My first email from Kabul was entitled “First Impressions” and the caveats I used in that email remain unchanged. Afghanistan is such a dynamic place—layered with umpteen complexities, contradictions, mysteries, and unknowns—that a holistic understanding of the country, let alone the conflict (overt and covert), is nearly impossible. That said, over the past eight months I’ve had the opportunity to challenge my first impressions, test hypotheses, and attempt to understand the true nature of the conflict. This section represents my modest—if declarative—initial attempt at distilling what I’ve learned and making some observation about America’s eventual endgame in Afghanistan.
Rather than break down my assessment categorically as I did in previous emails, I will instead look at the war through a lens provided by an insurgency expert who visited us this past summer. His name is Gérard Chaliand and the day we spent with him was fascinating. In addition to authoring over 40 books on guerilla warfare, he has also been a participant/observer of over a dozen insurgencies around the world—including Afghanistan in the 1980s, and again during the current conflict. Listening to him was like sitting in a semi-circle around Yoda himself, absorbing the insight and knowledge of a rare specimen.
Mr. Chaliand visits Afghanistan yearly, but said his 2011 trip was his last. When asked why, he said, “Because I know how it will end. The Taliban control the countryside and are growing in support throughout the country by providing an effective underground government structure. The seeds of their return were planted long ago—much before Gen. McChrystal’s 2009 counterinsurgency strategy—and their ascension is now inevitable. International forces started doing the right things at ‘half past eleven’ and now it’s too late.”
While I certainly didn’t share his pessimism then, I’ve come to begrudgingly agree with his assessment today. The Taliban—by mitigating their negatives (brutality, ethnic exclusion, and overt association with Al Qaeda) and accentuating their perceived positives (swift justice, longevity, and ideological cohesion)—have gained and maintained a psychological grip on the Afghan population. While most Afghans, especially non-Pashtuns, do not want the Taliban to return (“hearts”) they are grappling with—and calculating accordingly—the looming reality that the Taliban will outlast U.S. forces (“minds”) and eventually challenge a weak, corrupt, and fractured Afghan government for control of the country.
This isn’t to say that we couldn’t affect a more advantageous outcome for the United States; of course if we got rid of the 2014 withdrawal deadline completely, were willing to truly remove Taliban and Haqqani safe-havens in Pakistan (we know where they are!), and purged the Afghan government of its most corrupt nodes we could “change the game” of this conflict. But for various reasons—be they domestic politics, a nuclear-armed Pakistan (a lesson for Iran, I would suggest), and a trepidation with undermining corrosive “Afghan sovereignty”—it is highly unlikely we will make the hard choices necessary to level the playing field. A bad outcome in Afghanistan isn’t inevitable, but in light of current realities, it is likely.
However, the policies we pursue in the coming years will impact the degree to which the outcome here is bad, or less-bad. Our commitment to training and mentoring Afghan security forces will be central to determining the future of this country. If we do it right—truly creating a multi-ethnic force that will defend the interests of most Afghans—it could be a vanguard against total Taliban control and a buffer against outright civil war. If we do it wrong or hurriedly, we’re merely indiscriminately (and heavily!) arming different elements of an Afghan Army that will eventually turn its guns on each other. In my opinion the later outcome is most likely, but not inevitable.
If you know me, I’m not one for pessimism, and certainly not interested in undermining the efforts of our troops in harm’s way. Afghanistan is nowhere near a John Kerry-esque “who will be the last American to die for a mistake?” situation. Our effort is noble, our cause just, and our military sharp. But at the same time, my sentiments are in keeping with most Coalition members over here—even if they’re unwilling to say it. We soldier on. We will fight until the end. But with our ear to the ground and our boots in the snow, we can feel the undercurrent in Afghanistan. As the clock ticks to 2014, we become more irrelevant as Afghans make decisions (hoarding, segregating, and hedging) regarding a post-American future in their country.
While I don’t like acquiescing to a “non-victory” in Afghanistan, we will have nonetheless achieved an outcome in Afghanistan that is an exception to the rule in the so-called “graveyard of empires.” From a historical perspective, whenever we “leave” we will be the first “invader” that left on our own terms—a not insignificant accomplishment. Thankfully, and necessarily, I’m fairly certain our commitment to Afghanistan will continue on a smaller and enduring scale—and in doing so we will have done everything we can to create the conditions for a friendly and capable (at least on paper) Afghanistan government to determine their own future. It may not end well, but it won’t be for a lack of U.S. effort, courage, and ingenuity.
As supporting evidence for these heavy-hearted assertions, I would first submit my previous two emails (here and here). My feelings on the fundamentally corrupt Afghan government, Pakistan safe-haven, the 2014 deadline, Taliban capabilities and more are clearly stated in those emails—along with facts and financial figures. However, I’d like to take one more, broad look at our mission in Afghanistan, as it currently stands in January of 2012. In doing so, I’ll use Mr. Chaliand’s closing statement to us as a framework for examination. He said, when looking at a counterinsurgency conflict, we must “Never believe your propaganda, always re-asses the facts, challenge assumptions, and don’t rely on wishful thinking.” Wise words, and a useful filter for analyzing our mission in Afghanistan.
“Never believe your propaganda”
The Coalition narrative (I don’t consider it “propaganda”, because we’re beholden to the truth—unlike our enemies) in Afghanistan is as follows: the “surge” summer of 2011 has inflicted serious damage on the Taliban, especially in the south. At the same time, we are aggressively pushing Taliban re-integration programs, training increasingly capable Afghan security forces, and working to improve local governance. But, as I’ve said before, only half of this is grounded in reality. Yes the “surge” has allowed U.S. troops to push the Taliban out of traditional strongholds in the south, significantly disrupting their operations. However, there is also evidence that, despite heavy casualties, the Taliban have been able to regenerate themselves quickly, maintain their military and shadow-governance networks, and are waiting us out.
More troubling is the fact that we have not seen the ripple effects we needed the surge to induce (as it did in Iraq). While re-integration numbers (fighters giving up the fight) are increasing, they still include very few Pashtuns, especially Pashtuns from the south. Most of the re-integrated fighters are from the north and west, places not known for Taliban support. Second—and more importantly—Afghan governance at the local and national level has not decisively taken advantage of the surge environment to improve capability and legitimacy. While there are great programs (like Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police) working to create the conditions for local governance, there hasn’t been—nor will there be—an Anbar-style tribal awakening like we saw in Iraq, largely because of the segmented and fractured nature of Pashtun society in modern Afghanistan. And without a legitimate government in Kabul and in the provinces, the chances for a stable outcome are minimal.
Another aspect of our narrative is that the 2012 “fighting season” (April to October) will be a decisive moment for our forces. We will increase our gains in the south, and degrade the Taliban enough to create the space for increasingly capable Afghan forces and a burgeoning government. There are three big problems with this. First, the idea of a “fighting season” is misleading. While violence is higher in the summer months, the non-violent aspect of this conflict doesn’t stop. When we’re not fighting (and sitting snug on our FOBs for the holidays), the Taliban continues to spread their influence through local dispute resolution, mobile Sharia courts (seen as increasingly legitimate by the people), and propaganda. Second, while we have achieved a critical mass of soldiers in the Afghan National Army, their ability and motivation to continue the fight when we’re not in the lead is still suspect (more on this below). Finally, it’s hard to overstate how damaging the 2014 deadline is in creating these outcomes. As the perception of 2014 gets closer, our influence—by point of fact—will diminish. The Taliban can stand back and wait us out because we told them how long to wait.
“Always re-asses the facts”
The fact is: facts are sticky in Afghanistan. And, depending on whom you’re talking to—especially amongst Afghans—they are always different, and oftentimes contradictory. So, rather than only talk “facts” now, I’d like to do a quick comparison between old facts and new realities.
Fact: In 2004, President Hamid Karzai was elected the President of Afghanistan, and seen as legitimate by wide swaths of Afghans as well as around the world. Reality today: Not only is the Karzai government corrupt and dysfunctional, it is already seen as illegitimate by most groups inside Afghanistan and as a complete money-pit to international donors. In fact, by any fair assessment, it can barely be called a “government” by traditional standards; it’s more like a ruling mafia. Bribery, nepotism, and blatant disregard for the rule of law and their own constitution are off the charts. The ruling elite are getting rich off international aid while regular Afghans scarcely see their lives improve. All the while, the Taliban exploit this fact through piercing propaganda. The end result is that we continue to prop up an Afghan government that is seen as increasingly illegitimate by the people; all the while hoping “peace talks” with the Taliban will provide an exit ramp for the war. The Taliban doesn’t want to work with the Afghan government, they want to replace it.
Fact: Since 2001 the United States has spent $456,000 an hour, every hour, on non-military developmental aid alone, and has spent even more on the military. Reality today: Afghanistan is an international donor state, almost completely reliant on international aid money to function. They have almost no tax base (save import taxation and . . . untaxed opium) and 97 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product is linked to foreign aid. We pay for their government and military, and have created financial realities that are completely unsustainable. Take, for example, the Afghan Army. This year we will spend $13 billion on training and equipping the Afghan Army, while the Afghan government will take in less than $2 billion in revenue. Some tough financial realities loom: either we cut spending and reduce the size of their Army or we continue to pay for it. The former would mean—for certain—the Afghan Army would eventually capitulate to the Taliban; the latter would mean we continue to pump billions into Afghanistan’s Army while we downsize our own (a bad idea, by the way). Not only is Afghanistan’s current situation unsustainable, but spending in the country for the past decade has distorted their economy and government more negatively than positively.
Final fact: In 2001, the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, where the Taliban granted them safe-haven. Reality today: Bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is on the ropes, and the Taliban are wary of their association with Al Qaeda. Yes the groups still coordinate, but it’s not the rock solid alliance it was ten years ago. Vice President Biden recently said that “the Taliban is not our enemy.” I respectfully and adamantly disagree (as would, I suspect, the families of those U.S. troops killed by the Taliban). Any group openly fighting and killing our soldiers is our enemy. But the more important question is: Does the Taliban pose an existential threat to America and our interests? They might tell us during negotiations that they will swear off association with Al Qaeda, but just like the Iranian denial of nuclear weapons, we should not believe them. There isn’t a scenario where a radical and violent Islamic group taking control of Afghanistan is a good outcome. However, we can still salvage conditions where the Taliban are not able to utilize, or provide, substantial haven for radical Islamists with global ambitions.
The largest and most dangerous assumption we make is that there is a nation called “Afghanistan” and a collection of people called “Afghans.” Neither is correct, but that assumption continues to fuel our push for a multi-ethnic military and government that holds sway inside the arbitrary boundaries of Afghanistan. Having spent time with Afghans from multiple backgrounds—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras—it’s painfully clear that beneath the surface of the “we are Afghans” talk are true feelings of ethnic and tribal affiliations that supersede an “Afghan” identity. History, language, violence, custom, mistrust, and animosity separate these groups—and a flag, a national anthem (only in Pashto, which angers Dari speakers) a “government,” and a western-style Army are not enough to create a nation where none exists. I could tell story after story about this, but suffice it to say, this country is fragmented, and won’t unite in time to fight an ideologically cohesive, Pashtun-based Taliban movement.
In regards to the western-style Army I mentioned above, the assumptions we make with this force will have lasting, and potentially positive or negative impacts. Not only have we attempted to create a multi-ethnic institution that will represent all Afghans, but we’ve also built an Army in our image—with strong conventional capabilities and a Non-Commissioned Officer Corps, where none has existed before. We are producing new units at a rapid rate, recruiting from all backgrounds and then sending them to the Consolidated Fielding Center (CFC) in Kabul where multi-ethnic units are established and trained, before being sent to the field. There’s nothing wrong with that; but the problem is what happens after that on three fronts:
First, each new unit is given millions of dollars of brand new weaponry and equipment with minimal actual accountability. The kandak (battalion) commander is responsible for the equipment, some/much of which eventually ends up missing (and sometimes on sale in Pakistan). For example, a heavy weapons kandak leaves the CFC with approximately eighteen brand new 50-caliber machine guns and dozens of smaller-caliber heavy weapons and RPGs. I challenge you to walk into any National Guard armory in the States and ask how many functioning 50-caliber machine guns they have. They’ll probably pull out four beat-up 50-cals with rusting barrels, likely dated back to Vietnam. If things don’t end well, someone will use these weapons—and it might not be our friends.
Second, while units are formed as multi-ethnic entities, once they get to the field a slow, but deliberate self-segregation is starting to occur. Soldiers from the north try to get back to the north, and likewise for soldiers in the south. A Tajik ultimately wants to fight alongside Tajiks from his area, and likewise for Pashtuns and other groups. What you could end up having is a series of regional Armies with more commitment to their area then to “Afghanistan.” If things don’t end well, they will end up fighting each other—with weapons we have supplied them. On the flip side, if things move forward as we plan, these units will be a bulwark for the state. There are certainly many multi-ethnic units in the field fighting bravely together and doing great things. The question is, will this be the rule, or become the exception?
Third, even once the units are fielded—and assuming they are fighting for “Afghanistan”—we are currently making big assumptions about their capability to eventually independently operate and sustain their activities. With U.S. support—which includes things like logistical resupply, air support, and medical evacuation—many units currently do well in the fight. But if we take that away in 2013, ‘14, or ‘15—will they sustain the fight? And will they push into enemy territory? Many Afghan units have become accustomed to U.S. support, and may not be willing to fight an emboldened Taliban without the robust U.S. support they receive. They’re also accustomed to being paid well, while their Taliban counterparts fight for nothing. Our brave soldiers will mentor and train them to make them as capable as possible, but if they don’t develop their own systems soon, the Afghan Army house of cards could come falling down more quickly than anyone would like to admit.
Finally, I came to Afghanistan with the assumption that this battlefield is central to defending the United States. In the realm of perception and international opinion it is still very important; how we “finish” in Afghanistan will send strong signals to the rest of the world about whether we finish what we start. Recent events in Iraq make this plainly clear. However, the question is whether the cost in Afghanistan is worth the outcome? As my British colleague says, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” I think seeing this through, while gradually drawing down, is worth doing. That said, larger and more strategically significant issues staring us in the face need to take a higher priority. We need to muster our political courage and confront our crippling domestic debt. (Did you know that, by 2015, just the interest payments on our debt to China will pay for its entire military?). We need to ensure our force posture and military might is capable of deterring a rising China. And we need to do what is necessary—including military action—to prevent a nuclear Iran (the fact that we can’t do anything in a nuclear-armed Pakistan should demonstrate that). There are obviously plenty of other challenges as well, especially at home, and spending money the way we are today in Afghanistan prevents us from confronting these challenges.
“And don’t rely on wishful thinking”
If you’ve read the previous two sections (and my previous emails), then I hope most of your “wishful thinking” has been stripped. That’s the point—we can’t wish our way to victory. Or as we say, “hope is not a strategy.” But we can look at the world the way it is and craft strategies to effect a more-desirable outcome. From where I’ve been sitting in Afghanistan, thankfully it’s clear that General Allen understands this; and as a result we’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a shift in our strategy from counterinsurgency to security force assistance. It’s a subtle, but important change. Instead of U.S. units taking the military lead in the field and trying to “partner” with Afghan units in the process, the lead responsibility will now fall to Afghans. Our soldiers will serve as embedded advisors, with 12-16 man teams embedded inside every Afghan unit, pushing the Afghan Army (and police) to the point where they can defeat the enemy on their own. U.S advisors will start with infantry units trained to clear and hold areas of insurgents and gradually shift toward support units, including helicopter units, logisticians, and other support personnel. This change makes complete sense and is the best strategy to securing a less-bad outcome for us.
At the same time, General Allen continues to talk about a post-2014 presence for NATO and the United States. This is extremely important as well. Both the Afghan Army and Taliban need to be convinced that we won’t just leave in 2014—but will instead maintain an enduring, and strategically significant, presence. The perception (as opposed to the reality) of 2014 is what is most damaging to our effort, and from General Allen and all elements of command, there is a clear effort to erode this perception. It won’t change overnight, but we must aggressively pursue a counter-narrative.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the ongoing “peace talks” with the Taliban (aptly placed in the “wishful thinking” section). It appears that both the U.S. and Afghan governments have approved a Taliban “office” in the country of Qatar, from which they can hold peace talks. Right now the Taliban is only talking to the United States, which angers President Karzai. In fact, the Taliban’s most recent pronouncement on negotiations rejected Karzai, his government and the Afghan constitution, which is not a promising starting point. From our side, there are talks of a prisoner exchange from Guantanamo as well as ceasefires, etc. The United States insists that the Taliban would have to forswear violence, stop harboring international jihadists, and recognize the Afghan government and constitution. It is highly unlikely they will agree to all three; therefore, which one would we be willing to cave on? If they keep their weapons, they’ll keep fighting; if they continue to harbor terrorists, then our entire effort is for naught; and if they won’t recognize the Afghan government, then they’re never join it.
I honestly don’t have the slightest idea how these talks will unfold, but we’re being shortsighted and “wishful” if we think they will provide a silver bullet for this conflict. I’m fearful the beltway intelligentsia, out of options and desperate for a rapid solution, will seize on this idea regardless of underlying realities. The Taliban will not be content to share power in good faith, and since they think they’re “winning,” they’re not likely to capitulate to our demands. Their negotiation strategy is based (again) on waiting until 2014 when the United States could be forced to compromise on the most important aspects of the post-2001 order in Afghanistan.
In the end, we clearly cannot abandon Afghanistan—pulling our troops out now would be a disaster. On the other hand, maintaining our effort at the current scope and cost is not commensurate with the benefits. The surge, led by the finest generals the American military has to offer, was the right approach; however, it was undercut from the outset when we told the enemy when we were going to leave. Having tried “more troops” (albeit, half-heartedly) and in light of political realities, the best course of action now is to continue drawing down our troops, bolster our advising mission, and emphasize our continued—if much scaled down—commitment to the outcome in Afghanistan. Despite our mistakes, we cannot abandon this mission lest we invite larger problems in the future. Going forward, a robust advising mission, along with continued targeted special forces raids, could be sustained in perpetuity with minimal cost and most of the benefit of our current presence.
Army Captain Pete Hegseth wrote the update above while in Kabul, Afghanistan and then Manas, Kyrgyzstan.