Today’s headlines once again announce the death of another 7 Americans in Afghanistan and as many more local nationals.
These Americans that died were no ordinary people, but elite special forces advisors, a foreign service officer, and battalion level staff officers and a senior non-commissioned officer. The special forces advisors were killed by the Afghans they were training, the USAID foreign service officer by a roadside bomb, and the majors and a sergeant major by a man wearing a suicide vest. These deaths sadly highlight the spectrum of how little we have accomplished with our trillions of dollars spent over the last decade plus of war. As a veteran of this conflict, it pains me to admit the obvious. The Afghanistan War’s indecisive stalemate can only be honestly described as a strategic defeat for the United States. Simply put, we never had the leadership, will, or strategy to effectively prosecute and win this war. Those still drunk on the Administration’s Kool-Aid will vehemently disagree, but they wouldn’t dare walk from Kandahar to Asadabad with any expectation of survival The reality on the ground is simple. The army left holding the ground is the victory. This army is the Taliban as we retreat out of Afghanistan. Our policy of building a forward operating base, so we can clear the routes to it of improvised bombs, so we can bring supplies to the base, so we can clear routes to it of improvised bombs….etc. etc. etc., has become the quintessential example of the futility of this war and the utter lack of a viable, winning strategy.
Making these statements requires some justification and history so allow me to recap the last few years of the war. As General McChrystal was unceremoniously dismissed and replaced by the much lauded General Petraeus in June of 2010 the media cheered as the savior of Afghanistan had arrived. This is ironic as much of the failing counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that McChrystal tried so hard to implement was directly from the play book of Petraeus. Nonetheless, General Petraeus wasted no time installing his public relations machinery and implementing “his” counterinsurgency strategy. To begin, he had to spin the much hyped, “government in a box” that had already proved to be better on paper than in practice. The battle for Marjah was the center piece of this strategy and was far from going well. In fact, the Taliban had simply done what guerilla fighters do and quietly dispersed into the surrounding areas and then reconstituted where NATO forces were now spread thin as a result of concentrating troops in Helmand Province. This situation caused a near immediate destabilization of surrounding regions once considered “immunized” in the words of David Kilcullen, who had been the “COIN Whisperer” at the General’s side for most of the war.
Unfortunately, for the troops on the ground and the Afghan people, Kilcullen should have spent more time in actual combat instead of analyzing peacekeeping operations with staff officers. Further, contrary to how Kilcullen inflates or perhaps distorts his record, ridealongs in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t count as combat as any veteran will tell you. Not surprisingly, the war in Afghanistan has continued to drag on without any decisive outcome irrespective of the great General Petraeus’ intervention. As the bodies and bills piled up though for the United States, Kilcullen and Petraeus continued to rake in the fame as the ground truth in Afghanistan was whitewashed from the public. In fact, casualties hit record numbers during Petraeus’ tenure. Even worse, Americans were being told with celebration how the Afghans had taken control of greater and greater areas. However, what was actually going on would have been more honestly stated as handing over territory we couldn’t control to the Taliban. Even Petraeus’ premium placed on training the Afghan army and police was an abysmal failure. According to a recent GAO study, barely 10% of the Afghan units are mission capable even to this day and this is only after the Defense Department had to redefine the definition of a “capable” unit as “independent with advisors” that could call for support. Considering that our advisors are going home and the only support that 10% can call on will be the 90% incapable of independent operation, the outlook for Afghanistan looks bleak. This is especially true when you consider the Taliban has done just fine surviving the onslaught of the most powerful military in this world’s history without advisors or support! This is the same game plan the Soviets laid out to cover their retreat and it will end no differently.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the prescient political general skipped town with his entourage to takeover as the Director of the CIA leaving an indecisive mess to blame on his predecessors that looks worse now than it did in 2001. In speaking with senior policy makers involved in the war strategy, I was told that the people working this were “brilliant and trying very hard” as if that made up for the thousands of dead and wounded in vain. I was also told there were “no good solutions” as if their inability to develop a working strategy was accented by an elitist mentality that assumed no one else was capable since they failed. In the world of business, that type of answer usually gets one fired and replaced with someone who can do the job rather quickly…not so for the U.S. Government. What’s worse is that even when confronted with hard facts the senior officials change the subject and refuse to acknowledge the reality, seemingly disappearing into their own make believe worlds for comfort. For example, why we didn’t secure the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Many studies have been done proving a COIN strategy focused on border security vice training and advising would have been quick, simple, and effective saving countless lives and dollars. Further, border security is the only strategy with a rock-solid, proven historical precedent for delivering decisive gains against cross-border insurgencies like we are fighting in Afghanistan. Training and advising have never shown to provide decisive strategic outcomes against this type of insurgency as any well read historian would quickly realize, but this glaring fact was seemingly missed by the “brilliant” folks in charge.
This brings us back to the gut wrenching reality of the seven dead Americans that this Administration desperately wants to make inconsequential when in reality, it represents everything. This “everything is fine” whitewash till the November election is a blatant insult to the duty and lives of those dead. Our political leaders are made up of two types. The idiots that are drinking the Kool-Aid and actually believe we have accomplished something in Afghanistan and the liars that are mixing the Kool-Aid. To help you see through the smoke screen ask some hard questions that I have repeatedly pointed out year after year. “If,” the Taliban were so bad we had to declare them terrorists and dive headfirst into a decade long war costing trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of wounded and killed, then how can we now pull out when they are more powerful, more numerous, and control more territory than they did in 2001? For those die-hard Kool-Aid drinkers, if you think the government has returned peace and order to Afghanistan, you are welcome to test your theory personally. Go buy a ticket and have a fun time walking cross-country as an American tourist…just make sure you name me in your government life insurance plan before you go! On the other hand, if in fact, the Taliban are not really that big of a threat after all and can be left alone, then how can we justify the war was ever necessary in the first place? Simple logic will tell you someone is lying to the American people AGAIN. Using the previous quoted retort from a senior policy maker, there is not a good answer to either question. Either A, they were a threat and will remain an even greater threat after our pull out or B, they never were a threat and the post 9/11 wars were nothing but a sham for the biggest power grab ever by our government, erosion of your civil liberties and rights to next to nothing, and the enrichment of a very few. So I ask, which is it?