In Afghanistan The Future Never Arrives

A common argument is that after 2,500 people dead and $1 trillion spent, it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. We need to wash our hands of the whole affair because, like the British in 1841 and the Soviets in 1989, it’s proven to be too much for us.
There is the obvious flip side to this argument; namely that in order for us to make sense of our substantial sacrifice, we should actually try to win.  Otherwise every one of those more than 2,500 US deaths was in vain.  But for now, let’s set that aside, and think this through logically.  Hard-nosed brass tacks suggests we need to stick around and help make it come right.

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US soldiers in Zabul Province, 2010

The prime reason we don’t want the Taliban back in is because the Taliban could easily allow extremists into the country who could threaten us again. This is, after all, the reason we went in in the first place.
In 2001, we saw that few actions short of invading would allow us to impose our will on the ground.  We recalled how, after the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, Bill Clinton shot over 75 cruise missiles into Afghanistan and killed about 20 low-level extremists.  This accomplished nothing.
The counter-argument to this is that the Taliban are nationalists. They couldn’t care less about hosting internationally-oriented Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda.  Furthermore, given that the last time they hosted international jihadists they lost their country, they are unlikely to do it again.  They care more about Kandahar than Dallas.  And the Islamic State, internationalist jihadists who might care about America, are the Taliban’s sworn enemy.
Convincing?  Not really.  The Pakistanis support the Taliban, and the Pakistanis are fighting with India over Kashmir.  Every day, the Pakistanis help train jihadists to fight in Kashmir – who are internationally-oriented. If the Taliban takes Kabul, Pakistan would insist that their Kashmir fighters be trained in Afghanistan.  Once one group if international Islamic jihadists is based in Afghanistan, we can expect that to continue and other groups to follow.
There’s more.  The Taliban has historically proven itself incapable of governing. The Islamic State currently has about 1,500 or 2,000 fighters in Afghanistan.  The Taliban would have trouble opposing their expansion, given the task is too much for the current government, which has 350,000 men.  So we can expect ISIS to expand in Afghanistan if the Taliban take over.
The fact that the Taliban say they don’t want internationalist Islamic jihadists on their soil doesn’t stop them from having the capability to host them. They are obviously capable of changing their Afghan-first orientation and hosting whomever they like in the future.
Foreign policy planning is generally constructed on the basis of the enemy’s capabilities, not their intentions.  Intentions can change, or might be unknown. Capabilities are quantifiable.  Predictable.  So you plan off the capability, not the intention.
We have little insight into the mindset of the Taliban leadership (let alone their Pakistani sponsors). Entrusting the safety of America to statements made by Taliban fighters who are currently trying to kill our troops is naive. They don’t have our best interests at heart.  They will probably say anything to win. Their statements need to be double-checked.
Reagan famously said in relation to the Soviets “trust but verify.”  Trusting the Taliban without verifying their actions goes against the grain our history.
People also say that there are plenty of places for Islamic jihadists to hide in the world, so shutting off one source of sanctuary (Afghanistan) makes little sense when alternates include Sudan, Somalia, and so on.  But, frankly, Afghanistan is the worst possible sanctuary.  Try flying from the Sudan to New York.  Or calling.  It’s hard.  But it’s easy to drive from Kabul to Pakistan and get on one of the hundreds of daily international flights out of there. It’s easier by an order of magnitude.
Well, let’s not beat a dead horse.  Common sense suggests we should stay and see it out.  But there is one last point worth considering.
It cost us so far about $1 trillion and counting.  To make it come right costs relatively little, perhaps $4 billion from us and another $2 billion from other allies over the next ten years.  Is that a lot of money?  Well, compared to the events in Paris, Nice and Brussels, it’s probably a wise investment.
We don’t have those mass-casualty events because almost all Muslim people in America are loyal and proud people. We don’t have the Muslim ghettoization that occurs in France or the UK.  The Muslims here are generally open and free, and can be our best (though not perfect) defense against extremism.
In order for us to keep our homeland defense strong we need the international arena to not worsen.  Turning Afghanistan into a sanctuary for internationalist Islamic radicals would give them a boost that could destabilize the balance that is currently keeping our continent safer than Europe.
Not to mention that the ordinary Afghans have stood by us in thick and thin, trying to help us make their society better and safer.  I’ve seen Afghans who risked their lives to keep out the Taliban. This is not an impossible task. These people want to win. We should help them.
It’s good for them and good for us.

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Control of the Afghan Population Is Uneven

This week the Afghan government lost another district in Helmand, named Khanashin District, (also known as Reg).  Lying 60 miles or so southwest of the capital Lashkar Gah, Khanashin is a belt of irrigated land alongside the Helmand River in the middle of a great big desert.  The US Marines lost men to pacify it, then handed it over to the Afghans, who have lost it.

The loss is no surprise. This year the Afghans already lost two other districts in Helmand – Musa Qalah and Naw Zad, where the Marines and British also lost men.  The Afghan security forces pulled out, having decided they were indefensible and not much was gained by staying anyway.

I’m not writing to lament another defeat that no one really notices. That’s an old story.

The real issue lies in how we Americans have swept the truth of poor security in the districts under the rug for years.  We don’t own up to what is really happening across Afghanistan. Please bear with me, because you won’t see this described elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the US engages in fancy footwork that puts a relatively happy gloss on the war.  We are constantly told the war is going “well enough.”   Which prevents us getting a realistic view of the war or making adjustments.

The story continues until something significant breaks, such as General Campbell declaring Americans drawdown has to be halted for a while, since security is too fragile.

Or a city falls, as Kunduz did for a couple of weeks last September (predictably, there’s an “it wasn’t that bad” story about that, too).

Or the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan reports, as it did in January, “The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.”

Then we get a peek of the problems lying just beneath the surface.

To understand what officialdom’s fancy footwork looks like, consider Musa Qalah.  The Daily Telegraph in London described the fall of Musa Qalah in December, some four months ago.  The district center was lost, the Taliban triumphed and controlled the entire district.

Well, not the entire district.  You see, the government forces kept one tiny toehold in Musa Qalah.  A wind-swept hill called Roshan Tower, plus a couple of checkpoints scattered across the desert.  (Roshan is the name of an Afghan phone company, and the hill is named after the phone tower on it).

From the hill, you can see the Helmand River and some villages. But the security forces on the hill could affect neither the villagers nor the Taliban controlling the district center and moving freely.  Roshan Towers offered great views and little else.

So the Afghan security forces pulled out last month.  Why maintain a useless base?  They also pulled out of neighboring Naw Zad District for much the same reason.

But until then, the government marked Musa Qalah as being in their hands.  US officials referred queries on the status of districts to the Afghans. Americans back home, if they cared to check, would naturally assume the government controlled the population.  After all, the district hadn’t fallen, right?

Wrong. The Taliban controlled the population, despite Roshan Tower.

This misperception is, for want of a better word, a miscommunication to the American public.  Or an inadvertent fraud.  The numbers are fudged across Afghanistan and have been for years.  This probably isn’t done with any particular decision by the US military in Kabul to pervert the understanding of the American public.  They simply see things with a can-do attitude.

But it is wrong.  Across Afghanistan, areas where government control is tenuous, where it perhaps holds the district center and not much else, are considered in the government column.  The idea that holding a district center or a hill means something is a fallacy.  The reality in these places (of which there are many) is that the Taliban control almost all the people.

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In Atgar District in Zabul Province, the security forces control the bazaar outside the base and make sporadic forays into the surrounding village, where their hold is tenuous.

The US commander, General John Campbell, just left, after handing over to a new man named General John Nicholson. Campbell was complacent about the state of the war in the districts, even when the district centers were overrun.

Last August, Campbell said losing district centers posed no problem, because they would eventually be won back.  In his words, “They [the Taliban] are going to take a district center and they’re going to lose it.  They’re going to take another district center and they’re going to lose it.  So they’re not going to take terrain, you talk about the cities, the ring road, they’re not going to gain any territory that means a great deal or has any value top Afghanistan.”

Of course, a few weeks later the government lost Kunduz.  And a few weeks after that Campbell halted the US withdrawal. I doubt the Afghan villagers, who see the Taliban overrunning government strongholds, would be so sanguine.

How can we explain officialdom’s alternate view of reality?  I don’t know. It’s a problem though, because when we don’t hear the realistic situation, we don’t feel the need to discuss options that might help solve the problems. Options such as mentoring the Afghans in more locations, more bombing to support checkpoints under attack, faster development of the Afghan Air Force, or even guarantees of aid past 2017 (where the guarantee now stops).

These options never reach the table for discussion, even though ordinary failures in the districts are undermining our strategic goals.  The example of Musa Qalah helps explain how the obscuring veil is cast.

Spreading the Word in the Muslim World

The Islamic State occupies two cities in Iraq.  In one, Fallujah, the local people have just about had enough. Young men are rising up and opposing the extremists.  (The other city is Mosul in the north).
Fallujah, in western Anbar Province, is the heartland of the Sunnis in Iraq.  If anyone in Iraq would approve of IS, it would be these guys.

The people in Fallujah are being forced to take action because the Iraqi army and militias, which are mostly Shia, have surrounded the city.  Food is scarce and people blame IS. But that’s not the only reason.

Anbar has a history of banding together to throw off the rule of extremists. In mid-2006, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, tribes began to work with the Americans, determined to push out al Qaeda in Iraq.  AQI ran most of Anbar, and the people didn’t like it one bit. Lucky for us, the Sunni tribes worked with us to get rid of them. It was a huge success.

Just a few months ago, local Sunni tribes helped the government kick IS out of the othermajor city in Anbar Province, named Ramadi.

The point of this summary is that just because you are Islamic, or even Sunni, and live in Iraq or any of the Middle Eastern countries, does not mean you automatically support IS. In fact, you probably don’t. You probably find their policies to be abhorrent and anachronistic.  But what can you do?  They have the guns.  Well, there is something they can do.

This dislike of IS is true across almost all of the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan.  Nobody likes these people, even where they have what apparently looks like a lot of support. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exists in Yemen, but only in the eastern desert wastelands, not in Sanaa, the capital.

The extremists live in a larger Islamic world where the cultural traditions are multifaceted.  In the last century, Muslims have spent more time coexisting than killing each other. The Iran-Iraq war began because (secular) Saddar Hussein decided to grab some territory from a distracted Iran, a miscalculation that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. How secular? Saddam, when he came to power, used to spend Fridays handing out bottles of scotch whiskey to picnickers on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
So the fighting and divisions in the Islamic world are not inevitable, nor are they a sign that Muslim people are crazy. We are seeing, rather, a civil war of ideas in which a very loud and well-armed minority is making a bid to take over the whole enchilada. This is a war of ideas backed up by a war of guns.

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A mosque in Baghdad, 2005

Because it is primarily a war of ideas, we can look at our own daily experience to calculate who’s “winning”.  After all, everyone in the West understands exactly what IS stands for, what they want and what they will do to get it

But who understands what so-called moderate Muslims believe?  What they want, what they will fight for, what they need for support?

Few people in the West know.  In fact, Islamic moderates are fragmented, distracted and under siege, beset by crises from Mali and Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To fight this war of ideas, moderates Muslims need a public relations revolution. That is, governments, clerics, nationalist and religious organizations working together to make the argument that the extremists anywhere and everywhere are wrong. Wrong in aim and wrong in action.

This message in the war of ideas is not being made in a systematic, global way.  Clerics speak out, private organizations such as “Dawah” act, and governments oppose, but not in concert.  Meanwhile, private donations and recruits roll in to IS.  A PR revolution is not easy.  Concerted action faces a rocky road.

The status quo governments have little credibility with exploding populations who face stagnant job markets. They look incompetent, which bolsters the extremist message of change.

They are ideologically bust, too. Saudi Arabia might be the keeper of the most holy sites, but its princes’ notoriously drink, gamble and employ call girls across the European Mediterranean shore.  These rulers have poor credibility to issue a message opposing an extremist religious message.

And, all too often, these status-quo governments have supported ideas akin to the extreme: the Saudi state is built on a pact with Wahhabis, who have more in common with mullahs in Raqqa than those in Omaha. Pakistan has supported extremists for 30 years.

Thus far, a unified effort is missing but it is necessary.  The US can help, but not much.  We have some ability to influence the social media space, but IS makes the US media effort look amateur.  And we can help militarily, but that has limited effect in what is primarily a war of ideas.

This is primarily an Islamic affair.

So it is up to Islamic moderates to speak up and get organized, transnationally. (Think al Jazeera television on steroids).  It can work.  Public/private PR campaigns in Indonesia stamped out most extremists by harnessing many voices against extremism.

Still, widespread collaboration is a tall order in a region wracked by high unemployment, anger at the status quo, illegitimate governments and fundamentalist influences.

Extremist ideas have been around for a long time and they aren’t going to fade away quickly.  But they can be countered if the moderates get better organized, ala Indonesia.  This is because average, ordinary people in the Muslim world aren’t extremists.

After Kunduz It’s Time To Reconsider

Oct 2015 – Kunduz fell on Monday.  One of the major cities in northern Afghanistan and a key transportation hub, Kunduz was attacked suddenly from four sides by the Taliban, overwhelming the defenders who were spread across the province.  They seized the fortress overlooking the city, driving in on pickup trucks that move at great speed, using tactics perfected in the 1990s.
Three days later, the Taliban are being pushed out as security forces move back into the city.  The government flag has been raised again but fighting continues.
To put this in perspective, this is no Vietnam.  There, once one city fell other cities went one after another.  But it’s not nothing either.  The fall of the city, albeit a brief one, should send shock waves through the American military and diplomatic establishment.  The US has been too complacent about Afghanistan for too long, and this is a wake-up call that should be heeded while there is still time.

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Afghan policeman talks to villagers (file photo)

The Americans have been saying for months and years that, with us leaving, the Afghans are fine, will be fine and everything is going according to plan. Sure, they say, the security forces lose district centers, outposts and thousands of men every year (last year their losses were “unsustainable” according to the US; this year losses are even higher)…  But it’s all fine.
It’s worth quoting the senior US general there at length. He spoke in Washington DC at the Brookings Institution on August 4th 2015 and said the Taliban are more tired than the government and unlikely to gain key ground:
“The Taliban they are tired of fighting. They are tired of the last 14 years and they want to get on with their lives.  And the only way they are going to do that, because the Afghan government is not going to fall to the Taliban and they realize that now and they’ve got to come to the peace process.  They’re not taking any territory, they are not meeting any strategic goals that they set out.  They are going to take a district center but they are going to lose it.  They are going to take another district center but they are going to lose it.  But they are not going to gain any terrain, you talk about the cities, the ring road. They are not going to gain any terrain that means a great deal or has any value to Afghanistan.”
You could argue, and General Campbell probably would if anyone called him on this, that when he says the Taliban will not “gain” any cities that they will not capture and hold them.  But the context of the entire talk is that things are fine and the Taliban will never capture a city.  Which they now have, albeit briefly.
No, the upshot is that the US has been overestimating the capabilities of the Afghans and our efforts to help them. The Afghans are good fighters, but all too often their outposts are remote, isolated and prone to being overrun because they seldom get reinforcements when attacked, often have too little ammunition and don’t have US advisors at battalion level to help them out.  Nor do they get consistent air support because they have too few helicopters, and while the US flies close air support missions it doesn’t fly nearly as many as it once did.  Nor can the Afghans medevac their wounded quickly because they have too few helicopters.  Nor can they claim the unqualified support of the populace because people in Afghanistan only support clear winners, not guys who might lose (instead, people stay on the fence).
So the Afghans need more US help down the line to help address some of these problems.  There is a good side of this whole disturbing episode; the government went back and retook the city. They can do the job, but they need our continued help.  Forget leaving by the end of 2016.
Ideally we would also help them move beans, bullets and ammunition more efficiently, but I am afraid the system we’ve set up for them to do that is irretrievably dysfunctional, and no one in the US mission will revisit that system again.
Lots of people will say, “If the Afghans can’t handle it, we need to get out and too bad for them.”  But the Afghans are good people; they can do it but they probably cannot do it without our help for a while yet, and probably a more efficient application of our help, with more advising and plenty of money and air support.
Regardless of the call for future action, the fall of Kunduz demonstrates that we’ve got to get our head out of the sand regarding the “it’s going fine” storyline and think up better options.  How much more warning do we need?

Corruption and a Lousy Economy Is Killing Afghanistan

Kabul – Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?
We here in America are used to the concept of the “squeezed middle.” In Afghanistan, there is very little middle class to squeeze.  Most people are poor, unemployment is rife and it’s made worse by corruption that was baked into the system during the Karzai regime.
The numbers here are pretty bleak.  Some estimates (from the World Bank) are that unemployment runs at just over 8%.  But most estimates (from the CIA) put the true unemployment rate at 35%, and youth unemployment is up around 60%
Those are Great Depression level numbers.  It’s hard to imagine that these kinds of things can happen to an economy, but then we can consider Greece, where the numbers are only slightly better, and we realize it can truly happen anywhere.
But Afghanistan is worse, because of the corruption and nepotism that is endemic to the system.  These are having a knock-on effect that threaten to derail the entire government.
This is how it works.
Most of the country works in agriculture. Having a mass of unemployed farmers won’t usually derail the country; in this arid, mountainous country where only about 6% of the land is able to be cultivated, some unemployment is expected.  But right now it’s a huge number.
But the real problem comes when you also inject corruption into a system that fails to work properly.

_MG_8747PSsmallThe district center and police station in Daechopan District, Zabul Province, 2010.  The government provides little help to the local people beyond a single rudimentary school and occasional clinic.

The government is struggling to provide projects that will improve people’s lives and help them work more productively.  Build roads, clean canals, dig wells.  But there aren’t many projects, because only a tiny percentage of the money Afghanistan receives from donors for its projects is ever spent; basically about 18%-25% of it. The Afghans have the money but cannot spend it because the financial system is enormously, ridiculously complicated.  We, the foreigners, foisted this system on the Afghans but it is literally too cumbersome to manage.
In the ministries in Kabul and in the provinces there are too few people who can understand and make it work.  So the basic problem is that there is a limited number of the right people.  They need to be smart, educated and hard-working; and undaunted by a flood of paperwork.
Luckily, Afghans are generally hard-working and patriotic. The universities are good; with graduates that perform better than many US local colleges. Say you are a college graduate.  You live in Kandahar and you are trying to get a job with the government.
So when a smart, hardworking Afghan graduates from college he finds that the government that sorely lacks talent… does not offer him a job.
He sits around, applies to jobs and does not get a single one.
The problem is that in order to get a job you need to know someone.  Or be part of a tribe that is powerful in that area. Or have ready access to thousands of dollars to buy your way into a government position. (A $6,000 bribe is enough to get a mid-level job. That $6,000 buys you a job that pays you $300 a month).
So on one hand you have a government that is tied in knots for lack of expertise and hard workers. One the other you have applicants who would be of great benefit. And never the twain shall meet.
Instead nepotism gets the relations of high government officials into those posts that open up.  These relations tend not to be college educated, nor hard-working. They go to the embassy in Washington DC, or the ministry buildings in Kabul or the provinces and do very little.
This wouldn’t matter if Afghanistan had a vibrant economy where the private sector could take up the slack when the government underperforms.  But it doesn’t.
One reason unemployment is so high is because economic growth has dropped off a cliff; it went from 12% growth a year in 2012 to 3.5% growth this year.  Meanwhile the population grows more than 2% every year; in other words the economy is barely growing enough to give jobs to all the newcomers.
Worse, the average annual income is $400 a year.  So there is not much money washing around the system, and if a family gets into trouble it is little use to ask for help from Uncle Abdullah, who’s rich.  He isn’t.
What usually happens to families who run out of money is they run up bills at the local store, which responds by jacking up prices. Items bought on credit cost 50% more than cash items. A farmer will often owe his shopkeeper about $1,500 at the end of the year just for the fuel he uses to run pumps that irrigate his fields.  If he grows wheat, $1,500 is about what that wheat is worth, so he is losing money if you consider his labor, seed and so on.
What to do about all this?  Entire reports have been written on how to stamp out corruption from the system.  President Ghani, in power for a year, has tried to some extent.  He appointed a few clean provincial governors, who are generally sidelined by the local powerbrokers. Almost nothing improves.  The government has announced a few more projects.  But is it enough to affect many villages?
Meanwhile, ISIL is paying $500 a month to people willing to sign up to their extremist vision.
In Afghanistan, everything is connected.  Security, the economy and society.  When one thing perks up, it can help the other pillars of the nation.  But not much is perking right now, nor does it look likely to for the foreseeable future.

The Taliban Are Coming

Kabul – Across northern Afghanistan bad things are happening.  The Taliban has swept into the fighting season with vim and vigor, raising hell in province after province.  Badakshan, Kunduz, Farah, Nangarhar and Faryab provinces have seen significant action.  The Taliban came right up to the gates of Kunduz City, a city of 300,000 people, before being pushed back.  Isolated outposts have been ransacked and security forces beheaded.
As bad as it is to lose hundreds of security forces and see almost 100,000 refugees (by UN estimates), the Governor of Kunduz said this week that the worst is now happening; the Taliban have teamed up with fighters aligned with the Islamic State, which is trying to get a foothold in the region.  If that happens – and that’s a big if – the war could take a harsher, more violent turn.
Whew!  What the heck is going on and where does this end?

US troops at a base in Kabul

US troops at a base in Kabul

Analysts are torn into two camps.  One is that major cities won’t fall, the security forces are fighting back and all will be well.
The other camp (which I am in) sees whole swathes of areas in far-flung provinces being taken over and the government control being loosened.  We knew this would happen as soon as America stopped fighting and it has. Is holding the cities and half a province good enough? It will have to be because in many, or even most, provinces that’s what’s happening.
Forget media reports that the US is bombing the bejeesus out of the Taliban by pretending to “protect” nearby American forces. The US has stopped bombing despite pleas for help from the authorities in Kunduz. The Afghans are pretty much on their own, even as we keep 9,800 US advisors there along with some special operators doing counter-terrorist (snatch or kill) missions.
So this is the test for the Afghan security forces, and this is what we’ve trained and equipped them for.  So how well will they fare?
Not all that well, honestly.  Much of what they need in order to do more than just hold on just aren’t there any more.
For instance; there are supposed to be 352,000 army and police.  But the armed forces are having trouble retaining their men. So they have about 325,000 men instead.
This is what life is like for those men.
The tooth-to-tail ratio in US forces is 9-to-1.  So for every one guy pulling a trigger, nine are handling fuel, food and so on to keep him in the field.
Let’s pretend the Afghans do 50% better than the US, and the tooth to tail is one in 7. (Unlikely given the Afghan soldier’s propensity to go on extended vacations, but all right). That gives us 46,500 men out of 325,000 that fight.
There are 34 provinces.  So that’s about 1,200 men per province.
The men are scattered around to a bunch of rural outposts, but mostly concentrated in the cities.
A typical outpost will have 15 or so men.  Of these three will be on vacation and one away at headquarters.  So call it 11 men, (in reality it is probably 8).
The Taliban can mass with 25 to 75 men.  You are an Afghan policeman in an isolated outpost with nine other men.  You have no radio that works, three hand grenades for everyone, and three magazines of bullets (90 bullets) for yourself, if you are lucky.  (The basic load US soldiers carry is 210 rounds).
Your vehicle probably has no gas to flee. You are stuck there.
And then your outpost is taken.  If you are captured you might be shot or told to go home; it’s a 50/50 chance.  If ISIS gets you the chances are you will be lined up and shot or beheaded.
All the support you have been used to – rescue by the Americans, medevac if you get hurt, close air support, advisors at your battalion to help push through enough beans and bullets – is now gone.  None of that has been replaced with credible Afghan alternatives.
This then is the reality of your life. Last year a US general said the Afghan army was losing men at an “unsustainable” rate. Already this year casualties are almost 70% higher, running at 330 men per week lost from the front line, according to the AP.
When the Taliban almost reached the gates of Kunduz City the government sent 2,000 soldiers to push them back.  A week later they are still pushing. The Taliban is that strong.
This isn’t just happening in Kunduz Province.  The government is being assaulted in about a third of the country.
What’s going on is a big push the Taliban will make this year and next to unseat the government.  They almost certainly won’t succeed. But they’ll take a lot of territory with them, and then wait.
Is a divided Afghanistan our version of success? However you define it – success, failure or “Afghan good enough” – that’s where we’re headed at this rate.

The Afghans, Their Lousy Planes and Why It Matters

A long-running saga of waste and incompetence in Afghanistan has about ended and the numbers are in.  It turns out a fiasco involving 20 cargo planes the US bought for the Afghan air force is going to cost us almost $500 million.
The program to procure the planes cost $489 million and we just sold 16 of the 20 aircraft to a local scrap merchant in Kabul for $32,000.  That’s for all 16 of the planes, not each one.  That’s the total return on our investment.  (The remaining four aircraft are reportedly at a US base in Germany).
So we have effectively turned $489 million in brand new dollar bills into a well-equipped Honda Accord.

_DSC7577PSsmallC-27As sitting idle after being mothballed at Kabul airport, Spring 2013.

To put this in perspective, here what $32,000 will buy you in Afghanistan:
– Six and a half new classrooms (at $5,000 each).
– A complete new school (if the Afghans pay for it).
– Half a new school (if the US pays for it).
– Feeding and housing one US soldier in Afghanistan for 11 days (keeping a US soldier costs $1 million a year).
– Paying one Afghan army soldier for 142 months (at $225 per month).
– 640 sacks of wheat (at $50 per sack)
So if that’s what $32,000 buys, it gives you an idea what wasting $600 million is like.  It’s a heck of a lot of money if spent wisely, and not much money at all if spent stupidly.     And this saga has broader lessons for Afghanistan’s future.
The idea with the planes was that the Afghans have a poor road system.  They need to move men and material around the battlefield, which is effectively the border areas to the east, the south and now the north.  Enter the new cargo planes.
We found the Afghans one of the few planes in the world that was almost totally unsuitable.  The Alenia Aermacchi G222, rebadged as the C-27A, is an Italian plane that hardly any other air force flies, anywhere.  That’s because it’s a dog.  Which makes it hard to find parts, harder to find expertise to install the parts, and makes the Afghans guinea pigs in whether anyone can make the plane work at all.
Turns out the Afghans can’t.  Nor can the very costly US corporation tasked with maintaining and running the planes.
The US Department of Defense offered a half-hearted explanation. It told ABC News: “aircraft and contract performance limitations occurred, making it increasingly difficult to keep any of the aircraft operational.”  It added that parts were hard to find, “resulting in significant supply chain challenges that became difficult to overcome.”  Limitations equals failure.
Now the US has bought four C-130 Lockheed Hercules planes for the Afghans. Lockheed has been making them since the 1960s and they are used throughout the world.  Of course it’ll take tens of millions more dollars to get that up and running.
In the meantime the US is pulling out of Afghanistan and the Afghans are largely on their own.  The C-130s are slowly being put into service.  Remember, the planes were ordered in the first place because the Afghans need them.
This sad story is not an isolated one.
The Afghans also need a close air support plane.  The US Air Force has selected the A-29 Super Tucano.  At least this plane is used by a number of air forces and isn’t a dog.
But will it be serviceable?  Looking at another aircraft purchase, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan said that the Afghans will likely not know how to fly nor maintain the planes.  It issued a report in June 2013 report titled, “Afghan Special Mission Wing: DOD Moving Forward with $771.8 Million Purchase of Aircraft that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain.”  So the A-29s will be a fun project to follow too.
Why is this surprising? A month ago, in November 2014, the same inspector general issued a report noting the US military has misplaced $420 million worth of equipment over there. That’s about 15,600 items.
In the grand scheme of things, this probably isn’t that big a deal. The US is expected to remove 600 million pounds of equipment and 8,000 containers from the country in 2014.  So 15,600 items is chump change.
No, the grand scheme could be much, much worse.  And it is.  According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, waste and fraud might amount to somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion for both Iraq and Afghanistan. (This figure lumps in aid to the security forces as well as new roads, wells and schools).  Astounding.
Even worse, the real cost of this waste and inefficiency isn’t just the money.  Dollars are dollars are dollars.  The human cost is much higher.
In one district in Helmand Province where police struggle to keep control, the district police chief recently decided to cut back.  He doesn’t have enough hand grenades to go around for all his combat outposts, where attacks by 20 insurgents are not uncommon.  So each outpost, he decided, could make do with three hand grenades.  That’s all he had to hand out.
This year the Afghan army lost men at an “unsustainable” rate, according to US commanders.  Over 4,600 Afghan soldiers and policemen died this year alone (roughly what we lost in Iraq in nine years; in Afghanistan about 2,200 Americans have died since 2001).  The Afghans cannot bleed this much for years to come.
So stupidity isn’t just about wasting money. It saps resources that soldiers need to survive.  It costs the lives of men who are fighting a war that’s already plenty tough to win.

Honoring Veterans At Home

Time was that America cared a lot about its veterans.  A whole lot.  But lately it hasn’t showed as much appreciation as you might think.  That is, not for about 60 years.

IMG_0010PSsmallOn the Af-Pak border in 2008.

Iraq and Afghanistan is no World War 2.  No welcoming crowds.  No grateful nation mobilized in homecoming as much as for the sendoff.  None of that for our people.  Just a few well-wishers at airports such as Bangor ME (where amazing volunteers meet every single returning flight).  Welcomes are sporadic and often unnoticed.
But then again, as Veterans Day rolls around, we can ask, when was truly the last time we met our obligations to those returning?  After interviewing and speaking with veterans for years this is what I heard:
Korean War:  Service-members might be gone for a year or two, counting time for train-up and their draft obligation. Many of them faced human-wave attacks as hordes of red Chinese advanced up frozen hillsides on dark evenings against isolated outposts.  Those taken prisoner could be shot in the snow if they fell out of line.  Veterans, upon their return, were often asked, “Where have you been?  We thought you got a new job out of town.”  No one even knew they had gone to fight.
Vietnam War:  Widespread maltreatments of returning service-members.  Treatment so bad that they were often advised to change out of their uniforms before leaving the airport terminal to escape abuse.  Many of them faced months of patrolling in densely covered mountains and deep paddies looking for an elusive enemy who often killed from afar, or with bobby traps close up.  The death toll among helicopter aircrew alone numbered over 4,000.
Gulf War I:  A quick war with a rousing return and quick return to obscurity.  Lingering effects from Gulf War Syndrome persisted for years with little understanding of what was affecting the health of thousands of service-members.
Iraq and Afghanistan.  Constant patrolling for months in armored vehicles that were not designed for the mission.  Booby traps widespread on foot patrols.  A strategic muddle.  Returns routinely ignored by most people.  One night in 2006 I interviewed a soldier on patrol in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan, about ten kilometers from the border.  He lamented that his brother thought the Afghan war was over and that he was serving in Iraq – both assumptions horribly wrong.
These men and women returned to complete disarray at Walter Reed Hospital, more disarray across the Veterans Administration and a suicide rate that has remained stubbornly high for years, alongside an unemployment running higher than the national average.  The bright spot is a GI Bill that works.
The tendency on Veterans Day is for us to congratulate ourselves and bask in the accomplishments of our veterans.  We thank veterans and notice what a wonderful job they did.
Swept under the rug is the reality of the actual experience of veterans.  Their reception has too often been inadequate or even shameful.
There might be a solution to all this but I don’t know what it is.  Is it too late to apologize to the Vietnam and Korean War veterans whose lives were lost in the tens of thousands for too little recognition?  Is it too late to apologize to the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who heard time and again from their own elected officials that they “opposed the war but supported the troops.”  (By the way, in my ten years in the war zone I never met anyone over there who thought that notion was anything other than a cop-out of the lowest order).
No, it’s not too late.  If you see a veteran ask him where and when he served.  Vietnam, Korea, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan, it doesn’t matter.  Ask and he or she will tell you.  Then say thank you like you really mean it, and as we should have said all along.

Iraq, ISIS and How We Got Here

Looking at Iraq now, it is important to see where we have come from to understand where we can go from here.
In that light, here is the basic outline of what happened when we got out of Iraq.
Many Obama Administration officials supported a long-term US presence there.  The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates wrote in his memoir, “Recognizing the huge political roadblocks, I believed a substantial US presence was needed post-2011 to help keep Iraq stabilized, to continue training and supporting their security forces, and to signal our friends in the region – and Iran – that we weren’t abandoning the field.” (“Duty”, Pg 553)

ImageSaddam’s palace complex in Tikrit, which became the US base FOB Danger, is now occupied by ISIS

    Gates added that the US had created its own bed in Afghanistan by mishandling the end of the Soviet War in the late 1980s. “But if we get the endgame wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be far worse,” he told Congress toward the end of his term. (Pg 235)
The last week has seen the cities of northern Iraq fall to a militant group more pernicious than al Qaeda, and more irredentist in their hatred of modernity and the West.  Tal Afar, Mosul, Tikrit and by some accounts Samarra have all gone, and the government forces are holding the line about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
The US military at the time of our withdrawal suggested a residual force of 15,000 US soldiers would be adequate to safeguard our gains; fewer than that would prevent US forces from training the Iraqis in the southern part of Iraq, according to Gates.
Most Iraqi leaders wanted the US to stay on.  But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was not willing to make it a public issue, and the Obama Administration was not inclined to press the Iraqis about it.
Staying on would have required a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).  This agreement covers a variety of topics but the primary one prevents US soldiers from being hauled into Iraqis courts for incidents, such as running over Iraqi nationals while driving military vehicles,that could lay them open to local prosecution. The US military won’t go anywhere long-term without ensuring that its soldiers are tried for offenses in US courts rather than local ones.
The US had previously negotiated a SOFA that was due to expire in December 2011. Negotiations over a new one were late and tepid, with the talks really only getting going in August of 2011, which was only a few months prior to the expiration of the old one. The administration would have had to make it a priority to get this done in such a short a time frame, at the US Presidential level, which didn’t happen.
The history is relevant because from it we know two things:  that bad things would happen if we screwed up the withdrawal, and that the military recommendations were not followed on how to win the peace.
Iraq was not destined to fail as a state.  I have seen Sunnis stand guard with guns supporting the Shia government; January 2007 was my first glimpse of this. At the time, sheikhs told me that they preferred the lousy government to an even worse al Qaeda. The government simply took all the best jobs, while al Qaeda commanders took the sheikhs’ daughters in forced marriages (in a misguided attempt to ‘join the family’) and also cut off people’s hands in medieval practices rejected by ordinary Muslims.
The Iraqi army was not perfect but had a chance of being what it once was; a professional force that was effective, as when it resisted the human wave attacks of Iranian militants for almost eight years under Saddam Hussein. One of the reason the US invasion turned sour was the offended pride of Iraqis who considered their army to be a national institution, and when the US disbanded it Iraqis felt the nation was insulted.
From the perspective of early 2007, when the Sunnis first joined the government side, it seemed likely that it would take 20 more years to get Iraq right.  To allay internecine suspicions and let a fledgling government learn enough so that people got along.  US help would have been vital.  And the seeds to do this successfully had been sown.
Instead the US hunkered down inside its massive $750 million embassy and tried to help the Iraqis on the cheap.  It hasn’t worked.  And plenty of people at the time said it wouldn’t.
That was a political mistake.
The next post explains what we might do about mitigating this disaster.

US Withdrawal Plan Asking For Trouble in Afghanistan

President Obama announced his withdrawal plan from Afghanistan this past week and laid out the specifics.  “This year we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” he said.
In reality, the withdrawal he described has a slight chance of success and historically has never worked before.  It is more likely to fail. To understand why we have to understand what this plan “buys” us for the next few years.Image
The plan calls for the US to draw down to 9,800 service-members by the end of 2014.
At the end of 2015 we’ll be down to about 5,000 people, sited only in Bagram airfield 30 miles north of Kabul and  in Kabul itself.
By the end of 2016 the only service-members in country will be the usual crowd one finds in an embassy, handling sales of equipment to a foreign military.
I am not privy to the military planning, but here is roughly how those people can be used.  Simply put, more people in country gives you more reach.  With 9,800 people you can advise the Afghan military at the bigger bases in Afghanistan, say at Kandahar in the south, at Jalalabad in the east, at Herat in the west and in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.  The Afghan security forces are still lousy at delivering supplies and planning, and these advisors can help the Afghans get better.
If necessary the US can also provide limited active services, such as flying a few squadrons of fighter-bombers and armed drones to support the Afghans on the ground.  The Afghans have no air support of their own because the US has not helped them acquire the planes or training to do so.
Cut the US role in half to 5,000 people and restrict them to Bagram and Kabul and you lose all ability to help the Afghans get better in the provinces, and most of the ability to provide air support.  We lose our ability to help in any meaningful manner, and if the Afghans haven’t figured out how to run a war by themselves they are cooked.
If they fail it is because the cards are stacked against them.  Given that we only seriously started helping them in 2008 across the country, we are giving the Afghans six years in which to fully train, staff and run an army and a war.  This is a country which had almost no education from 1982 until 2002, a period that covers the entire the early lifespan of most officers who now need to use computers and handle logistics for equipment and payroll worth almost $4 billion every year.  This is in a country that still lacks a single usable ring-road around the entire country.
Less noticed but equally important is that the lack of US military outside of Kabul will make it impossible for US development officials to monitor any projects across the country. Embassy rules restrict or prohibit development officials traveling anywhere the military cannot secure. So we are in essence cutting our ability to bring progress to a nation that has still, in many or even most areas, seen little development.
The US Agency for International Development has been working feverishly to create new and innovative ways to check that projects it pays for go forward without corruption. These methods might involve satellite pictures or locally-hired monitors. This has never been done before and is not likely to turn out well.  And development programs that are suspected to leak money through non-performance or corruption will be shut down if the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, SIGAR, has its way. SIGAR is a profoundly effective watchdog and no fool.
The typical model in post-war situations that actually work, such as Germany, Japan or Korea, is that the US stays on the ground after the fighting ends and builds up the military and government, helping them get better. For instance, we kept 50,000 soldiers in Korea for decades doing just that.
Afghanistan is being short-changed and penalized because the war is still going on.  This is the exact opposite of what should be happening. We should keep 9,800 people there for the next two, five or twelve years, depending on what is needed. To put this commitment in perspective, we have about 700,000 people in the US Army and Marines alone.
President Obama is, in large part, bowing the domestic political pressure.  But he has stoked that pressure himself by seldom making any case that the US has a long-term interest in Afghanistan; probably because he does not believe there is one.  So his thorny political bed is one he helped make.
Unfortunately, the US cannot assume that just because it stops supporting the Afghan government where it needs help the most, that the Taliban will follow suit and stop fighting too.  They will likely fight harder.
According to President Obama, “Now we’re finishing the job we started.”
True.  We’re pulling out all right.  But this plan is simply not responsible as claimed.