Friday News Roundup — August 27, 2021

Good morning to you from Washington, D.C., where the events of the past two weeks have largely been focused on the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military, the fall of Kabul, and the scenes of heartbreak and heroism unfolding as America’s longest conflict comes to an end. The tragic loss of life due to the brutality of ISIS terrorists is a reminder of the enemy we still face and the limits of our power. What cannot be discounted is the heroism of all those who gave their lives ensuring that others could find their way to safety.

While we did not have a full roundup last week, we hope you were able to see our Senior Fellow James Kitfield’s interview on Afghanistan with retired General David Petraeus. Joshua has two reviews for you to read: first about Craig Whitlock’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War” and second about Tom Nichols’s “Our Own Worst Enemy.”

We were also excited to hear the news this week that President Biden had nominated CSPC Trustee Nick Burns to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. As CSPC President and CEO Glenn Nye said in a statement, “we can think of no better diplomat, thought leader, and scholar to serve in this vital post.”

Given the magnitude of the events that unfolded in Kabul this week, this week’s roundup will look a little different. Given his unique perspective as a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Afghanistan veteran and his role now as a CSPC Senior Fellow, this week showcases a longer essay from Ethan Brown.

Blood and treasure in the Graveyard

Ethan Brown

Rangers from 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, as part of a combined Afghan and coalition security force operating in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, await a CH-47 for extraction. Department of Defense photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Pedro Amador

This column is quite unlike my usual roundup offering. We’re all focused on the circumstances in Afghanistan this week of course, as is most of the world. Afghanistan is a place which, for me, goes beyond the ethos and mystique of its twenty years as the lynchpin of American Foreign Policy, and is decidedly more personal; ditto the many veterans whose entire adult lives and military careers were interwoven with the constancy that was Afghanistan. This one column is far too limited a space to encapsulate all of the thoughts, feelings, and reflections on that place, but in short, my best attempt follows.

I’m angry about the whole situation. Plenty, if not most veterans are — my old teammates, former colleagues across USSOCOM, coalition comrades in arms, members of the flying community and intelligence services have given fairly cagey responses when I asked them their thoughts — “we’re just focused on figuring out what is the next thing now”, or “it’s crazy to think that I’ll actually be spending Christmas in the States’’, and “I think everyone is just mentally preparing to have to go back in or something, and it’s just going to start over”. It isn’t a tropey, thank-you-for-your-service solicitation for attention when I say that mine was one of those lives whose young adulthood was inextricably tied to Afghanistan. I did what many others did at a young age: I tried college, it didn’t quite work out at 18, then went to the recruiter and asked for the toughest job the Air Force had. The next eleven years of my life became a cycle of mastering my craft and responding to fluctuating circumstances in the same old familiar places: Bagram, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mesar E Sharif, Ghazni, Paktika, Helmand, Khost. I became intimately familiar with those places and many others over the years. And I got out with all of my limbs attached, far too many others weren’t as lucky as I have been.

There is something to be said here about survivor’s guilt, which is most certainly a challenge that veterans of the Afghan war will face now and in the future — a cancerous weight that is nearly as heavy as the coffins that many of us helped load onto the heritage flights home. Blood, sweat, tears and treasure, and those of us who made it through the other side ask “why”? What was that precious human capital spent for?

Sure, we took many a bad actors off the battlefield — many permanently and some via detention. On my last rotation we were told by higher headquarters at the Task Force level that our rotation had been the most kinetic and productive in years; after all, our charge then was to pressure the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. At a time when policy was often conducted in a tit for tat, zero-sum gambit, the idea of applying relentless pressure to safe havens was a welcome change to the previous years’ of tip-toeing around tribal politics and sensitive information domains. We were all caught up in the notion that maybe we’d be able to effect a change. Maybe, after all the years of being away from home, living on a hair trigger, developing a certain hardness and cynicism that comes with close proximity to death, we could look back in a generation and tell our grandchildren that we did some good in the world that lasted.

I’m not angry because we have followed through with the promised withdrawal, but for the perceived failure of the mission. Despite my policy-criticisms and analysis of the present (and several previous) administrations’ mishaps and decisions, this withdrawal is one thing that I have argued fervently for, going back to my tours in Afghanistan. Committing for the long haul, or getting out as soon and rapidly as possible was my reply to Gen. Scott Miller’s inquiry on the topic, when I was assigned as one of his Air Wardens during the COMFOR-A’s battlefield circulation in 2019. I made similar comments to senior level commanders who solicited my opinion as a “tactical level operator” on previous trips regarding future strategy. Without some fixed agreement in place that signaled to the Taliban, Iran, Pakistan, and the interested regional parties that the United States wasn’t going anywhere, there was never any hope for our tenuous presence making a permanent difference. “You have the watches, but we have the time,” says the old Pashtun proverb.

Why did the mission fail? I say a better question is: what was the mission? It wasn’t defeating the Taliban, not once negotiations were even an inkling possibility. It ceased being a deconstruction of 9/11-affiliated terror networks, Al Qaeda as we know and understood it became disaggregated many years ago. ISIS-K merely became a new phase of ground operations, one which made coalition forces and certain Taliban elements very strange bedfellows against the boundless brutality of the new extremist Caliphate. Was it retribution for the attacks on that fateful day in 2001 that ushered in this new and poorly understood era of 21st century giants and stateless monsters? There is a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that should have ended that gambit and signaled the pivot to a new strategy, or the terminus of this one.

Preventing attacks on the homeland is an often-cited defense, but a study by Erik Goepner in 2016 from the U.S. Army War College suggests that for every increase in dollars spent and troops deployed, an increase in international terrorism yielded a copacetic response. A democratic Afghanistan? Twenty years didn’t change the tribalism that marred a shotgun marriage of traditional Afghan identities with western institutionalization; it was something that maybe could have been, if that had been the going-in plan and we had stuck to it for the sake of regional and international certitude in American commitment.

I’m angry that the strategy became a yearly kicking of the can down the road. That cyclic policy approach permeated through the tactical preparation for the inevitable next rotation. I stopped thinking about the strategic effects of taking a cog in a given extremist cell off the battlefield (all of whom were suspiciously ‘high value’), and the sole focus became my role in making sure everyone got back on the helicopter alive and unharmed at the end of the night’s raid. Getting my teammates home, ultimately, became the mission for me, and many others. Unfortunately, as the Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller for multiple teams, I called in so many casualty MEDEVACs for coalition and Afghan forces after engaging in direct hostilities with the enemy, that even the small microcosm that became my mission feels like a condensed failure.

This wasn’t an easy piece for me to write, but my hope is that some recognition is given to the struggle that veterans and servicemembers today face in the closure of this decades-long ordeal. I do believe one can fairly state that the mission failed, or the lack of mission clarity gave no option of success. This is only a true failure if the United States fails to learn that short-sighted policy making has historically, and continues to serve, as the foundational danger to our national security bodies. We must begin to view threats to liberal democracy, to our national security and defense, and our institutional knowledge, in a long-term prism. In the next conflict, we will not possess the same overwhelming technological and industrial advantages that we have enjoyed in Afghanistan, although they seemed to make little difference.

If you know any veterans of the Afghan war, reach out to them. I can’t speak for what is going through their minds, but I can state with confidence that the events in Afghanistan in recent months have had some emotional impact on them. That war took too many of our bravest, including the suicide attack this week which claimed another 13 American lives and wounded at least a dozen more, making it one of the bloodiest days of this forsaken conflict. Their sacrifices must never be forgotten, nor should we ignore the lessons that this chapter in American history would teach about how we spend our blood and treasure.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.

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