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Afghanistan: America’s Longest War … This Is How It Was

On December 28, 2014, Operation Enduring Freedom, the war to destroy Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, officially came to an end in a somber ceremony in the Afghan capital, Kabul. The war cost NATO roughly 3,300 troops (the majority of which, approximately 2,200, were American) and 16,000 allied Afghan troops. It was not only the longest conflict in US history, but the Afghan aid program that underpinned the war was America’s most expensive assistance ever offered to a foreign country (when adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars). The more than $100 billion US spent in Afghanistan exceeded even the Marshall Plan designed to rebuild post-World War II Europe (using inflation adjusted dollars).

But for all of the records it set, there has been no overview of this war that lasted for over 13 years. What follows is an effort to remedy this situation and provide a retrospective “after action report” of this conflict in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Central Asia, from 2001 to its conclusion at the end of 2014.

Origins of the Campaign.

In the aftermath of the Al Qaeda attack on the US, the Bush administration ordered the Taliban regime to turn over the Arab foreign terrorists and fighters being hosted by the Taliban Emirate of Afghanistan. When the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the self-styled “Commander of the Faithful,” announced that he would stand by his Arab “guests,” Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, summed up America’s position as follows, “we told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that if this happened, its their ass. No difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda now. They both go down.” As part of the newly declared Bush Doctrine, America reserved the right to go after states that harbored terrorists and America was now at war with both the Taliban host regime and its Arab terrorist guests.

After initially naming the campaign “Operation Infinite Justice,” it was decided to rename it Operation Enduring Freedom so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities (only Allah can dispense infinite justice according to Islamic theologians). While the 50,000 Taliban and 5,000 allied Al Qaeda fighters belonging to the so-called 055 Brigade dug in and awaited the arrival of a full-scale land invasion, the campaign began on October 7th 2001 with aerial bombardments of Taliban and Al Qaeda positions and facilities. The Taliban responded by mocking the Americans and daring them to come down from the skies and fight them in the Afghan “Graveyard of Empires” that had defeated the 19th century Brits and the 20th century Soviets.

But unbeknownst to the Taliban, US troops had already arrived by mid October in the form of CIA paramilitaries from the Special Activities Division, Army Green Beret special forces and Air Force combat controllers, all of whom could call in precision bomb strikes. These elite units were covertly inserted by helicopter from neighboring Uzbekistan and liaised with local anti-Taliban forces from the Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik ethnic groups of the Northern Alliance opposition in the high Hindu Kush Mountains. Acting as “force multipliers,” the US fighters called in strikes from B-52s and other Coalition aircraft on Taliban positions, thus allowing the horse-mounted Northern Alliance rebels led by an Uzbek warlord named General Dostuml to go on the offensive.

On November 9th, 2001, Dostum and his twelve man Green Beret team led by Captain Mark Nutsch broke out of the Hindu Kush mountains, where they had been bottled up, and captured the strategic northern city of Mazar i Sharif. This inspired other rebel units to go on the offensive and the northern half of the country, including the capital Kabul, had fallen to the Northern Alliance by mid November. As the Taliban house of cards collapsed, anti-Taliban rebels belonging to the Pashtuns in the south, the same ethnic group that made up the Taliban, rose up in the spiritual capital of Kandahar. These Pashtun rebels were led by an English speaking tribal chieftain named Hamid Karzai who had been given his own Green Beret A-Team. Karzai and his team then took advantage of the so-called Afghan “rolling snow ball” effect and gathered momentum and disgruntled Pashtun fighters to liberate the Pashtun south from the retreating Taliban. By mid December most of Afghanistan was liberated and Karzai was declared the interim president at a conference in Bonn, Germany. The Taliban had been overthrown by just 350 US special operators working with local Afghan allies.

Meanwhile, the US had tracked Bin Laden and his followers to a mountain hideout on the Afghan-Pakistani border at an old mujahideen base called Tora Bora. This position was pummeled by US JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions, i.e. satellite guided bombs) and FAEs (Fuel Air Explosives) killing scores of Al Qaeda Arabs. But the US tribal allies hired to flush out the dug-in Al Qaeda fanatics proved to be open to bribes and were paid off by Bin Laden. These Pashtun tribal forces allowed the surviving Arabs, including Bin Laden and his number two Ayman al Zawahiri, to escape into the wild FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) of neighboring Pakistan. Once in this autonomous Pashtun tribal zone, Bin Laden and Zawihiri were granted melmastiia (sanctuary) and essentially escaped the largest manhunt in world history.

But Al Qaeda lost thousands of its fighters in the fiery destruction of its Taliban host sanctuary, including the number three leader Muhammed Atef. More than 600 Al Qaeda fighters were also arrested in Pakistan, including the 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, and transferred to the US naval base/legal limbo in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the Pakistani government, which had been granted 10 billion in US Coalition Support Funds to turn on its former Taliban allies and join the war on terror, refused to arrest Taliban fighters who retreated across the border into Pakistan. These fleeing Taliban, including Mullah Omar, found sanctuary in the FATA region with fellow Pashtun militants. There they regrouped and spread their harsh brand of Islam to this remote, hilly land that was off limits to the Pakistani army. By 2002 the FATA region had become a shariah law emirate informally known as “Talibanistan.”

By 2002 US regular troops had begun to arrive in Afghanistan and establish large Camps/FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) in Kabul and in the Pashtun southeast, such as Bagram Air Base, Camp Leatherneck, Camp Rhino, Camp Phoenix, Camp Salerno, Camp Chapman, and dozens of smaller COPs (Command Outposts) and firebases. But the number of US troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan did not initially surpass 10,000 as US Central Command began to divert resources to the invasion of Baathist Iraq.

Along with the US troops came NATO troops who formed ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force). These NATO troops came from countries like Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, who actively fought alongside the US in subsequent years, and countries like Italy, Germany, Spain and Turkey whose parliaments issued strict limitations on their ability to fight. The stringent rules preventing some ISAF members from fighting, even as they took over regional commands, led some US troops to sarcastically comment that ISAF stood for “I Suck at Fighting.”

But for all the internal tensions, the US-led NATO mission began to train Afghan army and security forces and begin the process of rebuilding Afghanistan. As foreign investment poured into the country, new roads, schools, wells, government buildings, army bases, and police stations were built and the US and its allies engaged in a massive nation building project. ISAF PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) also engaged in such hearts and minds projects as de-mining this war torn land, building irrigation canals, fixing bombed schools etc.

The Forgotten War in Afghanistan.

But for all the nation building efforts, the war in Afghanistan by 2003 became known as the “Forgotten War” as Centcom focused its attention on the war in Iraq. By 2007 that war had sucked most of the oxygen out of the “other war” in Afghanistan and ultimately required some 148,000 troops to put down a bloody Iraqi insurgency/Sunni vs. Shiite civil war. With the Americans distracted by the quagmire in Iraq, the Taliban began to infiltrate Afghanistan from their cross border sanctuaries in Pakistan’s FATA. With too few US troops to control the vast desert and mountain regions of south-eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban began to establish “shadow courts” that were more popular than the corrupt Afghan government courts, behead school teachers and burn their schools, kill Karzai appointed governors, launch swarm attacks on remote US COPs, throw acid in the face of school girls, assassinate pro-Karzai tribal officials, plant IEDs (the number one killer of US troops), tax opium production and wage a bloody suicide bombing campaign. They even established a de facto capital in Afghanistan at Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.

The primary leader in this insurgency was Mullah Dadullah, a fierce Taliban fighter with one leg who had learned to wage an Iraqi-style IED, suicide bombing, terror campaign. The Taliban had morphed from being a government (albeit one enforcing Medieval style laws) to a full-blown terrorist group that was inspired by its Al Qaeda allies. To combat the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists operating from their FATA sanctuary, the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) began a drone assassination campaign in 2008 that consisted of approximately 35 strikes in Pakistan in that year. But this blistering Predator/Reaper drone campaign, while acting as both a “force protection” deterrent to stop Taliban cross-border raids into Afghanistan and a disrupter of Al Qaeda plots, was not enough to stem the tide of the Taliban advance.

By the time Barack Obama became president in January 2009, the Taliban were within an hour from Kabul and president Karzai (who had won Afghanistan’s first democratic election, but had lost control of much of the Pashtun southeast) was derisively known as “mayor of Kabul.” Determined to end what he called the “war of choice” in Iraq and refocus efforts on saving Afghanistan, “the war of necessity,” Obama began to shift thousands of troops from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation Enduring Freedom.

The process of “finishing the job” in Afghanistan began soon after Obama took office when he quickly deployed 21,000 troops to Afghanistan beginning in March 2009 (this brought the number of troops in Afghanistan to 68,000). He then received a request for 40,000 additional reinforcements from General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of Joint Special Operations Command who was now in charge in Afghanistan. After much debate in the White House between president and vice president, Obama decided to send 33,000 additional “surge” troops to Afghanistan to bolster the war effort in Afghanistan on December 1, 2009. These troops would buttress the more “silent surge” of 21,000 troops that had earlier been completed in Obama’s first year in office. Under the 2010-11 Afghan troop surge the number of US troops would eventually max out at approximately 101,000 soldiers (there were an additional 40,000 NATO troops as well).

The war in Afghanistan followed some of the COIN (Counter Insurgency) developments forged in the war in Iraq. For example, before being removed for incautious comments in a Rolling Stone article, General Stanley McChrystal issued strict ROE (Rules of Engagement) for the use of artillery or airstrikes on Taliban insurgents. The aim was to avoid accidental “collateral damage” (i.e. slain civilians), thus bringing the COG (Center of Gravity, i.e. the Afghan people) over to the Coalition’s side. This “courageous restraint” policy, which was criticized by troops in the field, was lifted by McChrystal’s successor, General David Petraeus of Iraq Surge fame, who famously deployed JSOC fighters to carry out night raids to devastate the Taliban’s ranks.

The additional 50,000 Obama surge troops sent to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 were also used to crush the advancing Taliban in the strategic southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. In the largest operation of the Afghan War, Operation Moshtarak (Together), an airborne NATO/Afghan Army force seized the Taliban’s de facto capital of Marjah in February 2010. Having lost their political-military capital and been pushed out of their spiritual capital in Kandahar Province at the cost of thousands of their fighters’ lives, the Taliban retreated in the deserts of the southeast.

But there was no US troop surge in the more forested-mountainous northeast and, on the contrary, Centcom abandoned such exposed COPs as Restrepo in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. This came after scores of US lives were lost in fighting a tough foe in this mountainous region, including the incidents depicted in the Hollywood movie Lone Survivor and in the documentary Restrepo. By 2012, the adaptable Taliban insurgents had also begun to make inroads into the normally peaceful northern plains province of Kunduz, which was home to pockets of pro-Taliban Pashtuns, as well as pro-US Uzbeks and Tajiks. Scores of US troops also began to die at this time in so-called “Green on Blue” insider attacks by Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan Army or disgruntled Afghan soldiers who turned their guns on their American allies.

By this time, NATO had begun to moderate its ambitious expectations for nation building in Afghanistan and had come to describe its watered down goals as “Afghan good enough.” Part of the problem stemmed from the corruption of the Karzai administration (Afghanistan was ranked in second place in corruption by the UN, surpassed only by Somalia). President Karzai won his second election in 2009 against a Tajik-Pashtun contender named Abdullah Abdullah only through corruption and ballot stuffing. Karzai, who had once been courted by the West, had become increasingly critical of the Americans and difficult to work with. There were also accusations that his powerful brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the de facto governor of Kandahar was involved in opium production.

Average Americans had also grown tired of the endless war in Afghanistan and even Republicans began calling for the US troops to come home and for America to “start focusing on nation building at home.” Critics bemoaned the fact that the war cost $100 billion a year, money needed at home during a time of recession. By the time the surge was over in 2012, several of America’s NATO partners had also withdrawn their troops from the politically unpopular war in Central Asia.

Fortunately, by this time NATO had trained up an Afghan security force of 350,000 and began to gradually place them in combat roles. The CIA’s drone war had also stepped up drastically under Obama (known as “Obomba” in Pakistan) and had taken a devastating toll on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their FATA sanctuaries. There were a stunning 117 drone strikes in 2010 alone. In May 2011 the raison d’etre for the war in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, was also killed by Navy Seal Team Six in a helicopter raid on his compound in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan.

With the Taliban pushed back from the capital and the second largest city, Kandahar, Al Qaeda Central decimated (three number threes in the organization had been killed and dozens of high level operatives slain by CIA drones), many of the original goals of Operation Enduring Freedom had been achieved. But the Taliban remained a resilient foe and in 2014 killed a record 5,000 Afghan security forces. They also refused to negotiate with the new post-September 2014 leader of Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani. Despite having suffered tens of thousands of losses, the Taliban remained unbroken and had taken control of many remote regions now that the US was no longer using close air support to assist embattled Afghan troops.

Thus Operation Enduring Freedom achievements were mixed. It achieved some of its more ambitious goals (schools for millions of children that now teach secular subjects to students, including girls, the first democratic government in the history of Afghanistan, the return of millions of refugees, a rapidly improved Afghan GNP, the creation of an Afghan Army and police that dwarf the Taliban in size, freedom for women who are now members of parliament, improved infrastructure including hundreds of miles of new roads, the destruction of Al Qaeda’s terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan) even as it failed to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table through a 13 year war of attrition that cost the enemy tens of thousands of fighters’ lives, but failed to defeat it.

As Operation Enduring Freedom ends and approximately 10,800 US troops remain in Afghanistan in a train and support role for the year 2015 (Obama and his team decided not to order a full Iraq style drawdown of troops after watching the rise of ISIS in post-US Iraq), the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. While critics had feared that the defection-plagued Afghan security forces would not be up to the task of holding off a determined Taliban adversary without US support, they appear to be holding their own. President Ghani, who has been most eager to sign a bilateral status of forces agreement with the US, has asked for a residual presence of American troops in Afghanistan in a train and support role. It remains to be seen if the US will withdraw all of its remaining Operation Resolute Support troops at the end of 2015 as Obama has promised.

Meanwhile, the Taliban remain a resilient enemy and are determined to carry out the war to its successful conclusion, which would mean the overthrow of the American-backed Afghan government and reestablishment of a strict Taliban theocracy. While the Taliban took heavy losses during the 2009-2011 Obama troop surge, they are resilient. The Taliban take heart in the memory of their people’s previous defeats of invaders and sum up their continuing resolve and America’s waning interest in Afghanistan by proclaiming the “Americans might have the watches … but we have the time.”

For a history of the Afghan war based on field manual initially written for the US Army’s Joint Information Operation Warfare Command see the author’s Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America’s Longest War.

For a history of the CIA’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 through the use of horse-mounted native Afghan troops and Green Berets see the author’s The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Overthrow the Taliban Regime.

For a history of the CIA and JSOC’s Predator/Reaper drone war on the Taliban see the author’s Predators. The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda.