With so much attention focused on Syria, it is important that we don’t lose sight of just how badly the situation in Afghanistan is limping toward a final resolution. There is a report ToloNews website this morning on a memorial service that was held yesterday in Kabul. It’s not clear why the service was held yesterday (the anniversary of the US invasion isn’t until early October), but the service was described as honoring both foreign and Afghan soldiers who have fallen in the war. While the words attributed to Dunford were simple enough in deploring terrorism, the quotes attributed to Afghan figures were appalling in their attempts to use a solemn occasion to shill for what their US military handlers want in the coming months:
Highlighting on the importance of support from the international community post-2014, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) requested the international community to continue assisting the Afghan forces by providing equipment and proper training post-2014.
The battle of Afghanistan against terrorism has seen some big sacrifices in terms of military and civilian casualties. Over the past 12 years, since the beginning of the Afghan war, over 3,000 foreign soldiers and over 10,000 Afghan soldiers have lost their lives.
The foreign forces’ combat mission is scheduled to end in the next few months, but a greater question looms large with regard to how effective has the fight against terrorism been over the past 12 years?
In light of this, Bismillah Mohammadi, the Minister of Defence expressed concerns over the training and equipping of the Afghan Security Forces post-2014. Mr. Mohammadi urged the international community to continue assisting the Afghan forces beyond 2014.
“We urge the international community to equip and train the Afghan Security Forces post- 2014,” said Mr. Mohammadi.
And how well is all that “training” going? Pretty much as we saw before. Despite massive efforts by the US to re-screen Afghan personnel in the military and to decrease the number of interaction points between Afghan recruits and their trainers, there was another green on blue killing on Saturday. From ToloNews:
“Three International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service members died when an individual wearing an Afghan National Security Forces uniform shot them in eastern Afghanistan today,” a statement from the coalition said.
A US defence official confirmed to AFP that the three victims were from the United States.
An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the attack happened during a training session in the insurgency-hit province of Paktia.
The Afghan soldier opened fire on US soldiers, killing two on the spot, he said. A third later died of his wounds.
The attacker was killed when Americans and Afghan soldiers returned fire.
The article, which originally comes from AFP, lists the various programs the US has put into place in response to green on blue killings. By listing these programs in such proximity, we can see how they are self-contradictory:
There have been seven “insider attacks” this year against coalition forces, compared with 48 in 2012. ISAF officials say the decline has been due to better vetting, counter-intelligence and cultural awareness.
Foreign soldiers working with Afghan forces are regularly watched over by so-called “guardian angel” troops to provide protection from their supposed allies.
The military really wants us to believe that they have finally learned cultural awareness and that they have put into place appropriate screening and counterintelligence processes that will eliminate threats. And those programs are working so well that the military now assigns soldiers to act as armed guards during training sessions.
At the height of the green on blue killing outbreak, one aspect that stood out was that the attackers often had access to Afghan military and police uniforms whether they were actual members of these groups or not. As the Taliban shift their targets this year to attacking the Afghan military and government, it appears that the tactic of attackers disguising themselves in official uniforms is continuing. Today, there was a major attack on a court complex (and a nearby bank office) where Taliban attackers were wearing Afghan National Army Uniforms.
From the New York Times:
A group of eight Taliban insurgents dressed in Afghan Army uniforms staged a complex assault on a provincial government compound in Western Afghanistan on Wednesday morning, killing at least six officials and civilians and seizing several hostages in one of the buildings, officials and witnesses said.
Officials said that the violence in Farah began after insurgents detonated a Ford Ranger laden with explosives near the entrance of the government compound. Government officials said the Taliban seized the second floor of the provincial court building, which is near the offices of the mayor, prosecutor and the governor, among other officials.
In addition to the at least six people killed in the attack, roughly 75 others were wounded, including women and children, according to hospital officials. Shah Mohammad Noor, head of the regional Court for western Afghanistan, said four of the attackers had been killed so far.
“The firefight is still ongoing,” said Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, the governor of Farah province. “The terrorists are still resisting.”
We learn from Reuters that the timing of the attack was not random, as the court proceedings going on at the time were specifically targeted:
Five militants stormed a court in Afghanistan on Wednesday where Taliban insurgents were standing trial, killing seven people and wounding 75, officials said.
At least one of the attackers blew himself up and a gun battle between Afghan security forces and an insurgent holed up inside the court was going on in the capital of the western province of Farah, near the Iranian border, said provincial deputy governor Mohammad Younis Rasouli.
“They stormed the court as a trial was being held to convict 10 Taliban fighters,” he told Reuters, adding that four civilians and three members of the security forces were killed.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to media, spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said, adding that the insurgents standing trial had been freed in the attack.
I suppose there could be a language or translation issue here, but the matter of fact statement that the “trial was being held to convict 10 Taliban fighters” kind of stands out here as not quite in line with the usual concept of a criminal court proceeding. The willingness of a Taliban spokesman to attach his name to a text claiming credit for the attack while it was still onging is also pretty stunning in its own right.
ToloNews adds that a bank was targeted along with the courthouse:
Several gunmen have launched a coordinated attack on a court building and a private bank branch in western Farah province, killing at least six people and wounding more than 70 others on Wednesday morning, officials said.
Two gunmen, wearing Afghan National Army’s uniform, entered the primary court building and two others managed their way into the provincial branch of New Kabul Bank.
Extra forces have been deployed to gun-down the insurgents.
And AFP (via Dawn) informs us that the Taliban were so open in taking credit for the attack that they even posted it on their website:
Taliban militants fighting the US-backed central government immediately claimed they were behind the attack.
“Our fighters attacked several government buildings in Farah according to their planned tactic. They conducted the attack with small arms and grenades,” the group said on its website.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan public now appears to be between the Afghan government and the Taliban with the US (and NATO) in the process of becoming more spectators than participants.
On Saturday, the ceremony to transfer final control of the Detention Facility in Parwan to Afghanistan was canceled at the last minute as the US once again tried to maintain veto power over Afghan decisions on which prisoners to free. This occurred amid a backdrop of a range of other events demonstrating how the US is trapped in a quagmire in Afghanistan and yesterday was no better, as Karzai ratcheted up his rhetoric even further, prompting cancellation of the joint press appearance featuring Karzai and Chuck Hagel, who was making his first trip to Afghanistan as the new US Secretary of Defense.
Today caps the shitstorm in the region, as we have yet another green on blue attack, and although it is very early in sorting out details, it appears to involve US Special Forces in Maidan Wardak province, where Karzai had made today the deadline for SOF to withdraw from the province over allegations of widespread atrocities at the hands of groups claiming to be affiliated with and/or trained by US SOF. But US pain and embarrassment spread further out into the region immediately surrounding Afghanistan today, as Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a joint appearance to commemorate the official ground-breaking for construction of Pakistan’s side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. From the PressTV account of the event, we get some background:
The 1,600-kilometer pipeline, projected to cost USD 1.2-1.5 billion, would enable the export of 21.5 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas to Pakistan on a daily basis.
Iran has already constructed more than 900 kilometers of the pipeline on its soil.
Tehran-based Tadbir Energy Development Group will reportedly undertake all engineering procurement and construction work for the first segment of the project, which starts from the Iran-Pakistan border and costs around USD 250 million.
The Iranian firm will also carry out the second segment of the project, and extend the financing later to USD 500 million.
The Express Tribune relates the history of the US trying to prevent the pipeline being built:
The two sides hope the pipeline will be complete in time to start delivery of 21.5 million cubic metres of gas per day to Pakistan by December 2014.
The US has issued warnings to invoke economic sanctions already in place against Iran if Pakistan went ahead with its plans to import natural gas from the Islamic republic.
The United States has steadfastly opposed Pakistani and Indian involvement, saying the project could violate sanctions imposed on Iran over nuclear activities that Washington suspects are aimed at developing a weapons capability. Iran denies this.
India quit the project in 2009, citing costs and security issues, a year after it signed a nuclear deal with Washington.
Isn’t that interesting? The pipeline could come online the same month that NATO troops are scheduled to end their involvement in Afghanistan. That could well be why we see this paragraph in the Fars News story on the pipeline:
During the meeting at the international airport of the Southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar today, Ahmadinejad and Zardari said that the gas pipeline will further strengthen the economic, political and security relations between Tehran and Islamabad and other regional states.
US presence in the region clearly has been a destabilizing force. Iran and Pakistan appear to be taking steps toward what they hope will be improved stability once we are gone.
Exactly one year ago today, I posted on the agreement in principle that would hand over the Detention Facility in Parwan, located near Bagram Air Base, to full Afghan control. I noted at the time however, that the “agreement” depended heavily on semantics and that the US was in fact doing its best retain as much control as possible:
The agreement appears to use semantics to say that the prisons are being handed over today, but with the reality being that there will be a gradual process taking six months. From the New York Times:
The memorandum of understanding would officially hand over control of detainees to an Afghan official as of Friday, but would also allow for a six-month period of transition to full Afghan control of the American-held detainees, American officials said.
As a practical matter, American officials are expected to maintain day-to-day control over the 3,200 detainees, most of them suspected Taliban insurgents.
During the six months, custody of the American-held prisoners would gradually transfer to Afghan authority, with the first 500 prisoners to be transferred within 45 days, according to American military and diplomatic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
The move is a major concession to the Afghans, but the Americans will retain ultimate veto authority over releases of any insurgent detainees as long as American troops are in Afghanistan, and will continue to monitor humane treatment of the prisoners, the American officials said.
With the US maintaining veto power over release of any prisoners, perhaps Senator Graham will have to hold off on throwing his next tantrum, as his major objection to the handover had been that the Afghans would release prisoners who would immediately attack US troops. It’s not clear how the US will be monitoring humane treatment of the prisoners, since it is US training that put the torture methods in place to begin with.
The six month gradual handover phase has now been a full year, during which we have seen many rough patches. At the six month mark, I noted that the US balked on finalizing the handover because the Afghans refused to put into place a system for indefinite detention without trial. But throughout this process, the key really has been that the agreement itself has been a sham (just as with most of our agreements with Afghanistan) primarily because the US continues to maintain that it has final veto power on Afghan decisions to release prisoners.
On Wednesday of this week, the dispute over prisoner release came to a head, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced to the Afghan parliament that the final handover of Parwan would take place today and that he would immediately release a number of prisoners he said are innocent. Unsurprisingly, the US today unilaterally cancelled the final handover ceremony, throwing the whole agreement into disarray. From the New York Times: Continue reading
Many times throughout recorded history, would-be empires have attempted to conquer Afghanistan, only to fail. These failures often have been so spectacular that they end up taking the would-be empires down for their efforts, as most recently seen when the Soviet Union’s ill-fated war in Afghanistan was one of several factors leading to its demise.
Ignoring that history, the US invaded Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. The Bush administration subsequently diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan into its war of choice in Iraq. Barack Obama made Afghanistan his “necessary war” as he campaigned for office in 2008, and yet the joint management of the war in Afghanistan by his administration and the military has been no more professional than the fiasco under Bush.
Remarkably, there has been little criticism of the mismanagement of this war, although when General John Allen was snared into the panty-sniffing investigation of David Petraeus’ extra-marital affair, AP noted that Afghanistan has been killing the careers of top commanders:
At the international military headquarters in Kabul, it’s jokingly being called the curse of the commander’s job.
The last four U.S. generals to run the Afghan war were either forced to resign or saw their careers tainted by allegations of wrongdoing.
That second paragraph can now be revised, as the official announcement has now come out that Allen will retire rather than face a confirmation hearing on his previous nomination to head NATO. The official explanation is that Allen is resigning so that he can help his wife deal with a number of health issues, but Ed (“Did You Beat Tiger?!?”) Henry informed us last week that Allen was “pushed” in an article that strangely seemed to link the sacrifice of Allen with an expected eventual confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary.
A voice in the wilderness daring to criticize the failures of military command in Afghanistan and Iraq has bee Tom Ricks. He wrote in the New York Times in November:
OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticized for showing poor judgment and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public.
Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting — and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.
Ricks even understands why the military has escaped criticism: Continue reading
Events on Wednesday, Thursday and early Friday in Afghanistan stand as a stark reminder that killings now take place for such a variety of reasons and by such a variety of groups that assigning blame and motivation becomes extremely difficult.
The dead include two British troops and one Afghan soldier on Wednesday, two American servicemembers in one Thursday event and three Afghan policemen in another, and a large number of Afghan police, soldiers and civilians early on Friday. It would appear that the killing of the US soldiers is the event best understood at this point. From AP in the Washington Post:
A man in an Afghan police uniform shot and killed two American service members Thursday, in what appeared to be the latest in a rash of attacks on international forces this year by their Afghan partners.
In Thursday’s shooting, authorities had yet to determine if the attacker was an Afghan police officer or an insurgent who had donned a uniform to get close to the Americans, said Maj. Lori Hodge, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The assailant escaped after killing the service members while they were out on a late morning patrol in the southern Uruzgan province, she added.
This same article goes on to partially describe the deaths of the two British troops:
It was the second suspected insider attack in two days. On Wednesday, two British service members and an Afghan police officer were killed in an “exchange of gunfire” in Helmand province, the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The Afghan officer was not wearing his uniform and the statement said it was not clear who started shooting first.
There appears to be considerable disagreement at this point on just what took place in this encounter. Afghanistan’s Khaama Press has two articles released a little over three hours apart that provide very different explanations. From the first article:
The pair are thought to have been killed by insurgents, though the BBC said an Afghan source claimed the deaths were from a “green on blue” attack – where coalition troops are killed by their Afghan allies.
The later article provides a very different description:
According to local authorities in southern Helmand province of Afghanistan, British troops based in southern Helmand province killed two of their comrades in a friendly fire in this province.
Provincial security chief spokesman Farid Ahmad Farhang confirming the report said the incident took place in Greshk district while British troops were patrolling in the area.
Mr. Farhang further added, “A group of British troops opened fire on an Afghan national police and killed him.”
He said, “British troops were then attacked by a group of other British soldiers who were also patrolling in the area, killing two service members.”
The first description describes the British deaths as from insurgents or as green on blue. The second description first says there was a blue on green killing followed by blue on blue friendly fire. BBC is still agnostic on this event, choosing to quote ISAF: Continue reading
From the time that training of Afghan forces first became disrupted by the security measures put in place in response to the spiraling rate of green on blue killings, I’ve been convinced that at some point NATO is going to be forced to give up on the concept of a target size of 350,000 Afghan security forces to be in place as NATO withdraws from the country. Despite the simple math that says any slowdown on feeding new recruits into a system that has such a high rate of loss means the overall size must decrease, it has appeared so far that NATO has been planning to game the numbers while adhering to the 350,000 force size.
On Saturday, a very long article was published by the Washington Post outlining a long litany of the problems associated with how the ANSF was expanded so rapidly and to such a large force size. Only by reading to the very end, though, do we get to what I think is the most important news in the article:
That now appears to be the direction U.S. commanders are heading. The White House and Pentagon have decided that the 352,000 will only be a “surge force” that will eventually be reduced to 228,500. The decision has prompted unease among senior U.S. commanders and protests from Levin, McCain and other congressional supporters of a large Afghan army. The Obama administration has billed it as a cost-saving move, but some U.S. officials see another motivation.
“Now we can start concentrating on quality,” said the senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy.
But the planned cutback, which will not begin until 2016, already is fueling a new round of concern because the U.S. and Afghan governments have not started to develop a program to systematically demobilize soldiers and policemen by providing them alternative employment. If not, thousands of men with at least nominal military training will find themselves jobless the very moment the country’s economy will be struggling to cope with a drastic reduction in foreign spending resulting from the departure of most NATO troops.
Those who worry about “dismantling” ANSF to reach the lower number have nothing to worry about. The high rate of attrition says that any lowering of force size can be achieved rapidly merely by slowing input into the system. Afghanistan already is awash in thousands who were “trained” and then deserted the security forces, so the fears of releasing more are too late. Also, my prediction is that the projection that the cutback will not start until 2016 is merely a way to get agreement first on the smaller force size. Once the smaller size is a familiar concept, then I expect the timing for it to be changed dramatically to coincide with the actual withdrawal of NATO forces. Look for the withdrawal timing also to be accelerated greatly once the US election has taken place. By mid-December, I expect the plan to be for a withdrawal of the bulk of NATO troops within a twelve month timespan with a target ANSF size of 228,500 by the end of withdrawal.
But don’t expect Obama to admit that reality at tonight’s debate. He will steadfastly maintain that all 352,000 members of the ANSF are properly vetted (they aren’t) and trained (they aren’t) and stand ready (they aren’t) to take over as we leave by the end of 2014 instead of 2013. Look for Romney to hint that he wouldn’t really favor withdrawal, especially on a “timetable”. In other words, neither Obama nor Romney will say much of anything about Afghanistan that will align with how events will unfold after the election.
Last month, Florida GOP Congressman Bill Young changed his stance on Afghanistan, stating that it is now time to withdraw as soon as possible and that “we’re killing kids that don’t need to die”. Saturday, yet another of Young’s constituents was killed in Afghanistan.
The latest who didn’t need to die was 24-year-old Brittany Gordon. She was killed Saturday in a remote section of Kandahar province at an intelligence office. Her killing may well turn out to be classed as green on blue, as the killer who detonated a suicide vest killing Gordon and five others may have been a member of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, although there also are reports that Afghanistan has denied the killer was a member of the NDS. It appears that the other American killed in this attack was a CIA officer.
Young had received a letter from Matthew Sitton just prior to Sitton’s death last month. In a strange parallel, Young had spent time with Gordon’s father, St. Petersburg’s assistant police chief, just last week:
Young became a critic of the nation’s war in Afghanistan last month after he received a letter from Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton of Largo, who told him of the carnage caused by IEDs. Sitton was later killed by one.
“Things have gone wrong in Afghanistan,” Young said Monday night. “Something has to change. Too many people are ignoring that fact, and suggesting that it’s not that bad. But it is that bad.”
Young said he spent time with Cedric Gordon last week when they met to talk about honoring fallen police officers. Young said it was apparent he was a proud father.
Young said the deaths of Sitton and Brittany Gordon reinforce his new position on the war. “It makes it very personal,” Young said. “The Gordon case brings it even closer to home.”
But don’t ask anyone in Washington to do anything about how “things have gone wrong in Afghanistan” until after the election. In the meantime, how many more families and communities will lose valued members like Brittany Gordon for no reason at all?
Yes, Congressman Young, it is that bad and it sadly is unlikely to change for a very long time.
Last month, when the combination of rising green on blue killings and anger over the anti-Islam film finally shut down most joint operations between NATO and Afghan forces, I predicted that this would lead quickly to Afghan National Security Forces falling below the level of 350,000 that NATO has stated to be the goal when security responsibility for the country shifts to Afghan control as NATO withdraws. The prediction was based on already knowing that Afghan forces suffer from huge attrition losses and knowing that the most important aspect of training for Afghan troops occurs during joint patrols that are carried out at the platoon level where only a handful of troops from each side are present. The shutdown of joint operations was for everything below the battalion level, so it seemed to me that with the most important level of training ended, ongoing attrition would decimate the force size.
While reading today’s New York Times article in which the Times has finally realized what a huge problem the high attrition rate poses, I finally deciphered how NATO will be gaming the numbers on ANSF size in order to claim that the original plan for withdrawal can be followed without significant changes. The Times tells us:
Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.
The attrition strikes at the core of America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.
The reality is that although NATO has set a goal for ANSF size to allow withdrawal, it has completely given up on the idea of those Afghan forces being fully functional. My error when I predicted that cessation (now followed by a resumption that Panetta claims is “nearly normal”) of joint patrols would reduce force size was to think that ANSF size would be at all affected by a decreased level of training and experience gained on joint patrol.
NATO will continue to claim that ANSF size is at the goal for withdrawal because, as we see in the Times article, recruitment will continue at the rate needed to make up for the high attrition rate. Recruitment is all that matters for maintaining force size, as the Times noted:
Colonel Stanikzai, a senior official at the army’s National Recruiting Center, is on the front line of that effort; in the six months through September, he and his team of 17 interviewers have rejected 962 applicants, he said.
“There are drug traffickers who want to use our units for their business, enemy infiltrators who want to raise problems, jailbirds who can’t find any other job,” he said. During the same period, however, 30,000 applicants were approved.
“Recruitment, it’s like a machine,” he said. “If you stopped, it would collapse.” Continue reading
Late Thursday, Leon Panetta contributed even further to his diminishing credibility by trying to claim that joint missions between US and Afghan troops are returning nearly to normal levels. From the Washington Post:
Most U.S. and NATO combat troops have resumed joint operations with Afghan forces, the Pentagon said Thursday, although U.S. officials said they remain worried about the threat of fratricidal “insider attacks.”
U.S. commanders had substantially scaled back the joint operations 10 days ago in an urgent effort to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. and NATO troops.
At a news conference, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said “most” U.S. and NATO units had “returned to their normal partnered operations” with their Afghan allies. But he offered few details, and other Pentagon officials offered conflicting accounts of how many missions were still being conducted separately.
The new information was also found to be unclear by the New York Times:
In a significant restriction on a core element of the Western exit strategy from Afghanistan, the American-led military coalition said last week that all joint operations with Afghan forces conducted below the battalion level had to first go through a formal approval process — an effort to stem attacks by members of the Afghan security forces that have killed 51 American or allied service members this year. Officials now say those approvals were being handled efficiently enough that the number of partnered operations was returning to normal. . . . The number is now climbing again, said officials, who declined to offer specifics.
Spencer Ackerman is having none of this ploy, though, and the title of his piece from Thursday evening tells us all we need to know: “Whatever Pentagon Says, U.S. Patrols With Afghans Aren’t ‘Normal’ Yet“: Continue reading