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A First-Hand Report from Afghanistan

Our effort in Afghanistan is complex and daunting. Our troops there have done great service, but Afghanistan itself is almost unimaginably primitive. I, along with many others, have had mixed feelings about a strategy that sometimes seems to mortgage the success of our often-heroic efforts to the ability of the Afghans to create a decent society.

So, when our friend Pete Hegseth told us that he was assigned to go to Afghanistan as a counter-insurgency instructor, we asked him to let us know what the real story is on the ground. We know of no one more reliable than Pete to convey for our readers an accurate and balanced picture of how things are going in that corner of the world. So, here is Pete’s first dispatch from Afghanistan. It is long, but you won’t find a more knowledgeable, balanced assessment of the situation on the ground in that country anywhere:

It’s been two months since my last update, and six weeks since we arrived in Afghanistan. Mission orientation has been busy; but I’ve also been intentionally deliberate in wrapping my arms around the big, bad, beast known as Afghanistan. This country—and this ten-year-old conflict—contains umpteen layers, complexities, contradictions, and unknowns. The minute I think I know something, I realize I don’t. Most actions here seem to mask a hidden agenda and/or induce unintended consequences. Official accounts sometimes bear only superficial semblance to reality, and external perceptions rarely align neatly with internal motivations.

So, while I’ve assembled plenty of first impressions, that’s all they are—first impressions. To purport to have a holistic understanding of the challenges in Afghanistan—let alone solutions—in just six weeks time, is at best presumptuous, or worse, dangerous. I’ve literally sat down multiple times with the intention of writing this email, only to hold back. We need to get this mission right, and the gravity of what we’re attempting to accomplish here kept me from hastily projecting uninformed observations into an already convoluted, and largely superficial, war conversation. Alas, however, I’ll attempt an initial foray—and we’ll see how the coming months develop.

First, a quick personal update. I’m currently an instructor at the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A), located at Camp Julien in southwest Kabul. It’s a small base, housing primarily Americans, Afghans, Brits, and Australians, among other countries. Life is simple and straightforward, with basic necessities covered (chow, internet, and gym, of course). Nothing else needed; and frankly anything more—like on mega bases—is really just a distraction (hat tip to former ISAF commander, Gen. McChrystal).

As a counterinsurgency instructor, I’ll be focusing the bulk of my efforts—at least initially—on teaching/promoting sustainable governance in counterinsurgency operations, which includes training Afghan ministerial advisors, Afghan Army/Police leaders, Afghan officials, “reintegrated” former Taliban/mujahideen, incoming U.S. units/enablers, and others. We’re also charged with aggregating “best practices” and infusing them into training. Much of the training takes place in Kabul, but thankfully some will include supporting units in the field.

As for actual instruction, I thought you’d appreciate a lighter moment. I was rehearsing my first class in a room full of Afghan interpreters when—mid-sentence—the hand of a young interpreter shot up. I paused, a bit perplexed, and took the question. He immediately asked, “Sir, do you live in New York City?” I said, “No. But I lived there a few years ago.” Smiling proudly, he replied, “Ah yes, I knew it. You talk very fast sir, and everyone who talks fast is from New York City.” Our interpreters are great guys—smart, curious, and hard workers.

As for the mission, our ISAF commander (actually “former” commander, as of yesterday’s change of command) General Petraeus, classifies recent security gains in Afghanistan—which are undeniable in the short term—as fragile and reversible, but real. This assessment should be taken in earnest, and is due to the skill and courage of our warriors in southern Afghanistan. The surge has allowed us to take the fight to the Taliban (and affiliated groups) in the south, and the enemy is on their heals, if temporarily. That said, the operative question around here is—with substantial drawdowns announced and the 2014 “deadline” looming—will it be enough? And will Afghans be able, and willing, to maintain hard-fought gains in perpetuity?

I can’t definitively answer these questions (yet), and as a foot soldier in this effort, will try to minimize my geo-political speculation (a difficult task, for those who know my inclinations). But based on what I’ve seen, heard, observed, read, and studied since arriving, I’ve built a down and dirty list of critical mission factors; some give me optimism, others give me pause (challenges), and still others remain large, looming questions that will impact ultimate war success or failure.

Below I’ve listed four items in each category. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and I plan to dig deeper on every item, and other items, as my tour continues. Take a read, and let me know what you think. Warning, it’s lengthy—grab a frosty beverage and proceed at your own risk.

Reasons for Optimism:

The Strategy and the Surge. Laying aside the President’s recent withdrawal announcement (which is a huge qualifier), the civil-military counterinsurgency strategy being applied across Afghanistan is the right approach; with the surge of 30,000 troops allowing our forces to clear enemy havens, disrupt enemy networks, and expand the influence of local government and security forces. In the past year, U.S. forces have pushed back the Taliban in the south, expanded the Kabul security bubble, and protected key districts across the country. Eastern Afghanistan remains fairly restive, however the plan is to shift forces soon (if prematurely) to improve the security situation there before transitioning to Afghan responsibility.

In order to induce an Anbar Awakening-type “tipping point” in Afghanistan, systematic—and sustained—military pressure must be applied to the Taliban in the south, the Haqqani Network in the east, enemy havens in Pakistan, and other insurgent/criminal elements throughout the country. Only when the bad guys feel the heat—and we create the conditions for population support—can we hope to forge a favorable outcome that furthers our national security interests. I have no doubt that as of now, the surge has favorably changed the dynamic on the ground; however, on the flip side, it’s also a fact (vice speculation), that the announcement of a definitive, dramatic, and swiftly approaching U.S. drawdown has complicated these efforts. As the local Taliban saying goes, “The Americans have the watching, but we have the time.”

Village Stability Operations. The primary goal of counterinsurgency is to separate the population from the insurgency—physically and psychologically—and alongside sustainable and organic local forces, create an environment inhospitable to insurgent return. Our nation-wide strategy has many components attempting to accomplish this, and one specific village-level program is showing particular promise. Similar to the successful “Combined Action Platoons” in Vietnam, Village Stability Operations (VSO) insert small U.S. elements (mostly Special Forces) into key villages to protect the population. While our conventional infantry brigades focus on the large cities and population centers, these small units clear more remote areas, train Afghan Local Police, and empower local leaders to provide basic services for the people that connect them to their government. It’s a high-risk/high-reward initiative that is intended to squeeze insurgents in their backyard.

This new program, which was championed by General Petraeus and is barely a year old, has been implemented in over 40 “districts” (collection of villages) so far, all of which were previously insurgent strongholds and/or safe havens. Thus far the program has trained over 7,000 Afghan Local Police—men who are vetted, equipped, mentored, and trained to protect their village. If attacked, these local forces call regular Afghan Army and Police forces for backup, and thus far cooperation has been generally good. On the downside, due to reservations from President Karzai (he’s worried about someone else having power outside the capital), the program is limited in scope—currently only authorized for 5 years and capped at 100 districts and 30,000 local police. It’s a fantastic—and long overdue—counterinsurgency concept; the only question is—with the clock ticking, does it create enough mass and momentum quickly enough?

Afghan National Army. With each day, the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Army (and to a lesser extent the Afghan National Police) grows stronger. In the past year, over 80 infantry battalions have been added to the Army alone; recruiting is up, desertion down, literacy growing, and some units are starting to operate independently (although no Army or Police units are yet fully independent of U.S. support). The Army is 164,000 strong—with plans to grow to 260,000 by 2015. Significant problems persist (like an Afghan military fixated on conventional warfare, obsessed with Pakistan, and always demanding “more equipment!”), but on balance, we are doing everything possible to build an Afghan Army that will outlast us. The Afghan police are less capable and battling serious corruption and training deficiencies, but American trainers are working to right that ship.

Insurgent groups are ruthlessly attacking (and attempting to infiltrate) this growing source of government strength—as they know the future balance of power will be dictated by the capacity and capability of Afghan security forces, especially the Army. We are countering with more training, more partnering, more vetting, more equipment, and more technology for our Afghan partners. The financial investment is high, but is cost efficient; especially when you consider the fact that while it costs over $1 million a year to sustain a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, it costs only $12,000 to train, place, and maintain an Afghan solider for that same year. Our taxes pay for either option, and based on what I’ve seen so far, the Afghan Army is an investment worth making.

Strike (counter-terrorism) Operations. It is incredible how many bad guys (Taliban, Haqqani, Hezb-e Islami, Al Qaeda, etc.) we kill/capture each day and night. America’s special operators are literally rolling up dozens of insurgency commanders, sub-commanders, and facilitators every 24 hours. Each operation garners intelligence that builds on the next, and our special forces—partnered with increasingly capable Afghan Commandos—have shown an incredible ability to target dangerous insurgent leaders with minimal civilian casualties. (Even though, when we cause an unfortunate—and rare—civilian casualty, the insurgents exploit the heck out of it). These operations are decimating insurgent leadership in some areas, and are fundamental to bringing the enemy to its knees, thereby forcing them to crawl—bloodied and battered—to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. It’s not clear we’ve reached that point yet, but these operations are an important part of getting there.

Challenges:

The Karzai Government. In order for counterinsurgents to prevail, a legitimate government—based on the perception of the population—must exist to control the country, meet the needs of the people, and provide the conditions for stability. It’s not clear that President Karzai, or his government, are willing to be, or capable of being, legitimate. From my perspective, recent actions and comments from President Karzai toward the United States have been duplicitous at best, and downright hostile at worst. He repeatedly denounces U.S.-caused civilian casualties, while never mentioning the Taliban—who statistically kill over 4 times more civilians than we do. In fact, while Karzai has called the Taliban “sons of the soil,” he has denounced U.S. troops (his allies) as “trespassers” and “occupiers.” To quote Senator Pat Leahy (who I don’t normally reference) “[Karzai] can’t seem to make up his mind if he’s on our side or the Taliban.” Karzai’s words and actions make it increasingly clear that he is predictably (and in many ways, understandably) hedging his bets on the future—distancing himself from the U.S. and cozying up to the likes of Iran, Pakistan, and certain Islamist insurgent groups (namely Hezb-e Islami).

From the perspective of the Afghan people—which matters far more—the Karzai government is seen as corrupt, ineffectual, and largely illegitimate. The system Karzai maintains is a democracy on paper, but is still dominated by tribal loyalties, patronage networks, personality cults, and nefarious actors. While military institutions are growing, the political and ministerial functions of the government remain anemic. (Which is why the training and employment of ministerial advisors is so critical). The central government wields power, money and influence inside Kabul, and is connected to many of the provinces. However, below the provincial level—where the rubber meets the road at the district and village-level—the government of Afghanistan is largely non-existent. The fraudulent 2009 elections solidified this feeling for most people, and the recent extra-Constitutional attempts by President Karzai to unseat Parliamentary rivals stoke fears that he plans to continue consolidating power.

Afghan Dependency and Lack of Sustainability. Stand-alone statistics are not always valuable, however I’ve found a few top-line figures regarding Afghanistan’s economic and military dependency that are worth noting. First, according to the World Bank, 97%—Ninety-Seven Percent!—of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product is linked to foreign aid; and the opium trade likely accounts for a good chunk of the remaining 3%. Another fact: since 2001 (so, for 10 years) the United States has spent $456,000 an hour, every hour, on non-military developmental aid alone. Some quick math, and that’s about $40 billion over 10 years (which, by comparison, equates to only 5% of our $787 billion stimulus plan). Numbers like $40 billion are not bad in-and-of-themselves, but when you inject that kind of money into a third-world country that has neither the capacity nor capability to absorb it, you will create perverse, if unintended, outcomes. In this case, we have created a dependency culture that is not sustainable and produces endemic and corrosive corruption—bloating and distorting their economy in countless ways.

When I’ve debated critics of the Afghan War in the past, I’ve often said, “we’re not nation building in Afghanistan, we’re capacity building.” I was wrong. While we are definitely building capacity (training the Afghan military), it’s also undeniable that we have attempted to build a nation as well—for better and for worse. However, unlike Iraq—which had the physical, human, and institutional infrastructure to support modern development—Afghanistan has does not. We are not rebuilding in Afghanistan—we are building almost from scratch. And it’s nearly impossible to sustain economic and governmental development when the government collects almost no taxes and is nearly completely financially dependent on international donors. At some point, relatively soon, financial resources will decrease, and I’m not certain we’ve done enough—not for a lack of trying—to ensure the Afghans will be able to sustain even the simple standard of living that exists today.

On the military side, the numbers are equally daunting. Since 2002 we have (wisely) spent $35 billion to establish and maintain the Afghan police and military. And in 2012 alone, training and equipping the Afghan military will cost $13 billion—the single largest line item in the Department of Defense budget. This number alone is not cause for concern; to win a war, you need to spend money, and spend it on forces that can maintain the peace. However, consider the fact that Afghanistan’s entire GDP is approximately $16 billion and the national government’s entire domestic tax revenue last year was less than $2 billion (by comparison, my home state of Minnesota had $32 billion in tax revenue last year). How then do we expect to maintain a robust—and growing—Afghan military in perpetuity? The International Monetary Fund (optimistically) predicts the Afghan government won’t be capable of covering Afghan security forces costs until 2023, and the Afghan government has already acknowledged it cannot pay to maintain any of it. Unless we continue to pick up the tab, something will have to give. Maintaining a professional force in Afghanistan will be costly and a long-term line item for U.S. taxpayers; however, if successful, it represents a small price to pay to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for radical Islamists.

Taliban Resiliency, Ruthlessness, and Justice. Despite unrelenting military pressure, the Taliban remains resilient. Their popularity still hovers in the low teens, but their grip of fear on the population remains strong. They have been pushed out of their traditional strongholds and their capabilities have been degraded, but they are far from defeated. Likewise, our efforts to delegitimize the Taliban are faltering, as the Taliban have “shadow governments” in 33 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, many of which maintain swift judicial and governance mechanisms. The fact is, at the ground level, the Taliban are usually much more effective at providing swift, if harsh, (and fair, as perceived by the people) justice. In short, the Afghan government is being “out-governed” by the Taliban. A recent example is telling. In Kunduz Province, it took only 3 hours for the Taliban to resolve a dispute that the local government hadn’t resolved after 3 years of arbitration, bribes, and inefficiency. Corruption in the Afghan government is literally pushing people into the hands of the Taliban.

Couple this fact with the sheer ruthlessness and tenacity of the Taliban, and the future is highly uncertain. Ideologically motivated and utterly merciless (using 8-year-old girls to deliver suicide attacks), the Taliban may not control a single town—but they have a psychological grip on the people (and the government, especially following killing of President Karzai’s brother in Kandahar). A contact living in Kabul and working for a local international human rights organization put it well, “Even here in Kabul, the people live in a steady state of anxiety and despair, scared of the ruthless enemy that controls the underground and has a huge psychological impact. Then they have to look to a corrupt government that doesn’t really protect them.” An Afghan Nation Army colleague from Ghazni Province added, “If you want to travel safely, a beard (a quasi-symbol of the Taliban) is a passport throughout Afghanistan.” This is a dynamic we—with the Afghan government and military—must reverse if we hope for a stable outcome here.

Pakistan. As you know, Pakistani duplicity has been a hot topic lately. The Bin Laden raid blew the lid off the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, exposing the deep fissures within the Pakistan government and military. We got Bin Laden and afterwards the Pakistani government arrested Pakistanis who assisted with the raid and expelled multiple American assets—bowing to internal anger about the unilateral U.S. operation. That said, there is still no doubt we have a vested and critical interest in helping the Pakistani Army defeat dangerous, Islamist movements inside their borders (heck, we basically equip and pay them to fight radical groups on our behalf). There are indications the Pakistani Army may finally move on North Waziristan, a hornet’s nest of AfPak insurgents along the border. A true effort there—combined with a surge in eastern Afghanistan by our forces—could squeeze Haqqani & Co., significantly impacting developments in Kabul (and Islamabad).

However, while the Pakistani Army targets the groups they see as a threat to their existence (Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban), they mostly look the other way on groups they believe can advance their interests regarding India and Afghanistan—namely Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Quetta Shura (Afghan Taliban HQ), and the Haqqani Network (although this could change if they move on North Waziristan). Thus far, Pakistan has shown minimal sustained willingness to dismantle the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani Network (which combined includes tens of thousands of fighters inside their borders) because they believe that when the coalition leaves Afghanistan, both entities can provide “government in-a-box” to two critical areas in Afghanistan—the Taliban in the south and Haqqani in east, providing a pro-Pakistan buffer between Kabul and Pakistan.

We have to deal with Pakistan in this matter because they have nuclear weapons. If they didn’t, the entire U.S.-Pakistan dynamic would be different. Instead, the most violent and dangerous Islamic insurgents in the world preside in Pakistan, and we are forced to tap dance around the Durand Line. This fact doesn’t diminish the importance of Afghanistan, because like water, insurgents/terrorists will follow the path of least resistance (and, as a point of fact, 90% of insurgents in Afghanistan are from Afghanistan, not Pakistan). As soon as the Coalition reduces pressure in Afghanistan, the water will flow back in. This fact also underscores how important it is that Iran not be allowed to acquire nuclear capabilities. The U.S. and Israel cannot afford to be hamstrung in the same way by Tehran, an arguably more nefarious regime.

Looming Questions:

Transition. In the first concrete step towards a complete transition, tomorrow seven “key districts” will transition to complete Afghan control. The areas include relatively stable areas, with the notably exception of Lashkar Gah—the capital of Helmand Province and former Taliban stronghold. All seven areas should be closely monitored (especially Mazar-i-Sharif as well), however Lashkar Gah will be the most important bellwether. Coalition and Afghan forces will do our best to ensure success, and the Taliban will focus their efforts on de-legitimizing the transition. Many local residents are eager for Americans to leave, others say the Taliban will come back (fearing the buzzword “transition” is really just an excuse to leave). Actual developments in Lashkar Gah, Mazar-i-Sharif, and the five other districts will provide raw and objective data as to whether the forthcoming transition to Afghan control is on track, or hasty.

Taliban Talks. Are we negotiating from a position of strength? Can the Taliban be considered honest brokers and/or rational actors? Can any deal with the Taliban truly usher in a peaceful, and tolerable, power-sharing arrangement? The answers to these questions have enormous ramifications, and are yet to be completely known. I certainly don’t trust the Taliban to negotiate in good faith (and believe they’re pursuing a subversive strategy to take down the government from within), but ultimately Afghans need to come to some sort of a settlement. These talks should be watched closely, along with the atmospherics that drive them (on his recent trip, Sen. McCain saw “no signs whatsoever” that the Taliban were willing to engage in talks). As Sen. McCain knows better than most, we would be well served to remember the last time we tried “peace with honor”…

Reintegration. Since arriving in Kabul, I’ve heard two fantastic briefs from British Major General Phil Jones, the man charged with leading the effort to “reintegrate” former insurgents back into Afghan society. His mantra: “take the fighter out of the fight.” The concept is sound—allow fighters to quit the insurgency, turn in their weapons, and return home. The program is community driven, centered on grievances, and focuses on preserving the dignity and honor of former fighters (which is huge in Afghanistan). However, like most things in Afghanistan, the nascent concept (only 10 months old) is yet to yield decisive results. So far the bulk of those attempting to reintegrate are from the more stable north and west regions, and are non-ideological, low-level fighters. Number wise, over 1,700 “fighters” have enrolled in the program, and only 3 have been “reintegrated.” This total is only a small fraction of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan.

Major General Jones says thousands of fighters could be waiting to reintegrate, but what are they waiting to see? Proof of the re-integration concept? Afghan Army/Police strength? U.S. commitment and will? Taliban strength…or a deal with the Taliban? The military pressure of the surge has helped create the conditions for some former insurgents to give up the fight, but will it be enough to convince hard-core fighters and mid-level commanders to reintegrate in-masse? The fact that we can’t kill every insurgent in Afghanistan makes this effort critical, and these questions particularly important. We don’t have definitive answers yet.

Political Will. President Obama—and now Secretary Panetta—have made it very clear that U.S. commitment and contribution to Afghanistan are limited in time, troops, and scope. We are leaving (“transitioning”) by 2014, come hell or high water. And, as multiple polls have shown, the majority of Americans agree with the basic concept. Smelling poll numbers above the magic 50% Maginot Line, politicians on the left and right are coalescing around supporting physical and financial withdrawal from Afghanistan. The presidential election will impact this discussion, as will events on the ground in Afghanistan. If events improve and transition goes well, we’ll all be happy to leave as soon as possible. If not, then it will be interesting to see whether events drive policy, or if policy is written in stone.

Well, there ends my pontificating. I’ll shoot to send an email out once every 4-6 weeks, and thank you again for all the prayers and support—especially for my wife Samantha and son Gunner. They are the best…and a proud husband and father can’t resist sending a quick picture of my two favorite people on the 4th of July.

Finally, as I write this from the comfort of my base in Kabul, I urge you to remember the guy—dirty, tired, sweaty, and hungry—on patrol somewhere in no-man’s-land Afghanistan. He is fighting as I type this. We must always remember that, and remember him in our prayers. He is the linchpin of this effort, and the one who bears the brunt of all the policies we execute.

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