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.