• Sean D. Carberry

The Writing Was Always on the Wall in Afghanistan

I am hunkered down writing a book about my foreign reporting experiences, and I just unearthed a journal I wrote while embedded in eastern Afghanistan in October 2009. I was at a small base near the Pakistani border. I was there in hopes of seeing the fighting that was taking place in many of the areas along the border. Instead, it was quiet, and rather boring, with the exception of the periodic shell landing just outside the base.

What this journal entry captures is the uncertainty and malaise setting in at the time, and the political debate in Washington about how to win the war. It's rather haunting to read it now in the wake of the withdrawal. So much of it didn't change an iota in nearly 12 years. To me it highlights the fact that the plug should have been pulled more than a decade ago.

The following is my account on the ground in October 2009.


The other day, it finally happened. I was asked “the question.”

It happened shortly after an explosion outside Combat Outpost Herrera. A staff sergeant who I had chatted with a few times escorted me to one of the fighting positions to point out the area of the explosion.

It wasn’t far from the base, just on the other side of some sort of administrative building in the village. We discussed the possible nature of the explosion for a moment, and then the sergeant turned to me.

“So, what do you make of all this?” he asked.

I paused for a moment to take in the magnitude of the question. “I honestly don’t know,” I answered to buy time to think more about the question.

I explained that as a reporter I was in the field to absorb facts and information and report them as clearly as I could. At the same time, I told him that part of the reason I was there and wanted to be there was to try to understand it all myself.

The sergeant was on his third tour in Afghanistan, and was ready to be done with the country. He said that he believed that the U.S. military presence had disrupted Al Qaeda and helped keep the United States safe. Beyond that, he said it was hard to tell if the place was getting better and if the U.S. effort was making a difference.

As a soldier assigned to a particular area and mission, he said that it was difficult to see the big picture and to really be aware of the broader trends in the country. His area—Paktiya Province—seemed to be faring better than a lot of the country. There were hot spots, and security problems, but not to the extent of neighboring provinces.

Since he had served in a different area on each tour, he said he couldn’t judge progress over the years he’d been in and out of the country. As many soldiers did when they met me—a journalist based out of D.C.—he wanted a sense of what was happening in the United States. Where was the debate? What was going to happen with the possible troop increase and strategic changes being contemplated by the Obama administration?

So, I began to explain, as best I could, what was going on back home. I told him that there were two poles that had emerged and were framing the extremes of the debate.

On the one side was what you could call the McChrystal camp: those who argued that a substantial (some said “massive”) increase in troops was needed immediately, coupled with a complete switch to counterinsurgency doctrine—broadly described as protecting the people (separating the enemy from the public), through a concentrated campaign to train the Afghan forces; eliminate corruption and improve governance; develop infrastructure and institutions; and develop the economy.

The theory of that approach was that you defeated the Taliban and insurgents by:

  • Creating economic opportunity so people weren’t inclined to take Taliban money to fight—that required roads, schools, agricultural development, and investment in businesses.

  • Developing the Afghan government so that people viewed it as legitimate and able to provide for their needs so they wouldn’t look to alternatives like the Taliban.

  • Having an Afghan security force capable of eliminating the hardcore, ideological insurgents who could not be absorbed into broader society.

  • And, making sure the Afghan forces could secure the border to prevent weapons and fighters from crossing into the country.

The other side was what you could call the Joe Biden (and George Will) camp. They argued that building a stable, functional Afghanistan was simply out of the question (i.e. beyond America’s capabilities), and it wasn’t a strategic imperative. That camp believed that the only real concern was Al Qaeda and making sure they couldn’t regroup and pose a threat to the United States.

They argued, and intelligence reports backed them up, that Al Qaeda had been largely eliminated in Afghanistan, and what was there could be managed through targeted strikes and small-scale operations. But, because of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had simply crossed the border and set up shop in Pakistan, where governance in the border areas was close to non-existent and the central government was weak and in danger of collapse.

The Biden camp argued that the threat to the United States resided in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and that terrorists had the potential to not only plan attacks on the United States, but also further destabilize Pakistan, and potentially gain access to its nuclear weapons.

That camp proposed that the United States begin to pull out from Afghanistan, and continue to conduct air strikes and covert operations in Pakistan to prevent Al Qaeda from threatening America. Essentially, they believed in an Al Qaeda containment strategy that used missiles and air strikes based on intelligence, rather than large numbers of troops on the ground. They did not feel that the Taliban was a threat to the United States, and many in that camp argued that pulling out NATO forces would actually reduce Taliban membership because many full-time fighters were not ideologically Taliban, but rather “resistance fighters” who were trying to drive out the foreign powers.

So, the Biden camp saw pulling out of Afghanistan a solution to a number of problems.

I explained to the sergeant that this was the basic framework of the debate in the United States, and that obviously there were any number of points between those two poles, and people making compelling arguments for mixed strategies. But, that was the policy battlefield in a nutshell.

What was also going on is a phenomenal growth of AfPak pundits. It was rare to have a day when the op-ed pages of the major papers didn’t have at least one piece from someone proposing a way forward for AfPak. When the cable news networks weren’t engaging in their self-referential roundtables about political inside baseball, or whipping themselves into a frenzy over “balloon boy” and the latest Michael Jackson revelations, they were talking about AfPak.

I told the sergeant that Iraq had largely ceased to exist. As and example I pointed to a conversation between Secretaries Gates and Clinton produced by a public radio program. The conversation lasted just about an hour, and I couldn’t recall them mentioning Iraq at all, other than to compare the Bush Administration process of debating the surge there, and the Obama Administration process of determining Afghanistan policy.

Essentially, Iraq was off the radar screen, and it was all AfPak all the time in Washington. Everyone had an opinion, regardless of whether they had the qualifications to have an informed opinion.

Ultimately, I told the sergeant that there were a lot of smart people in the world who had been trying to figure out Afghanistan for a long time, and no one had come up with the answer. I said that given how experts with far more experience, intelligence, and expertise than I couldn’t figure it out, I was not going to pretend to think I had the answer.

That said, I could report what I saw and heard and perhaps that could help inform the debate. So, this was what I could confirm as reasonable facts on the ground in Afghanistan.

First, in many ways there was no “Afghanistan.” There was a geographic entity called Afghanistan, but there was no central government that controled the country or provided for the needs of the people outside the capital. And while roughly 50 percent of the people who voted in the 2009 presidential election appeared to have cast votes for President Karzai, people didn’t seem to be able to point to what he had done or was doing, and how he had made a difference for them.

More often than not, you heard complaints about corruption and how Karzai appointed loyalists who were robbing the country blind (again, this was the widespread perception of Afghans, as well as U.S. forces and civilians I had spoken with).

And because there was no effective central government, the provinces were left to fend for themselves with the help of international actors. However, provincial government varied, and some provinces had something resembling reasonable overall governance, while others did not. There were several reasons for that.

First was personalities—it depended who the provincial leaders were. Second, was the cohesiveness of the province. While some provinces were tribally and ethnically cohesive, others were not. Some provinces were heavily fractured along tribal and ethnic lines. So, that moved things down to the district level. And again, you saw the same phenomenon—some districts were run well and others not, all depending on the people in charge and tribal/ethnic divisions in the district.

I spoke with Paktiya’s Jaji district sub-governor, and he said that Kabul was corrupt and ineffective. It had done little for his area, and he said that often he made requests up the political ladder and got nothing. Therefore, he relied on the U.S. military, followed by NGOs or anyone else who could help solve problems in the district.

I met him at a meeting of tribal elders in the area. The meeting was facilitated by the U.S. Army captain in command in Jaji. The captain explained that given the tribal structure in the area, there had to be a local solution that would work there. He said that the same approach would not work in nearby districts that had a different tribal structure. So, he said that after eight years on the ground, people were starting to figure out that you had to approach each district differently based on the ethno-tribal-political circumstances on the ground.

Ultimately, there was no one-size-fits all political system that was likely to work in the country. Hence, the historic reliance on tribal elders or warlords. The likelihood that a central government could have reach and effectiveness in all the nooks and crannies of the country was simply beyond reality, so the question was, what kind of patchwork system could work? Was it possible to have the same political structure in each province? It seemed that local systems had to be built at the ground level based on the realities in each area, and then somehow connected to a national government that was viewed as legitimate, minimally corrupt, and reasonably effective.

That did not exist at the national level, the linkages to the provinces were uneven, and the local governance was spotty.

The second major factor was the nature and composition of the insurgency. Clearly there was a core of Taliban and related ideological warriors who wanted control over the country and wanted to implement their “system.” It was not clear how many people fell into that category, and intelligence estimates varied.

Then, there were the economic recruits—those who earned such a meager living that they were willing to take money in order to fight. For those people, it was a simple calculus—fight and feed the family, or starve. In addition to those who were being paid were those whom the Taliban forced into fighting by threatening to kill them and their families.

Those fighters were considered the first tier that could be taken off the battlefield through economic development. Simply help them earn a better living (or as some people argued, pay them directly) and they wouldn’t have the need to take insurgent money.

Then, there was what was by all accounts a growing sub-category: the “kick the bastards out” fighters. These were people who simply saw NATO forces as yet another foreign power trying to conquer and rule their land and were drawn to fight to force out the occupiers. Again, it was not clear how many people fell into that camp, but most reports claimed they were on the rise.

That presented a vexing challenge. As more troops deployed into Afghanistan, the number of attacks and casualties increased.

U.S. troops were growing weary. Many really wanted to help, but others were worn down by what they saw as a mafia state. One soldier posited that the people who had been shooting mortars and rockets at the based had been paid to do so, but they were intentionally missing. Why? Because they were the same people being paid by the U.S. military to provide food, fuel, transportation, or other support services.

Because of those kinds of dynamics, troops were doubting the mission. The sergeant who started the conversation said that in his first two deployments he felt there was a plan and a chance to make a difference. But, he said that in current deployment, he no longer believed that. Even worse, he said he couldn’t explain to the younger soldiers why the United States was still fighting in Afghanistan, what the mission was, and what it was accomplishing.

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