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the 5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.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.

“If I try to sell this the Taliban will kill me.”

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Bagram Airfield – US Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Samuel Morse

Last week I wrote about an Afghan vendor and the Taliban. Here is a bonus quote from  another merchant who sells Chinese-made tactical apparel to American service members and contractors. His shop was being shut down along with five others at Bagram Airfield:

“I spent $10,000 on all of this. What will I do? The commander wants us to go, so we will go. The others will sell their rugs and jewelry in Kabul. If I try to sell this the Taliban will kill me.”

The Dichotomy of the Taliban: Student Murderers

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Taliban fighter – photographer unknown

There are two items in the news today about the Taliban: one is the horrific attack on Bacha Khan University in Pakistan and the other is a story about an Afghan man who cut off his wife’s nose and is now being sought by the Taliban. What is interesting to me about these is how they highlight the dichotomy of the Taliban. On the one hand, they are infamous for massacres such as the latest on Bacha Khan university. Yet on the other, they are known for bringing justice and order to the areas under their control — as they are doing with the fugitive husband.

Recently I spoke with an Afghan vendor at Bagram Airfield who also brought attention to this dichotomy. Mohammed, a furs and pottery vendor from the nearby village of Isatalif, spoke of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. As we discussed Afghan/American cultural differences and eventually the Taliban, he seemed to have some respect for the Taliban’s ability to arbitrate justice.

Having moments ago praised them, Mohammed now observed the irony of the Taliban, noting that Taliban means students, yet they attract uneducated thugs.

With what seemed like the tiniest hint of nostalgia, he described how adultery was not tolerated in villages under Taliban control — both offending men and women would be whipped. He mentioned the Taliban’s enforcement of an infamous punishment for thieves in the Quran: the cutting off of one’s hand. As a shop owner, he seemed to specifically like this aspect of Taliban rule.

But later as the topic shifted to his village, his tone changed. He spoke of the Taliban massacre of Istalif after the withdrawal of the Northern Alliance during the Afghan Civil War where the city of 45,000 was razed. Having moments ago praised them, Mohammed now observed the irony of the Taliban, noting that Taliban means students, yet they attract uneducated thugs.

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The partially rebuilt village of Istalif – Wikimedia Commons photo

He went on to describe one of his 12 mile trips home from the American airfield to Istalif in 2012 where a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest detonated himself (possibly this attack) outside of the base close enough to him and his family and coworkers that their truck was damaged.

There is potential that the Taliban will return to power in Afghanistan eventually. The US withdrawal has been delayed, but the Taliban now control more territory in the country than they have since 2001. What does this mean for Afghanistan? Many Afghans seem willing to live under Taliban rule provided they do not have to worry about being blown up on their way home from work. Under Taliban authority, crimes are investigated and punished. Even so, in other areas these “students” murder students.

As for Mohammed, if the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan he has a conditional plan that he shared with a smile:

“If my business is doing the same as now, I will go somewhere like Tajikistan or Iran. But if I am rich, I will get a visa to the USA.”

Happy New Year: The State of Afghanistan 2016

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Last week the United States celebrated its 14th New Year in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in which the US has fought. While 2015 was technically the first year Americans were no longer engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, 22 US military members lost their lives including six US Air Force personnel on December 22nd. In addition to the US military fatalities, another five coalition military personnel perished and more contractors — who outnumber US troops three to one — but for them no official numbers are kept.

This is the year the US war in Afghanistan was planned to end. The 9,800 troops in country were intended to be cut in half  by the end of 2015 with a slow withdrawal of the remainder by the end of 2016 (much like the Iraq withdrawal.) But there were some . . . issues with the Iraq withdrawal and the security situation in Afghanistan is the worst it has been since 2001. Even in Kabul, it is too dangerous for the State Department to drive from the Embassy to the airport.

The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash.

So instead, at least 5,500 troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of the Obama presidency where the next administration will decide how to proceed with the war that the US has been fighting since Carson Daly hosted MTV’s Total Request Live.

The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash. Despite the $685 billion spent, over 3,500 US and coalition troops killed, and perhaps 200,000 Afghan civilians killed, the Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan today than they have since the 2001 invasion.

Unfortunately, as 2016 rolls in the Taliban is not the only failed American objective in Afghanistan. Even al-Qaida is enjoying a resurgence. In October of last year, “probably the largest” AQ training camp was destroyed in Kandahar province. One spanned over 30 square miles — roughly three times the size of the largest US base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield (though much less populated.)

Additionally, there is a new threat in Afghanistan in 2016 that did not exist fourteen years ago: Islamic State. IS only controls small portions of southeast Afghanistan now (see this excellent Frontline episode) but could gain momentum if they keep paying large signing bonuses to former Taliban fighters.

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Taliban and Islamic State Control Areas in Afghanistan December 2015 – Institute for the Study of War Graphic

Looking forward, 2016 will be another challenging year for US forces in Afghanistan. 2015 brought a large, but mostly unsuccessful offensive from the Taliban that allowed them to briefly control Kunduz. They did not manage to capture any more city centers, but 2015’s warm winter has prevented a traditional lull in the fighting season. Only a week into 2016, the US has found itself in a “combat situation” once again in Marjah, with one Army Special Forces soldier killed and two others injured.

It is clear that as US and coalition partners reduce their military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban, AQ, and other unfriendly actors will fill the power vacuum in place of the Afghan government. It also seems unlikely that the Obama administration will commit more troops to a war it pledged to end.

I do not anticipate the state of Afghanistan in 2016 to become more secure — and it is not foreseeable that the US will find an endpoint to its counterterrorism mission this year. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it will probably be 2017 before any meaningful policy shift in either direction occurs from the United States. For now, Afghanistan will continue to exist in a strange state of non-war where American combat operations do not occur but combat situations do.

Political violence in the Information Age

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The internet’s role in changing 20th century political norms is well known, especially since 2011’s Arab Spring movement and social media’s huge role in it. But it is not just social media that is supporting radical change. In 2014 the most Googled “recipe” in Ukraine was for Molotov cocktails (beating Easter bread, homemade pizza, and “Vyshyvanka cake.”)

What did Google point these inquiring Ukrainians to? Answer: A Wikipedia article in Russian about Molotov cocktails.

As a millennial I naively wonder, “How was this knowledge passed around before the internet?” Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have an entry for Molotov cocktails. In the 1990s it seemed like you could find things like this in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, but that was still online. Said Cookbook’s only publisher stopped publishing it because they had a “responsibility to the public.” Ironically, Wikipedia’s priorities are more populist by disseminating information on how to make homemade incendiaries.

Like all discussions about the internet, it poses the question, “What did we ever do without it?” Obviously, political violence, insurgencies, and revolutions existed before the internet, but can they exist without it now? Al Qaeda infamously eschews digital communication in favor of couriers, but they have been completely eclipsed by Islamic State as the premiere jihadist movement in the world. And IS has no qualms about using the internet to promote their ideology. Their media arm frequently posts polished videos to YouTube of their human rights abuses (I won’t post a link here) leading to incredibly successful recruitment around the world. Even the music, radio, and television hating Taliban has trolled ISAF on Twitter.

Somehow we have reached a point in history where jihadist message boards have become passé (they’re so 2000s.) That’s political violence in the Information Age.