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.
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.