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Trump's Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan: Part 1 – Abandoning a Vulnerable Ally in the War on Terror

Afghan solidiers patrol in Khost Province, 2010

Before his ouster as Secretary of Defense on November 9th, Mark Esper sent a worried memo to Donald Trump stating that it was the “unanimous” recommendation of the chain of command for the war in Afghanistan that conditions were not ready for the president’s proposed US troop withdrawal. The generals charged with prosecuting the war in Afghanistan saw Trump’s recent troop drawdown order as counter-strategic folly driven purely by the president’s optics-driven desire to proclaim to his neo-isolationist followers that he ended “endless wars.”  According to the Pentagon, none of the conditions required for a troop withdrawal, including the Taliban’s breaking its ongoing and close relationship with Al-Qaeda and negotiating a peace agreement with our Afghan government allies had been met.                                                                        

In other words, it is not wise to retreat from Afghanistan and potentially let its democratic society, which protects women and minorities that had been persecuted by the Taliban, fall to the insurgents and allow Al Qaeda to turn it into a base for planning new 9/11s. While many Americans might have amnesia about the collapse of the World Trade Centers, history shows Al Qaeda has a long memory and the network has experimented with gases and other weapons of mass destruction in recent years. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch Trump supporter, warned that the president’s impulsive troop withdrawal would “would hurt our allies and delight, delight, the people who wish us harm. The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011.”                                           

But what is less obvious to domestically focused Americans concerned primarily about the homeland security implications of this abandonment of a frontline ally and counter-terrorism mission is the impact this widely criticized troop withdrawal will have on the millions of Afghans who rely upon the American military presence to keep the harsh Taliban shariah-Islamic law enforcers at bay. This analysis aims to explore the important, but largely missing, Afghan perspective on the president’s decision and, in addition to analyzing the inconsistencies in Trump’s global retrenchment policies, focuses on two salient points:

  1. The impact of the withdrawal on the Afghan National Army, which has suffered horrific losses in its desperate battle to stave off a Taliban conquest of Afghanistan’s cities and the half of the country that is still controlled by the government.
  2. The Afghan tribes which the military considers to be the “center of gravity” in this tribal land.

The Afghan Army: an Embattled but Critical Force 

As I can attest from my experience of working as a cultural advisor on a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan with both US troops and their Afghan counterparts, the Afghan National Army is not lacking in bravery or willingness to make sacrifices to defend their country. It has sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers to defeat a fanatic force that the majority of Afghans hate, especially the women who form half of this nation and the anti-Taliban northern tribes who form the majority of this ethnic patchwork country. But the brave Afghan soldiers lack much of the essential training, equipment, and resources that the American support troops provide. When the Afghan forces go on missions to repulse Taliban offensives or defend territory, it is American airmen who transport them in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When Afghan allied troops engage in combat, it is the American Special Forces “co-located” with them who fly advanced, hand-launched Raven drones that provide battlefield “overwatch” and call in strikes from HIMARs (small satellite guided artillery) or air strikes from such crucially important air assets as the Apache helicopters, AC130 Specter gunships and A10 Warthogs. It is this decisive ground and “air artillery” support that gives the Afghan National Army a fighting chance against a dedicated and fanatical enemy that has the support of many from the dominant Aryan Pashtun tribes of the southeast.

On two occasions the Taliban boldly transitioned from insurgents to conquerors and captured their first regional capital, the northern city of Kunduz. As I reported for Huffington Post, on both occasions it was the Green Beret Special Forces embedded with Afghan troops that called in devastating air strikes that killed scores of insurgents---who were trying to boldly occupy easily observed, fixed positions in the town---and drove the Taliban out of this strategic town. The American ground observers used lethal SOFLAMs (Special Operation Forces Laser Acquisition Markers) to precisely channel the full might of the US Air Force down on Taliban-held positions in the city. The Taliban’s devastating repulses from Kunduz prevented an Afghan-style domino effect of conquests by the advancing party and cascading defections by the defeated party. The Taliban guerillas learned from this costly experience. They are now loath to essentially commit suicide by making themselves targets for what they have dubbed “Azrael the Death Angel” by coming out in the open and capturing Afghan Army bases or government buildings in towns when they have ground spotter-guided, precision American airpower above them.

While the Taliban have made tremendous progress in remote and rugged countryside, where they can more easily hide, especially in the southeast where some Pashtun tribes support them, they cannot capture and hold the Afghan Army bases or the country’s regional capitals as long as the American Green Beret “Masters of Chaos” are in theater. When they try, small bands of American Special Forces JTACS (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, also known as Combat Controllers or spotters for aircraft) direct withering barrages of precision satellite and laser guided bombs to wipe out any fixed Taliban holding position in towns they attempt to wrest from Afghan government control.

As a result of the US “force multiplier” presence behind the frontline Afghan troops, in the government-controlled towns and areas controlled by anti-Taliban Northern Alliance opposition tribes like the pro-American Turkic Mongol Uzbeks of the legendary warlord General Dostum (who appeared as a key horse-mounted US ally in the surprisingly accurate Hollywood blockbuster 12 Strong: The True Declassified Story of the Horsesoldiers, which I reviewed for HNN), the long persecuted mountain Shiite Hazara Mongols and the fiercely anti-Taliban Persian Tajiks, there is no shariah Islamic law butchery, girls can still get an education, “sinners” and “adulteresses” are not stoned in public on Fridays by fanatical Taliban mullahs, and Al Qaeda cannot set up terrorist training camps. (See ethnic map of Afghanistan here).

It is of course a naïve myth among anti-war activists or isolationists on both the Left and the Right who are ignorant about this country that there is some united, homogenous, anti-American, pro-Taliban race known as the “Afghanis” (a term actually used for the national currency) who are unified in their resistance to the Pentagon’s “occupation.” Many times I have heard un-informed observers----who have no familiarity with Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of tribes that rose up and fought to help just 300 “boots on the ground” US Special Force operators free their country from the Taliban in 2001---simplistically state of the Afghan people “it’s their country, if they don’t want us there we should leave this quagmire to the fanatics.”

Contrary to this widely held, ahistorical misperception, it is only among the Aryan Pashtun tribes concentrated primarily in the southeast, who make up 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population, that one finds Taliban, and even among them the insurgents are in the minority. The vast majority of the people in Afghanistan have benefited from the new roads, wells, schools, generators, hospitals, airports, pro-women’s rights democracy, civil society, police forces, and government buildings the US and its NATO allies have built since 2001. They do not want their country to once again be turned into a Medieval-style Taliban religious prison camp that is a pariah nation and home to foreign Al Qaeda, Uzbekistani, Pakistani, and other terrorist groups who lorded it over them. Hence the widespread popular support in Afghanistan for the American/NATO mission that I discovered in my journeys across this fascinating ancient land as both a civilian doing research for books and working for the US government in various capacities.

The “light footprint” of much appreciated American Special Forces “enablers” crucially provide their Afghan National Army allies with logistics support and, in the psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that the American superpower has their back. The small number of American “force multiplier” or “aid and assist” troops, contrary to misconceptions conveyed by the Trump withdrawal-focused administration, do not lead the fight from the front, but every one of them is the equivalent of a thousand or more Afghan troops. From a combat and logistic support perspective, withdrawing these vitally needed troops from the already small and thinly stretched US “economy of force” contingent in Afghanistan would kneecap or, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “potentially cripple” Afghan Army operations. From the morale perspective, it would be devastating to the fighting spirit of a hard-pressed, allied fighting force that is barely holding the line against never ending waves of Taliban offensives. Trump’s drawdown could well cause a cascading collapse of the Afghan National Army in key contested areas and this could lead to the collapse of regional capitals or even the national capital.

But there is another factor that is equally important to the stability of this key ally and bulwark against terrorism that helps make America and the world safe, and that is the Pashtun tribes. The tribes of the Pashtun southeast have long served as the kingmakers of this ancient country. It is their support that is essential to the democracy building/anti-terrorism bulwark building project begun by George W. Bush in 2001, strengthened and saved by Barack Obama’s 2009-12 troop reinforcements, and now in danger of being destroyed by Trump’s chaos-inducing, self defeating 2020 retreatism.

The Tribes: the Last Line of Defense

Few Americans from a post-modern, melting pot society truly grasp the importance of tribes in this ancient land that is more of a jostling, blood feud-ridden Game-of-Thrones battleground than a modern, homogeneous nation state. Winning the support of tribes, especially among the warlike Pashtun tribes in the southeast of the country who dominate both the Afghan government and the Taliban, is key to staving off defeat. These Pashtun tribes live in an unstable, dangerous land they call Yaghestan (Chaosistan) and their tribal leaders known as khans or maliks constantly have their fingers to the wind trying to gauge which warring side has the strongest gales at its back.

When the George W. Bush administration signaled a lack of commitment to the Afghan “forgotten war” and sucked all the oxygen out of this theater of action to wage the war against Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist Party, the tribes sensed weakness. When Bush limited the number of troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan to a mere 20,000, while deploying a far larger force to smaller, California-sized Iraq—a force that reached 182,000 in 2007—the Pashtun tribes came to see America as distracted and uncommitted. The Taliban took advantage of the Bush administration’s inattention and diversion of troops to resurge, burn newly-built girls’ schools, kill Afghan government governors, plant landmines, launch swarm attacks against undermanned and exposed American COPs (Command Outposts) and larger FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), recruit fighters, and retake much of the Pashtun southeast. As vital American resources like Reaper drones, Green Special Forces, “up-armored” Humvees, artillery, and air assets were diverted from the Afghan “other war” to the 2 trillion dollar “Big War” quagmire in Iraq, many Pashtun tribes that had previously joined the victorious Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side. 

The war/counter-terrorism effort was saved only by the 2009-12 Obama troop surge which tripled the number of troops in the country, conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, and saved the south, the east and maybe even the capital from a Taliban conquest. Since then, a tentative stalemate has reigned as the insurgents control roughly half of the country, mainly in the Pashtun countryside of the southeast and pockets in the north. In lands under the Taliban control, school girls have had disfiguring acid thrown into their face for trying to get an education and their teachers decapitated as a warning, women are stoned to death for “moral crimes,” TVs and internet are banned, harsh shariah Islamic law is enforced, and Al Qaeda operates freely. But the Taliban cannot overrun major provincial towns or the half of the country defended by the government and its trusted American allies. Therefore today numerous Pashtun tribes are clearly on the fence and waiting and watching for a sign of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans in order to jump ship and join the winning side. In this unstable land, where perceptions of weakness galvanize ancient tribes to mercurially switch allegiance, the first side that blinks in this war of perceptions will be perceived as weak and will bleed off the support of the all important Pashtun tribes.

Trump’s optics-driven and impetuous troop withdrawal decision, if enacted by the reluctant generals, will be hailed by the Taliban (who endorsed the president in the recent elections) as a victory and will be perceived as a clear sign of weakness on the part of the retreating Americans by the Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun tribes will gravitate to the insurgents’ side out of a sense of self preservation. A recent Rand Corporation report warns that a precipitous troop drawdown will “accelerate among Afghans a crisis of confidence in the durability of their government and security forces.”

No one has his finger on the pulse of the tribes better than the legendary Uzbek Mongol former Afghan Vice President and current Marshall,  General Dostum “the Taliban Killer”, the focus of my field research based book The Last Warlord. This legendary counter-insurgent/insurgent and master of the art of Afghan tribal warfare warned me “If the Americans withdraw their troops the Taliban will smell blood. The tribes will interpret a removal of the American troops as a retreat based on weakness, just like the British and Soviets.” Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is that the Taliban will use Trump’s equivalent of an “own goal” in soccer to gain tribal followers who are on the fence. They will then transition to an offensive on the capital, as happened when the Soviets withdrew troops and their allied Afghan Communist government forces subsequently began a retreat that eventually led to a total collapse.

When factoring in these two important determinants, Trump’s counter-strategic troop withdrawal order has the real potential to militarily, morally and logistically weaken and seriously destabilize a frontline, allied democratic government that has been sustained by a small, but highly effective, U.S. “light footprint” force commitment of a mere 4,500 support troops (under Obama by contrast there were more than 100,000 troops in this theater). But most alarmingly, a premature disengagement of this micro force has the simultaneous potential to strengthen and revitalize a fanatical enemy that has shown no interest in breaking its close operational ties with Al Qaeda or ending its terroristic jihad against the pro-American democracy the US has established with such great sacrifice in a land that was the launching pad for 9/11.

Mission Interminable?

The question many war weary Americans have about the country’s longest war is how long must US troops remain in the Central Asian “Graveyard of Empires” and how much blood and treasure is stabilizing the Afghanistan worth? The answer is, for all America’s tremendous strides in achieving such successes as building a rudimentary Afghan Air Force, training an effective Special Forces branch, and standing up an army of 180,000 to defend their own country, the Afghans’ war enterprise remains problem plagued and highly dependent upon the Pentagon’s vital support. A small contingent of US “force multiplier” troops that has gradually grown smaller and smaller over the years will need to remain in the country for decades to come if a collapse of the Afghan government and conquest by the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance is to be prevented. It should be stressed again that this small force that buttresses the Afghan government is not the lead element in the war and primarily acts in an “aid and assist” capacity.

Fortunately for Americans, the prevention of Afghanistan being turned into another international Al Qaeda al Jihad (‘Base for Holy War’ in Arabic) for planning new 9/11s can be achieved at an extremely low cost in American “accelerants’” lives. Thus far in 2020 there have only been 10 US KIA (Killed in Action) in the Afghan theater of operations. As tragic as this number is, it is more emblematic of the US losses in a typical firefight or few days of fighting during Bush’s 2003-11 Operation Iraqi Freedom than an almost year long military mission. This is a relatively small price to pay to prevent the conquest of the strategic Afghan “Cockpit of Asia” by our devoted terrorist enemies and hardly the expected death toll from a year of combat. In simple terms, with a small but highly effective troop presence the US can save an allied government and its people and protect America and its NATO allies from new mass casualty terror attacks with far less losses of life and expenditure than in an Iraq-style “Big War.”

Ignoring such facts, Trump, who has ridiculed his generals’ pathetic (to him) commitment to allies like NATO and the Afghan Army stating “my f***ing generals are a bunch of pu**ies, has offered his devoted followers a false dichotomy. He has falsely presented it as a choice between

 A. precipitously ending “endless wars” and surrendering without any preconditions to fanatically anti-American enemies like the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan (not to mention abandoning key anti-terrorist allies like the Syrian Kurds to America’s Iranian, ISIS, Russian and Syrian enemies in 2019),

or B. maintaining massive, bloody, “endless” big war slogs like Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom which cost America approximately 4,500 American lives and almost two trillion dollars.

The truth is that the US “light footprint” aid and assist mission in Afghanistan, as with the small but highly effective US mission in Syria before it was sabotaged by Trump’s irresponsible yanking of a mere 1,000 US troops out of that country in 2019 (see my history of that chaos-inducing decision here), is more of a “policing action” than a full-scale, conventional Iraq-style quagmire. And the dividends to America from stabilizing the strategic heart of Eurasia and defending the homeland via this “economy of force” mission are similar to those that came from keeping far greater numbers of troops in post-World War II Germany and Japan, post Korean War South Korea, post-Gulf War Kuwait, and in Eastern European countries admitted in to NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Like it or not, we live in an increasingly inter-connected world where overseas events, such as the collapse of Afghanistan and conquest of the Al Qaeda-linked Taliban from 1996-98 (and perhaps again 2020/21), have ripple effect repercussions that affect even those Trump supporting isolationists who wish to turn their back on the world. We cannot disavow loyal allies, abandon strategic bases, and engage in a disconnected “American First” isolationist foreign policy, which translates to America Alone, if we wish to stabilize the world and prevent the rise of terrorist sanctuaries in places like Afghanistan. And, as 9/11 and the ISIS-inspired mass casualty terror attacks in San Bernardino, Manhattan and Orlando (America’s deadliest gun shooting incident to that date) show, being an ostrich with its head in the sand is no defense against terrorism.