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Afghanistan – What Happened?

I hate to blog about Afghanistan. It’s another defeat for America’s “police the world” and nation-building efforts. But after all, it’s also war history in the making so I better explore it. And warhistorybuffs will be studying the conflict for years to come so I should contribute some tidbits. The conflict — and its messy ending — is already fading into America’s 10-minute attention span. Who has time to think about Afghanistan when one has to deal with the hourly hassles and problems of a worldwide pandemic?

The parallels to Vietnam are eerie. I clearly remember spring 1975 when the South Vietnamese army trained and equipped by the U.S. utterly collapsed under the onslaught of North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers. Instead of a humiliating evacuation from an airport for all the world to see, in Vietnam there was the humiliating evacuation by helicopters from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.

Thousands of Vietnamese refugees resettled in the United States where their multi-generational families have been enriching American culture ever since. I suspect thousands of Afghan refugees will settle in this country and enrich us over the next decades in the same way. That’s why the United States remains the world’s best and strongest country — because we ARE the world. However, that’s enough about immigration, isn’t it. Talk about hot buttons ….

Instead, I want to relay some facts (and opinions) I’ve been gleaning from dozens of articles and essays I’ve been reading about the latest debacle. As in everything associated with war, there are no easy and straightforward answers … to anything.

A picture from inside Reach 871, a record-setting US Air Force C-17A evacuation flight out of Kabul Afghanistan.
 This famous photograph taken by the Air Force shows many of the 823 Afghan refugees packed into an American C-17A Globemaster transport plane. The number of passengers set a new record for the giant airplane. The aircraft with the call sign Reach 871 is based in Dover, Del., and ferried the refugees from Hamid Karzai Airport to Qatar on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, the day Taliban forces entered Kabul.

The war begins

The United States and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan “officially” on Oct. 7, 2001, and the last American troops left the country on Aug. 30, 2021. Only the most pacifistic scholars would argue the U.S. should NOT have invaded. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 Arab men, 15 from Saudi Arabia, commandeered four jetliners and flew two of them into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The total death toll of civilian workers, passengers, police and fire responders and hijackers was 2,996. The hijackers were members of the al-Qaeda (translated “the Base”) terrorist system. The Taliban government ruling the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his followers to operate freely in the country. U.S. President George W. Bush demanded the Taliban extradite bin Laden. There was actually a debate within the Afghanistan government about the extradition request but ultimately the Taliban said no, prompting the U.S to invade. The war was on.

The United States and a coalition of over 40 countries fought with UN approval in an organization called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It even had its own logo and flag. At the war’s peak in 2010, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after President Obama’s “surge.” At its conclusion in August 2021 there were less than 3,000.

ISAF-Logo.svg

Afghanistan has not only been America’s longest military engagement, but also its most confusing and perplexing war.  Western leaders have even divided the conflict into periods. Between 2001 to 2014 it was the ISAF mission, when coalition forces fought most of the battles. The ISAF in 2014 actually declared victory and many of the nations went home. From 2015 to 2021 the Afghan Armed Forces did most of the fighting aided by American air support. As warhistorybuffs know, the military loves to codename everything so the 2001 to 2014 fighting was “Operation Enduring Freedom” and from 2015 to the end in August 2021 it was “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.” One hundred bonus points if you knew that.

What about the troops?

The American soldier, marine, airman, sailor, and special forces fought superbly in Afghanistan. They chased the Taliban out of the country into Pakistan within weeks of invading in 2001. For the next 19 years in places with strange names like Helmand, Lashkar Gah, and Kundunz, American forces fought and won battles with the Taliban. Wherever the Taliban threatened to overrun the Afghan security forces — a frequent occurrence — American troops would move in and turn the tide of battle.

A U.S. soldier during a firefight near Sirkankel, Afghanistan.
A U.S. soldier during a firefight near Sirkankel, Afghanistan, March 2002, in a photo appearing in the Council of Foreign Relations history of the war.. Warren Zinn/Pool/AP Images

There are countless reasons for losing the Afghanistan conflict, but the warfighting skills of American (and coalition) troops are not one of them. And we did plenty of bleeding.

The United States lost over 2,400 service men and women. I say “over” because a completely accurate number is hard to come by. Brown University in Providence, R.I., keeps track of war dead and so does the Uppsala Conflict Data Program based in Uppsala University in Sweden. Their numbers differ, of course. The 2,400 figure pales in comparison to Vietnam where more than 58,000 American troops lost their lives. But each one of the 2,400+ Afghanistan KIA represents a loved one whose loss caused untold grief and heartbreak.

I was living in Mokena, Il., in June 2014 when hometown soldier 19-year-old Aaron Toppen was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Hundreds of people turned out to line the roadways as Aaron’s body was transported from Chicago’s Midway Airport to Mokena. Yellow ribbons sprouted on hundreds of trees and stayed there for months, and charities have sponsored several Aaron Toppen fundraising events each year since. All this in one fairly small American community. Multiply that by a couple of thousand.

Wardak Province was the scene of America’s greatest single loss of life in the war. On Aug. 5, 2011, the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter in the Tangi Valley, killing 31 U.S. military personnel, seven Afghan security forces and an Afghan interpreter.

And what about the wounded? Nearly 20,000 U.S. service members suffered wounds in the Afghanistan conflict, many of them serious amputations or traumatic brain injuries, insults to the body the individual and their families will have to deal with the rest of their lives. The painful list goes on. Nearly 4,000 U.S. contractors lost their lives; the Afghan national military and police suffered 66,000 killed; Coalition members lost 1,144; some 400 aid workers lost their lives; and 72 journalists. Of course civilians were caught in the crossfire. In Afghanistan more than 47,000 non-combatants were killed, a major factor in the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government losing the support of the populace. Some of the non-governmental organizations say the civilian death toll was much higher than the “official” number. And the Taliban? Officials say we killed more than 52,000 of their soldiers, probably an understatement, but they still won.

Why?

The history of the Afghanistan war is a head-spinning mixture of troop surges, contractions, withdrawals, and peace deals. I won’t go into much detail here. The Wikipedia entry is exhaustive (literally, in detail, length, and the physical stamina required to read) if you want to venture in.

While the chaotic withdrawal from the Kabul airport was still ongoing and the public still cared, a number of veterans and commentators offered their opinions on what went wrong. I believe the most important reason is the enemy soldiers took refuge in Pakistan, and the United States decided not to go after them. America has a nasty habit of handcuffing its military and then wondering why our wars are inconclusive or worse. In Pakistan, the Taliban reconstituted itself and in 2003, exactly when the U.S. was distracted by Iraq, began its yearly summer offensives in Afghanistan. This year, the attacks began anew in May and by the end of August the Taliban ruled the entire country, including the restive northern provinces.

Anne Applebaum, one of the best writers on the planet and a keen observer of authoritarians, says “liberal democracy is worth defending with more than just words.” She argues Afghanistan is part of a much bigger story about the global contest between freedom and autocracy. “Sometimes only guns can prevent violent extremists from taking power,” Applebaum wrote.

She disdains a cliche frequently spouted by diplomats involved in Afghanistan: “There can be no military solution to this conflict.” Applebaum writes: “The phrase sounds nice, but it’s not true. In many conflicts, probably Syria and certainly Afghanistan, there is a military solution: The war ends because one side wins. One side has better weapons, better morale, more outside support. One side has better generals, better soldiers, more stamina. Or, sometimes, one side is more willing to use violence, cruelty, and terror, and is more prepared to die in order to inflict violence, cruelty, and terror on other people.”

Now in my opinion, no one is advocating Americans should become Nazis to win battles, but if we’re going to go through the trouble fighting a war, let’s fight it.

I agree with another major reason for our defeat offered by commentators: culture.

American and Taliban representatives sign an Afghanistan peace deal.
US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29, 2020. How did that work out?

Afghan American Baktash Ahadi served as a special forces interpreter and was chairman of the State Department’s Afghan Familiarization course.

In his words: “When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim. The coalition, after all, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It built highways. It emancipated Afghan women. It gave millions of people the right to vote for the first time ever.

All true. But the Americans also went straight to building roads, schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.”

Those ways included destroying agricultural fields, mud houses, and shops with high explosives while trying to root out Taliban fighters. Frontline troops were given zero training in cultural literacy, Ahadi writes, so soldiers wound up violating religious and gender taboos.

Conclusion

An Air Force officer poses for a portrait.

So did our troops suffer injury and death in vain? I don’t think so. I agree with Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López (photo right). He is the top-ranked enlisted person in the U.S. military. In his words: “Our purpose for being there was to prevent further attacks on the homeland. We wanted to make sure that we denied Al Qaeda, specifically, a sanctuary, training ground and places where they could plan terrorism attacks. If you look at the past 20 years, that is exactly what we did. There hasn’t been a single attack on the homeland. They will think twice about doing it because of our actions over the past 20 years. For our veterans, be proud of what you did, because you have kept the country safe over the last 20 years.”

I might add our anti-terrorism capabilities have grown expotentially over the last 20 years and even more importantly we’re taking terrorism threats much more seriously than we did in 2001. The Taliban seems to be right back where they were when we kicked them out, but are they? The Afghanistan people got a taste of government and lifestyle free of the oppressive Sharia law favored by the Taliban.

I suspect that taste will eventually bubble up into a new movement for freedom.

Posted in Taliban, terrorism, U.S. Army, Future war, Political extremism, Afghanistan, U.S. Marines, U.S. president, veterans, military, U.S. government, War Dead, War History

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