their communist administration in Kabul for I think two or three years before the USSR fell apart. It held on. It wasn't doing great, but it was doing okay. I think we can achieve that.
If we can’t, then that’s the most damning indictment possible of everything that we did there, including the things that I did there that I thought were good, and was doing for the right reasons. It means that all of that was just pissing in the wind. The next time we do this, I hope we’ll keep that in mind and do it better, or not at all.
* Quality Assurance, Quality Control
You can find Adrian Bonenberger’s book Afghan Post here. He also co-edited The Road Ahead, a collection of “fiction from the forever war,” and co-edits The Wrath-Bearing Tree, which he describes as “a little independent site that tries to promote good content and be subversive.”