Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.

Remembering a Spy for All Seasons

June 4, 2017–At the end of April with the death of Howard Phillips Hart, the U.S. intelligence community lost one of its true heroes. Unlike Dewey Clarridge, who tried to appropriate the title “spy for all seasons,” but who was a showboat and ideologue, Hart was the real thing, fortunately on the scene at some very real passages in recent American history. Even as a toddler. Born in St. Louis on the eve of World War II, Hart’s banker father moved the family to the Philippines, where they had the misfortune to be when the Japanese invaded after Pearl Harbor. The family were locked up in a Japanese prison camp at Los Banos and rescued in the nick of time, in 1945, as U.S. paratroopers liberated the camp before the Japanese could execute the prisoners. After the war the family went back to the Philippines.

Howard read in Oriental studies and political science at Cornell and the University of Arizona, learning Hindi and Urdu. He was thinking about joining the Marines when an agency recruiter convinced him to become a spy instead. He joined the CIA in the summer of 1966. The agency did well by Hart, assigning him to India for his first foreign tour. In that he followed Clarridge, who had served in Dehli but at this time was desk officer for India at Langley. The station chief was Clair George. Anyway, the Indians were in the process of edging closer to the Soviet Union, and in 1967 they signed a treaty of friendship and an arms delivery agreement with Moscow. Hart was wrestling with an invitation from an old friend to become a lawyer when one of his agents acquired the operating manual for the Russian SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, mainstay of the North Vietnamese air defenses that were zapping U.S. planes in the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. That coup convinced Hart to make his career as a spy.

He served three years in India, long enough to see the first rumblings of what became the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971. Hart got an education in the niceties of diplomatic relations–in India, with rising anti-Americanism, the Canadian embassy painted Canadian flags all over its cars so they wouldn’t be taken as Americans. Less than a decade later, Canadian diplomats heroically sheltered Americans in Teheran and helped smuggle them out of the country. Hart witnessed both ends of this show–first in India, then, after a tour in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. Assigned to the Teheran station, in the first phase of the Iranian revolution, the United States decided to greatly reduce its embassy staff–including the CIA station. In the summer of 1979 the spooks operated with a rump unit of a few officers within the reduced embassy, plus an undercover “outside” unit of four, headed by Howard Hart.

There were lots of adventures, including the time Hart was stopped by Revolutionary Guards at a checkpoint, beaten, and ended up blowing them away with his pistol. He got his CIA contingent safely out of the country. When the Carter administration organized the hostage rescue mission that ended so tragically at the Desert One airstrip in the Iranian outback, Howard Hart was the CIA adviser. He was physically at Desert One when the mission came apart. For Iran Hart received the Intelligence Star, an important CIA medal.

Next Howard went to Islamabad as station chief for Pakistan, and from there he directed the CIA paramilitary operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was the crucial early-mid phase of the Afghan op, when U.S. support did not quite rise to war-winning levels. Hart made the best of limited means. He finished his CIA career as an early chief of the agency’s novel “fusion center” to counter drug trafficking. Hart amassed five award decorations during his career–more than almost any other officer–and George Tenet selected him as one of fifty CIA “Trailblazers” in 1997. Unlike Clarridge or George, both of whom were swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal, Howard Hart never became controversial inside or outside the agency. That’s what made him a “spy for all seasons.”

Hillary Not Convincing? Try Trump Security Adviser

December 15, 2016–Previously this blog has argued that, when secrecy becomes so onerous that senior officials can’t do their jobs without breaking the rules, it’s time for the rules to change. The controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails and the classified information therein ought to have demonstrated that in endless detail. In case you didn’t take in the point here’s an example from the other side–Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser-designate, former general Michael T. Flynn.

The United States Army has just declassified documents summarizing its 2010  investigation of General Flynn–not for inadvertent disclosure of classified information, as in the Clinton case, but for willful, purposeful disclosures he made while heading the intelligence staff serving our military command in Afghanistan. Those familiar with classified information will know that it comes in many flavors, and that there are “compartments” that divide information into categories to which differing secrecy restrictions apply. One basic one is “NOFORN,” which reserves information for American eyes only, with no foreign dissemination.

General Flynn broke those restrictions in at least two instances, both deliberate. At a briefing that included British and Australian allies, he showed briefing slides which they were not supposed to see. In the second case, Flynn told Pakistani security authorities how the United States used its intelligence capabilities to watch one of the islamist networks in northeast Pakistan. Flynn minimized these secrecy transgressions and made our very point–why should he not be able to tell allies of information that affected them?

These and other incidents, including a still-murky stint in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), affected Flynn’s career. His promotion to lieutenant general was delayed. An assignment as assistant director of national intelligence was denied. When Flynn was later fired from the DIA job he assumed the sinister shape he now maintains.

It is a fair bet that as national security adviser in a Trump administration, Michael T. Flynn will carry out a vendetta against the CIA, DIA, and other American intelligence agencies. The shame is that overzealous secrecy rules here play a part in creating a back alley fight that will surely damage United States national security.

VIETNAM OBSERVANCE

April 4, 2016–A few days ago I did a radio interview with a San Francisco station. The United States government is in the process of conducting a years-long observance of the 50th Anniversary of the American War in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs had apparently selected March 29 as the date to celebrate Veterans. It did not seem right to me– that day in 1965 marked no great commitment of men and women to war, no significant Washington decision, no big battle, no Saigon coup, just a bombing of the North and a moment for small unit actions. Maybe that was the message.

 

In          Our          Name

These     things     were     done.

Among     our     names     was     mine.

And yours.

 

Someday, one day, there will be an observance like that for Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror. Think about it.