This is a redo of a previous blog I wrote about the security issues inside Afghanistan. I initially used personal accounts to paint a picture of the problems I witnessed during my military tour in 2005. However, with President Trump’s most recent speech laying out a potential shift in American Afghan policy, I felt compelled to update the article reflecting on his words and what is being said “in-between the lines.”
Here we go…
By the end of 2004, the conflict in Afghanistan was already three years old. I had just arrived in the country to start a six-month tour running the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (CIED) program …the military plan to counter road side bombs. The program was relatively new at the time and still experiencing some early challenges. In fact, it only took three days before I witnessed the first casualties from an IED…two U.S. Special Forces soldiers lost their lives and one seriously injured in the Konar province along the Pakistan border.
Konar was the most dangerous province in the country and had a reputation for prolific IED strikes, we called it “IED alley.” Losing two Americans had an immediate effect on me…I was determined to make sure this did not happen again. So, I gathered every piece of intelligence I could and researched every aspect of the enemy. I studied their habits, their procedures, and their lifestyles but mostly, their IED tactics. Within weeks I knew everything about the bad guys. Who they were, their families, their friends, how they made IEDs, and where they were produced. But, more importantly, their habits and how to exploit their weaknesses.
I had everything I needed to defeat the threat. The only problem was the enemy was in Pakistan.
In 2005 most of Afghanistan was under U.S. or Afghan government control. Compared to Iraq, which was beginning to turn into a nightmare, Afghanistan was relatively tame with only a handful of problematic provinces, such as Konar. Between U.S. and Afghan forces, the overall security within Afganistan was at a level where establishing a new government and handing over security was doable…that soon changed.
But, before we go on, some background
The Afghanistan border with Pakistan is called the Durand Line, agreed to by the British and the Afghanistan Amir Abdur Rhaman Khan in 1893. It was a political line at the close of the “Great Game” period created to provide a buffer between British and Russian interests in the region. The problem then and still today is the political or sovereign borders, drawn up over a hundred years ago, split several prominent tribes. Because of this, these tribal members, like the Pashtun tribe, do not recognize any government agreements or their boundaries.
As an illustration of this tribal effect, while I was deployed in Afghanistan, I had two maps taped to the wall; one, containing the government recognized borders and the other the tribal borders…none of it matched. Many of the tribes were split down the middle, a brilliant move at the time by the British to quell an insurrection and protect their interests from the Russians, but devastating today in protecting Afghanistan’s borders. And, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess which map I used to work on intelligence gathering and help understand IED movements…the tribal map. To the locals, the tribal border, their culture, and their traditions were the rule.
The result is a porous border and a complex diplomatic relation.
The U.S. took its eyes off Afghanistan
At the same time, the larger developing conflict was in Iraq. It started to absorb U.S. military resources and time, quickly becoming the main effort. This “Iraqi effect” was to become devasting to the overall security within Afghanistan.
Here is a personal observation of this catastrophic shift.
At the same time resources were shifting to Iraq, the U.S. military was working on integrating NATO forces (currently referred to as the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF)) into the Afghan equation, assuming they would eventually be the long-term protectorate. As far as the U.S. was concerned, Afghanistan was manageable and NATO could handle it.
Not so fast!
As I personally witnessed this handing over of the security reigns to NATO, which initially involved the Italians taking the west, the Germans the north and the British the south, while the U.S. still held the volatile north east, I could see through intelligence reports that the enemy on the Pakistan side was moving south toward the British and Italian led borders.
Based on this intelligence, a smart person would have assessed that the enemy was just waiting for the U.S. to pull out and over the border they would come, wreaking insurgent wrath on those less equipped and less enthused NATO forces. The issue with NATO is that many believed they were led into this conflict by capitalizing on an identity crisis…meaning, NATO needed relevance, and Afghanistan was just what the doctor ordered. The result was a less than eager NATO contingent struggling for its identity, not necessarily there to win a war.
The enemy was not dumb by any means, and in my opinion took full advantage of what they assessed as a less equipped but more importantly, impartial NATO force…so, over the border they came! Within two years of the British being handed over Kandahar in the south and the Italians Helmand province in the west, 45% of previously owned Afghan and U.S. held territory was now in the hands of the enemy.
This was not to say that NATO soldiers did not appreciate the cause and that many of them risked their lives for it, the problem stemmed from lesser-committed policies by their governments. To emphasize this point, at the time, only three NATO countries (U.S., Britain, and Canada), and one non-NATO country (Australia) were allowed, by their governments, to participate in combat operations.
This was not a recipe for success. An alliance where “rules of engagement” were as different as the countries involved. Why did we allow this to happen? How could we build a security alliance where contributions were described in individual country addendums…meaning, few were on the same core policy “sheet of music”…a disaster in a combat zone!
The answer is simple, we allowed it to happen. Much of this dysfunction came down to limited U.S. resources, an unwillingness for countries to expend blood and treasure for an American problem and an expanding conflict in Iraq or what I call the “Iraqi effect”…essentially, the U.S. forced itself to take its eyes off the Afghanistan ball.
The Pakistan problem
In 2005, Afghanistan was manageable in comparison to the problems developing in Iraq, even though the U.S continued to lose soldiers along the Pakistan border. However, prior to NATO taking complete control of Afghanistan, the U.S. along with other security forces had reduced insurgent presence and actions down to the point of criminal level activities v. a larger insurgent problem. Meaning, the level of attacks (other than Konar province) were manageable by Afghan security forces backed up by a small U.S. contingent. At that time, over 90% of the country was under U.S. and Afghan government control.
Conversely, inside Pakistan, the north-west provinces were a haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents and terrorists, who operated with impunity. Pakistan’s government and the military were full of corruption, in-fighting and bad-guy sympathizers. This made peace negotiations and security for Afghanistan questionable, leaving negotiated agreements full of holes. To emphasize Pakistan’s dysfunction and corrupt inbreeding, the Pakistani inter-services intelligence (ISI) and individual Army elements, like the Frontier Corps, were known to collude directly with terrorist-linked insurgents. Thus, making any security efforts along the border almost impossible to accomplish.
As a result, this made the mission of securing Afghanistan nearly unattainable.
A valuable history lesson
The problem in Afghanistan is not new. History has taught us little as our own experiences in Vietnam seem dangerously similar? For example, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. tied its hands (overtly) allowing border countries like Cambodia and Laos neutrality or off limits for U.S. actions. This misguided policy was detrimental to U.S. and South Vietnamese military operations. Namely, the north Vietnamese did not recognize these borders and operated with immunity across them. Consequently, loosely guarded borders allowed North Vietnamese troops easy access into South Vietnam unleashing not only insurgent havoc but also the presence of large North Vietnamese military forces…sound familiar?
Even though U.S. participation in Vietnam was ideologically different (i.e. spread of communism v. spread of terrorism) the rules for engagement and border problems were similar. To put it simply, the conflict possessed an enemy who knew no borders, the U.S. was aligned with a corrupt ally, neighbors were covertly supporting the enemy, and the good guys had little political will to win.
Like Afghanistan today, the Vietnam war wreaked of dysfunction and an ultimate lack of success.
Not considering President Trumps’ recent Afghanistan policy change, the U.S. and NATO-led forces have ceased combat operations and left the majority of security to the Afghans. The U.S. role is restricted to training, advising and assisting the local Afghan army and police. If history repeats itself, this transition and mission change will fail, but not because of the situation inside Afghanistan, but due to the conditions outside of it.
Moving forward…what was behind President Trump’s speech?
President Trump’s speech seemed to accurately depict the situation in Afghanistan, re-emphasizing original intent and highlighting key missteps. It stressed the need to re-engage, but not nation-build, assist in security, not run it, and most importantly, realize the answer to Afghanistan’s security stood at Pakistan’s door.
Yet, the critics were quick to condemn his speech
The critics remarked that the speech provided little substance, a lack of any real policy changes, and no detail, as the New Yorker comments, “…he [President Trump] went on to outline, with little precision, the “pillars” of a policy that, in many cases, was a variation on approaches that George W. Bush and Barack Obama had previously attempted.” Further, the New Yorker uses the current Taliban leader, Mujahid’s open letter response to President Trump as some type of legitimate salvo against the President’s ideas, referring to them as “old” and “unclear.” As if our enemy’s comments are worth anything, and even worse legitimized by a U.S. news source…whose side are you on? Even conservative Breitbart news (home of recently ousted white house strategist, Steve Bannon) criticized Trump’s speech commenting that the President had endorsed, “tweaks around the edges of the current strategy instead of a different approach.”
Alright, folks! Enough is enough! Thank God that these critics are not in charge!
Reading in-between the lines
I spent three years as a 2-star lead advisor to a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), attending numerous JCS meetings about Afghanistan. Let me tell you why Trump’s speech was very telling, and if you “read between the lines,” can clearly see the evidence of its critical message and direction.
First, the mistake of the past was laying out a strategy to the open public! We never could understand in the Pentagon why the president or any member of the U.S. government would speak of troop levels, withdrawals, timelines, or worse, a definitive plan involving anything that had to do with the battle space. Hello! The enemy is listening, and they are not stupid. My experiences in country verified a very smart, cunning and adaptive foe. What I personally found to work against these maggots, was the art of surprise.
The bad guys struggled and were chaotic when they knew little of our policies, plans or attacks.
Second, we are not here to “nation-build!“ The military was never trained or funded to do this type of mission. They literally had to adapt, which they brilliantly did, to perform jobs that were not in their kit bag. The military did it because they do what they are told, but even a well-organized, adaptive and disciplined organization, like the U.S. military, cannot possibly reach that far beyond their skill sets.
For example, imagine, an Army Captain who is strictly trained to kill, must now sit and drink tea (socialize), negotiate and garner trust (be diplomatic) and lay out our relationship (policy) with a village elder, who is three times his age. Not to mention the fact that these elders have ruled for centuries using simple tribal laws, not sophisticated government policies…which, by the way, the military didn’t bother to tell the young Captain!
The failure here was the military gave the Captain no power or resources to back up any promises he gave the elder, which means disappointment and loss of trust…he is only a Captain. This is one of the dozens of examples of why we cannot have our military performing “nation-building.” They are not equipped, trained or funded to do it.
Nation-building was a fundamental mistake of the war!
Third, terrorists cannot hold any ground! If you allow physical operating space for these grubs they will fill it and use it to their advantage. In other words, take away their maneuvering space, giving them no geography. And then use indigenous Afghan forces along with heavy enablers, like special forces, electronic warfare, intelligence, air power and other very effective capabilities I cannot mention here, and you have yourself the very ingredient we used to win Afghanistan in 2002.
For example, during the initial involvement, the Northern Alliance (and other indigenous Afghan forces) along with U.S. special forces and air power, controlled over 90% of the country within months. At that time, it was not about the U.S. running the government, it was about getting rid of the terrorists. We soon forgot about this formula and the place went to hell.
Here are a few telling facts. In 2006 when NATO took full control of ISAF, and the U.S. significantly reduced its troop strength, Afghani forces and allies (over 20 participating countries in ISAF) controlled most of the country. However, since the Taliban insurgents marched across the southern Pakistan border in 2006, Afghan security and progress dissolved.
Insurgents now control 43% percent of the country’s districts as of November 2016 —a 15% increase from the same period the year prior. Whereas in 2006, rebels controlled only 15% of Afghanistan. A more telling example is insurgents control more than 83% of Uruzgan province (British), 57% of Helmand province (Italian), and total control of the northern province of Kunduz (German); whereas in 2005, they controlled zero!
The answer here, and one I read “in-between the lines” of President Trump’s speech is for the U.S. to aid (not lead) the Afghans in securing and holding ground…all of it!
And to provide them [Afghans] the resources, training, and commitment to winning back their country.
Fourth, and a key piece to this all, is the Taliban. Yes, they have been our sworn enemy for years but there is a major difference between them and the terrorists. The only familiar ground between the two is the fact that they have a common enemy…us! Otherwise, they possess very different interests…ones that we can exploit!
The Taliban are a legitimate political and governmental entity. They have governed before…their mistake was harboring terrorists. Had they given up Osama Bin Laden in the 90s, I would not be writing this blog. After years of war and working with numerous disenfranchised, unorganized and foreign terrorists, the Taliban now understand the problems of associating with them. And are willing to compromise…they want to govern, not terrorize. We can take advantage of this!
The Taliban must be part of the solution.
Finally, and as I have stated previously, the most important pillar to any success is Pakistan! There cannot be any ungoverned or maneuvering space given to terrorists or the Taliban, anywhere! They must be removed from Pakistan. And it cannot be solely done by American or NATO security. It primarily must be accomplished by Pakistan.
The key mistake in our success in 2002 was not securing the Pakistan border. And more to this point, not demanding and then demonstrating our willingness to take out the enemy who fled across their border. We sat idly by not realizing the complete dysfunction within Pakistan and their inability to control large areas of their own country.
We must convince Pakistan to take back control of their country…all of it! This will not be easy and may involve U.S. attacks inside Pakistan to get their attention but more importantly, let them know that if they are not willing to solve this problem, we will!! In other words, if we do not get any support then treat Pakistan like the terrorists…i.e. there is no such thing as their sovereign ground.
I realize this sounds harsh, and it is, but Pakistan has been the primary reason we have lost so much of our American blood and treasure…we must not repeat similar errors of our past.
Solve Pakistan and you solve this war!
Indicators in Afghanistan today reflect a growing, not shrinking insurgency. The U.S. and ISAF continue to work diligently in assisting the Afghan government. And the Afghan security forces are making progress, but if our efforts are to have any chance of success, the U.S. must control Pakistan and get them to wipe out these insurgents…they have the means to do it! The effort in Afghanistan cannot afford a porous border and neighbor who is harboring insurgents or terrorists…a solution without Pakistan is futile and will fail.
President Trump’s speech was music to my ears!