We're Losing In Afghanistan And Sprinkling In Troops Won't Likely Change That

Secretary of Defense Mattis has promised yet another new plan for the 16 year-old conflict.

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Within days of the Pentagon gaining the power to set American troop levels in Afghanistan independent of White House approval, there have been reports that the United States may soon send thousands more troops to the war torn country, even though U.S. military officials say they are still crafting a new strategy. But with Taliban and its partners, along with an emergent ISIS faction, continuing to make significant gains, it seems unlikely that the addition of a few thousand troops is any more the answer now than it has been for more than a decade.

On June 14, 2017, during a hearing before members of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirmed that President Donald Trump had given him direct authority to increase and decrease the number of American personnel in Afghanistan. At the time, there were approximately 8,400 U.S. troops in the Central Asian country.

“The delegation of this authority does not in itself change the force levels for Afghanistan,” Mattis said in his written remarks. “This will enable our military to have greater agility to conduct operations.”

Mattis made clear that this ability to rapidly respond to changing and emerging threats was critical if the United States wanted to finally change the course of the more than 15-year old conflict. And it is hard to argue that the situation hasn't become markedly worse in the preceding year and half. Just since Jan. 1, 2017, at least eight American troops have died while supporting the mission, now known as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, including two in a firefight with ISIS-linked militants and another three in a so-called “green-on-blue” insider attack. Afghanistan’s security forces suffered more than 800 fatal casualties in the same time frame, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

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Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Command US Army Gen. John Nicholson and other coalition officials in April 2017. 

In its thirty-fifth quarterly report to Congress, which it released in May 2017, SIGAR also estimated that Afghanistan’s central government had complete authority over just two-thirds of the country. Other experts and observers contended that the true figure was probably even lower given that the American watchdog likely focused just on total numbers of population centers under nominal government control or otherwise free of insurgent influence, rather than total physical area. By most independent accounts, militants operate with virtual impunity in much of the countryside

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that Mattis had earlier given a bluntly negative assessment of the situation on June 13, 2017. At another hearing, this time with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, America’s top defense official answered pointed questions from Arizona Republican John McCain about just how things were going in Afghanistan.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis declared. “We will correct this as soon as possible.”

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He then told the outspoken Senator that the Pentagon was working on a new, comprehensive strategy for prosecuting the conflict, which would be ready for members of Congress to review by mid-July 2017. However, citing the urgent nature of the situation, Mattis added that there were already interim plans underway to make sure the U.S. military and its Afghan and coalition partners wouldn’t “pay a price for the delay.”

There is a definite sense of urgency. For months, insurgents and terrorists have continued to launch increasingly brazen attacks, even inside government-controlled centers, and expand their influence. On March 8, 2017, the Taliban launched a spectacular complex attack on the main military hospital deep inside the capital Kabul, massacring dozens of doctors, other medical staff, patients, and other innocent bystanders. This incident especially called into question just how much control the government has over even its largest and most heavily patrolled cities.

Later that same month, the insurgents overran the government center in Helmand Province’s Sangin District. At the time U.S. Navy Captain William Salvin, the top spokesman for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, tried to downplay the situation by insisting the fighters hadn’t actually taken any of value. Rather than losing control of the strategic district center, the Afghan government had “repositioned the district center,” he claimed. “This move to a new district center has been planned for some time.” The Taliban have also launched new offensive to take over other major hubs, including in and around the long contested city of Kunduz much further north.

Then in June 2017, Afghanistan’s ISIS branch, known formally as ISIS-Khorosan or ISIS-K, reportedly seized control of the infamous Tora Bora cave complex, where Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his group’s top leadership had operated from before fleeing into neighboring Pakistan in December 2001. As American forces found out more than a decade ago, the region is isolated and easily defended. In spite of a massive aerial campaign, including B-52 bombers carpet bombing the area, Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members had escaped unharmed.

ISIS-K has already become well known for making use of Afghanistan’s naturally occurring caves, existing tunnel networks, and other fortified positions. In an attempt to root the terrorists out of a similar position in the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province in April 2017, U.S. special operations forces dropped the huge GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, a 30-foot long 22,600 pound weapon nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, for the first time in combat. A subsequent raid in the same province by American special operators and members of Afghanistan’s shadowy Ktah Khas battalion led to the death Abdul Hasib, the organization’s self-described emir. 

In June 2017, the U.S. Army released an odd, low quality picture of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division firing a BGM-71 TOW missile at an ISIS-K position. American forces have long used anti-tank missiles, such as the TOW and the FGM-148 Javelin, to take out insurgents in Afghanistan hiding inside bunkers or behind other hard cover. 

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This low quality image shows soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division firing a TOW missile at ISIS-K fighters.

On top of that, there have been reports that Russia may be looking to spoil the situation by actively supporting the Taliban in part in retaliation for unrelated U.S. sanctions. Then there's the ever-present concern that Pakistan continues to be an unreliable partner and bad actor in the region, being either unable or unwilling to stop militants, most notably the ethnic Pashtun Haqqani Network, from operating on its side of the shared border with Afghanistan, and undermining any prospects for a lasting peace. Ever mindful of broad power dynamics, China may be looking to take advantage of Afghanistan's weak institutions and the general upheaval in the country in order to boost its influence in Central Asia, too.

So, with Afghanistan already dealing with these potential crises, reports of just what Mattis' more immediate measures entailed seemed to quickly emerge on June 15, 2017, when unnamed sources told The Associated Press that the Pentagon was moving ahead with a deployment of approximately 4,000 troops. Previous reports suggested the U.S. military was considering a mini-troop surge of between 3,000 and 5,000 personnel. The bulk of this new force would be dispatched to advise and assist Afghanistan’s own security forces. At the end of April 2017, approximately 300 U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, but that group replaced an existing U.S. Army unit and didn’t change the size of the overall American presence in the country. However, on June 16, 2017, the Pentagon refuted the new leaks, saying it had made no final decisions on any future troop increases.

To be fair, without knowing the Pentagon’s full plan, it’s difficult to assess how significant any surge could be in the end in achieving its stated goals. Since the United States formally ended its combat mission in December 2014, its advisors have largely been limited to working with higher level headquarters, though special operations forces continued to coordinate and conduct operations at much lower levels. The hope would be that a new influx of trainers would allow them to engage directly within small Afghan military and police units and thereby improve their combat effectiveness. This would also mesh with separate plans for a major modernization and expansion of Afghanistan’s security forces, especially with regards to the country’s air force and special operations elements. In March 2017, unspecified sources told Reuters that the 17,000-strong Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC), then responsible for more than 70 percent of all combat operations across the country, could ultimately double in size. 

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Afghan National Army Mobile Strike Force Vehicles.

Unfortunately, there's no guarantee any of this would work any better than it has in the past. Historically, Afghanistan's endemic corruption has undercut these efforts. SIGAR has routinely found examples of American officials wasting money on unnecessary projects, local contractors defrauding the Untied States and the Afghan government, and more. The country's military has routinely proven unable to quickly absorb deliveries of new equipment, even systems that offer only modest improvements, and put them to good use. And we've seen in Iraq and Syria that "advise and assist" missions with forces that are not able to operate independently of outside support, or are just insufficiently motivated, can easily translate into what most people would reasonably consider combat for American troops.

Even without seeing Mattis' final proposal, there are definitely reasons for skepticism of any plan "win" the war in Afghanistan in general, not least of which because so many of the individuals responsible for crafting the new strategy were involved to some degree in crafting the old ones they now say have failed. While he retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, his fellow Marine, General Joseph Dunford, who is now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the head of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, have been in uniform the whole time. Before taking up his current post, Dunford had held Nicholson’s job title. Nicholson previously served as both a brigade-level and regional commander in Afghanistan. In those positions, they both went on the record with pronouncements that later turned out to be far detached from the reality.

In 2009, Nicholson, then a brigadier general and the top coalition officer in Southern Afghanistan, said he was “unapologetically optimistic” about the upcoming surge of troops that President Barack Obama had recently announced. “To me, to see this increase in U.S. forces means we are now resourcing our counterinsurgency appropriately to accomplish what it is we have laid down in our [Afghanistan-Pakistan] strategy," he continued in an official military interview. “So I am very encouraged and feel that this is going to make a big difference.”

At that time there were more than 50,000 American troops in the country. That number peaked two years later at more than 100,000. Does anyone even remember the highly touted "Af-Pak" strategy? As many were quick to point out in defense of Mattis and his new authorities, the reported additions would be significantly smaller, too. But it also begs the question of how such a small force is supposed to achieve any useful objectives.

Separately, in July 2014, in his role as head of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, Dunford had whole-heartedly endorsed the then-new and now apparently much maligned strategy that would see advisers pull back to work exclusively in larger command centers. “The Afghans no longer need much help fighting the Taliban – they can do that on their own,” he declared in the introduction to an official handbook. One could argue that this should be seen as a more candid assessment since the guide was marked “for official use only” and not necessary intended for public consumption. 

The situation in Afghanistan has not reflected well on either Nicholson’s or Dunford’s comments. It seems likely that further digging would turn up even more dubious remarks after more than a decade of fighting and a carousel of general officers, including many others who have returned to the theater to serve in increasingly senior positions. The situation has become such that even some in the larger U.S. military community have come to view the entire enterprise as good fodder for some pretty dark humor.

But "this administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past," Mattis insisted in his prepared statement on June 14, 2017. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to once again become a launching point for attacks on our homeland or on our allies."

We'll have to wait for him to present and implement his new plan to see if this holds true or not.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com