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BLOG POST: Afghanistan – What Happens Next by Joseph L. Shaefer

BLOG POST: Afghanistan – What Happens Next by Joseph L. Shaefer

Afghanistan – What Happens Next

“Over the Horizon” is Nonsense. We Need New Friends in Bordering Nations

by Joseph L. Shaefer, US Army (retired)
Aug 4, 2021

It is not a bad time for the US to leave Afghanistan.  A better time would have been 5 years ago.  Or 10. 

It is, however, a dangerously bad “way” in which to leave.

America’s stated goal in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 was (1) to neutralize the Taliban so it could no longer give aid and comfort to al Qaeda, ISIS or any other terrorist organization with designs beyond Afghanistan, and (2) to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

More than 19 years ago America’s first goal, to neutralize the Taliban, was accomplished by SOF (Special Operations Forces) and air power on December 7, 2001, when the last Taliban stronghold was defeated. This was accomplished in less than 3 months

10 years ago US forces killed Osama bin Laden where he was being provided aid and security in Pakistan, a nation that has received massive US assistance over the years.  Pakistan continues to receive American largess even while harboring the enemy who financed, incited and planned the killing of 2,977 Americans in the deadliest terrorist act in world history.

If those were the goals and the missions were accomplished, why were US forces kept in country after 2001? Why after 2011?

Big wars between peers require coordinated armor, artillery and infantry on the ground, keeping the sea lanes open, using littoral force and forces well, having the best logisticians and having complete air, space and cyber supremacy.

But what the politicians call “small wars” require a light footprint of exceedingly well-trained, exceptionally capable, deeply experienced and highly motivated individuals.  These are men and women who are prepared to live, fight and die alongside the insurgent group our nation is supporting or, conversely, the government our nation supports against insurgencies.

Re what the politicians call small wars: There is no such thing as a small war if you were there.

What happened In the first 3 months after 9/11 in Afghanistan?

US Army 5th Special Forces (“SF”, or Green Berets) followed a small cadre of CIA Special Activities Division specialists into Afghanistan just 5 weeks after 9/11. Supported by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR,) US Air Force Pararescue, USAF Combat Controllers on the ground, and highly-trained pilots and aircraft in the skies, they fulfilled the first goal of neutering the Taliban in short order.

They did so using the classic Unconventional Warfare (UW) that is the specialty of Army Special Forces.  UW is the support of an insurgency or resistance movement against a government or an occupying power like  the Taliban.  Unconventional Warfare achieves victory with, by or through a proxy force, relying primarily on subversion and guerrilla warfare. 

This allowed these few US soldiers – eight 12-man teams in total, including the “Horse Soldiers” of ODA 595 (Operational Detachment Alpha, what we used to call A-Teams) — working with the Afghan people, with significant support from US airpower, to take every province of Afghanistan back from the Taliban by December 7th, 2001.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were either fleeing to Pakistan or the mountains of Tora Bora, with the US-led coalition of Afghans in pursuit. 

American involvement could have ended then.  At no time was the American public informed that some new US goal, pushed by a group of Neocons who presumed the rest of the world was just like the US, only poorer or less enlightened, was in the making. 

These men believed it was their duty to foist democracy on every other culture, nation or region in the world by interventionism in international affairs.  (Read:  Sticking your nose in other people’s business.)  The goals then morphed into bringing the vote to Afghanistan, setting up a central government in Kabul, kluging together a national army from different regions and cultures with little in common, and trying to transform a tribal society into a functioning democracy.

They were wrong.  When a new generation of Afghans want to achieve those goals, and are willing to die to see it happen, it will happen.  Not until then.

What has happened in the 20 years since December 7, 2001?

The USA lost sight of its two reason the be in Afghanistan and instead engaged in “nation-building.”  How extraordinarily arrogant.

Also, President Bush became obsessed with Iraq and their alleged nuclear weapons.  No matter that the U.S. Intelligence Community told them there was no credible intelligence showing nuclear weapons or even a functioning nuclear program, the Neocons surrounding the president wanted Saddam Hussein.  So, Special Forces teams were withdrawn from Afghanistan -– with many sent to Iraq — and conventional forces were sent to replace them.  The US diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge.

Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, wretched infrastructure and porous borders demanded close contact with trusted American warriors willing to ride into battle with regional strongmen / warlords and their followers.  But these Americans were withdrawn. Successful counterinsurgencies also require legitimate local partners, and those later placed in power were not seen as legitimate.

In addition, the US military hierarchy rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theater every few months, in effect destroying institutional memory from their predecessors and forcing every replacement to learn on the job.

Further, we sent in conventional forces, none of whom had the same level of training, language skills, or cultural understanding of the dynamics of Afghanistan’s ethnic, cultural and regional differences.

Indeed, we did exactly the opposite of unconventional warfare.  The other side of that is something called Foreign Internal Defense (FID) or Counterinsurgency (COIN).  We became, instead of the liberators from Taliban hegemony, the protectors of a centralized government, fatuously modeled on the US government, against any Afghan who wanted freedom from the new centralized government.

This does not diminish or denigrate any American soldier who served in Afghanistan.  It was not their fault they were not given the necessary tools to succeed. 

It was not their fault that too many were placed in massive concentrations resembling medieval mud-brick walled fortresses. No one needed base theaters, PXs, Internet, Pizza Hut and Burger King to get the job done.

Nor was it their fault that the current Afghan government has consistently failed to secure the country or govern competently and honestly. According to Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, Afghanistan is today among the most corrupt nations in the world, in a five-way tie for 165th place out of 179 countries.

So…once the Taliban had been ousted, bin Laden killed, and al Qaeda scattered, why did we stay?  Mission creep. Politicians’ egos. The US military leadership’s continued failure to understand the role and value of UW. And an unwillingness to accept that a nation that exists by its capabilities in unconventional warfare in this terrain and this situation could, and has, bogged down a conventional force many times their size.

What should the United States do now?


But not in such a heated rush so that some politician can say they got the US “out of Afghanistan” by the magic date of September 11, a date solely designed to impress American voters.

Apparently none of the sycophants surrounding these politicians are well-read enough to know that Sept 11 is a day that will live in infamy in Islamic history.  That was the day, in 1683, that the Ottoman Empire saw its worst defeat at the hands of a Christian/European army at the gates of Vienna.  The Taliban is delighted the US chose this date.  The Taliban gets props for avenging that day with this one.

The US will be leaving massive amounts of armaments, vehicles, explosives, and weapons of all kinds behind.  At least the U.S., prior to retreating, needs to take enough time to destroy those or distribute them among the warlords our intelligence community knows to be the certain enemies of the Taliban.

The U.S. also must take enough time to get every Afghan who worked with the US over these 20 years the hell out of Afghanistan if they want to leave.  Yes, the US government has heeded many of our entreaties and is getting translators, interpreters, embassy personnel and others who can prove their life is forfeit if they stay out to a 3rd country or US possession location. 

But what of the informers, the double agents, and those who risked their lives by “joining” the Taliban solely at the US’s behest?  The CIA et al do not keep detailed records of these people for obvious reasons.  And since case officers were so frequently shuttled in and out of country, who will speak for them?

As for al Qaeda, the Taliban was never allied with them philosophically. There is no question that the Taliban provided refuge for Osama bin Laden. But it was always as a quid pro quo.  They used al Qaeda for training, weapons and financing.  The Taliban’s goal is to establish a Wahhabist type Muslim caliphate in Afghanistan, not to export it to other nations.  

Still, “birds of a feather flock together.” In a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, There are those who view this as an alliance in which the Taliban would be propped up with al Qaeda money and make them more formidable. The other viewpoint is that of the average US Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine. Putting all those eggs in one basket just makes for a target-rich environment for future surgical strikes.

You may ask, “But what about human rights?” If the warlords cannot contain the Taliban in each of their districts, we must assume that the Taliban will reestablish a Sharia-based government there. However, the warlords get rich and their followers are compensated by exporting opiates.  Afghanistan is the leading producer of opium in the world.  The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghanistan most recently produced 82 percent of the world’s opium.   When the Taliban was in power it banned the drug trade. If the Taliban institutes Sharia, I predict it will not last long in Afghanistan. Survival transcends zealotry.

I do not see 14 distinctly different ethnic groups, or the Afghan people, after 20 years of exposure to easy money and Western culture, suddenly embracing the strictest form of Sharia for very long.

Leave, yes, but on a timetable that cares for the Afghan warriors who fought alongside our own.  On a timetable that distributes the remains of US Neocons’ broken dreams in the form of weaponry among those who will naturally oppose the Taliban.

The United States leaves Afghanistan a failed state. But that is precisely how we found it.  Neocons, not every nation or sorry excuse for a nation will throw rose petals in our path when we try to upset millennia of culture and tradition to enforce our ways upon them. 

Some would say we do a disservice to those have served—and died—in this endeavor. But those lives are gone and cannot be returned. The question is whether any additional endeavor is worth future costs in lives or US treasure.  Afghanistan is not.  America needs to stop making enemies faster than we kill them.

I leave those who believe America should soldier on with just one question. Why should we care if these tribes, regions, and different cultures engage in continual battle for another century?

I submit that, as long as they do not create a haven for those who would do evil to us and our allies, the answer is “No, it is not for the United States to force change.”

We need to ensure the Afghans who oppose the Taliban have the resources to do so. 

We need to ensure that those who have been our fellow warriors and allies have a home in America, as the Hmongs, the Montagnards, many Iraqis and so many others have. 

We need to destroy the weapons of war we leave behind or ensure they are well-distributed to Taliban enemies.

We must profusely thank our Allies around the world who have risked their own sons and daughters’ lives in this Neocon folderol.

If the United States leaves only on a timeline determined by the United States, not by some gaggle of black-robed Robespierres intent on forcing their priggish interpretation of the Quran on others, the United States should leave — while leaving the door open to provide support to the anti-Taliban core in Afghanistan.

The best policy today after having done all the above? Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.  They will figure it out. In their own way. In their own time.

© 2021 Joseph L. Shaefer

AUG 21 UPDATE: I am disgusted, and ashamed, that my government took none of the steps I put forward above in “What should the United States do now?” My caveats, above, to prevent unnecessary deprivation and murder, were not followed.

We did not destroy or distribute the massive amounts of armaments, vehicles, explosives, and weapons we left behind.  We would have found ready takers among the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Hazaras, Balochis and Nuristanis, among others. Even now, Panjshiris in the Panjshir Valley are welcoming fighters from these other areas. But to what effect? Without the weapons America simply handed over to the Taliban, how can they defend themselves?

We did not take the time to get every Afghan who worked with the US over these 20 years the hell out of Afghanistan if they want to leave.  It is a national disgrace that President Biden is playing golf while Afghans are clinging to the outside of C-17s and falling to their death as the aircraft takes off.

The apologists for this asleep-at-the-switch policy say no one could have known the Taliban advance would be so swift. They make it sound as if this were not just a battle, but a 1939 Nazi blitzkrieg. There was no blitzkrieg! There were no battles! The ANA (Afghan National Army,) except for a few special operations commandos, was never an army. It was a way to be fed occasionally. For the most part, Afghan politicians and military officers took for themselves the money the US gave. They provided their troops with little ammunition, no maintenance, and precious little of any other essential sustenance.

How could the “senior policy makers” in D.C. be so utterly clueless? The truth was there for all to see. I noted above that Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index showed Afghanistan, with apparent American complicity, to be #165 in the world, with #179 the worst for corruption.

This is the America clone the neoconservatives wanted to create? Turning our back on the people doing the job so the “leadership” of Afghanistan could distribute the hundreds of billions we provided not equitably, but only among themselves? These Americans in high places are not makers of policy, they are makers of tragedy.

I specifically said, “Leave, yes, but on a timetable that cares for the Afghan warriors who fought alongside our own.  On a timetable that distributes the remains of US Neocons’ broken dreams in the form of weaponry among those who will naturally oppose the Taliban.”

We did neither. We played golf. We wrung our hands and said, “Gee, who could have known?” Next will be the inevitable finger-pointing between politicians, DoD and the Intelligence Community, followed by senseless recriminations, books written by those defending their actions or by those excoriating others, and the earnest “Lessons Learned” tomes that will be placed on a shelf and never read.

Is There Any Hope For Afghanistan?

Define hope.

If by “hope” you mean that there will be, in this decade or next, a functioning democracy with respect for all and human rights guaranteed, no.

If you mean the chance that the Taliban will find closing in on Kabul with no meaningful resistance less difficult than governing by anything other than a consistent reign of terror, then yes.

The Taliban is basically a Pashtun movement, with scattered support from some others in Afghanistan and other terror groups.. Some long for the 7th century practices and mores. Some are just men who want a woman who cannot say no to their “marriage.” But Taliban rule will always be seen in-country as nothing more than a Pashtun theocracy / autocracy.

I said above, by way of conclusion, “If the United States leaves only on a timeline determined by the United States, not by some gaggle of black-robed Robespierres intent on forcing their priggish interpretation of the Quran on others, the United States should leave — while leaving the door open to provide support to the anti-Taliban core in Afghanistan.”

The current United States leaders destroyed any chance for the first part of that conclusion. We just ran. It does not sit right with any American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or any other citizen who believes once they, or our nation, makes a promise we keep it. Once we start a job, we finish it or we at least give others the tools and the time to take over.

However, the the second part — “… leaving the door open to provide support to the anti-Taliban core in Afghanistan” — is still a realizable and effective option. I can see a time, not now but coming, that will last a long time, perhaps forever, where there may be one Afghanistan on paper, recognized only by fellow tyrants, but two Afghanistans on the ground. One Taliban/Pashtun. The other, I hope assisted by the United States and other freedom-loving peoples as providers of skills and weapons to those who oppose the Taliban and their terrorist cronies.

For now, this is unlikely. but give it awhile. Let the Taliban fail to keep its promises of no retribution, of allowing women the right to a full education, of eradicating poverty and on and on and let us see what happens.

There is nothing wrong with leaving the war in Afghanistan to the Afghan people. If they do not have the fire in their belly to resist centralized government, they do not deserve to see anything better in their lifetime. If they are not willing to fight and die to live by their own customs and traditions, they deserve the Taliban.

I hate seeing what I see in the news today. I am offended as a soldier, an airman, a professor of military studies, and most of all as an American citizen. But I try to also be an apt student of history.

It is not easy to be sanguine at this moment, but time has a way of changing both reality and perception. We have hamstrung any real resistance by our manner of leaving, yet I remain convinced that we will see resistance to a Taliban rule sooner than we might think.  Afghanistan’s history shows that servitude and submissiveness do not sit well with Afghans.

I say again: They will figure it out. In their own way. In their own time.

© 2021 Joseph L. Shaefer