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If an Afghanistan Inspector General Report Falls in the Woods...
This week, we turn our attention back to Afghanistan, where we are shocked, shocked to see the Taliban is clamping down on rights and freedoms it said it would protect. While the Taliban tried to portray itself as a kinder, gentler incarnation when it took power last summer, it was only a matter of time before its true colors emerged.
For months they have been rolling back freedoms for women, and they aren’t too far from where they were prior to 9/11. It’s tragic for the people of Afghanistan, but not surprising.
Had the Taliban not stormed back into power last year on the heels of President Trump’s 2020 withdrawal agreement and President Biden’s execution of the agreement, they would have returned to power eventually. Maybe it would have taken another decade, but it would have happened.
That’s because as I have written many times, the west’s intervention in Afghanistan and effort to socially reengineer the society was doomed from the outset. Whether it was the military or civil society, the west tried to make a new Afghanistan in its own image, and that simply didn’t fit the conditions on the ground.
That was evident for years. I first traveled to Afghanistan in 2009, and even then, U.S. troops and officials were saying on background that the whole thing didn’t make sense. Building an Afghan military with modern weapons and logistics and personnel systems was an impossible task. Building western-style bureaucracy was not going to take root.
The west couldn’t keep pumping air into a leaky tire forever and eventually the country would revert to the mean once support dropped below a certain level. The Taliban would wait it all out and prevail one way or another.
For years, inspectors general were saying as much without coming right out and saying it. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued report after report that was leading horses to water about the effectiveness of U.S.-funded efforts in Afghanistan. In 2015, the Lead Inspector General (a joint “entity” of the Defense Department, State Department, and USAID offices of inspector general) joined the fray and began reporting quarterly on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan (I wrote those reports for a year and then became managing editor for 2.5 years).
The SIGAR report was in response to a congressional mandate to evaluate the causes of the collapse of the Afghan security forces last summer. The Lead IG report was the usual quarterly summary of activities in Afghanistan from January through March 2022.
You are probably not surprised that as a jaded cynic, I found nothing new or revelatory in either report. But that’s because I lived and breathed Afghanistan for years.
That’s not to say the reports are worthless or should not be read. As I said, I am jaded and know the story inside and out. Each report is informative for a general audience, but neither is likely to change much of anything at this point.
That’s the big problem — years of pointing out problems and failures in Afghanistan did not move Congress or successive administrations to course correct and scope policies and strategies to what was possible given the human capital, geography, resource, and infrastructure constraints in Afghanistan. What’s the point of oversight if it doesn’t result in change and improvement?
Anyhow, the SIGAR report is entirely retrospective. It looks back on all of the bad decisions and failures that led to the creation of an Afghan security system that was going to collapse the moment U.S. forces and contractors withdrew.
The single most important near-term factor in the ANDSF’s collapse was the U.S. decision to withdraw the U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan through the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, signed under the Trump Administration and confirmed by President Biden in an April 2021 address to the nation.… Other factors contributing to the ANDSF’s collapse included the change in the U.S. military’s level of support to the ANDSF, the ANDSF never achieving self-sustainment, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani frequently changing ANDSF leaders and appointing loyalists, the Afghan government’s failing to take responsibility for Afghan security through an implementation of a national security strategy, and the Taliban’s military campaign effectively exploiting ANDSF weaknesses. These six factors were intertwined and worked together to end with the ANDSF’s collapse.
That’s pretty much all you need to know from that report. The Lead IG report is also mostly retrospective (here’s the report brief), but it discusses a couple of things that have ongoing significance. The United States’ primary interest in Afghanistan is making sure terrorists do not use it as a base of operations to plan or launch attacks against the United States, its allies, or interests.
To that end, the United States launched Operation Enduring Sentinel, which is the “over-the-horizon” operation to monitor and strike terrorists in Afghanistan. Here’s what the Lead IG report had to say about that.
USCENTCOM reported that, as of the end of the quarter, it had not conducted any airstrikes in Afghanistan since the completion of evacuation efforts on August 29, 2021. In testimony to Congress in February, the incoming Commander of USCENTCOM, then-Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla, said that over-the-horizon counterterrorism was “extremely difficult, but not impossible.”
General Kurilla said that the greatest challenge for over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations is that Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Without a presence on the ground, the DoD relies on aviation assets to collect intelligence, surveil terrorist targets, and carry out airstrikes on terrorist targets. The DoD therefore requires overflight agreements with another bordering nation to enter Afghan airspace. Regarding overflight options, General McKenzie said that the DoD remained reliant on Pakistan, and there is currently no other way to get into Afghan airspace.
A third challenge is limited intelligence-gathering capabilities. General Kurilla told Congress that the U.S. Government needed to rebuild some of the human intelligence capability that was lost during the withdrawal. He also said that he would be open to the possibility of sharing intelligence with the Taliban on a case-by-case basis.
So, that’s the most salient content in the report — the United States has little ability to monitor and prosecute terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
The report has some other nuggets, one of which is the State Department thinks the Taliban is taking steps to honor its counterterrorism commitments in the 2020 Doha agreement with the United States. Maybe, but that comment sounds more sycophantic than anything else.
Al-Qaeda is generally keeping a low profile, probably at the behest of the Taliban, but also because al-Qaeda doesn’t have the capability to do anything spectacular at the moment.
The report’s discussion of ISIS-Khorasan is detailed and “alarming,” but as journalist, researcher, and author Bette Dam has written, there is a western bias to pump up the ISIS-K threat. That was evident in my waning days in Afghanistan in 2014 — Afghans and U.S. officials were starting to warn of ISIS taking root in Afghanistan, and a lot of the comments seemed geared toward scaring the west to keep large numbers of troops in Afghanistan and keep spending huge sums of money there.
According to the Lead IG report, the Defense Intelligence Agency assesses “that ISIS-K could direct attacks in the West, including against the U.S. homeland, within the next year if the group prioritizes developing such a capability.”
Some other tidbits:
According to the DIA, ISIS-K continued its efforts to exploit anti-Taliban sentiment among marginalized populations, which may boost the group’s recruitment, enabling it to conduct a wider range of operations in the coming year. ISIS-K leveraged the widespread poverty and governance shortfalls in Afghanistan in its recruitment efforts by offering payment to potential recruits. Additionally, ISIS-K’s targeted attacks on Shia mosques and critical infrastructure highlight the Taliban regime’s inability to provide basic security to the local population, according to the DIA. ISIS-K’s propaganda campaign continued to attempt to influence low-ranking Taliban members to leave the group by presenting the Taliban as traitors and puppets. According to the DIA, a recently released ISIS-K publication highlighted the Taliban’s meetings and visits with China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Western powers as evidence of its lack of orthodoxy.
Bottom line, ISIS-K is a threat to the Taliban and the two are going at it. Best case, that keeps ISIS-K occupied and prevents them from building and doing anything outside of Afghanistan. Worst case, ISIS-K becomes the catch-all for anti-Taliban Afghans and the country devolves into another civil war. Either way, between the Taliban clamping down on human rights, the inability of aid organizations to meet the needs of the people — and the downstream effects of the war in Ukraine on food and humanitarian resources available for Afghanistan — and the other bad actors in the country, brace for a long stretch of bad news from the country.
Now, not to end on such a gloomy note, let’s talk about a more immediate way to make a positive impact in the world. Tomorrow, I am participating in the annual Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. It’s a fundraiser for the Movember Foundation, which supports men’s health. It funds prostate cancer research and awareness programs, and mental health initiatives, particularly focused on suicide prevention.
Movember released a story about me and my mental health struggles in the wake of my years of covering wars and other traumatic topics. You can view the video and read my narrative here.
And if you are so inclined to support the cause, please make a donation here! While the ride is tomorrow, fundraising continues until June 5, so you have time to find change in the sofa!
Thanks, and paid subscribers, stay tuned for more exclusive outtakes from my book (still searching for an agent)!