The soldiers at Camp Blackhorse don’t care about irony. They are from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and they are about as combat hardened as any Canadian soldiers I’ve met. At the beginning of last November they were just getting rolling on their new task of training the Afghan army and already they were cranky—this new mission was nothing much, to them.
A corporal I’d met before in Panjwaii came out to give me a tour of their training grounds. High on a plain up above Kabul, this was the place where fledgling Afghan army companies were taught how to survive combat as a unit. The training ground was vast and largely unprotected.
“Does the enemy ever come up here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” answered the corporal, nodding across the rolling ground. “Someone just tried to plant an IED on the route over there.”
“Blew himself up though.”
Interesting. Only in Afghanistan would a training ground and a battlefield ever get so mixed up.
The corporal didn’t find it too interesting; he just liked that the enemy blew himself up.
All across Kabul and beyond to the north, Canadians are once again finding themselves at the heart of the mission to bring order to Afghanistan.
It’s a different sort of mission than it ever was. Now it’s all about training Afghans to take up the fight. It’s a massive bureaucratic effort—often frustrating to the soldiers doing it—to recruit, train and deploy thousands upon thousands of Afghan security forces over the next three years.
While clearly even on the training ground the combat is not over, Canada and NATO have got their eyes firmly on the exit—the conflict has been going on for more than a decade and everything must end, even this, the longest war in Canadian history.
What you’re about to read is the story of NATO’s endgame strategy, the closing chapter in what has become a vast and costly stalemate.
In 2014, Canada is likely leaving Afghanistan. So is the United States. So is NATO. Perhaps not entirely, as some relationships will remain, but the huge bulk of combat forces will be gone. And much to the strategic chagrin of the military leadership, this withdrawal deadline has been made painfully public. And so the enemy also knows what’s happening.
It is a kind of deadline—it is time up; the final buzzer. The Afghan Nation Security Forces (ANSF) need to be strong enough by then to secure their own country. They can’t do it now, not even close, to be honest. But the plan is to have them ready by 2014.
Between now and then, it’s a race against time.
Knowing how a race is going to end a full three years before it ends is not possible—especially in Afghanistan, a place that always seems to defy easy answers.
Kabul, circa 2011
Sometimes one of the subtle bonus features of actually getting out of the office and going somewhere difficult is that certain things reveal themselves as important which previously did not seem so important. Here’s one: there are a number of very evident indicators that the western world is really going to leave Afghanistan in 2014. The drawdown is on. Really, it’s all anyone can talk about—Afghans and allies alike. What it means, no one is sure. But the sense of an ending is thick on the ground; waiters are talking about it, cab drivers are talking about it, generals are talking about. Sure, it’s not like NATO or the Americans are just going to abandon Afghanistan to its fate—it’s not a Vietnam in 1975 scenario, not by a long shot, but the ground troops and, more importantly to Afghans, the money, those things largely end in 2014. That is the year the new Afghanistan will begin to stand on its own.
But here’s another thing that’s not obvious from a distance: things really are getting better, in some senses, in Kabul at least. My first visit to Kabul was in 2004, again in 2006, and it was then recognizably a city at war: it was guns instead of commerce, streets half-full of furtive men in traditional robes and long beards.
But now it’s fair to say the city is teeming. While it’s true that violence inside Kabul is steady and calamitous—hotel attacks, suicide bombings, assassinations, even an embassy attack, all within the recent past—that somehow doesn’t seem to matter to Kabulis, who crowd the roads in new clothes, looking for all the world like any other south Asian city.
In addition, Kabul is no longer mostly rubble. On this visit it was three days before I saw my first bullet hole, which is interesting because in 2004 there were millions of them. I saw uniformed police officers and soldiers walking unarmed on the street, which is interesting because it also didn’t really used to happen, and reveals that fear of street-level Taliban reprisal is gone.
To sum up: the coalition is leaving and Afghans seem to be choosing, and it’s not in favour of the Taliban. It’s hard to picture the people of Kabul ever consenting to live with Taliban austerity again. They have voted.
But it’s also easy to get carried away, literally. I asked the driver of my downtown hotel if it was safe for me to walk around the city. He looked me up and down and said: “You?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He smiled the particular kind of regretful smile Afghans use when forced to answer in the negative. “No, it is not safe,” he said. “Maybe if you were with some Afghan guys, maybe. But not alone.”
He shook his head, raised and opened his hand, the gesture of losing something to the wind.
In other words: the war is still out there, and close by, too.
Deep War at NATO Headquarters
There is something to be said for the pageantry of war.
While Kabul can sometimes seem pretty far from the sound of the guns, it is still the centre of everything and all news from the provinces and the districts flows through here.
To attend a press conference at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul is to see coalition warfare at its starkest.
After clearing many different layers of security you’ll discover that public affairs officers nearly outnumber journalists. And beyond that, the number of high-ranking International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters staff is bewildering. There are full colonels literally everywhere. Majors are like corporals. I watched one German colonel applying pre-camera makeup to the ruddy face of German spokesman Brigadier-General Carsten Jacobsen.
The actual press conference was notable for its general honesty, rather unexpectedly. Jacobsen took to the microphone to answer questions from the large group of Afghan journalists presently crowded into the room and immediately began to denounce “insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.”
It has long been common knowledge that such safe havens exist—such a thought would have been just as true at any point since 2006, but it would have been officially unutterable until just recently. “There is a violent insurgency going on in Afghanistan, and there is no question about that,” said Jacobsen. “And far too many innocent people are still dying.
“The insurgents have lost the capability to face us in the field and this has been proven increasingly over the summer. And as they cannot face the soldiers any more, who are they targeting? Women, children, civilians and people who are travelling on buses.”
Jacobsen was so mad he was kind of turning red through his makeup. The reason for his anger was that the insurgents had just a few days before managed to blow up a bus carrying more than a dozen coalition members, killing, among others, Canadian Master-Corporal Byron Greff.
“[The insurgents] are not a serious threat and are not a threat to the society of Afghanistan,” spat Jacobsen. “Their goal is not to achieve a military victory. It is to gain media attention.”
The interpreter struggled to keep up. The Afghan journalists raced to get it all down.
“And for us, the loss of 13 ISAF soldiers last Saturday is as tragic as the loss of a high number of Afghan civilians in the same incident. The Taliban are running a war against their own people and they are running a war against everyone who wants peace. This has to be stopped.”
This is what’s angering Jacobsen: the war has been a long struggle and it hasn’t always gone our way. And nor was it expected to. Sometimes, the enemy will prove effective. But the nature of a struggle is what’s important. The more clarity you have, the more resolute and effective it allows you to become. Think of hockey. If your opponent is scoring on you it doesn’t help to deny they’re scoring. It doesn’t help to pretend certain conditions aren’t in their favour, or that your team doesn’t have certain weaknesses.
Victory requires clarity. And here is one part of that: this is not a safe mission. It’s much less dangerous than the mission in Kandahar, but risks remain. In the wake of Greff’s death, Canadians are still involved in ‘combat’, and will be in the future.
During the Sept. 13, 2011, attack on the American embassy in Kabul, a group of 3rd Bn. soldiers took up the defence and fired a reportedly astronomical number of rounds at the attacking insurgents.
Furthermore, there are Canadian soldiers outside the wire every single day. They move around Kabul in small convoys of armoured SUVs or Nyalas, essentially shuttling between bases, commuting in some cases.
The struggle has a cost, no point in denying it.
Predicting the Unpredictable
On one base in Kabul there are rows of brand new buses that have sat for years, their story as confounding as that of the mission itself. When they were first delivered, there were no drivers trained, so they sat. Then, once they trained drivers, the batteries were dead and there were no chargers, so they sat. Then, once the chargers finally arrived, it was discovered that a couple of years sitting outside in Kabul’s extreme environment had fouled the oil and ruined most of the rubber. And so they sit still. Maybe a couple of dozen buses are there, new four years ago, but unusable now, useless metal in a country desperate for transportation.
This little story hints at larger problems.
Major-General Mike Day is in charge of the development of the Afghan army and police. He sits high atop the hierarchy of the NATO Training Mission—Afghanistan (NTM-A).
A Canadian, Day was formerly in charge of Special Operations Forces Command, so he has longstanding knowledge and experience of the war in Afghanistan. “We’ve been here for a very specific reason—the NATO mission really is about preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven once again for terrorists,” he explained. “Part of that plan is to make sure that when we get that done to an acceptable level that we build an ANSF that can continue that work and safeguard the population and look after the people. They will continue the work we’ve started.”
Day knows there is no shortage of challenges to building an entire national security structure from the ground up. And building institutions devoted to logistics—the kind of supply system necessary to get those buses running and keep them running—is foremost among the challenges. Which is to say: the Afghan National Army can fight, but they can’t necessarily feed themselves efficiently or even get themselves to the battle in good order.
“Although there were previous training efforts, I think it’s safe to say that, as a real main effort, NTM-A didn’t start until two years ago and it extends to the end of 2014, so we’re kind of two years into a five-year mission. There is still a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to do. There are still weaknesses in the system and we need to appreciate that doesn’t equal failure and that successes we’ve had to date don’t equal ultimate success.”
Many of the weaknesses in the system—pay problems, fuel shortages, logistical issues—can be traced to the fledgling nature of the Afghan security forces.
As Day notes: “You have an army that’s nine years old. So it’s still going to take us years to get that experience part down, years to grow those instructors and grow those institutions. The challenge is to marry all that up by the end of 2014—experienced leadership, instruction, equipment and infrastructure.”
However, there are other issues beyond logistics. There is, for example, the issue of leadership. Exactly how an Afghan becomes an officer—a leader—in the ANSF is complex, but it’s safe to say a great number of them earn their posting with something other than merit. Patronage appointments have a long history in many of the world’s militaries, and they are as much a problem in Afghanistan today as they were in Victorian England.
“We can despair about the fragility of the leadership today,” says Day, “or we can say right: here’s where we’re at, what are the gaps? Have we put things in place to address those gaps? Is it better? And we’re not going to be completely there by 2014 in terms of a fully-formed piece, but you are going to have increasingly leaders with more and more experience.”
If this whole project doesn’t work, if the ANSF collapses after 2014, there will be many reasons why. It will come to light that important details were overlooked, that mistakes were made. Logistical shortfalls and sometimes weak military leadership may be mentioned, but so might the widespread corruption, and the issue that underlies the corruption: that corruption largely goes unpunished, that in fact, nobody really gets punished, that the ANSF really does not have a professional sense of discipline. If you spend any time on the training bases, it becomes apparent. Afghan soldiers come and go, they skip duties, they smoke hash, they goof off, and nothing happens.
As one outcome of this, many soldiers just get up and leave. Consequently, the attrition rate among the ANSF is high, too high. “We still have a higher than acceptable level of attrition,” says Day, “but it’s not going to stop us getting to our 195,000 target by October or November of 2012 and finish fielding the army by 2013, because those are the objectives I’ve been given.”
This is what’s supposed to happen: as NATO and the Americans withdraw, the ANSF are supposed to fill the void, to provide security, to keep the insurgents from gaining control of towns, districts and provinces.
But in one sense, ‘insurgents’ is a misleading word.
It could be said that the war was only ever partly about the Taliban at all, anyway. In one reading, the Taliban died in 2001, and what was left were millions of Pashtuns now driven from power and feeling disenfranchised. It then seems inevitable that negotiations to reintegrate Pashtuns are about to get serious.
The reason is this: more troops—whether NATO or 195,000 new Afghan soldiers—were always going to be a temporary solution to insecurity. The soldiers lock the place down into an enforced peace, but don’t necessarily solve the underlying problem that’s causing the insurgency. Once they withdraw, it’s anyone’s guess what happens.
“There’s still going to be bad guys doing bad things,” adds Day. “The achievement of our mission is not the absence of violence, it’s the Afghan ability to meet that violence. Every time people say ‘Oh My God, there was an attack,’ we have failed. Well, why not measure how well the Afghans responded to the attack. You can attack any city in the world, big deal, the fact is: who’s handling it? That’s the metric.”
Day maintains he is optimistic about what will happen in 2014. His optimism is guarded, to be sure, but the venerable general thinks the task can be done. “I would say to you there is no chance of success if we don’t build the [Afghan National Security Forces] in the manner we’re building it now, if we don’t give not only the tools, but the institutions to sustain it. And I would say to you that on the current flight path, it’s reasonable to predict that we’re actually going to get there and I’m actually optimistic, but we’re on the second year of a five-year mission and there’s a lot of water to go under that bridge so I would not want people to think that we’ve got the job done yet. We’ve got a lot of work left to do, we’re on the right path and I think we’re on the right pace, but I don’t want to ever minimize the challenges that lie ahead of us.”
The optimism, however, is difficult to comprehend. There are at least two kinds of positive thinkers; those whose professionalism demands a certain kind of gung-ho, can-do attitude that’s only skin deep—on a tour of a base in Kabul, when talking about the quality of the ANA leadership, a senior officer quipped in an aside: “Yeah, ask me again when I get home and I’ll tell you then.” And then there’s the second type of positive thinker—those who just don’t see any point in being pessimistic. Either way, after spending a great deal of time around staff officers, I’ve found it’s hard to tell the difference between evidence-based optimism and plain old wishful thinking.
Power to the People
To address the underlying cause of the insurgency is really the new game in Kabul.
The effort is based on reaching some compromise with the Pashtuns—the ethnic group that dominates the south and east of the country. If amenable parts of the Taliban leadership can be drawn into the political process, then perhaps the violence can end.
However, with every passing day it becomes clearer that, as it’s been said, while there’s no military solution to the problem, there’s also no purely political solution to the problem.
Among the enemy’s many different factions is a cadre of fanatical lunatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for Holy War. Consider the assassination last August of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. According to one report, the Taliban had sent a peace envoy to meet with Rabbani to discuss an end to hostilities. The peace envoy had strapped a bomb to his own personal head and then he detonated it as he ceremoniously hugged Rabbani to begin the meeting. It’s hard to imagine finding a compromise with people like that.
It is a difficult situation.
Another way to look at it: ‘Insurgency’ is just a word that means that certain citizens of the country disagree with the current government, and they do so with violence.
It may be a stretch, but this attempt to gain power is in some ways not unlike voting, but with roadside bombs and AK-47s instead of ballots; a strange and unwelcomed perversion of democracy—power to the people in all the wrong ways.
Even though the majority of the country is opposed to them, the insurgents choose to continue the struggle—this is at least an understandable instinct.
Epilogue: History as Warning
That day at Camp Blackhorse, touring the range that doubled as a battlefield, had one other only-in-Afghanistan moment. Stuck back behind the base’s fuel depot is an incredible assortment of Russian war equipment left over from their failed war here in the 1980s. There were rows upon rows of vehicles, artillery pieces and even Scud missile launchers gently rusting to dust as a new war careened around them.
Just over the ridge, there were rows upon rows of new American trucks, ready to go into service with the Afghan military.
It’s too easy to be pessimistic, but it’s hard not to wonder what will become of that American might. Perhaps in 25 years it too will be sitting out to rust as some new power takes a crack at bringing order to Afghanistan.
Or perhaps it will still be in service.
The next instalment: A boots-on-the-ground look at what the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is all about. Look for it in the May/June 2012 issue.
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com