Here’s your Situation Update for February 14th, 2018

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Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover unconventional warfare around the globe (nobody does conventional warfare anymore — it’s too popular).

The weather forecast this morning is dry with a 70% chance of media-induced feelings of inadequacy. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

United States to add Pakistan to terror financing list according to a senior Pakistan official. The U.S. will likely introduce a motion next week when the Financial Action Task Force meets in Paris. This move comes after the U.S. suspended $1.3 billion in aid to Pakistan last month.

But the U.S. admitted to financing terrorism itself, in effect, when the Director of National Intelligence stated American allies, the YPG, were “the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers Party.” The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is officially listed as a Foreign Terror Organization by the State Department. The Turkish government has long claimed the YPG were part of the PKK, but the YPG and the U.S. has denied these claims.

Whose problem are British Islamic State fighters is something that Britain and the U.S. do not agree about. The British government thinks the fighters are now Iraq or Syria or somebody else’s problem, while the U.S. thinks those fighters should stand trial in Britain, and if the not there, then at least go to Guantanamo.

Iran asks U.S. to leave Syria, defending its own military presence there as legitimate as it was invited by the Syrian government. Iran now joins Syrian rebels and Turkey in calling for a U.S. withdrawal. In response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded Iran-backed militias out of Syria. He also asked the same in Iraq in October, but so far they have not complied.

The Taliban reaches out to Americans directly in a 16,000 word letter sent to the media. “Prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else,” they say. True enough, but the Taliban doesn’t understand that the American people, by and large, just don’t give a shit.

Former Bush Administration official to be new Syria envoy in the latest example of nothing matters and time is a flat circle. Mr. Hannah served as Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser for the Middle East and later as his national security adviser.

An Afghan Shiite militia helped defeat Islamic State in Syria and a new piece in War on the Rocks examines what their next move may be. The militia is supported by Iran and many of the Afghan militiamen’s families live in Iran, but the many of the seasoned combat veterans have been fighting for years and they may prove useful to Iran elsewhere.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section, but answers were given up for Lent. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Thursday, February 15th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 8th, 2018

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Australian Defense Force photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover the globe’s various conflicts (a narrow topic, I know).

The weather forecast this morning is sunny with a 30% chance of shutdown. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Try and make us leave is what the publicity tour of Manbij, Syria by two U.S. generals seemed to say. In Tuesday’s Situation Update I wrote that Turkey’s President Erdogan told U.S. officials “Why don’t you just go?” In response, Maj. Gen. Jamie Jerrard told press while standing next to an armored truck with an oversized American flag flying from it, “We’re very proud of our positions here, and we want to make sure everybody knows it.”

Later, U.S. struck pro-Assad forces after coming under attack in Deir ez-Zor, a Kurdish stronghold near the Euphrates River in Western Syria. This marks the third known time U.S. forces attacked Syrian government or pro-Assad forces.

The U.S. policy in Syria is to keep it weak, divided, and poor says Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis. Landis is known as one of the U.S.’s top Syria experts. Landis claims this foreign policy hurts U.S. enemies, Iran and Russia, and helps its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Duterte’s drug war may be war crimes or why would the International Criminal Court open an investigation? The complaint against the Phillipean president includes “extrajudicial killings that dated back to the late 1980s.”

Over 300 child soldiers freed in South Sudan in a rare bit of good news from the five-year conflict there. Over a quarter of the child soldiers were girls and the effort was led by the United Nations. According to the New York Times, “The United Nations has helped win the release of almost 2,000 child soldiers in the past few years. More than 10 percent of them have been younger than 13.”

A Brussels neighborhood tries to overcome its terrorist legacy by both increasing policing and improving opportunities for its foreign, Muslim residents. The neighborhood, Molenbeek, is infamous for being where the terrorists who killed over a hundred people in Paris and dozens more in Belgium.

Increased air strikes in Afghanistan but no hope for an end to the stalemate, says International Crisis Group. “Both sides are unleashing more violence based on the same rationale that it would tilt this stalemate to favor their conditions at the table.”

Libyan commander wanted by ICC turned himself in two days ago to Russian-supported forces in Libya, but was immediately freed. It’s the thought that counts?

Turkey to host a summit with Russia and Iran highlighting a shift away from the U.S. and NATO.

Syrian strikes continue near Damascus killing 21 and injuring over 100.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but answers will be given through FOIA request only. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Friday, February 9th, 2018.

Year in review: 2017’s most read articles

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Department of Defense photo

Look, I don’t know how else to say this: it’s been a hell of a year. The news cycle moves so fast that in the time it takes to research, write, reflect, edit, and publish, it’s already yesterday’s news. And in 2017, yesterday’s news might as well be last year’s news.

In a country where people are worried about what bad thing could happen to them next, it’s been difficult to write about what’s happening on distant battlefields or in the abstract within the national security apparatus.

So, I want to thank you, the reader. Your views, shares, and comments are sincerely appreciated. Thank you for suffering through dystopia fatigue and supporting Insurgentsia this year.

Thank you to my readers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Australia. After the United States, you were my top countries for readership. I appreciate you taking the time to read yet another American perspective.

I also want to thank photographer Amber Clay. I used many of her striking photos in my articles this year. You can find more of her work here.

I look forward to continuing to cover political violence, terrorism, and small wars for you in the new year. And in 2018, I want to hear more from you. Send me your ideas for submissions here.

In case you missed it, here are 2017’s most popular articles:

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The Google Memo and its Implications on National Security

In August, an internal memo at Google written by a misogynist software developer went viral. Unfortunately, his sexist ideas aren’t only limited to Silicon Valley, they’re also present in defense circles.

Trump Announces Afghanistan War Strategy, No One Gives a Shit

In August, President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, but no one gave a shit. Distancing himself from the war under Obama, Trump proclaimed additional troops and no timelines, but no one gave a shit.

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Why Trump Supporters Think #covfefe is a Secret Message to Terrorists

In June, Trump’s fat fingers caused his undereducated supporters to study Arabic for the first time in their lives. The results were predictably hilarious and disastrous.

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Trump’s War in Syria: What You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

In April, Trump launched some cruise missiles at Syria and it made people wonder whether we were going to start a war there. Boy, were they in for a surprise.

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The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan

In April, a big bomb was dropped in Afghanistan. Future historians will likely know it as the only bomb dropped in Afghanistan that Americans ever cared about in the decades-long war.

Nobody Wants Erik Prince’s Contractors Running Afghanistan

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Blackwater employees in a firefight in Iraq

After almost 16 years of continuous war, recent redoubling efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overall expansion of the once-named “Global War on Terror”, sometimes it feels like Americans have learned nothing in the last decade and a half.

But if there is one thing they have apparently learned, it is that they do not want Blackwater founder Erik Prince running Afghanistan.

The New York Times published an op-ed by Prince on Wednesday in which he predictably argues that contractors are the solution in Afghanistan. His plan, rejected by President Trump after asking for private business solutions in Afghanistan, involves removing all conventional troops and the contractors that support them.

Instead, Prince proposes 2,000 special operations forces and 6,000 contractors. The contractors would among other things, patrol with Afghan forces. Contractors that fight in wars are also known as mercenaries.

But it turns out it is not just Trump who is not having it from Prince. Many Twitter users mocked the piece this morning — pointing out the absurdity in the obviousness of Prince’s position:

Some created parodies of the piece:

Contractors are not inherently bad. I worked as a security contractor in Afghanistan guarding a post so some soldiers or airmen did not have to. It was not shadowy. I was not a mercenary.

But what Prince proposes would fundamentally change how the U.S. conducts war. The guy whose company was responsible for the Nisour Square massacre does not need to be at the table in the debate over the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Looks like we are learning from our mistakes after all.

Trump Announces Afghanistan War Strategy, No One Gives a Shit

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, but no one gives a shit. Distancing himself from the war under Obama, Trump proclaimed additional troops and no timelines, but no one gives a shit.

Trump did not mention any key strategic goals besides the defeat of the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. Trump was secretive about how many more troops would be sent to Afghanistan or what exactly they would be doing, but no one gives a shit.

“Retribution will be fast and powerful,” said Trump of the war launched nearly sixteen years ago in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but no one gives a shit. By not defining any standards for success, Trump is likely shielding himself from any political fallout as conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, but no one gives a shit.

In truth, such ambiguity by the president may not be necessary. The American public does not seem to attribute any political cost to the war. In the three 2016 presidential debates, Afghanistan was mentioned just one time—in passing—but no one gives a shit.

The speech countered what Trump has said about Afghanistan in the past. Tweeting multiple times from 2011 through 2013, Trump said the war in Afghanistan was a mistake and the United States must leave, but no one gives a shit.

As the war in Afghanistan drags on endlessly, new benchmarks are created. In July, the first American soldier to be a toddler during 9/11 was killed, but no one gives a shit.

American troops in Afghanistan are committed to two concurrent missions: training and advising Afghan forces under NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, and destroying Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, but no one gives a shit.  IS-K did not exist when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Perpetual war destabilized the country enough to allow room for new radical groups to flourish, but no one gives a shit.

Besides IS-K, new troops in Afghanistan will face additional threats. The Department of Defense suggested that Russia is arming the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. The burden will not be carried alone, however. NATO members signaled that they are willing to also increase their troop commitments in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The speech was welcomed by the Afghan government. Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan envoy to the U.S., told AP, “We heard exactly what we needed to. The focus on the numbers has taken away the real focus on what should have been: what conditions are required and what kind of support is necessary.” The Afghan budget is 70% dependent on foreign assistance, but no one gives a shit.

Trump is now the third consecutive president to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan

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The last BLU-82, the predecessor to the MOAB, detonated in Utah by the 711th Special Operations Squadron in 2008 (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

The United States dropped a “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan on Thursday targeting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) — its first ever use in combat.

In a statement, the Department of Defense said the bomb, designated the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (the common name being a backronym), targeted and destroyed a tunnel complex used by IS in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan.

The bomb has the largest explosive yield of any non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal at 11 tons. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive capability equal to 15,000 tons. The blast radius is roughly one mile.

The strike took place at 7:32 PM local time in Achin district, where ongoing operations against IS in Afghanistan are being conducted as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and in the vicinity of where Special Forces Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar was killed earlier this week.

According to Ismail Shinwari, the governor of Achin district, the strike took place in a remote, mountainous location and there were no reports of civilian casualties. Recently there has been heavy fighting between Afghan forces and IS fighters in the area.

The weapon’s purpose as an air blast weapon, like the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” before it, is to destroy troop concentrations and equipment, clear explosives, and intimidate enemy forces. It is not a “bunker buster” designed to penetrate the ground or hardened structures. It was designed before the 2003 Iraq War to pressure Saddam Hussein.

While the trend lately in U.S. counter-terrorist airstrikes has been to use smaller, precise bombs and missiles delivered by drones and F-16s to conduct localized surgical strikes against single rooms or vehicles, the MOAB was kicked out of the back of an MC-130.

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A BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” deployed from an MC-130 on a test range in Utah (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

But this is not the first time large area weapons have been used in Afghanistan. In the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Daisy Cutters were used to attempt to destroy Al-Qaida and kill Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, also in Nangahar province. The operation was unsuccessful.

Afghanistan has been the target tens of thousands of airstrikes over the last 15 years. Unfortunately, the amount of civilian casualties per airstrike has risen since 2009, with 2016 the highest year on record. On average, one civilian was killed per every three US airstrikes.

Most civilian airstrike casualties occur in populated areas that the Taliban has infiltrated since most NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. As of early 2017, the Afghan government only controlled 65 per cent of its territory.

However, airstrikes against IS in Afghanistan have been in less populated areas because the U.S. has not given IS room to grow. The U.S. increased its airstrikes against them in early 2016 when reports of thousands of fighters had established themselves in remote areas of Nangahar. Today, the U.S. estimates only 600 – 800 remain.

I have seen a lot of outcry on social media about the use of the MOAB, presumably versus smaller munitions, but a war is still occurring in Afghanistan whether a MOAB is used or not.

If Governor Shinwari is to be believed and no civilian casualties occurred, perhaps it is a legitimate tactical choice to use a large airburst weapon against the few remaining IS fighters in Afghanistan, especially if we do not want them to take population centers.

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A U.S. operator accompanying Afghan commandos (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

Most Americans do not like when American service members are killed overseas. So using a weapon to destroy defenses, IEDs, and potentially psychologically disaffect IS fighters before U.S. Special Forces assist Afghan forces in conducting a dangerous clear and sweep operation on the ground may not be a bad thing.

Time will tell if the weapon was effective (we will have an idea if it is used again), but we should not let ourselves be swept up by the media’s fetishization of military weaponry with sexy names.

The Mass Ordinance Air Blast may be the U.S.’s largest non-nuclear bomb, but at 22,000 lbs of explosive yield it is more comparable to the size of the extensively used drone-launched Hellfire missile (20 lbs) than to “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima (30 million lbs).

One MOAB was dropped on Thursday. In 2016, the U.S. used so many smaller precision-guided weapons like the Hellfire — tens of thousands — that it could not replenish its stocks to keep up with with demand. Which weapon system has had more impact? You do the math.

America’s Longest War Will Continue into Next Presidency

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President Obama delivers speech on Afghanistan on July 6th, 2016

Today, President Barack Obama announced that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan at least until the end of his term. This is an increase from the 5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.

In his speech today, Obama admitted that despite nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan, “the Taliban are still a threat.” He argues that it will “continue to take time for [Afghanistan] to build up military capacity that we sometimes take for granted. And given the enormous challenges they face, the Afghan people will need the support of the world led by the United States.”

During his speech, the White House tweeted in a coordinated communications effort about US progress in Afghanistan. One tweet highlighted the fact that Obama brought 90% of troops in Afghanistan home since taking office.

But the chart in the tweet’s data betrays its title. According to the chart, Obama took office in 2009 with roughly 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. He will be leaving office in 2017 with 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. That leaves 22% of the troops in Afghanistan that were there when he took office. So since taking office, Obama brought home about 78% of “our troops” from Afghanistan.

If we use the surge numbers instead, the tweet makes more sense. Since the surge, troop levels have reduced by 92%, but Obama himself raised the troops from 38,000 to 100,000. He did not inherit that from Bush. And unfortunately, as Obama admitted himself, the Taliban is still a threat. So what was that surge for?

Obama reminds us of what we have accomplished in nearly a decade and a half in Afghanistan: improvements in public health, democratic elections, and a government that is a strong partner with the US in combatting terrorism. But the list seems short when taking into consideration that since taking office, 1,301 American troops and 1,540 contractors have died in Afghanistan. And according to the United Nations, over 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since Obama took office and total casualties have climbed every year of his presidency.

“The Taliban are still a threat.”

– President Barack Obama, July 6th, 2016

As many predicted, the war in Afghanistan will not see any change in the status quo until the next administration. “Today’s decision best positions my successor to make future decisions about our presence in Afghanistan,” said Obama in today’s speech.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that it was a “terrible mistake to get involved there in the first place,” but that he would “probably” have to leave troops in Afghanistan because “that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave.”

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton supported Obama’s withdrawal reversal last year and said, “We have invested a lot of blood and a lot of treasure in trying to help that country and we can’t afford for it to become an outpost of the Taliban and [Islamic State] one more time, threatening us, threatening the larger world.” It does not look like the war in Afghanistan is ending anytime soon.

As I said in my reflections on leaving Afghanistan, Bagram 2035, indeed.

 

Reflections on Leaving Afghanistan

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The sun setting behind the Hindu Kush at Bagram Airfield

My time in Afghanistan is coming to an end and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some of the things I have observed here. I arrived at Bagram Airfield (known as BAF to the military personnel and contractors that call it home) in November of last year and it was my first trip to the country in which the US had been engaged in war for 14 years.

Upon arriving, the large military base seemed empty. It was, in fact, emptying. President Barack Obama had ordered a reduction in Afghanistan from 10,800 troops to 5,500 and then to none by 2017. Bagram is a fortress of an airfield with most of the modern comforts of home: at least two movie theaters, two exchanges (small Wal-Mart like stores), wifi available for free or for cost seemingly everywhere, and numerous bazaars filled with Afghan vendors selling Chinese made knockoffs of American products. But the exchanges were mostly empty, with limits to the number of sodas you could buy — a sign of the base’s imminent closure.

Yet Obama reversed his decision to reduce troop numbers in October last year. As the planning slowly filtered down from the top to the military units on the ground, activity sprung to life. The exchanges began to refill with goods: souvenir t-shirts, electronics, chips and dip, and cases of energy drinks. Construction projects began: large blast walls designed to protect from rocket attacks were moved from one side of the base to another, or sometimes as near as 10 feet away. Tents that served as gyms or multi-use recreation areas were moved 50 meters. Fences were moved 20 meters. Military commanders began to use terms like “Bagram 2025” and even “Bagram 2035” signaling an intention to stay longer, much longer, than the end of Obama’s presidential term.

But there is more to war than just well-stocked exchanges and moving blast walls, though sometimes it is hard to realize it from the confines of a fortress. Indeed, drones and fighter jets left regularly to deliver bombs on Islamic State targets, who were becoming increasingly numerous in Afghanistan. Over the first few months of this year, those targets became less numerous. At the start of the fighting season, American rockets were launched at a Taliban training camp and Taliban rockets were launched at John Kerry.

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Soviet ruins on Bagram Airfield

An infantry battalion from the Fourth Infantry Division rotated into Bagram, but its junior enlisted members were listless. There was no mission for them besides acting as a Quick Reaction Force with little to react to. They walked to and fro the dining facility wearing grimaces on their faces and mandatory gloves on their hands — even in over 90 degree weather. Such is war.

Sometimes it was almost difficult to find a soldier. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber military personnel three-to-one, and this was evident on Bagram. Everywhere one looked, there were civilians, mostly wearing a de facto uniform of hiking boots, earth tone tactical wear made by 5.11, and occasionally a t-shirt bought on base that indicated they were members of the “Taliban Hunting Club” despite the fact they would never leave the confines of the base.

The civilians were not just American, but from all over the world — and their nationalities seemed to define their profession. Afghans worked as merchants and in construction. Indians and other Southern Asians were generally cooks, truck drivers, or bathroom cleaners. Africans were tower security guards. Americans did everything from security, to loading planes, to flying them. On Friday nights one could find the contractors and civilians mingling at Salsa Night in one of the aforementioned tents that had been moved 50 meters.

The US has been at war in Afghanistan for going on fifteen years, but these days it is not so clear what war that is. The two ongoing missions, Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, are to train the Afghan forces and kill terrorists, respectively. The war against the Taliban had been halted, but with the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor in Pakistan under the authority of “self defense” perhaps that will change. President Obama has indicated that in his last months as President, he is open to new ideas about his Afghanistan withdrawal. It was recently announced US troops will now be accompanying Afghan troops on the battlefield again.

Bagram 2035, indeed.

Operation Omari: the Taliban’s Spring Offensive

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Taliban team building in preparation for Operation Omari (Taliban social media photo)

In Afghanistan, between rain and thunderstorms the weather is consistently warm, greenery sprouts up between the rocks, and in the late afternoon the sound of Eurasian tree sparrows chattering while they eat suffuses the air. Spring in Afghanistan also means the cyclical beginning of the fighting season. On April 12th, the Taliban announced its spring offensive, Operation Omari, named after the late Taliban commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In their official announcement, the Taliban begins by reminding how long they have been fighting Americans:

“The Islamic Emirate’s armed Jihad against the American invasion has completed fourteen years and is now in its fifteenth year. Jihad against the aggressive and usurping infidel army is a holy obligation upon our necks and our only recourse for reestablishing an Islamic system and regaining our independence.”

Later, they brag about their successes thus far:

“Under the leadership of the late Amir ul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid (May Allah have mercy upon him) Mujahideen pacified 95 percent of our nation’s territory from wickedness, corruption and oppression, and vanquished the maligned and wicked.”

Assuming that “wickedness, corruption and oppression” is non-Taliban held territory, 95% is an exaggeration. While it is true that the Taliban controls more territory today than they have since the 2001 American invasion, the Taliban currently do not hold any of Afghanistan’s major cities, unlike Islamic State does in Iraq and Syria. However, the Taliban do control a handful of smaller district centers, and contest many more.

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Taliban control areas (ISW graphic)

The overall vision for the Taliban operation is eerily cogent:

“Operation Omari – which was initiated and planned by the Islamic Emirate’s leadership, the leaders of the Military Commission as well as the Emirate’s military planners – focuses, with hope of divine assistance, on clearing the remaining areas from enemy control and presence. Similarly the Operation will employ large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centers. The present Operation will also employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias.

By employing such a multifaceted strategy it is hoped that the foreign enemy will be demoralized and forced to evict our nation. In areas under the control of Mujahideen, mechanisms for good governance will be established so that our people can live a life of security and normalcy.”

Until last fall, the Taliban’s prediction of a demoralized United States withdrawing from Afghanistan might have come true—Operation Omari could have been the last spring offensive against Americans. But in October, President Obama announced that 5,500 American service members (plus coalition troops and contractors) would remain in country until he leaves office, reversing his plan to end the war. The future of the war in Afghanistan will depend on his successor (and the Taliban—the enemy has a say, too).

On Twitter, the Taliban is using the hashtag #OpOmari to publicize attacks. Since the announcement there have been dozens reported, but I have been unable to independently verify nearly all of them. It should be noted that the Taliban is notorious for overstating its capabilities. In 2011, the back and forth between a Taliban Twitter account and the official account of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan made headlines.

Presently, new attacks are being proclaimed even as I write this post. Some, like today’s attack on a police commander over Takhar and Kunduz province, were not invented. War in Afghanistan continues as it has, almost continuously, for the last 37 years.

After 15 Years, Weighing the Options in Afghanistan

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(DoD/Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Yesterday, Anders Corr wrote an opinion piece for Forbes comparing three realistic policy options in Afghanistan: maintain the 13,000 coalition troops indefinitely, increase troops slightly and intensify the air campaign, or withdraw all troops completely.

The current policy of maintaining a limited troop presence does have its benefits of training the Afghan police and military, providing the Afghan National Army with air support, and having some quick reaction force elements in place in case the Taliban’s fabled overwhelming spring offensive finally takes place. Yet it also puts troops at risk, certainly is not free, and does not seem to be making Afghanistan any safer.

As Afghans slowly lose village after village to the Taliban and the security situation in Kabul deteriorates, a natural solution is to do more: increase troops and bomb more things. This seems to be the reaction the current administration is reluctantly leaning into with the recent deployment of an infantry battalion to Helmand  — the first major deployment of combat troops back to Afghanistan since the end of the NATO mission in 2014 — and an increase in operations against Islamic State in the east.

But, as I have written about before, airstrikes without significant and reliable ground forces can do more harm than good. And as Corr’s piece rightly points out:

“If we didn’t win with 140,000 NATO troops, we are unlikely to win with an increase of ten or twenty thousand.”

Thus, if the current troop levels are not working, and increasing troop levels will not work, is it time for the United States to cut its losses and leave? If our war against the Taliban is failing after 15 years and at least $685 billion spent, it is time to stop fighting the Taliban. Corr quotes me in his piece:

“Richard White, a security specialist in Afghanistan, messaged me on the subject. ‘The Taliban insurgency will … only be defeated if it is legitimized into the political system as perhaps Hizbullah and Hamas were.’ White continued, ‘Maybe that can happen without a U.S. military presence, maybe not. I am positive that we cannot continue to invest in Afghanistan with little to no return indefinitely, though.’”

Interestingly, a 2008 Rand study found after an examination of 648 terrorist groups that  the most common way terrorist groups end is by transition to the political process. The US government seems to at least partly understand this and is once again attempting direct peace talks with the Taliban. Terrorism and insurgency are not identical, however, and the study noted that terrorist groups most likely to enter the political sphere were those with narrow objectives.

Perhaps a complete withdrawal makes the most logical sense at this point, but without the American public demanding it, I doubt the US government will willingly leave on its own — after all, it is not their money they are spending. More Americans than ever now consider the Afghanistan war a mistake, but still only a little less than half. And as a prominent Middle East scholar once told me after I submitted a piece on Afghanistan to his blog in the hopes of being reposted:

“I can’t explain it, but the public just usually does not respond to Afghanistan stories.”

As long as Americans continue to not care and the Afghan government continues to request assistance, it is unlikely the US is going anywhere.