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100 Foreign Aff. 66 (2021)
Winning Ugly: What the War on Terror Cost America

handle is hein.journals/fora100 and id is 932 raw text is: 66  FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Winning Ugly
What the War on Terror
Cost America
Elliot Ackerman
My first mission as a paramili-
tary officer with the CIA was
against a top-ten al Qaeda
target. It was the autumn of 2009, and I
had been deployed in my new job for a
total of two days. But I was no stranger
to Afghanistan, having already fought
there (as well as in Iraq) as a Marine
Corps officer over the previous six years.
On this mission, I was joined by the
Afghan counterterrorism unit I advised
and a handful of members from SEAL
Team Six. Our plan was to conduct a
raid to capture or kill our target, who was
coming across the border from Pakistan
for a meeting in the Korengal Valley.
The night was moonless as we
slipped into the valley. The 70-odd
members of our raid force hiked under
night-vision goggles for a couple of
hours, taking on hundreds of feet of
elevation in silence until we arrived at a
village on a rocky outcropping where
the meeting was being held. As surveil-
lance and strike aircraft orbited the
starry sky, a subset of our force sprinted
toward the house where an informant
had told us the target was staying.
There was a brief and sharp gunfight;
none of our men were hurt, and several
ELLIOT ACKERMAN is a former U.S. marine
and intelligence officer and a co-author, with
James Stavridis, of 2034: A Novel of the Next
World War.

of our adversaries were killed. But the
target was taken alive. Then we slipped
out of the valley as expeditiously as we
had arrived. By early morning, we had
made it safely to the U.S. Army out-
post, where our prisoner would soon be
transferred to Bagram Air Base.
The sun was breaking over the
jagged ridgeline as we filled out the
paperwork transferring custody. The
mood among our raid force, which had
been tense all night, suddenly eased.
We lounged in a small dirt parking lot,
helmets off, laughing and recounting
the details of our mission. A convoy
would soon arrive to usher us back to
our base, where we would get some
much-needed rest and a decent meal.
We would then await our next target,
continuing what was proving to be a
successful U.S. campaign to decapitate
al Qaeda's leadership. We were feeling,
in short, victorious.
While we waited, a column of scrag-
gly American soldiers, little older than
teenagers, filed past. They lived at the
outpost, and their plight was well known
to us. For the past several years, they
had been waging a quixotic and largely
unsuccessful counterinsurgency in the
valley. Many of their friends had been
killed there, and their expressions were
haggard, a mix of defeat and defiance.
Our triumphant banter must have
sounded to them like a foreign language.
They gave us hard, resentful looks, treat-
ing us as interlopers. It occurred to me
that although our counterterrorism unit
was standing on the same battlefield as
these soldiers, we were in fact fighting
in two very different wars.
At a joint session of Congress on
September 20, 2001, U.S. President
George W. Bush announced a new type

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