WAR WITHOUT END
The Real Reasons We’re Losing the Afghanistan War
A highly decorated Special Operations commander looks at much that has gone wrong in America's longest war, and what ought to be done to set things straight.
Afghanistan recently took a brief holiday from war. At the end of the holy month of Ramadan last week, the Taliban declared a three-day ceasefire. As The Guardian reported, “Afghans witnessed the kind of scenes few dreamed possible. Thousands of Taliban fighters were welcomed into Kabul, Kunduz, Ghazni and other cities. Some posed for selfies with soldiers, some handed out red roses, and in Kabul some sought out a famous ice-cream parlor.” But the Taliban refused to extend the truce, and this week as many as 30 Afghan government soldiers reportedly were killed in an attack in Badghis, in the west of the country.
The war has become interminable, and very few of the metrics compiled by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) look good. According to its 39th quarterly report to Congress released last month (yes, 39 quarters), as of January 31 this year some “14.5 percent of the country’s total districts were under insurgent control or influence—the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving district control data.” That was in August 2016, when Taliban control or influence was only 9 per cent. In 2017 there was a 63 percent increase in the amount of land sown with opium poppies, and there was an 88 percent increase in raw opium production. Think of it: an 88 percent increase in one year. USAID has essentially given up trying to control the opium problem, according to the SIGAR report. And all this despite the fact that in the first quarter of this year, two and a half times as many munitions were dropped on Afghanistan as in the first quarter of last year.
In this essay, Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc (retired), who held several command positions with Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, lays out reasons for such a stunning lack of progress after so many years of war.
— Christopher Dickey, World News Editor
OUR SENIOR CIVILIANS, policy makers and military leaders at the four-, three-, and two-star level over three administrations are responsible for the failures in strategy and operational approach in Afghanistan. We did not stick to what was working, operated conventionally in an unconventional environment, endorsed failed operational constructs and have abandoned operational constructs that worked in order to go back to a kinetic, top-down driven approach that has produced failure not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, Syria, and Africa.
There has been zero accountability for the senior leadership responsible for the missteps. Further, poor diplomacy and administration, as well as poor organization of the political and military effort in Afghanistan, has resulted in a lack of unity of command and purpose, which created an unstable political and military environment which includes ineffective Afghan ministries, military and police.
Our tactical level units have performed admirably, but our policy makers and senior general officers have failed them. Good tactics never fix bad strategy. My observations in no way challenge the character, dedication, commitment, and sacrifice of our senior leaders as they serve with honor, but only serve to point out their thinking and approach in Afghanistan must change or we should leave. Countering these negative trends requires a return to the comprehensive strategy approach, continuity of strategy, and better talent management at the senior leadership level.
Misstep Number 1: Failure to Adopt and Maintain the Bottom up Approach
We essentially took all the lessons learned by the Russians and threw them out. By removing the responsibility of the fight, problem, and solution from the Afghans we inherited the problem and chose to ignore thousands of years of history. We forgot why Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires and that Afghans welcome help, but if you stay too long you become the enemy. Instead of investing in the traditional Afghan local security and governance and building from the bottom up we chose to grow the national government and create a national level military and police organizations and build from the top down.
We decided to build the house from the roof down and that never works. The military and police are not getting the job done. There are significant recruiting issues, retention issues, AWOL issues, pay issues, medical issues, infiltration issues, training and standards issues, and a huge literacy problem. All we do is propose growth in military and police areas that costs the Afghans over 100 percent of their GDP to sustain and maintain. The foundation remains weak and we keep putting stuff on the roof.
Misstep Number 2: The Problem of Unity of Command and Unity of Purpose
If NATO is going to succeed it cannot focus on tactical adjustments as a method to compensate for strategic deficiencies in organization, direction, and continuity of effort in Afghanistan. NATO has not adequately provided the necessary strategic direction, unity of purpose, or unity of effort to build a stable Afghanistan. NATO has not sufficiently resolved the competing requirements of policy and strategy, and as a result has not properly organized its limited military and civilian assets under an effective strategy.
An American four-star general commands ISAF and reports through NATO channels and CENTCOM. Currently the 14th commander in Afghanistan is setting conditions for a 15th commander who may be no more successful than his predecessors unless something drastically changes. Since there is no effective COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy to guide NATO’s international effort to stabilize Afghanistan and fight the Taliban, unity of purpose has suffered; unity of command is fragmented; tactics in some areas have reverted to earlier practices, such as the aggressive use of airpower, sweep and clear operations, and an enemy-targeted strategy.
Misstep Number 3: Allowing the Taliban Resurgence to Occur in 2003-2009 and 2013-2018
An inevitable outcome of the ineffective NATO-led coalition, an inadequate organizational structure, and an ineffective strategy is the Taliban’s resurgence.
Time has been a significant factor in the Taliban’s resurgence by providing them the opportunity to reorganize and adapt to NATO and ISAF operations. The longer the conflict drags on, the more chance they have to “sell” their message or ideology, and the greater possibility it will have of success. The Taliban say, “ISAF has got the watch, but we have got the time.”
Perhaps their greatest asymmetric advantage, and the technique most at odds with our own war-fighting principles, is the Taliban’s ability to withdraw and blend into the populace. Unlike its host nation forces and her allies, the enemy wears no uniform has no standard equipment and does not require any personal accountability. Hidden in plain sight, they rely on their greatest ally, time, and wait for the next opportunity to take up arms. Thus, these insurgent fighters can be best described as combatant civilians.
Further, Taliban fighters truly believe in their cause. Their strength of commitment compensates for their lack of military capability. They are waging total war, not limited war. Coalition soldiers await the end of their tours; Taliban tours only end in death, which the Taliban believe is an entry into paradise. Thus, the enemy’s use of extremist religious ideology offers another advantage. Its impact on the populace is significant and can prevent the legitimization of the Afghan government.
Misstep Number 4: Failure to Understand Threats to Security and Stability
If the current theater strategy was effective, then the threats to Afghanistan’s government would be decreasing, not increasing and the Taliban would be running to the reconciliation table. Today, the Taliban and associated groups are as strong as they have been since 2001.
I assess that 2018 is the new year of decision, change the strategy or get out. If you decide to change the strategy get the right people to lead the effort and let them do it. Afghanistan currently faces three major threats: threats to socio-economic development; threats to governance and justice; and threats to a safe, secure, and stable political and social environment.
Misstep Number 5: Mishandling the Afghan Drug Trade
Poppy production remains one of the most pressing domestic issues in Afghanistan. Directly destroying the sprawling poppy crop seems to be an obvious solution but is not practical. Successful poppy eradication must be executed in secure locations with a sound security situation. Additionally, replacement crops and financial compensation are crucial components of the eradication process. Farmers rely on their crops to earn a living and feed their families and tribes; destruction of poppy without compensating the farmers for their loss will enable the Taliban to recruit many of these farmers to become fighters. The Taliban have successfully organized resistance toward the Afghan government and coalition poppy eradication in areas where they have a strong presence and freedom of movement.
A practical solution would have been to commercialize a portion of the poppy industry into pharmaceutical companies that would create research, jobs, revenue, develop alternative crops where appropriate, and develop a payoff system to farmers and train them in another trade. This would have avoided many of the problems of violence, illicit drug trade, and funding to the insurgency. No plan would be perfect, but the one we have been executing is a disaster.
Misstep Number 6: Failure to Inform and Communicate Effectively
The Taliban was organized effectively to conduct “information warfare” against ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and the wider international community. They use propaganda, contact with local leaders, and visible local assistance to the local population to influence the populace. Their messages support its objectives and are effective in countering ISAF and GIRoA messages. Taliban actions are also aimed at influencing, national and international audiences as well as national and international media. The Taliban broadcast their messages to the media within 60 minutes of a major event. This is considerably faster than ISAF can counter the Taliban’s messages, because ISAF leaders are required to investigate, confirm, and gain approval for their messages through the chain of command before they can release press statements.
Misstep Number 7: Failure to Gain External Support
This is one region in the world where terrorism, extremist Islamic ideology, traditional nation-state conflicts, and confirmed weapons of mass destruction all come together. No surge, strategic bombing campaign, Mother of All Bombs (MOABs) or additional number of troops will fix this external support problem. The solution is primarily diplomatic supported by an effective operational construct that brings the tribes together against the Taliban and other groups. It will be solved by old-fashioned, hard-nosed diplomacy based on a sound regional strategy that supports the security interests of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India.
Misstep Number 8: Undermining the Afghans’ Will to Own the Fight
NATO can support the Afghans’ efforts, but the Afghans must win the counterinsurgency war themselves. To avoid the fragmentation of authority and a weak central government, NATO must ensure the gaining of security is done in the context of an Afghan government constructed by balancing the roles and missions of the police and military with tribal leaders.
The development of a bottom-up civil defense plan that trains, organizes, and equips the security forces is the most viable option. Working in conjunction with village elders, young men would be hired to work as police at the village level and national police at district and provincial levels. The connecting of village elders, district and provincial leaders, and the layering of police security and law enforcement duties will facilitate security within the vast territory that constitutes a province. NATO must not create Afghan security forces along western constructs, but instead, must allow the Afghans to use the strength of their tribal system to create Afghan security forces that serve the needs of the people, work towards the common good, and promote nationalism over tribalism.
NATO must let the Afghans do as much of the security and nation-building work as possible. Where they are weak, NATO should supplement and build capability and capacity. Afghans must stabilize their social structure and build their own government, military, and police. The Afghan government must establish legitimacy in the eyes of the populace; the Afghan government must be seen as leading the political and military effort.
Misstep Number 9: Failure to Set Conditions for a Reconciliation
Reconciliation plans are necessary in this type of environment. All counterinsurgency strategies have a reconciliation program. These programs are prudent, demonstrate a democratic process to resolving security issues, and can serve as an effective political tool in gaining the support of the populace.
To have an effective reconciliation program, NATO must ensure the following conditions are met.
First, reconciliation is an issue the Afghan government leads.
Second, there must be an effective civil government and Afghan National Security Forces at the village, district, and provincial level to administer the program.
Third, there must be an effective reconciliation program strategic communications plan.
Fourth, reconciliation must be part of a balanced COIN strategy that has created an environment that has the support of the populace and is inhospitable to the insurgent.
Fifth, the reconciliation plan must be coordinated with Pakistan to influence cross border insurgents.
NATO cannot navigate the maze of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics. Only the Afghans can do this effectively. It’s a tough business even for them, especially when they are limited due to a lack of security and a government that is perceived as weaker than the Taliban. NATO must not allow a reconciliation program to diverge into bargaining and negotiating with the Taliban. The reconciliation program must be closely monitored and judiciously administered until the conditions mentioned above are met.
Unfortunately, none of the conditions have been met and therefore, it is unlikely that the Taliban will desire to reconcile.
Despite missteps in the overall policy, strategy, and operational approach in Afghanistan there has been progress. Segments of the Afghan population, including women, children, and religious minorities, enjoy expanded, education, religious, and constitutional rights than they did before. But the bottom line is that despite the dedication and sacrifice of our service members America’s long war in Afghanistan is not likely to end well.