Sisyphus, Sean Naylor and C-SPAN

First, many thanks to all correspondents and contributors for the tremendous and very thoughtful response  to the previous post, “A Tale of Two Captains.” More to come in a couple of days about Capt. Harrison’s work, including an update dispatch from him in Konar.

But first, here’s a strikingly apt flashback to 2006—when Army Times journalist (and author of the excellent Not A Good Day To Die)  Sean Naylor and I did an interview together for C-SPAN’s “BookTV.” The topic was “The War in Afghanistan.”

We thought the piece was pretty timely then. I just watched it two days ago. Not only has very little changed in AfPak since that air-date in ‘06, but very little has changed since 327 B.C.

I was citing Alexander the Great’s campaign in the Afghan kingdoms 2300 years ago.  I made the point that that ancient superpower army had its hands full against a cunning and resourceful hit-and-run foe who employed the tactics of insurgency, rallied and regrouped within mountainous and cross-border sanctuaries and recruited reinforcements from tribal populations in the north and east. In the interview, Sean Naylor said this of our troops:

They are fighting a counter-insurgent, counter-terrorist campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and allies of al-Qaeda that are hiding out in the mountains, regrouping in Pakistan, coming back across the very porous Afghan/Pakistan border and gathering strength in the Pashtun tribe lands in Eastern Afghanistan.

In a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal , titled “Sisyphus and Counterinsurgency” Major Niel Smith wrote:

In Greek legend, Sisyphus was a king condemned by the gods to roll a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again for eternity. Students of counterinsurgency often feel like Sisyphus, as the United States Army continually resists institutionalizing counterinsurgency across the force, only to have to re-learn the lessons at a heavy price later before preparing to discard them again.

Watching the C-SPAN interview three years later, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room–in this case, the huge rock being rolled up the hill over and over again.

 June 12, 2009, Lara Jakes of the Associated Press reported:

Gen. David Petraeus said the number of attacks in Afghanistan over the last week hit “the highest level” since the December 2001 fall of the Taliban. . . . “Some of this will go up because we are going to go after their sanctuaries and safe havens as we must. . . . But there is no question the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years in particular and there are difficult times ahead,” he said.

Three years after the C-SPAN interview, we are back down at the bottom of the hill, with the same rock ready for pushing.

Despite all this, I’m encouraged. I think we have outstanding commanders in place, whose thinking is bold and innovative and who are adapting fast to a situation that has bedeviled Western military men for more than two millennia.

Which brings me back to Major Jim Gant and Capt. Michael Harrison from our previous post. Can their successes be replicated on a wider scale? Is working with tribalism instead of against it part of the answer?

And can we do a little better this time, rolling that rock up the hill?


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  1. History Ph.D. on June 30, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Is the reason you think nothing has changed since 327 BC because you haven’t read any books about Afghanistan that treat periods later than 327 BC?

  2. Jim Rodgers on July 3, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,

    I just discovered your blog today and loved the comments that Afghanistan hasn’t changed since 327 BC. As someone who has read The Afghan Campaign (along with everything else you’ve ever written), I see many similarities as well. What I would like to say here is thank you for taking the time and making the effort to put out a blog. Most successful authors do not give their readers the time of day, much less put out a timely, interesting blog in which readers can take part. I have emailed you twice, and both times you responded within a day. You were my favorite author the moment I finished Gates of Fire, but you remain my favorite author because you are a man of honor and class. Leonidas would be proud, sir:)

  3. Carol Herman on July 3, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Wonderful book out there: TRIED BY WAR. Lincoln as Commander in Chief. By James McPherson. Basically, Lincoln had about 6 good weeks in office. The Union army experiences, expecially with the Army of the Potomac, under McLellan was a disaster. Where McLellan got to be known as the “oysters & Champagne,” kinda’ guy. He learned that he could get anything he wanted from Congress. And, he marched around a lot. Lincoln, however, said “if he were to fire him, who would he put in, instead??”

    Even General Grant’s first six months were repeatedly, disastrous. With increasing death tolls.

    When Grant began having successes. You’re coming close to the re-election date in 1864. (And, of course, McLellan’s defeat as a the democratic contendah.) Today, we have the myth. Without the reality that an army encumbered like McLellan was, becomes very gun shy. So we keep the problem. Too much ordance to move. Our army doesn’t travel light. And, it is not feared.

    Yes, we won the Civil War. As we did WW2. We kept slogging. While our country gets fatigued. Just as it had been fatigued, along with Europe. By WW1.

    Wars in strange places? What good have we done in korea? Or in Vietnam? What’s ahead?

    One of the things I read about Afghanistan is that their people are like some strange plant that grows ONLY OVER THERE! It drops its seed. And, that’s how they survive, generation in. Generation out.

    While the Persians of old are trying to toss off the mullahs. Who have the guns. Tbe spheres of influence now are the Chinese. Where the Tamil Tigers were destroyed by Chinese equipment. And, NO MERCY! Stepping forward those will be the battles between winners and losers. When NO MERCY is shown. Otherwise? Look at Israel. A doormat to Obama. But not a dormat to the arabs.

    America slumbers. 9/11 did not wake us up. Irak? Well, the saud’s didn’t get what they wanted, either.

  4. Robert Reis on July 10, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for all the wonderful books you have forced me to buy.

    I have a much younger friend who has completed more than a year in Iraq and is now on duty in Afghanistan.

    He is the only American serviceman about whom I am concerned.

    I have seen both invasions as criminal enterprises from the onset.

    Were these armies to suffer the fate of Athenians in Sicily, I would not shed a tear.

    The only proper place for American soldiers is the border with Mexic0. I know our psychopathocracy will never station them there.

    Although the troops may be reading your books that cannot save them from their utterly corrupt commanders and sociopathic political leadership. They do not seem to understand that the Spartans were fighting were fighting for Sparta rather than for ruling class that despises them.

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