Here’s your Situation Update for February 26, 2018


Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a regular feature from Insurgentsia that covers irregular war and runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover small wars, but big things can come in small packages.

The weather forecast this morning is clear with a 30% chance of reflexively calling someone you don’t like at work a Russian bot. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

“It’s high time to stop this hell on earth,” said the United Nations General Secretary referring to the cease-fire in Syria. Adopted over the weekend, the 30-day ceasefire was drafted in response to the relentless campaign by Syrian government forces on a suburb of Damascus that has killed hundreds, targeted protected civilians, and possibly used chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the cease-fire has yet to have any effect, as Syrian government forces continue to attack eastern Ghouta under the pretense of attacking Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group that is effectively a rebranded al-Qaida.

“The patriarchy really is over,” joked a Kurdish woman in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in this article about how Marxist theory from an imprisoned terrorist in Turkey has revolutionized the power women have in Kurdish society. But as Kurdish militias like the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its female counterpart, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) liberate majority Arab towns from Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh), these Arab areas, traditionally male-dominated and conservative, also get Kurdish-created feminist governments. One Arab resident of Manbij told the New York Times, “To understand the current situation, think of ISIS, but at the other end of the spectrum.” He’s making a point about radicalism, but “the opposite of ISIS” seems like pretty high praise to me.

Three Taliban attacks in southern Afghanistan killed 20 Afghan soldiers on Saturday. In one attack, Taliban fighters used an American Humvee as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), packing it explosives and detonating it. During the attacks the Taliban fighters stole another American Humvee and captured “a lot of light and heavy weapons.”

Russian state media tried to pass off a video game as footage from Syria in a bizarre example of Russian disinformation in the news. This would be like Fox News showing footage of Call of Duty and saying it was from heroic action in Iraq. We praise the Russians for being good at disinformation, but they do so much of it that maybe it’s just the successes that get attention while these obvious failures slide under the radar.

Turkey occupied a portion of Syria’s Afrin province that it shares a border with. The campaign to enter Afrin has met resistance both from the YPG that Turkey is attempting to destroy and pro-Assad militias sent to assist the YPG in repelling Turkey. The Turkish army said the operation meant it was ready for a “new battle” and deployed special forces units to the area.

Missing Nigeria girls now number 110 after a Boko Haram attack last week. Previous reports said 75 girls were missing and that they had all been rescued.

Plan to truck oil from Northern Iraq to Iranian refineries delayed due to security concerns. Iraq recently launched an offensive to clear the area of militants, but now Iran is concerned it cannot guarantee the trucks will not have explosives on them.

Questions still linger over an American airstrike in Iraq that occurred in January in Anbar province. The town was not under IS control and it struck the police chief and other security forces as they investigated where a raid was conducted by U.S. forces and Iraqi Army. The locals do not understand why their police chief was target and the U.S. is mum on the reason for the strike. One theory is a local used the American air power to solve a personal problem.

Despite over a decade of supporting the troops, women veterans don’t feel supported says a woman veteran in this op-ed for The Atlantic. According to the piece, 74% of women veterans don’t feel supported by the general public.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section. Existential questions must be pondered silently. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 27th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 21, 2018

Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a regular feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings (except when it doesn’t, like yesterday). The scope of these posts will cover small wars with big budgets.

The weather forecast this morning is freezing with a 40% chance of a disappointment over things you can’t control. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

The Syrian government is killing people by the hundreds in a Damascus suburb including women, children, and aid workers. The Syrian government has vowed “no quarter” in the rebel-held area. Civilians were never allowed to evacuate. The Syrian government is targeting civilian populations and hospitals. One video uploaded to Twitter showed a now common “double tap” tactic, where an air strike is followed by a second after rescue workers respond to the scene.

The Taliban overran three checkpoints in Western Afghanistan killing 20 police officers. The fighters were wearing night vision goggles. This is the second attack in the area by Taliban fighters wearing night vision devices. The police officers do not have night vision devices themselves. This tactical advantage was once enjoyed by American forces over its enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The goggles are of Russian origin.

Turkey and Iran-backed pro-Assad forces clashed in Northern Syria in a new twist in the competition between regional powers waging war there. Keeping the alliances and conflicts straight between the Syrian government, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf States, and the rebel militias has never been easy, but alliances are being strained as the interests of regional powers compete.

Two French soldiers were killed and a colonel injured by fighters in Mali. The French military has been operating there since 2013, when it intervened to stop Islamic fighters from overthrowing the government.

More than 90 schoolgirls in Nigeria are missing after a Boko Haram attack. “I saw girls crying and wailing in three Tata vehicles and they were crying for help,” said a witness. This is the largest abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram since 270 went missing in 2014, sparking the #bringbackourgirls social media movement amplified by First Lady Michelle Obama.

So we fixed the glitch. The latest Pentagon budget does not including salaries for Iraqi Kurdish militias. The fighters, collectively known as the Peshmerga and long-time U.S. allies, stopped receiving salaries from the U.S. government when the Kurdistan Regional Government held an independence referendum against American wishes in September. The latest budget hints the temporary halt in payments may be permanent.

Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria are relocating to the Philippines. The fighters are joining rebel groups already operating in the country’s south.

A U.S. air strike killed three al Shabaab fighters in Somalia said a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, adding that no civilians were killed in the attack.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section, but answers have their own value that is completely independent from outside perception, just like you. 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 22th, 2018.

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

Manning the gun

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 12th, 2018


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 the globe’s military operations other than war (oddly enough, this is another name for war).

The weather forecast this morning is freezing with a 30% chance of strained Clausewitz references. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Gaza is starving and the world wonders if that will affect them this piece from The New York Times seems to say. Gaza has long been blockaded by Israel, but the tiny strip of land with two million people living there found ways around the economic siege to survive. Namely, tunnels into Egypt provided Gaza with goods and a tax revenue on those imported goods. But Egypt has cracked down on the tunnels and Gazans must turn to Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah is not keen to work with Gaza because it is ruled by a rival party, Hamas. With no where to turn, Hamas may turn to violence against Israel to draw international sympathy and aid.

Kobani, Syria is preserving a neighborhood destroyed by war by turning it into an open air museum. During the battle to win back Kobani from Islamic State, Kurdish fighters supported by  U.S. and allied air power targeted and destroyed areas where militants were operating. “A reinforced-concrete, three-story house on the street was pancaked. ‘Everyone in that house is dead now,’ said Mustafa, a 40-year-old mechanic,” says the article about part of the area preserved.

Anti-IS campaign in Iraq caused $45.7 billion in damage says a new study by the World Bank and Iraq. I wonder who will be generously willing to loan the Iraqi government money to rebuild (at a modest interest rate, of course)? The Wall Street Journal vaguely states, “international investors.”

Pakistan-based militants attacked an Indian Army base over the weekend, killing at least six. Indian authorities blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad, an insurgent group that has attacked government forces in Kashmir as well.

Israel bombed Syrian government positions over the weekend in retaliation for the shooting down off an Israeli fighter over Syrian airspace. The loss of the Israeli fighter was the first in three decades.

A Turkish helicopter was also shot down in Syria on Saturday, killing two Turkish soldiers. The Kurdish YPG claimed responsibility and posted a video of the attack.

Pakistani Taliban confirmed deputy leader killed by a suspected U.S. drone strike last week and appointed a new one.

“Tunisia is finished” says one migrant who fled to Europe is this breakdown of the crisis from The Guardian. A crackdown on the smuggling routes from Libya, including a deployment of soldiers from Italy, has shifted the business to neighboring Tunisia.

Terrorism is not as useful lens for understanding violence in the Sahel said Nathaniel Powell of King’s College London for War on Rocks last week. Support for authoritarian regimes in squashing violent dissent is not helpful in the long run, he argues.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but we are unaware of answers at this time because we were traveling. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 13th, 2018.

C.I.A. under Pompeo to join Defense Department in endless, pointless war against Taliban in Afghanistan


Afghan soldiers on patrol in 2011 (DoD photo)

The New York Times reported Sunday that the C.I.A. broadened its Afghanistan mission from hunting al-Qaida and developing Afghan intelligence capability to fighting the Taliban. The piece explained the significance best:

“The C.I.A. has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.”

The CIA has a complex history in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, it provided weapons and financial assistance to Islamic fighters with ties to Pakistan during Operation Cyclone. The program was portrayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.

After the Islamic fighters, or mujahideen (literally those who commit jihad), defeated the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in 1992, the C.I.A. mostly abandoned the country until the 2001 invasion in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on September 11th.

With the help of a handful of special operations troops, the C.I.A. allied itself with a group of fighters in Afghanistan called “The Northern Alliance,” to overthrow the Taliban government. The Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in 1996 after a bloody civil war as a partial result of the C.I.A.’s involvement in the 1980s.

Then, the C.I.A. let the conventional military begin what has become known as the forever war: dozens of rotations of military officers and units fighting in 6-14 month deployments in Afghanistan with less than ideal continuity between them. After a decade and a half of this, with troop numbers ranging from a few thousand to 100 thousand, the Taliban implausibly controls more territory now than it has since 2001.


Afghan and U.S. soldiers on patrol in 2010 (DoD photo)

But now under the leadership of Director Mike Pompeo, the former Congressional Representative from Kansas, appointed by Trump, the C.I.A. is back in the Taliban fighting game.

Pompeo is not known for his wisdom or restraint. As a Congressman, he said many foolish things on national security. Whether he was making the point that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was the key to our success overseas, or lying about the support of American Muslims for domestic terrorists, he developed a reputation for deplorable brashness.

Most recently, he was caught boldly lying about the agency’s conclusions on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and saying the C.I.A., shamed by revelations of torture in the past decade, should be “more vicious.”

So, the agency’s counter-terrorism direction under Pompeo may not come as a surprise to some. But it is important to understand that whether the C.I.A. kills more Taliban or not, clandestinely killing militants is not a strategy. The United States and Afghanistan governments both plan on fighting Taliban years from now.

If the U.S. wants to bring peace to Afghanistan — a prospect it pays lip service to, but there are few signs this is a true policy objective —  the only way forward is via political settlement with the Taliban. Merely doing away with deadlines to signal to the Taliban that they cannot wait the U.S. out, as the top general in Afghanistan recently told NPR, will not work.

The U.S. cannot wait out the Taliban. Endlessly prolonging combat is not a strategy to defeat the Taliban, let alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, the only public strategy from U.S. officials is: stay forever, kill terrorists (and Taliban). The Taliban are not considered terrorists under the State Departments Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but the distinction seems moot at the moment since they are getting the same treatment.


Delta Force and C.I.A. officers in Tora Bora in 2001 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

To bring peace to Afghanistan, the Taliban must be invited into the political process. They will not stop attacking coalition forces — whom they consider foreign “invaders” and “crusaders” — or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until they have a political stake in it.

A model for this kind of absorption of an armed insurgency into the government as a political party exists in South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others. The Taliban is unlikely to come to the bargaining table while the C.I.A. are on patrols killing their fighters. After all, killing Afghan soldiers and C.I.A. officers has been much more effective for them so far.

Taliban control districts remain unchanged from last year, despite troop increases and heavier C.I.A. involvement. Additionally, Afghan soldiers and police are dying by the thousands. At least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police died in 2016 and in 2017 casualties remain “shockingly high” according to the United Nations.

However badly the U.S. is performing in Afghanistan, its leaders — some elected by the American people, the rest appointed by those elected — continue to fight on aimlessly overseas. As the New York Times Editorial Board quoted retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on Sunday, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.”

The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan


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.


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.


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


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.


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


(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.