The Daily Beast is reporting that the administration is warning members of Congress not to visit Afghanistan during the 2015 fighting season this summer because of the heightened danger. It’s not the first time such cautions have been urged, but this year, coming after the official end of combat operations and the triumphal return and rise of Joe, Congressional sources are saying it contradicts the rosy picture being conveyed.
The accolades keep coming in about Joe. Outgoing chairman General Martin Dempsey said yesterday that he is “a man of integrity, courage and humility.” And since no one knows Afghanistan better than Joe – or at least has the shortest memory — I thought it would be useful to research his views and look at his testimony and public statements, to understand how things could be going just fine there, while Congress is being warned not to look for themselves.
If you know anything about the real world, you also know that Congressional testimony and statements at the podium are expected to be the official happy words. That’s why those who write about this stuff seek to talk to someone in the know or look for more candid and revealing documentation. I found a restricted document — the Resolute Support Security Force Assistance Guide — signed by Joe before he retrograded. It’s 242 pages of instructions to military trainers coming into the country about the hows and the whats of Afghanistan. It’s pretty rosy.
With the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, the ISAF mission ended and the NATO Resolute Support mission started on January 1, 2015. Resolute Support’s mission is training, which the bureaucracy calls Security Force Assistance.
Joe signed the Guide before he left, and says in the introduction: “Since taking the lead for their nation’s security a year ago, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have proven their ability to secure the Afghan people. They emerged from a tough fighting season last year not only capable, but also confident and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people.”
“During the first half of 2014, they [Afghan forces] maintained an extraordinarily high operational tempo that put the enemy on its heels,” Joe writes, paving the way for a successful election and a peaceful retrograde of U.S. forces. The Afghans, he says, “no longer need much help fighting the Taliban — they can do that on their own...” Coalition advisers will help, but other than that, our war is over.
When President Obama announced the plan to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said that their primary missions would be training and advising the Afghan military; while some indeterminate and secret group of special operators and CIA would target al Qaeda “remnants” and Taliban forces directly threatening American forces. Somewhat contradicting the public face, Military Times then reported in November that President Obama had clarified those authorities, allowing airstrikes and night raids on Taliban forces. “We won’t target Taliban just merely for the sake of the fact they’re Taliban and quote-unquote ‘belligerents,’ “ then-Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
I love “merely for the sake of,” a kind of unintentional linguistic slip that says that the United States shoots because the Taliban are there. Joe said as much in an appearance at the Pentagon explaining the transition. He said that “the viability of our mission in 2015 to go after al-Qaeda is, obviously, inextricably linked to our ability to protect the force.” What he meant was that if the Taliban or the Haqqani network didn’t shoot at American soldiers, then the United States wouldn’t merely for the sake of... “Make no mistake about it,” Joe said, “anything we have to do to protect the force we’re going to do that.”
It is such a beautiful construction: We make believe that combat is over and we are withdrawing and they make believe that we are gone. Other than that, al Qaeda is fair game; that is, whatever we label al Qaeda.
In the resolute training manual, it says:
“The Taliban is expected to continue to contest [Government of Afghanistan] control over some sparsely populated areas, particularly in the south and east, along highway 1 and other main insurgent facilitation routs…. In recent years, the Taliban have focused on five lines of effort: increase violence, weaken the ANSF, limit ANSF/ISAF freedom of movement (FOM), conduct media-garnering attacks, and promote insecurity through propaganda and influence...
“The Taliban only holds influence in limited areas and have attempted to gain popular support by providing select government services, primarily criminal justice and dispute resolution. Despite some level of Afghan citizens “acceptance of Taliban justice,” the majority of Afghans continue to hold a negative view of the insurgency and do not want the Taliban to return to power.”
It seems a fairly straightforward assessment, but again with a twist: Kabul controls what it controls and the Taliban, Haqqani, warlords, and criminals control the rest. The manual’s articulation of the latter doesn’t mince words:
“The convergence of insurgent, terrorist, and criminal networks is pervasive and constitutes a real threat to Afghanistan’s stability. Revenue from opium trafficking continues to sustain the insurgency and Afghan criminal networks. Additionally, some areas of Afghanistan have seen a recent increase in extortion and kidnappings by low-level criminal networks. Expanding criminal networks undercut security and governance gains. Criminal networks, insurgent groups, and corrupt government officials are often interlinked via multi-layered connections, making ties between officials and criminal activity unclear. These factors all contribute to popular dissatisfaction with the government and create opportunities for the insurgency.”
Fourteen years: An uncertain national government with no resources, a national military completely dependent on outside assistance for training and sustainment, and a still-active and vibrant insurgent, terrorist, and criminal base. As Chairman, Joe will undoubtedly argue for more resources to keep Afghanistan at a simmer, working towards the magic outcome of 1,000 soldiers left to guard the embassy and other institutions at the end of 2017. But like Iraq, what a mess we leave behind, a veritable vacation paradise.
[Top photo of Afghanistan’s first national park in Band-e-Amir courtesy of AP Images, with art by Jim Cooke. All other photos courtesy of the author.]