Sadly, we lost a year (again).

Rajib Chandraskearan has a book coming out about Afghanistan called Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the guy. It ain’t going to be easy to sell a book about a war nobody was interested in when it was the ‘good war’. It’s going to be doubly hard now that it’s the albatross around our necks and everyone is looking for the exits. I’ve read a couple of excerpts and will undoubtedly get the book as it looks very well written. Unfortunately, if the excerpts from Slate and Foreign Policy are any indication of the overall narrative in the book, it looks like the story will be a tough slog of disappointment, missed opportunities and general incompetence.

The Foreign Policy piece talks about the ‘civilian surge’ that was part of Obama’s 2009 ‘New Afghanistan Strategy’ ™ that called for legions of civilians with a wide range of skills to help with a lot of nation building/good governance stuff so that the military could focus on the warfighting stuff. The short version of the article is that the civilian experience looked a lot like the military experience circa 2004. You had the same paranoia about ‘force protection’ which meant these civilians, who were supposed to help build Afghanistan, were essentially chained to their desks and compounds. No going ‘outside the wire’. Instead, a lot of people futzing around and substituting activity for achievement (and sometimes not all that much activity). Endless meetings, circular email chains, checking boxes and filling out forms. All things that you could denote on a calorie free ‘progress report’ but little that actually did anything.

And how’s this for deva-vu:

It was the ninth year of America’s war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year, save for the massive expansion of the compound.

As a result, one person divided most of this crowd into three categories:

…those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money…those who were getting their tickets punched for a promotion or a posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed house, or some other personal calamity.

The article focuses on a woman who should have been perfect for the civilian surge. She had the education, experience and contacts in Central Asia. Even so, and with an introduction to the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan AND Richard Holbrooke, it took 14 months to get her hired (security clearance and assorted paperwork). Then, rather then getting her out into the countryside working they plopped her (and who knows how many others) behind a desk to read and write emails.

This is all like a bad dream from when I was there. I was fortunate enough to have access to military personnel and a command structure that didn’t pay too much attention to what I was doing so I was able to get outside the wire and see the terrain I was supposed to be a subject matter expert on but it wasn’t easy.

The second article is along the same vein but from a military perspective. Surely, if the civilian surge wasn’t working out too well, General McChrystal‘s emphasis on COIN would show results. Unfortunately, there too, problems cropped up. 5th Bridage, 2nd ID was sent to Kandahar in 2009 as part of the military surge there. Unfortunately, the Brigade commander didn’t think this COIN stuff was a good idea and decided to go with his own plan. Probably not a big surprise that he failed but the problem ran deeper than that. The command philosophy of killing your way out of an insurgency surely trickled down the chain of command. We should not be surprised, therefore, that one of his units was involved in killing Afghan civilians for sport.

As a bonus, check out Dexter Filkins’ article for the New Yorker.  It’s more grim stuff but it’s very well done.  I guess at some point there are only so many big ways to say ‘This is a mess’ and what’s left are how many of the details you’d like to subject yourself to.

It’s all here, though.  The Afghans who have prospered under the current system and are now looking down the double barrel of America’s departure and a seemingly inevitable civil war.  The ethnic minorities that are ready to fight any attempts of the Pashtun majority to assert control.  The Pakistanis greedily waiting in the wings to start exercising their puppet strings again.  The women and girls who (at least in places) have slowly been emerging from the Dark Ages into the modern world.

Two interesting points in the Filkins article are his discussion of militia and his characterization of the post 2014 American military footprint in Afghanistan.

First, the militias.

The militias established or tolerated by the Afghan and American governments constitute a reversal of the efforts made in the early years of the war to disarm such groups, which were blamed for destroying the country during the civil war. At the time, American officials wanted to insure that the government in Kabul had a monopoly on the use of force.

Now, I had a limited view of the conflict while I was there but apart from some lip service I saw very little effort put into disarming or delegitimizing the militias in 2003/2004 and the DDR program never really got off the ground since then.  So, this ‘reversal of efforts’ seems to me to be more like just an admission that nobody will go through the charade of talking about demobilizing militias anymore.

Regarding post 2014 troop levels:

The post-2014 American campaign in Afghanistan is likely to be a minimalist, if long-term, enterprise—perhaps ten or fifteen thousand American trainers, pilots, and intelligence officers, as well as Special Forces troops to kill suspected terrorists.

So, I find this an interesting narrative that we now describe 10 to 15 thousand troops is described as ‘minimalist’.  One wonders if force levels were described that way from 2002 to 2005.  I don’t dispute that a large footprint may be needed to keep Afghanistan from falling into a black hole but it’s frustrating that there isn’t widespread acceptance that we tried to fight the war on the cheap during the most critical period of the conflict.  Although, to be fair, most people don’t even this about Afghanistan so there you go…

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