Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Shaping the Blame in Afghanistan

It is one of my favorite photos of my last deployment before becoming a civilian less than a year later. It was taken almost exactly 11 yrs ago.

It was a beautiful mid-day afternoon to sit outside on a table at Destile Gardens right outside HQ ISAF in Kabul. It was one of our regular smoke breaks for our organized gossip group where the message went out to meet, and we wandered over from our various desks in the 3-Shop, 5-Shop, security, and the front office to enjoy a pipe or cigar ... but more importantly - catch up on the latest developments.

It was the usual Star Wars bar gathering like you'd see at HQ ISAF, but this one was slightly different - it was all Anglosphere. Only half of us were USA, from O3-O6, including a guy at the back of the table, the oldest US Army Major you have ever seen. Always quiet, but he knew everything. Retired since the late 1980s, he was brought back on active duty a few years ago because of his specialty; he did civil affairs as a JO in Vietnam.

It was 2008, and we knew we were running out of time.

Most of us at the table had been working for most of the year, and in my and another's case even longer, on the uplift of forces that started to come late that summer. There are things you can do with Five-Eyes nations that just make planning easier, thus the Anglosphere nature of our gathering.

We had no idea what exactly the election a month before would mean for what we were trying to do, but we knew what the plan was meant to do. We had one last meeting in Qatar run by the Joint Staff to suffer through, and then the last part of the surge would be fairly well understood.

We were at the point then only trying to find enough airfield matting and rhino snot for the Red Horse and Seabees to expand airfields in RC(S), so the hard stuff was done.

We were happy about our timing, all things considered. 2007 made it clear that the short experiment of NATO running AFG was a mistake. The failure of filling the Aviation Bridging Forces of RW aircraft in RC(S) combined with the earlier announcement that the maneuver forces of Canada in Kandahar and the Dutch in Uruzgan were going home for good told us all we needed to know.

US Army to the East, USMC to the South; Uncle Sam was taking the keys back from a spent NATO force as the drawdown of forces in Iraq made it easier to find ready to deploy units.

We knew none of the trends were going our way and that there was no easy fix. This was going to take a long time. The general consensus at the table: 10-years if we stuck with Shape-Clear-Hold-Build.

We all knew the district map - and district by district we would have to create the conditions so AFG could be stable on AFG terms and we could all go home.

The key to us going home, we told each other, were those 8-yr old kids in schools who would have a different mindset when they became 18 ... if we could help the adults build a better AFG for them while they grew up.

If we didn't have the patience to see it through. Well, it got quite. None of us saw a high probability of anything but a lot of killing with any other plan - and more importantly, any path to something resembling peace on AFG terms. My take at the moment was, darkly, if we can't stick it out - retreat to the airfields, get everyone home, take what we can, leave what the ANSF can use, blow the rest in place. Let them work it out.

Well, the rest is history, and 11 years later all we have is hope and killing. As what little is left of our national patience runs out, we seem to be moving on to the recrimination phase where the responsible try to place their portion of the blame on the innocent. 

Honest mistakes are twisted in to conspiracies, PAO optimism is seen as propaganda, and the truth gets lost in a miasma of incomplete stories, ignorance, and the inefficiencies of agendas and templates.

All that is to be done at this point is for those who were there and still give a damn to step up and tell their story - and critique the stories of others.

So, after about 4 different drafts and a good night's sleep, I'm going to wade in to it. Before that though, I know a lot of the regular readers here, the "Front Porch," have honored me by being here reading my prattle for a decade or more. They have heard most of this before, some as it was happening. For those new or newish here, go to the bottom of the post where the Afghanistan tag is. It's all there. Almost a decade and a half on Afghanistan as a USA tactical operator, staff weenie, and finally a NATO fonctionnaire.

I should just walk away, but I won't.

...and so it starts.

With Craig Whitlocks article out, many are selectively focused on what little they paid attention small attention to for so long - and I'm about to crawl out of my skin.

This will not stand. I will not let what happened to those who served in Vietnam be saddled to those of us who served in Afghanistan.

I will not let "the military lied and lost the war" smear start before we've even drafted the MOVEORD to the Friendship Bridge.

Did we cover ourselves with glory? No ... but what GOFO said or did not say was closely scoped by what D&G their civilian masters gave them ... and it is they - the folks in suits - who need to answer first before anyone else comes under the spotlight.

There are partial stories, wrong stories, selectively edited stories ... and a whole lot of ass-covering stories in the impressive Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) interviews behind the paywall.

There are some good things here, but as a body, it is incredibly incomplete. It is as if he is writing a restaurant review about a bad slice of apple pie he was served, but only discusses the type of apple in the pie and the fork it was served with. No discussion of the crust, filling, temperature … just little bits here and there.

Whitlock can only write about what he got from his FOIA, but the gaps here are mind boggling. Yes, it has been a long war - but some periods and institutions are more important than others. Some you simply cannot do without. At least my friendly acquaintance Sarah Chayes (read her 2007 book) got some mention and a chance to respond.

Like the old saw goes; victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan – but not when it comes to the blame game. People, institutions, and agendas will point fingers all over the place to avoid any blame being put on them. Oldest game in the book … and like we saw in Vietnam, the cheap and easy thing to do is blame “the generals” – specifically those at the Operational and Tactical levels.

Nope. Not here. Not today Satan; not today.

First some comments I made on twitter Monday that I will consolidate here.

I’ll start with what was most missing; General  McKiernan's tenure at the end of Bush43 and start of the Obama administration and what we saw as the only way to do what DC and Brussels was asking to be done; Shape-Clear-Hold-Build a better Afghanistan. The plan I helped write at CENTCOM in NATO? He knew, we knew - we had a plan.

No one was hiding anything from anyone when I worked with/for him.

From an article in The Guardian, of all places, in 2009, here is a summary that should show you why the absence of any discussion of McKiernan’s experience is such a hole in Whitlock’s article;
"We can win all the tactical battles but that doesn't mean we win. To win, we have to win the battle of ideas," he said. "We must define winning in Afghan terms: meaning improved security, reduced civilian casualties, trustworthy government, economic and social progress."
McKiernan spoke of the need to increase Afghan army forces, provide a better-respected police force, root out foreign jihadis and Taliban extremists, and seek regional solutions via a "bottom-up" approach. "Most Afghans don't want the re-emergence of the Taliban. But we need a greater commitment by the international community ... Afghanistan will not ultimately be a military outcome. Isaf will not run out of bad people to kill. It will be a political solution."
These approaches accurately reflect Obama's Afghan policy, except McKiernan was already pursuing it six months before Obama made it his own. So the question remains: why was he fired?
One answer seems to lie with General David Petraeus, the Centcom commander and hero of the Iraq surge. Petraeus was the baleful, missing figure in the room when Gates and Mullen wielded the knife. Subordinate to McKiernan in Iraq, he is now his superior. The two men are not said to be close.  
McKiernan had allegedly been slow to adopt Petraeus's favoured counter-insurgency tactics, such as co-opting local tribal groups (as in Iraq). McChrystal, in contrast, is a special operations expert with a reputation for hunting down "high value" enemy targets.
Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen … yeah, those guys.

That leads to the second largest gap in the article – and something missing from the majority of reporting from American media; the role of NATO.

Again, you can find more detail over the years at the Afghanistan tab below, but let me summarize.

The first stage of the war was invasion and set up, mostly ‘01-03. From ’03 to ’05 the initial inertia started to slow, but we did not fully see that the Western experience in Afghanistan in the 21st Century was going to be like it was in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Our NATO allies were joining – in a fashion – and by ‘05 things were set up to by early ’06 to hand things over to NATO.

Yes, the General in charge of NATO at HQ ISAF in Kabul was an American, but the Americans only had significant forces in Regional Command-East (RC-(E)). The Anglo-Canadian-Dutch-Australians had RC-(S). Spain-Italy RC-(W). The Germans and Scandinavians RC-(N). RC-(C) was, nominally, the dominion of the Turks (that is a long story in to itself).

That construct held until the Summer of 2007 when another attempt to fill the never filled Combined Joint Statement of Requirements (CJSOR) failed. When the promised Aviation Bridging Force NATO nations promised did not appear, as we do, the USA cobbled together a fix at the last minute. That is when the USA realized that NATO would never be able to do what it promised. When NATO couldn’t even scrape enough cargo and support rotary wing – not to mention the never filled maneuver forces in the CJSOR – the USA knew NATO cumulated.

Canada and The Netherlands announcing they were withdrawing their maneuver forces that year was just icing on the cake.

Farcical national caveats that limited utility of most partner nations gave a false view of actual usable forces. (Best example, German Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLT) trains and mentors an ANA Kandak that has to move to another province to reinforce another Kandak … and the Germans refuse to cross a provincial boundary, leaving the Kandak to go forward with either no mentors, or as was the case, American mentors from an American Embedded Training Team (ETT) working with another Kandak have to come in and make it happen. 

Second best was the Belgian security at the airport. If my convoy was 200 meters from the gate and was under attack, they could not support us. They couldn’t leave the airport.

As I’ll quote from Whitlock’s article later, another thing that grabbed me was the hand wringing from those clueless staffers at USAID.

They were exceptionally difficult to work with in AFG regardless of how hard we tried to integrate efforts with them. They are in no position to throw shade on anyone.

The ones who told me they were building 1,800km of gravel road regardless of which areas were controlled by the enemy or not ...and had no clue about what kind of culverts were needed for IED mitigation? Never came to the follow-on meetings as asked?

Those guys? Sit. Down (at least those who were their before 2010).

Also in the article, the dates are not quite in line with what actually happened. The surge was dead in 2009 after the strategic sea-change on the ground after Obama's DEC09 West Point speech. Again, read what I said at the time.

So, are we going to play the blame game are we? 

We are going to selectively focus on certain time periods and turn a blind eye to the more complicated experience that was/is Afghanistan?

Well, bollocks to that. We all knew this was losable from junior staffers to the 4-star level in '05 on. 

Why do you think McKiernan came in with SCHB a few years later? 

We briefed the Obama advance team before the inauguration about the surge and SCHB that was already underway and the importance of momentum ... and they pissed it all ways in DEC09. 

The article has some great information, but I am left screaming in to the void with the complete lack of emphasis on the Bonn Accords, McKiernan, lead nation construct early on, and more.  There is a lot of self-serving people quoted making excuses for their own self interest - accuracy for history be damned as far as they're concerned.

You do have to give WaPo credit allowing people mentioned to respond behind the paywall - and there are a lot of valid critiques to be found that, sure, I will admit are not wildly known ... but we are 19 years in to this conflict.

The happy talk? That part of the critique is ligit. A lot of that has to do with the PAOisms that people feel the need to form up behind. The constant "just around the corner" stuff does, after awhile, grind down credibility. 

Part of the problem is the sound bite world we live in. It is hard to explain to people in 5-seconds nuance and branches - must less effects and military planning. We've all been there when the primary goes in front of the press and makes his hostage tape, only to come back looking deflated. 

That is a tough row to hoe, but that is part of the job. A hard job with many masters. Your #1 master? The civilian leadership at the POLMIL level.

What are in-theater operational commanders supposed to do when on high orders state that, "Under no circumstances are you to discuss the impact of partner nation national caveats or issues with IO/NGO/GO."

The press has a lot to blame on itself.

Again,  "we" knew this had the potential to go south 15 yrs ago, but that odds were it would go south on AFG time. The press knew too. They were all in our HQ and in the field. They ate, drank, smoked, traveled and deployed with us. 

People love yelling at "the generals" but the suits in DC and Brussels and those in Bonn in the first year are the ones who need to be held to account first.

The shortcomings I have with the summary article sitting on top of the big FOIA dump should not be seen as shade thrown at the author. Whitlock has done a great job here with what he had on hand and should be commended for it. 

That being said, there are significant problems with what is there – or not there – and that is where the danger is for those that are just now starting to think about Afghanistan. The problem is the source material. There are huge gaps in both time and personality.

I was both a US and a NATO guy at different times in AFG, all during the first decade of the conflict, and have watched from the sidelines for the second decade. That is where I noticed the first glaring gap, as I’ve seen it before; the data is too USA centric.

I’ll put my biases right out there, my sympathies are more on the NATO view of the conflict vice the USA view of the conflict. Even for USA officers in the first decade of the war who were working the NATO side, what the USA was doing in RC-(E) was another war. 

RC-(E) never communicated well with the rest of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), even to the USA components working under the NATO umbrella. It was dysfunctional, but not isolated to RC-(E) alone. 

None of the RC’s mid/late decade worked well together. People like to talk about Afghans’ tribal issues, but ISAF had its own tribal problem; the stubborn German tribe to the north; the haughty Anglo-Dutch tribe to the South, the sedate Mediterranean tribe out West, and the reclusive yet violent American tribe in the East. There was also the strange case of the Turkish tribe in Kabul with their secret agreements with the shadows no one would speak of.

All my sympathies aside about the NATO vice USA view of AFG, NATO was a mess and mostly hapless. When I stepped back in for my last tour, the Canadians and Dutch were already heading out the door and the Brits were maxed out. We had lots of other nations, but they were slathered with an amazingly complex matrix of national caveats that made them mostly useless for much of the spectrum of tasks. 

The Anglosphere nations, Dutch, Danes, Estonians and a couple others were of mostly full use, but the others only a fraction once you took their national caveats in to account. As a result, what I considered the superior view of the conflict coming from the NATO side of the house simply never had enough useful force to garner much credibility. At the end of the day, everyone knew the USA would have to do the heavy lifting.

He who does the heavy lifting wins the argument.

Oh, the USA. Beyond that strange and violent tribe in RC-(E), there was the strangely distant and blinkered view coming from CENTCOM in Tampa and the Joint Staff in DC. 

I’d spent some time in Tampa, and knew their angle, but the Joint Staff seemed to be running their own war. We’d come out of a VTC with the JS and wonder, “Where are they getting this stuff?” We’d show up in Qatar for a big confab, and often it seemed that the JS never read anything that came out of Kabul - and they sure weren't sharing their stuff ahead of time. 

The only thing more disconnected were the Department of State delegations and the Obama advance team.

Everything seemed like a blank slate with them. Not that they were too lazy to do their homework – they just didn’t think years of work, observations, and lessons from others were of any value. They were talking to someone and reading something, but not from the staff in-country. That was the impression at least. They were good, passionate people (especially Holbrooke who was right about a lot and stood out), but there wasn’t a curious attitude from most of those at the staff level – more imperious. 

Well, that’s my rambling intro … so here we go.

Craig Whitlock's, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.

I want you to read it all and I free-formed enough in the intro, so let me just pull a couple of things;

First, know the context of what you are reading;
With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
People are people;
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
Not while I was involved from 05-09, and unquestionably when I was in Kabul in '08-09. Nope. Not once while I was there, in the CUB, publishing reports, briefing various people, did anyone at any time distort statistics. Never, not once. I didn't see it in Tampa while I was there either. I can't speak to what happened at the Joint Staff; but in Brussels, Kabul and Tampa - no one screwed with numbers.

Name names.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
'13-14? That was General Dunford, USMC's tenure has COMISAF. He ended up as CJCS, retiring at the end of September this year.

... SIGAR has published seven Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that highlight problems in Afghanistan and recommend changes to stabilize the country.
But the reports, written in dense bureaucratic prose and focused on an alphabet soup of government initiatives, left out the harshest and most frank criticisms from the interviews.
“We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians,” read the introduction to one report released in May 2018.
Of course. It is because we abandoned SCHB in DEC09 and only played not to lose since.
Sopko, the inspector general, told The Post that he did not suppress the blistering criticisms and doubts about the war that officials raised in the Lessons Learned interviews. He said it took his office three years to release the records because he has a small staff and because other federal agencies had to review the documents to prevent government secrets from being disclosed.
3 years? We fought and won WWII in under 4 years.
“We didn’t sit on it,” he said. “We’re firm believers in openness and transparency, but we’ve got to follow the law. . . . I think of any inspector general, I’ve probably been the most forthcoming on information.”
No, you slow rolled it or are an inefficient blob. Remember what I have been saying for years about how broke our governmental IG systems are? There's another data point.
“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich,” James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”
I wish that were true, but I don't think James has read much about what was said in the first 24-months of the war. I don't think he has read the Bonn Agreement. I think I have heard enough from James.
“I may be impatient. In fact I know I’m a bit impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote in one memo to several generals and senior aides. “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”
“Help!” he wrote.
The memo was dated April 17, 2002 — six months after the war started.
It took 6-years to get SCHB off the ground. We dithered and trusted NATO's untested optimism too much. 
Some of the interviews are inexplicably short. The interview record with John Allen, the Marine general who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, consists of five paragraphs.
LOL! Of course. Allen has gone uber-political. What did you expect?
In contrast, other influential figures, including former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, sat for two interviews that yielded 95 transcribed pages.
I always found Crocker a good man trying to do his best. 95 pages is what I would expect from him.
Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.
To be fair, as we say this at the time, even though for most of the first decade of the war the US only "ran" one of the four RC's, DC always acted as if AFG were a US only operation. Also, there was little continuity in the Staffs and Commanders - and there was constant churn and little sustained knowledge. That had a lot to do with the inertia; once people understood their job, they were rotated out and their expertise lost in a personnel system CONUS that did not realize we were at war.
Dec. 1, 2009
“The days of providing a blank check are over. . . . It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
— President Barack Obama, in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Read what I said at the time. This was the pivot point. On this day, the Taliban knew they just needed to wait us out, that we lacked the will to win. They did, we didn't.
U.S. officials tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law.
The below ... I'm sorry ... but that was the mindset from the beginning!
During the peak of the fighting, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. lawmakers and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other civil-works projects, the faster security would improve. Aid workers told government interviewers it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive.
Amazing amnesia. 
One unnamed executive with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), guessed that 90 percent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.”
That is your fault USAID. Like I mentioned earlier, at least when I was there, you were impossible to work with. Heal thyself.
Christopher Kolenda, an Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said that the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006 — and that U.S. officials failed to recognize the lethal threat it posed to their strategy.
True. It was his entire family. Huge impact on things great and small. For a significant time period if you needed gravel there was only one person you could get it from - Karzai's brother. He had the corner on rock crushers, it seems.

This too was not the fault of "the generals."
In the Lessons Learned interviews, however, U.S. military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries — paid by U.S. taxpayers — for tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers.”
Another long running problem that was nothing but graft driven. Leaders stole their people's paychecks. That simple ... and we let them.
One unidentified U.S. soldier said Special Forces teams “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, calling them “awful — the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.”
You get what you pay for - and we paid a lot. What do we have for it?

Well ... it isn't worse than it was on 10 SEP 01.

That is enough from the article, I'll let you pick through the rest. 

Is there anything "new" here? Perhaps ... but only for those who were content to let others fight for the better part of two decades, but were too distracted to make the effort to find out what was going on.

No comments: