Nir Rosen writes a brilliant, if disturbing, article in Rolling Stone after embedding with the Taliban. It goes a long way towards showing how you can be ahead by 4 touchdowns at halftime but if you don’t show up for the second half of the game, you’ll still lose (ok, that’s my limit on sports metaphors for the rest of the year).
By May 2003, only 18 months after the beginning of the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but declared victory in Afghanistan. “We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction,” Rumsfeld announced during a visit to Kabul. The security situation in Afghanistan, in his view, was better than it had been for 25 years.
I was in Afghanistan at this time. I remember there was a lot of talk about transitioning to away from combat operations to reconstruction. The big rumor among the rank and file in the mess hall was that ‘soon’ we wouldn’t have to carry our weapons and that the Department of Defense would soon withdraw hazardous duty pay from troops serving in Afghanistan since there was no threat there anymore (!). I wasn’t quite that optimistic but I certainly could see the possibility of transitioning to an environment more similar to Kosovo or Bosnia than Iraq.
Ten months later, as I was getting ready to leave Afghanistan I was much more pessimistic. I saw a complete lack of progress and interest in addressing Afghanistan’s problems and saw my time there essentially as a ‘time out’ allowing the Taliban and other anti-coalition elements to get their shit together.
The Pentagon, already focused on invading Iraq, assumed that the Afghan militias it had bought with American money would be enough to secure the country. Instead, the militias proved far more interested in extorting bribes and seizing land than pursuing the hardened Taliban veterans who had taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. The parliamentary elections in 2005 returned power to the warlords who had terrorized the countryside before the Taliban imposed order. “The American intervention issued a blank check to these guys,” says a senior aid official in Kabul. “They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. But the warlords never abandoned their bad habits — they’re abusing people and filling their pockets.
The thinking in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 was definitely short term. While there were programs nominally designed to disarm the militias and take power away from warlords, those programs were undermined by commanders who viewed those militia leaders as important for keeping the peace. While I can’t speak for the entire theater, I did have the opportunity to view decision making close up at one command (brigade command equivalent) and thinking and planning never extended beyond the end of the tour we were on. Questions about long term effects, fulfilling the superior commanders intent, or trying to apply any sort of counterinsurgency principles were dismissed out of hand. Rather, the priority was keeping the natives calm on our watch. That generally involved paying off militia leaders and local warlords through work contracts on post, granting them exclusive access to sell goods to military personnel through a bazaar (a very lucrative trade), and turning a blind eye to widespread extortion of local workers as they left the base. All of these things eroded support among the local population and created the impression that we viewed these warlords as allies. The local warlords used that impression to keep local villagers obedient by threatening to call down American air strikes on anyone who opposed them. The warlords had no such pull with us but it didn’t help to see Americans visiting these warlords, kowtowing to them and distributing U.S. taxpayer largess through them.
God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners.
Read that again. It’s not just propaganda. No one has ever adequately explained what war means today. Yes, it was called ‘The Long War’ for awhile but before all this began, no senior person (like the president) ever sat down and told the American people ‘Look, we’re going to be at this for a generation or two. That means we might have tens of thousands of soldiers fighting and dying for twenty, forty or more years. That’s what we’re in for.’ Instead we got a whole bunch of ‘hoo-ah’ nonsense that set expectations way too high.
Unfortunately for us, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, et. al. don’t think in terms of election cycles or fiscal quarters. They can (and do) think in terms of years, decades, and generations. If we aren’t prepared to stick it out, we should just cut our losses now and be done with it.
“…Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. “All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints,” the intelligence officer says. “It’s the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country.”
This is the most personally distressing part of the article for me. It may be silly but I spent my entire tour in Parwan province and spent a lot of time in the villages, on the roads, and meeting the people there and have a fond regard for the place. The people of Parwan were so exhausted by warfare and so positive about our presence there that I find it difficult to think about there being a prevalent threat there. In the dozens of times I left the wire, I can think of only a handful where I felt the threat was sufficient for me to wear my kevlar helmet.
In 2003/2004, everyone still wanted to get into a shooting war and (at least it seemed like) no one wanted to try to win the war we were in. So, I had a string of motivated NCOs from various units come into my office asking ‘Where can we get into a fight? Where can we kill some Taliban?’ I remember one XO of a marine battalion tell me ‘You guys in the Army can deal with that hearts and mind bullshit. We’re here to kill people.’
Now, I’m not saying that was wrong. Our military needs people who want to go out and risk their lives to blow stuff up and ‘kick some ass’. I think it’s been pretty well established, however, that relying exclusively on such a mindset or strategy isn’t going to do us a whole lot of good. Some of us knew that we needed to look towards a further horizon in 2003/2004 and lay some groundwork to prevent the Taliban and others from finding fertile ground for a comeback. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of people interested.
This is the price for six years of neglect.
“You Westerners have your watches,” the leader observed. “But we Taliban have time.”