Last week in one of the stronger passages of a solid speech President Trump said “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Most Americans, to include myself normally like bold, unambiguous statements like that. Our nation building efforts in Afghanistan have not born much fruit, Americans don’t, as a general rule, like terrorists. Killing them is, in theory, not a problem.
What is a problem is defining who is or is not a terrorist in the context of Afghanistan today. The US and her allies do not have reliable human intelligence networks in Afghanistan resulting in a 15 year run of raiding Afghans who are not connected to the Taliban and also killing some of the strongest supporters we had in that country. For example Razi Khan, the district governor of Chora district in the Taliban controlled Oruzgan province. Razi Khan had fought the Taliban all his life and was a strong ally of the Australian military who were assigned to Oruzgan province. He was killed by the Australian SAS during a night raid that was based on faulty intelligence.
There is also the problem of tribal leaders who are congruent with our goals in Afghanistan but rejected government officials sent by Kabul who the locals viewed as little more than criminals. Ajmal Khan Zazai, Canadian citizen and head of the tribal federation in the Zazai valley of Paktia province is one of those. As I wrote here back in 2010 he was considered an AOG (Armed Opposition Group) leader by the US Army and thus, today, could be considered a “terrorist”.
The American military in general and Secretary Mattis in particular is not adverse to learning bitter lessons, adapting to those lessons and overcoming them in time. But it is not an institution that values creativity which results in change in small increments. The military attracts smart, orderly people who master the discipline they work in but view change as micro steps of improvements to the existing structure. People like this fit well inside the evaluation structures these institutions use to judge performance.
That is a function of human nature. The military, like all bureaucracies, is chocked full of conscientious people who can work very hard at going the wrong direction for years on end. Creativity is a high risk, high gain game best played by highly creative people. It is much safer for the high intelligence segment of the population to find a functioning entity and operate as a cog within that entity. Highly creative people tend to go off on tangents all the time but the probability that one of those tangents is exactly what is needed at the exact time it is proposed are ridiculously low. The most reasonable response to the tangential ideas from a highly creative person is “that’s stupid”. Take a few minutes to listen to one of my favorite Canadians explain this dynamic in detail.
Damn, I just went off on tangent again. The purpose for that was to, once again, point out that dismissing creative solutions like the one Eric Prince proposed is to be expected but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily well informed.
It is important to note that our stated strategy of preventing a terrorist organization from planning and launching attacks against America from Afghanistan is a red herring. As friend of FRI, J Harlin pointed out in the comments section, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg, Germany; controlled from Yemen and the vital training for the attack took place in Arizona and Florida. Afghanistan housed bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda, which was a good reason to go there and smoke check him. It is also the reason we should have never let him slip away once we had him trapped in Tora Bora.
Second, focusing on the application of force alone to “win” is not a coherent solution to our commitment in Afghanistan. The war there will end with a political settlement, not a military victory. Crafting that settlement will take creative diplomatic thinking that isolates the Taliban affiliated tribes and clans from the rest of the Afghan population. All the military can do now is provide the space for these efforts by keeping the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the fight.
Do we have the talent resident in our diplomatic corps to take advantage of the time/space being generated by military? We have people with the requisite language skills, connections and time in country seeded throughout the various government establishments (DoS, DEA, CIA, NSA, USAID, etc…) to foster an acceptable endstate. Are these people being sent back into the fray? Is there a plan or even a single unifying leader with the authority of a Viceroy to implement a plan?
The answer, I fear, is no because the idea of splitting the Taliban from the rest of the population while playing India off against Pakistan is, in the eyes of our federal bureaucracies, stupid. Yet in the eyes of creative, strategic thinkers it is the only plan that will work. Inshallah somebody with the traits of the later will emerge to shepherd the efforts of the former to a logical end.