Here is Part 2 of "Flirting with Afghanistan," text, photos and captions by Paul Avallone.
(Part 1 is here.)
By 2008, the Taliban had finely honed their roadside bomb-making, -employing and -initiating skills to the point where, as here, a bomb totally demolished the uparmored humvee, immediately killing the four GIs and one Afghan interpreter. September 2008.
Oh, for a return to those halcyon days of the first couple of years of the war, when there was no thought at all about the possibility of losing or the Taliban ever managing a comeback. Then again, we were just a lone Green Beret team in a big province, and with our hundred-plus militia of Afghan fighters culled from the best of the local warlords' armies (for a price to the warlords, of course, from an unlimited CIA stash of cold cash), we had complete control. As operators on the ground, our concern was not our Washington, D.C., leaders' big-geopolitical strategic picture that should have been taking into account the possibility of a very wounded Taliban recovering then resurging then swarming back in one day. Did they take that into account? It sure doesn't look like it.
Back in 2003, the sum total in the country, all American military personnel—Army infantry, Green Berets, Air Force, Delta, Seals—numbered less than ten thousand. Had someone said that within a few years the Taliban would outnumber our 2003 forces by more than two to one at twenty-five thousand, we would have laughed it off, not imagining it even remotely possible. Then again, all we had to go by was the little picture of Nangarhar.
It was mid-2006 when the honky-dory here turned dicey. Contrary to popular media opinion then, the Bush Administration had not really neglected Afghanistan, unless you consider neglect to be a doubling of the under-ten-thousand-strong 2003 force to twenty thousand by 2006. At the same time, the NATO mission, called the International Security Assistance Force (or, ISAF, pronounced "I-saf"), had doubled its 2004 numbers to twenty thousand. It was then in 2006 the Bush Administration's intent to turn the entire conventional part of the war over to NATO/ISAF, with a U.S. pullout to begin in the autumn.
The start of 2006 had the U.S. turning control to ISAF of Regional Commands North and West, the two non-Pashtun, relatively untroubled areas. In the spring it turned control of the more hostile, Pashtun RC South to ISAF, with the Dutch taking responsibility of Uruzgan province, the Canadians taking Kandahar province and the British taking neighboring Helmand. To understand the prevailing attitude about Afghanistan at the time, it should be noted that it was just prior to the British deployment that then Defense Minister John Reid told the press, "We are in the south to help the Afghan people construct their own democracy. I would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing a shot, because our job is to protect the reconstruction." Man, if a guy ever had to eat his words…
By summer, shots had been fired and were being fired. So much so that the Canadian Parliament came one vote shy of pulling out of its ISAF commitment. As for the British press, they were having a field day. As for John Reid, he'd last less than a year longer, and his "without firing a shot" comment still brings out the mockery in the British press.
As for the Taliban and their surprising summer offensive, in hindsight it was probably their single biggest strategic blunder. They should have waited a year and allowed the Brits and Canadians and ISAF to get comfortable and complacent throughout the summer, because in September the U.S. was to turn RC East over to ISAF, thereby giving the entire mission command to NATO and beginning its own withdrawal, with plans to leave only air assets and special forces, about 8,000 troops. Had the Taliban waited, by spring 2007 they could have launched a massive offensive against what would have been then an entirely-NATO commanded mission, and that fragile, sickly coalition would have either collapsed under the political strain of so many casualties and deaths or begged the U.S. to come back in and help. And Bush could have put blame for the failure squarely on NATO and either demanded that NATO pony up the forces to take care of it on its own or shamed NATO into an eternal gratitude by deploying massive American forces to pull ISAF's ass out of the wringer.
As it was, technically the U.S. did turn command of RC East over to ISAF in the fall of 2006, but it was a tacit, in-name-only changeover. American troops did not leave; their numbers only increased. The two-star American generals who have commanded RC East since then may have technically fallen under the ISAF commanding general, but if that general has not been an American, you can take it to the bank that for the American two-star, with his own career staked on his decisions and performance, RC East is his to command, no one else's.
Today, the summer of 2008, the U.S. has over 35,000 troops in the country, and NATO about twenty thousand. Now-retired John Reid took a lot of hits, and still does, for his assessment back in 2006, but he was not completely wrong for the time. Then the war was a holding action, with an American and ISAF strategy to provide a layer of security, financial assistance and infrastructure building to a brand new Afghan government until the Afghan security forces were built up and could take over. A holding action, no longer an all-out war, and without the consideration of the volume of the Taliban rebuilding in Pakistan nor a realistic consideration of how inadequate the Afghan security forces would be once trained up and deployed into action. Nothing was going to happen overnight, everyone knew that, and there was time, plenty of time, as there wasn't really much of an insurgency then, or so it seemed, and again, perhaps most importantly, no one seemed to take special concern about what was happening right across the border in Pakistan.
By now we know that there will be no return to those halcyon early years, and there are some who might steal a thought from the American Civil War scholar Shelby Foote, who said that in years past every Southern schoolboy would daydream that Pickett had disobeyed General Lee at Gettysburg and had never made that fatal charge, which sealed the Confederates' fate. Today it might be a daydream, but had the Taliban only held off their offensive for a year, America would have been more or less gone and the blame for this ever-worsening fiasco would be at NATO's feet. Yeah, free of Afghanistan, no wacky uncle in the attic…boy, is that a dream.
No rational American would argue with the initial justification for the sacrifice in life and treasure—in blood and dollars—in Afghanistan as the Taliban government then harboring al-Qaeda was given the opportunity to hand over our self-described enemies and refused. The American invasion that followed was light, quick and nearly painless, with the routed Taliban and al-Qaeda not killed or captured managing to flee to the safety of Pakistan. Which, a couple of centuries ago might have been the end of the story. In that earlier, less enlightened time, a superpower such as America would have then declared the land a colony and subjugated the people. Or, as in this instance in Afghanistan, wise commanders and civil servants on the ground would have appraised the situation and then informed the leaders back home that there was nothing of the land worth colonizing and even less of the people worth the effort to attempt to subjugate.
One should wish for those less enlightened times, for this 21st century moral standard of vanquishing now requires that the victor humble himself to the vanquished, while molding the population into a freedom-loving, equality-based, uncorrupted democratic republic Garden of Eden, with a strong standing army, double-laned paved highways, countless schools and medical clinics, 24-hour electricity and, heck, why not just throw in a Coca-Cola factory or two. In Afghanistan it was all part of that holding action. Just give it time. "Golly gee willikers, Maude, it worked in Germany and Japan." There's a TV playing here, with the tic toc, tic toc, bing, go the Jeopardy timer and bell, and, "The answer is," corrects Alex Trebek, "What Is, Rebuilding."
Rebuilding. Re. R-E. As were the cases with both Germany and Japan post-World War Two. They both had been literate 20th century economies before the war, with physical and educational foundations and structures upon which to re. There is no re in Afghanistan. There was no 20th century economy, nor were there any physical and educational foundations upon which to build a modern state before even the Russian invasion of 1979 began the 25 years of war, never mind before 9-11. Sure, the Western victors here in their enlightened paternalism have established provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs), but it's all construction, from scratch, without the re. Be honest and call them PCTs. High-degreed State Department careerists might scream in rebuttal, "You're wrong, dead wrong! Kabul in the 1960's was the Paris of Central Asia!" First, that's an insult to Paris; second, Kabul's slight renaissance then was due largely to the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., who were both throwing money and projects around in an attempt to win influence in a mostly influenceless land. Then, what the Cold Warriors built, left intact by the departing Russians in the late 1980's, was destroyed by the competing mujahedeen warlords—guys like the Tajik Massoud and Uzbek Dostum—who preferred no one having anything if it could not be themselves having everything.
So, again, where is the R-E in Afghanistan? I look at the letters, I look at the alphabet, I look in the dictionary for a misspelling, then I remember a fellow soldier during that "shit suit" era once remarking, "You know, if it wasn't for the internal combustion engine, these people would be back in the seventh century." Worse, they did not invent the engine, they did not improve the engine, and they don't even manufacture the things. I am neither an anthropologist nor historian, but for the life of me I cannot figure out one thing, not one tangible thing, that the Afghan people have created, discovered, invented or brought to the world. Which in itself is not crime. A person, a society, a country, should be free to achieve or not achieve, progress or not progress, have electricity or not have electricity. They should be free to relax away a morning, an afternoon and an entire evening just hanging out with the guys drinking chai. No negative judgment assessed against them. No forced achievement thrust upon them. "This land is your land, This land is my land," is good enough for Americans, why can't we allow it to be good enough for, hmmmm, let's see…tic toc, tic toc, bing! "The answer is: Who are Afghans."
Yes, it is their land, this Afghanistan, and that the Afghans would choose to make so very little of a land that holds less than minimal mineral wealth, just slightly more arable agricultural potential, and thin, almost nude forests only at the higher altitudes should be their choice, not ours. Not NATO's. What is it our business to re, or without the re simply c? Which begs the question, Why are we any longer in Afghanistan? We threw out the Taliban, we set up a federal government and have given it the building blocks to form its own security forces, so why are we still here? Just because the Taliban once allowed the terrorist al-Qaeda its hospitality, the Taliban themselves were not terrorists, and I would argue, they still aren't. Afghanistan was their country, and they want it back, which in my book, agree or disagree with their platform or philosophy, is a pretty damn legitimate reason for an insurgency. But, if the Taliban are allowed back they will establish "Terrorist training camps, and we can't allow the terrorists to have them in Afghanistan" is the slogan pitched as if it were written in stone. And that is a half-truth that, used as the single overriding justification for our expenditure of blood and dollars here, is a vile deception, because the ones hocking the enterprise on such blatantly illogical reasoning have to know the falsehood in their argument and must go to sleep every night smirking, gloating that they have been allowed to get away with their disingenuous spin unchallenged for so long.
The terrorist training camps are no longer in Afghanistan. They are in Pakistan.
There is no disputing those two sentences; everybody knows they are true. Whatever backdoor strategic political maneuvering and diplomatic shell games being played between Washington, D.C., and Islamabad to deal with the truth—headline: The Terrorist Training Camps are in Pakistan—are obviously not working, because the camps are still there and the Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc., keep recruiting, growing and waltzing from those camps right across the border into Afghanistan, waging an ever increasingly successful insurgency.
Strategically, politically and diplomatically it's a mess. The U.S. fears invading our "ally" Pakistan, which could well lead to an Islamic jihadist overthrow of that iffy government, and then what would we have—a nuke bomb-armed jihadist state? At the same time, Pakistan enjoys the idea of having an unstable neighbor that the Taliban create crossing over and fighting in Afghanistan. The Afghans, there is no debating this, hate the Pakistanis and dream of a day when they have retaken for themselves their Pashtun lands made a century ago part of Pakistan when the British arbitrarily drew the border. Now, if you're Pakistani, and you've got a neighbor right next door who hates you and wants to snatch away half your country, wouldn't you want to keep that neighbor unstable and weak? Did I mention?—it's a mess.
If it is terrorists we're after and their training camps we want to eliminate, since we can do neither, and are doing neither, in Pakistan itself, might not it be more practical to pull out of Afghanistan completely—lock, stock and barrel, with the caveat that, Hey, Afghanis, it's your place to do with as you like, but if we see terrorist training camps from our super-duper spy satellites, we're going to cruise-missile and B-2 bomber them to smithereens—and let the terrorists stream in and set up shop, and kabloom kablowie, there they go, lots of dead terrorists! Something we can't do right now in Pakistan.
As it stands today, with a combined NATO/U.S. force of over 50,000 here in Afghanistan, the terrorists are free and secure to establish and build up training camps—heck, why not whole jihadist armies?—in Pakistan. And everybody knows it. So, is it ignorance or vile deception that has our American leaders continue to justify our own 35,000-plus in Afghanistan as a frontline against the re-establishment (there now, re is put to an accurate use) of terrorist training camps here? I'm a nobody from nowheresville, with no college diploma, no State Department experience—I was enlisted, not even an officer, in the Army, for Pete's sake—and I've never read de Tocqueville, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Aristotle or Will & Ariel Durant, and I would stake my above-average IQ (as measured by military entry tests, not real IQ ones) on the fact that those leaders are a lot smarter than me (or, than I am), so, if even I can see the truth, it cannot be ignorance that has our leaders firm in their justification, and thus it must be vile deception.
What would make that deception all the worse would be that the leaders' training camp justification/slogan is just a way of avoiding a referendum by the American public on the real reasons for our continued presence here, which, as I've heard argued, is a Risk board game-like strategy of having a foothold, bases, a hegemony in Central Asia. That of a great power extending itself, requiring strongpoints from which to logistically and tactically maintain its sphere of influence. Perhaps, simply, having the United States Army, Air Force and Marines on Iran's eastern front. If that big-picture strategy is, and our leaders are not arguing it to be, the real reason for our blood and treasure being squandered here, it is a disrespect that our leaders are showing us that we are not smart or wise enough to understand or accept it as valid reason, or it is an acknowledgement that, post the Gulf of Tonkin, post the dominoes of Vietnam, post the WMDs of Iraq, we are smart enough to understand it completely to be tragically flawed reasoning, and they don’t trust us not to reject it. And reject them.
Leaders, politicians, don't easily accept rejection, so we are beginning to hear another justification for being here—that Afghanistan is a battle "on a frontline of the War on Terror." Ehhhhhhh goes the buzzer, and "Wrong answer," says Alex. Terror is a concept, and wars are not fought against concepts. What, how? Does one throw into battle the concept of happy-go-lucky against terror? In World War Two it wasn't Nazism that was fought, it was the Nazis. You can't beat Nazism in a physical war without going after and wiping out the Nazis. Terror is no different, but if one argues that America must remain in Afghanistan because it is "a frontline on the War on Terrorists," that then raises the question that no one really wants to answer: Who are the terrorists? Tic toc, tic toc, bing! Silence, dead air. Why, wouldn't you know it, Jeopardy's gone to a commercial break.
While Alex is out, how about this, here's a cheery thought: A terrorist is grandma Mabel Dot McCoy from Sparta, Wisconsin, on her way to Denver to visit the kids and grandkids for Thanksgiving….being strip-searched at the airport security checkpoint.
Less cheery is to admit that all the terrorists that seem to have their crosshairs on the Western democracies and cultures just happen to be Muslims. Hmmmmmm, you don't say? You do, and you'd have to conclude the barely mentionable—We're fighting Muslim terrorists? Yikes, back up! We can't bring religion into it—separation of church and state, all religions are created equal—we start defining the terrorists for their own declared Islamic jihadist holy war on us—they are terrorists, real people, declaring and fighting that war, not mere concepts, terror or terrorism—why, that's racism, or religionism, or some kind of –ism of the unfairly judgmental sort. And in modern Western culture to be judgmental is judged to be the worst, the most sinful, the most immoral culturally Neanderthal of personal characteristics.
So, we fight in Afghanistan as a battle on the frontline in the War on Terror, or, on an even grander scale, in the Global War on Terror, or GWOT for short, and in refusing to define our enemy we then commit a cardinal error in a nation's execution of war.