Analysis: Taliban propagandists release ‘open letter’ to President Trump

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN & BILL ROGGIO | August 15, 2017

The Taliban has published an “open letter” to President Donald Trump, urging him to “adopt the strategy of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of a troops increase.” The letter was clearly penned with the Trump administration’s ongoing debate over the war in Afghanistan in mind.

Senior administration officials have reportedly prepared several plans, ranging from a complete withdrawal to a small increase of several thousand American troops. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, favors the latter while alternative scenarios have also been presented to the president.

President Trump has been reticent to commit additional forces, as he would then take ownership of the longest war in America’s history. The Taliban obviously knows this and is trying to influence the debate inside the US.

But readers should keep in mind that the new letter is propaganda and should be read as such. The letter is laced with erroneous and self-serving statements. And some of its key points, crafted for Western readers, are contradicted by the facts.

Allied with al Qaeda, which exports terrorism around the globe

The Taliban describes itself as a “mercy for Afghanistan, [the] region and the world because the Islamic Emirate does not have any intention or policy of causing harm to anyone and neither will it allow others to use the Afghan soil against anyone.”

Although the Taliban does not explicitly mention al Qaeda, the group likely wants readers to assume that this sentence means there is a clear distinction between the Taliban’s operations inside Afghanistan and jihadist threats outside of the country. In reality, there is no such clear line of demarcation.

Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, remains openly loyal to the Taliban’s overall leader. Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Mansour in Aug. 2015. Mansour, the successor to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, described al Qaeda’s leaders as the “heroes of the current jihadist era” and Osama bin laden as the “leader of mujahideen.” Mansour publicly accepted the “esteemed” Dr. Zawahiri’s fealty shortly after it was offered.

After Mansour was struck down by an American drone strike in Pakistan in May 2016, Zawahiri quickly rehearsed the same oath to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who still presides over the Taliban. Akhundzada’s son carried out a suicide bombing in Helmand province in July. The attack was just the latest piece of evidence confirming that the Taliban emir is a committed ideologue, not a prospective peace partner.

Under Akhundzada’s leadership, the Taliban is hardly bashful about its continuing alliance with al Qaeda. The Taliban celebrated the relationship in a Dec. 2016 video, which contained images of Osama bin Laden alongside Mullah Omar. One such image from the production can be seen below:

Other al Qaeda figures are also proudly featured in the Taliban video, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Khalid al Batarfi, a veteran jihadist who plays an important ideological role. Batarfi praised the Taliban for harboring and supporting al Qaeda. And he directly connected the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan to the jihad against the US.

“Groups of Afghan Mujahideen have emerged from the land of Afghans that will destroy the biggest idol and head of kufr of our time, America,” Batarfi said in the Taliban’s video. The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was sacrificed and even vanished in support of our sacred religion, but they (the Taliban) did not trade off their religion.” Batarfi crowed that the jihadists can finally “see [the] light of victory,” as governance according to the “rule of Sharia” law is “even stronger in Afghanistan than before.”

While the Taliban is often portrayed as a nationalist group (this is the intended implication of the group’s letter to President Trump), the Dec. 2016 video portrayed the Taliban’s struggle as part of the global jihad and the effort to reclaim all Muslim lands.

Akhundzada’s top deputy is the aforementioned Sirajuddin Haqqani, a longtime al Qaeda ally. The Haqqanis have been in bed with al Qaeda since the 1980s. Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin, was one of Osama bin Laden’s earliest and most influential backers. Files recovered during the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda’s men have fought alongside Sirajuddin’s forces for years. This is especially significant because Haqqani oversees the Taliban’s military operations.

There are numerous other ties. In Sept. 2014, for instance, Zawahiri publicly announced the creation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together existing al Qaeda-allied groups. AQIS has repeatedly made it clear that its men fight under the Taliban’s banner and that its primary goal is to restore the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate to power in Afghanistan. In Oct. 2015, US and Afghan forces raided two massive al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan. One of the camps, approximately 30 square-miles in size, may be the largest al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan’s history. Both of the camps were supported by the Taliban. AQIS conducts operations in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and elsewhere.

Just over two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, the US hunted down a top al Qaeda commander known as Farouq al-Qahtani in eastern Afghanistan. Qahtani not only commanded jihadists fighting alongside the Taliban, he was planning attacks inside the United States at the time of his demise.

All of these details, and more, belie the Taliban’s claim that it won’t “allow others to use the Afghan soil against anyone.”

State sponsors and enablers of the Taliban-led insurgency

The Taliban claims that the US government has concluded that the “mujahideen” are entirely self-sufficient and do not receive any foreign support. “Your intelligence agencies admit that our Mujahideen are not being supported by any country and neither can they produce any proof in the contrary,” the letter reads.

This is obviously false — Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is longstanding and well-known. Other countries, such as Iran and Russia, provide some level of assistance. Wealthy benefactors in the Gulf have contributed rich sums to the Taliban cause as well.

In July, the US State Department once again confirmed that Pakistan harbors the Taliban, including the so-called Haqqani Network (HQN), which plays an integral role within the organization. “Pakistan did not take substantial action against the Afghan Taliban or HQN, or substantially limit their ability to threaten US interests in Afghanistan, although Pakistan supported efforts to bring both groups into an Afghan-led peace process,” State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 reads. A “number” of attacks inside Afghanistan throughout 2016 “were planned and launched from safe havens in Pakistan.”

In a report submitted to Congress in June, the Defense Department also explained the enduring importance of the jihadists’ Pakistani safe havens. “Attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship,” the Pentagon noted. “Militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, continued to utilize sanctuaries inside Pakistan.”

The Afghan Taliban is not operating under the radar in Pakistan, but instead receives assistance from parts of the government. “Afghan-oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani Government,” the report reads (emphasis added).

This is consistent with Pakistan’s “Good Taliban” vs. “Bad Taliban” policy, which favors jihadists who are focused on attacking the Afghan government and allied forces, including the US. Only the “Bad Taliban” — that is, those jihadists operating against the Pakistani state — are regularly targeted by Pakistani security. The effects of this policy are plain to see. The Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) earned its name because the group’s most senior leaders have been able to operate openly in the city. It is well-known, too, that the Haqqanis have cozy relations with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. Sirajuddin Haqqani has been the Taliban’s top deputy leader since 2015.

Pakistan isn’t the only regional player supporting the Taliban-led insurgency. The Iranian government is as well.

“Iran provides some support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network and has publicly justified its relationships as a means to combat the spread of the ISIS-K threat in Afghanistan,” the Pentagon reported in June. Although the Iranians attempt to justify their policy as a form of realpolitik, a necessary consequence of fighting the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (Khorasan “province,” or ISIS-K), the reality is that they first forged a working relationship with their former foes in the Taliban immediately after the 9/11 hijackings. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Iran has supported the Taliban’s insurgency since late 2001.]

A striking example of Iranian complicity in the Afghan insurgency was revealed in May 2016, when the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mansour, was killed in an American airstrike. The US followed Mansour from Iran, where he was holding meetings, across the Pakistani border into Baluchistan, where he was struck down. Mansour’s ability to travel freely inside Iran speaks volumes about the ongoing relationship.

At a minimum, Russia has rhetorically backed the Taliban. “Russian-Afghan relations suffered due to Russia’s public acknowledgment of communications with the Taliban and support of the Taliban’s call for coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the Pentagon has said. Press reports continue to point to evidence that Russian-supplied weapons are helping to fuel the Taliban-led insurgency. Asked about these reports in April, Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan, refused to refute them.

There are other obvious problems with the Taliban’s letter. The group accuses President Trump’s generals of lying about the American casualties incurred. The “[g]enerals are concealing the real statistics of your dead and crippled however the Afghans can easily count the coffins being sent your way on a daily basis,” the letter reads. This is nonsensical, as American casualties are readily verified. Moreover, the Taliban frequently lies about the number of Americans killed or wounded in combat.

The Taliban says that it could “conquer many provincial capitals currently under siege,” if it “were not for fear of civilian casualties.” There is no question that the Taliban currently threatens multiple provincial capitals, but its concern about civilian casualties is mostly cosmetic. The United Nations has repeatedly documented the Taliban’s culpability in killing and wounding innocents. The group is responsible for more civilian casualties in Afghanistan than any other actor.

The US approach to the war in Afghanistan should be based on a rational assessment of the situation, not the Taliban’s misleading claims.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

What’s next in Afghanistan?

Gatestone Institute, by John R. Bolton, August 15, 2017

As President Trump wrestles with America’s role in Afghanistan, he should first decide what our objectives are today compared to what we wanted immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.

Initially, the United States overthrew the Taliban regime but failed to destroy it completely. Regime supporters, allied tribal forces and opportunistic warlords escaped (or returned) to Pakistan’s frontier regions to establish sanctuaries.

Similarly, while the Taliban’s ouster also forced al-Qaida into exile in Pakistan and elsewhere, al-Qaida nonetheless continued and expanded its terrorist activities. In Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida morphed into the even more virulent ISIS, which is now gaining strength in Afghanistan.

In short, America’s Afghan victories were significant but incomplete. Subsequently, we failed to revise and update our Afghan strategic objectives, leading many to argue the war had gone on too long and we should withdraw. This criticism is superficially appealing, recalling anti-Vietnam War activist Allard Lowenstein’s cutting remarks about Richard Nixon’s policies. While Lowenstein acknowledged that he understood those, like Sen. George Aiken, who said we should “win and get out,” he said he couldn’t understand Nixon’s strategy of “lose and stay in.”

Today in Afghanistan, the pertinent question is what we seek to prevent, not what we seek to achieve. Making Afghanistan serene and peaceful does not constitute a legitimate American geopolitical interest. Instead, we face two principal threats.

Taliban’s Return To Power

First, the Taliban’s return to power throughout Afghanistan would re-create the prospect of the country being used as a base of operations for international terrorism. It is simply unacceptable to allow the pre-2001 status quo to re-emerge.

Second, a post-9/11 goal (at least one better understood today) is the imperative of preventing a Taliban victory in Afghanistan that would enable Pakistani Taliban or other terrorist groups to seize control in Islamabad. Not only would such a takeover make all Pakistan yet another terrorist sanctuary, but if its large nuclear arsenal fell to terrorists, we would immediately face the equivalent of Iran and North Korea on nuclear steroids. Worryingly, Pakistan’s military, especially its intelligence arm, is already thought to be controlled by radical Islamists.

Given terrorism’s global spread since 9/11 and the risk of a perfect storm — the confluence of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — the continuing threats we face in the Afghan arena are even graver than those posed pre-9/11. Accordingly, abandoning the field in Afghanistan is simply not a tenable strategy.

However, accomplishing America’s goals does not require remaking Afghanistan’s government, economy or military in our image. Believing that only “nation building” in Afghanistan could ultimately guard against the terrorist threat was mistaken. For too long, it distracted Washington and materially contributed to the decline in American public support for a continuing military presence there, despite the manifest need for it.

There is no chance that the Trump administration will pursue “nation building” in Afghanistan, as the president has repeatedly made clear. Speaking as a Reagan administration alumnus of USAID, I concur. We should certainly continue bilateral economic assistance to Afghanistan, which, strategically applied, has served America well in countless circumstances during the Cold War and thereafter. But we should not conflate it with the diaphanous prospect of nation building.

Nor should we assume that the military component in Afghanistan must be a repetition or expansion of the boots-on-the-ground approach we have followed since the initial assault on the Taliban. Other alternatives appear available and should be seriously considered, including possibly larger U.S. military commitments of the right sort.

U.S. Army soldiers fire mortars at a Taliban position in northeastern Afghanistan, September 2, 2011. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Even more important, there must be far greater focus on Pakistan.

A Volatile and Lethal Mix

Politically unstable since British India’s 1947 partition, increasingly under Chinese influence because of the hostility with India, and a nuclear-weapons state, Pakistan is a volatile and lethal mix ultimately more important than Afghanistan itself. Until and unless Pakistan becomes convinced that interfering in Afghanistan is too dangerous and too costly, no realistic U.S. military scenario in Afghanistan can succeed.

The stakes are high on the subcontinent, not just because of the “Af-Pak” problems but because Pakistan, India and China are all nuclear powers. The Trump administration should not be mesmerized only by U.S. troop levels. It must concentrate urgently on the bigger strategic picture. The size and nature of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan will more likely emerge from that analysis rather than the other way around. And time is growing short.

John R. Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is Chairman of Gatestone Institute, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad”.

Stymied in Afghanistan

Illustration on the need to defeat Islamist ideology in Afghanistan by Linas Garsys/The Washington Times

Washington Times, by Jed Babbin, Aug. 3, 2017:

About two weeks ago, President Trump’s national security team finally presented their long-awaited strategy for Afghanistan. Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the rest of the National Security Council’s “principals committee” briefed the president on their new strategy.

Mr. Trump reportedly criticized them harshly and rejected their entire plan because it was a rehash of the way we’ve fought the Afghanistan war, unsuccessfully, for almost 16 years. It reportedly included, for example, a proposal by Gen. McMaster for a troop increase with a four-year timeline that the president could promote at an upcoming NATO summit.

Months ago, Mr. Mattis told Congress that we aren’t winning in Afghanistan. In fact, we are stuck in a nation-building quagmire imposed by President Bush whose mistake was compounded by President Obama.

Mr. Trump had given Mr. Mattis the authority to decide troop levels in Afghanistan. Plans were being made to send several thousand to join the more than 8,000 already there. That authority apparently has been revoked. The president was considering a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, sending the Pentagon and the Afghan government into panic, and has since withdrawn from withdrawal.

Afghanistan seemed easy at first. We went to war in October 2001, and in only a month drove the Taliban out of the capital city of Kabul. But the Taliban have never been defeated. Their attacks continue almost everywhere in Afghanistan and they now reportedly control about half the country.

For 16 years we have been training the Afghan government how to function and its army how to fight. About eight years ago we even sent thousands of pomegranate trees along with Missouri farmers — national guardsmen — to give Afghanis the incentive to grow something other than opium poppies. Nothing has worked.

In 16 years, we have suffered about 2,400 combat deaths in Afghanistan and spent over $1 trillion. Continuing the nation-building charade will achieve nothing more than to spend more lives and treasure.

Mr. Trump’s idea of simply withdrawing from Afghanistan reflected an understandable frustration with failure but it is mostly wrong.

If we withdraw our forces, Afghanistan would revert quickly to what it was before 9-11. Neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda has been destroyed. ISIS has established large training camps in Afghanistan. (The April use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan destroyed a large one.) They and other terrorist networks will turn Afghanistan into a safe haven for every terrorist network that wants to commit attacks in the West.

Mr. Trump’s generals rose to high rank in the nation-building era. With the exception of Gen. McMaster, who insists that there is no connection between Islam and terrorism, Mr. Trump’s teams are not ideologically Mr. Obama’s generals. Nevertheless, their thinking is hobbled by long immersion in nation-building and by Mr. Trump’s failure to set a policy goal from which the generals can devise a strategy.

Mr. Trump should decide that goal, quickly and clearly, to include both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, which has been covertly supporting a variety of terrorist networks including the Taliban. When he does so, he should make it clear to his team that ideas that have been rejected before are still open to adaptation.

Principal among them is the ideological war that the Islamists have waged against us since bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa published in a London newspaper. Messrs. Bush and Obama refused to fight the ideological war. Mr. Trump will have to face the fact that no matter what else we do, we cannot win in Afghanistan or defeat Islamist terrorism anywhere else, unless we defeat the Islamist ideology.

In late 2009 vice president Joe Biden advocated a “terror overwatch” strategy. His plan would have rejected the troop surge Mr. Obama authorized in favor of increased training of Afghan troops and greater use of drones and special forces to strike terrorist targets. Mr. Trump is reportedly considering a version of the Biden idea.

Mr. Biden’s approach had two fatal flaws. First, any use of drones and special forces has to rely on specific, actionable intelligence that is — or was at the time — in short supply. Second, it relied on training of Afghan forces, which had already proven a failure.

If our intelligence is by now so greatly improved and can be sustained by spy satellites and spies on the ground, pieces of Mr. Biden’s approach could be adapted to a new strategy. It would have to be accompanied by more American air power than drones can provide, and the commitment to that strategy would have to be open-ended. Striking targets identified in both Afghanistan and Pakistan would have to be done routinely without restrictive rules of engagement.

That would be the beginning of a strategy which could be completed by a commitment to fighting the ideological war. The commitment would be enormous, proportional to the size of those nations.

It’s questionable whether our air and intelligence forces have the ability to sustain it for long. But it is the sort of risk we will have to take to prevent Afghanistan from being the source of another attack as devastating as 9-11. It’s the best we can do until we defeat the enemy’s ideology. If we don’t, the war will never end.

• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

Trump is Right to ask for a Reconsideration on Afghanistan

Security Studies Group, by Brad Patty, July  24, 2017:

Today Politico‘s Susan B. Glasser has a piece that reports that the United States is all set to stay the course in Afghanistan, except for one thing:  a President who is not on board.

Trump refused to sign off on the plan they approved, the sources said, instead sending it back to his national security team demanding more work. And on Tuesday, the president made clear just how dissatisfied he was. In what were pretty much his first public comments on Afghanistan during his six months in office, he told reporters before a White House lunch, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” On Thursday, headed into a Pentagon meeting, he was similarly cagey. Asked about more troops for Afghanistan, he replied only, “We’ll see.”

The unity of opinion in favor of staying the course in Afghanistan is unsurprising, given that the bureaucracies involved have spent 17 years doing just this. It is hard to turn the ship of bureaucracy under the best of circumstances. In this case, a whole generation of young military officers and public servants have grown grey in this mission. Of course they are reluctant to walk away from what is literally their life’s work.

Nevertheless, there are two very good reasons to review whether or not we should continue in Afghanistan.  The first is that, in addition to the obvious costs of blood and treasure, there are significant opportunity costs that only grow more relevant given the changing strategic picture. The second is that the basic strategy at work in Afghanistan over these many years has no chance of success.

Opportunity Costs

Americans are familiar with the casualty figures and the financial cost of the war. What is less well understood is the strategic opportunity costs that we are paying, year after year. Being tied down with large numbers of forces in Afghanistan means that we cannot deploy those same forces to another crisis elsewhere should one develop. That is worth considering with North Korea threatening war, Iran threatening war, war in Yemen, war being threatened around Qatar, Russia pushing through Ukraine having already seized the Crimea and South Ossetia, and an aggressive China pushing out in every direction.

More than that, all those troops in Afghanistan have to be fed and supplied. Given the large numbers of troops, only a small amount of that can be done by air. The rest has to be done by land. There are only two land routes that provide the right kind of supply lines available to the United States. One lies through Pakistan, which shut it off to protest the raid that killed Osama bin Ladento protest American air strikes, and has threatened to do so to stop American drone strikes. Pakistan can threaten to shut off this route any time it does not approve of American behavior.

The only alternate route runs through the Central Asian States north of Afghanistan — and to get to them, any food and supplies has to first pass through Russian-controlled territory. This is especially true for supplies by railroad, the best method of moving those quantities of goods and services over land. All the northern railroad options lead to Russian controlled territory.

Thus, strategically, our deployed forces in Afghanistan are also potentially hostages held by Russia and Pakistan. Independently each of those nations can exact a serious cost from the United States for anything we do that they would prefer we did not do. Should they act jointly, they could close off our supply lines completely enough to imperil our forces. Making such a joint action more likely, Pakistan has just become a full member of the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO sees itself as foremost a security organization, making joint action on security measures quite likely in the future.

Our deployment in Afghanistan it thus a set of handcuffs on our ability to challenge Russia as a global competitor, or to push Pakistan to deal with its own problems. As those nations come together through the SCO, our own forces could be held hostages against us.

In addition to this strategic opportunity costs, there are substantial personnel and logistical costs. Military units that deploy over and over, especially special operations forces, are tied down by the Afghan mission. They grow worn out in these repeated missions, and they must be replaced at significant cost in training. It has long been the case that we do not have nearly as much as we need, and are pushing our best very hard all the time in order to get as much as we can.

“In 2004 we were able to execute 61 percent of the missions we were asked to do,” he said. “In 2010, we could only do 47 percent of what we were requested to do, and we believe we’ll maintain about that 50-percent level out to around 2012, which is as far as we can really see. So optempo (operational tempo) is really a big issue for us.”

Elaborating on deployment versus dwell time, Fuller said that while the Army was working hard to achieve a one-year to two-year ratio or better, he didn’t see any USASOC elements getting to that level.

In addition to this human cost, there is also the wear and tear on equipment that cannot be used elsewhere and must likewise be replaced. While small compared to the other costs, it is not negligible.

In the current strategic environment, it would be wise to ask whether all of these opportunity costs are worth paying for whatever gain is to be had in Afghanistan.  But without at least a major change in strategy, there is no gain to be had.

The Afghan Strategy is Fatally Flawed

If you put the American counterinsurgency strategy into plain English, it would be this:  We stop insurgencies against approved systems of government by raising the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of participation in the system high enough that former insurgents have too much of a stake in that system to rebel against it. In other words, it is not just about killing people who are fighting the system. We also do good for people so that they have a positive reason to want to be part of the system. We might build them improved water pumps or treatment facilities, roads, factories, or get them jobs. They need a stake in the system that is better than what they can get by fighting.

In Iraq, that strategy had every potential for success — indeed, I would argue, it didsucceed. The Surge was about raising costs, but also about paving a way for those who wanted to rethink their insurgency to benefit if they came over to our side. Violence collapsed by 90% in 2007, and continued to drop to negligible levels by 2009. By 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden said that Iraq would be remembered as one of the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishments. And indeed it would have been, if they had not that year precipitously withdrawn the American forces who had been serving to guarantee that the former insurgents received the fair treatment they were promised.

That strategy could work in Iraq, though, because it had a number of things that Afghanistan lacks. Iraq has a seaport, for one thing, from which its goods can reach global markets. Iraq has developed highways that lead directly to relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Iraq has oil, which is not a small matter. Iraq has Mesopotamia, which produces rich agricultural trade goods like oranges. Iraq had an industrial base including factories and power plants that were at or near function, although some needed work after the Saddam era. Iraq also had a fairly highly educated population that could take a factory job, or learn to keep up and repair industrial machinery. Iraq could thus be tied into the global economy, and that would provide the big benefits — the stake — that would ensure former insurgents had too much to lose to go back to war.

The United States spent a lot of money in Iraq during the Surge, but it wasn’t going to have to spend that kind of money forever. Had we not walked out prematurely, so that we’d been there to keep the peace between the factions long enough for them to build trust, Iraq could have been brought into the rest of the world. People would have made money by keeping the peace, and working for prosperity.

Afghanistan lacks all the necessary conditions for that strategy to work. Even now, there is almost no infrastructure on which an industrial economy could depend. There will never be sea ports. Highways lead not to wealthy neighbors, but to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan. Only the last two of those have wealth, and both of them use that wealth to encourage parts of the insurgency.

Finally, there is the opium trade. Ninety percent of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan. Criminal goods are the only goods that Afghanistan produces that are marketable, given the logistical hardships of getting those goods to market from a place like Afghanistan. In Iraq, we could argue plausibly that giving up the insurgency could mean growing wealthy in peace. In Afghanistan, there is no viable economic model that can compete with smuggling — of opium, of minerals, and of people.

For that reason, our basic counterinsurgency strategy is fatally flawed. We cannot expect it to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, not in four years or forty years. Either another counterinsurgency strategy must be developed that can be effective in a landlocked country that benefits chiefly from criminal enterprise, or we must admit that we will continue paying these strategic opportunity costs in return for no final benefits from victory.

Conclusion

It may seem odd to think that respected generals like James Mattis and H. R. McMaster would not know better on a military matter than Donald Trump, who never worked in any related field before becoming President. Nevertheless, he is not wrong to be asking for a review. The costs of the war are much higher than is commonly admitted, and the probability of seeing benefits commensurate with those costs is not high. At minimum the President should demand a new war plan that shows some probability of bringing about success given Afghanistan’s particular economic realities. Absent such a plan, it may be time to consider a big change rather than staying the course.

Unimpressed Trump Sends Pentagon Back to the Drawing Board on Afghanistan

AP

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, July 20, 2017:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. President Donald Trump, unimpressed by the Afghanistan war options presented to him during a White House meeting with his full national security team Wednesday, suggested they may have to go back to the drawing board to craft a strategy that does not mirror the failed ones employed by his predecessors, said an administration official.

The meeting came as the Pentagon briefed lawmakers about plans to increase the U.S. military footprint in the country.

Contrary to mainstream media claims that the president has taken a completely hands-offapproach to the 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, Trump presided over Wednesday’s meeting primarily aimed at discussing the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, a Trump administration official familiar with the deliberations told Breitbart News on condition of anonymity.

President Trump indicated that he is not satisfied with the strategy as it currently stands.

The Pentagon and White House National Security Council (NSC) declined to provide specifics about the developing plan.

President Trump demanded that his team go back to square one if necessary and create a realistic plan that ensures Afghanistan is ultimately able to stand on its own as a country, said the administration official, noting that the meeting served as a sort of wake up call for those involved in developing the strategy.

It appears that besides the Pentagon, the NSC has at least some authority in setting the strategy.

Asked about the meeting, the Pentagon did not confirm nor deny that the President asked officials to go back to the drawing board.

“We’re not going to discuss White House meetings or direction,” said Adam Stump, a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) spokesman, when Breitbart News asked whether or not it has been forced to start developing the Afghanistan war strategy from scratch and when it expects to present the plan to Trump.

The NSC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters last Friday a decision on the new plan would be unveiled around “mid-July” or “somewhere around there. We are driven by the maturity of the discussion, and where we’re at, we are not going to meet some timeline if we are not ready, but we are pretty close.”

Trump has granted the Pentagon the authority to decide how many additional troops to deploy to the war-ravaged country.

Currently, Mattis may increase that number of troops by between 3,000 and 5,000, from the 8,400 already there.

Mattis noted on Friday that the number of additional troops has not been “finalized yet,” adding that the Pentagon is waiting from input from the U.S. State Department.

Citing unnamed U.S. officials, CNN reports that as it currently stands, the strategy:

Encompasses a way ahead in Afghanistan, including the possibility of sending more troops, but also a look at new ideas for dealing with Pakistan, which the US believes is supporting or turning a blind eye to a number of terror groups operating inside the country.

The president made it clear he is not interested in any approach that resembles the strategies used by his predecessors and will not accept anything less than a dramatic overhaul, the official told Breitbart News.

Directly dealing with Pakistan’s support for terrorists fighting the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan would mark a significant departure from what America has done in the past.

Most of the 2,255 U.S. military fatalities and 20,245 injury incidents have taken place in provinces that border Pakistan.

The Pentagon spokesman defined what victory in Afghanistan means for the Trump administration, saying it utlimately involves a settlement with the Taliban and terrorists laying down their arms.

Stump told Breitbart News:

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan remains centered on working with NATO allies, operational partners, and the international community to defeat the remnants of core al Qaeda and to defeat other violent extremist organizations and terrorist groups, such as ISIS-K [Islamic State], to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe-haven for groups to plan and execute attacks against the United States, U.S. persons overseas, or allies and partners; and continuing efforts to provide financial and advisory support to the Afghan Government and to enable a well-trained, equipped, and sustainable ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Force] that provides security in Afghanistan.

The U.S. and Afghan Governments agree that the best way to ensure lasting peace and security in Afghanistan is through reconciliation and a political settlement with the Taliban. The United States supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process and supports any process that includes violent extremist groups laying down their arms.

Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Washington Post (WaPo) reports that the current U.S.-Afghan war is framed around a four-year plan to degrade the Taliban this is unlikely to “yield significant results until its later stages.”

In recently issued reports, the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon have accused Pakistan of willingly serving as a safe-haven for the Taliban and its affiliates, including the deadly Haqqani Network.

The Taliban affirmed its relationship with al-Qaeda in December 2016.

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Blackwater Founder Erik Prince Recommends ‘Cheaper, Lighter’ Afghanistan Approach

AFP

Breitbart, by Kristina Wong, June 12, 2017:

Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince is recommending, as the Trump administration debates its Afghanistan War approach, that the U.S. military go back to its light footprint approach in Afghanistan.

Prince told the “Breitbart News Sunday” radio program that the approach – which would see CIA, special operators, and contractors working with Afghan forces to target terrorists – would be more effective and save the U.S. billions of dollars annually.

“I say go back to the model that worked, for a couple hundred years in the region, by the East India company, which used professional Western soldiers who were contracted and lived with trained with and when necessary fought with their local counterparts,” he said.

Prince said the most effective time the U.S. had in Afghanistan against terrorism was the first 12 months after the September 2001 attack, where CIA, special operators, and contractors worked with local Afghan forces with air support.

“That really put the Taliban and al Qaeda on the back heels,” he said. “The more we’ve gone into a conventional approach in Afghanistan, the more we are losing.”

Prince, who has advised the Trump campaign, argued that the light footprint approach was more effective.

“[It] literally puts them side by side, living in the same base. Believe me – if you’re a trainer, and your life depends on the success of the unit, you are going to make sure the men are paid, fed, equipped,” he said.

Prince also argued that the light footprint approach would also be “much cheaper, more sustainable” – about 10 percent of the current costs.

“We’re spending, this year as a country, $45 billion there… That’s a staggering amount of money, and this is a time when [the Department of Defense] needs more money to reset equip and airplanes and boats and tanks and everything else,” he said.

Prince argued that today’s approach is not working.

There are currently about 8,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan conducting a train-and-advise mission as well as a counterterrorism mission. After former President Obama declared the combat mission over in December 2014, the Taliban have made a comeback, and now control about a third of the country.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also established a nascent presence on the ground there.

“The way the U.S. Army does it now, is the Americans live on one base, the Afghans live on another base, they act have to fly over to the other base, maybe see them once or twice a week, they don’t really go on missions with them anymore and it really lives the indigenous units hanging,” he said.

“So they go out on patrol, they can’t get the fires support, they can’t get resupply, they can’t [be medically evacuated], they miss the basic soldiering that would let them be successful,” he said.

He said many of the 300,000-plus Afghan forces supported by the U.S. are “ghosts” – with corrupt officials pocketing the money instead. Plus, he said supporting that many forces is beyond Afghanistan’s capability.

The approach Prince recommended tracks with one that some of Trump’s advisers are advocating for – a focus on the counterterrorism mission versus nation building, with special operators training Afghan forces.

Another approach under consideration, backed by National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is surging an additional 3,000 U.S. troops, and hitting the Taliban harder to force it back to the negotiating table.

Prince also recommended putting a U.S. leader in charge of Afghanistan that would extend past the limited tours that U.S. military commanders normally have there, and relaxing rules of engagement.

“We’ve had 17 different commanders in a 15-year period. No great football team or sports teams changes its coaches every year, yet we’ve done that more than every year and with predictable results,” he said.

He also recommended pushing Afghans to sustain is own economy, including passing a mining law necessary to take advantage of the $1 trillion in minerals the country is estimated to have.

Prince said that, currently, Afghanistan’s economy is 90 percent dependent on donor aid, and its security budget totally dependent on the U.S.

“There is gold, copper and iron ore, and a bunch of rare earth elements, lithium — all very high value stuff and oil and gas as well,” he said. “But all the experts at the State Department have yet to get the Afghans to pass a mining law.”

Meanwhile, he said the Taliban is raking in money from opium, hashish, gold, lapis, marble, and pistachios.

“The Taliban has dominated each of those spaces, each of those parts of the economy and that’s what they use to fund their entire insurgency and that’s why they’re able to pay well, and to grow and to flourish, and it’s really, really frustrating.”

The U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban allowed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York that killed 2,996 people and wounded more than 6,000 others.

The CIA and special operators led the successful invasion, toppling the Taliban from power and establishing a presence there from which to go after al Qaeda. Many fled into Pakistan, including bin Laden, who was later killed there in 2011.

But since then, the U.S. and NATO countries have had a presence of more than a hundred thousand troops there. Former President Barack Obama in 2009 ordered a troop surge of around 30,000 into the country, simultaneously announcing they would begin to withdraw in 18 months – a timeline that angered U.S. military commanders who felt it was a signal to the Taliban to wait coalition forces out.

After U.S. troops began withdrawing and Obama declared the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014, the Taliban has made a comeback and now control at least a third of the territory and about as much of the population.

Today, Prince said, there are about 20 different terrorist groups there.

“The Taliban continues to be aligned 100 percent to al Qaeda and its where number terrorist attacks — the most notable one being the 9/11 attacks, emanated from Afghanistan,” he said.

“We have to accept that Afghanistan is a very rough place. It’s resident to 20 different terrorist org and there’s a lot of bad things that emanate from there so getting to a manageable state.”

Prince noted that the Taliban has retaken Sangin, a district in southern Afghanistan that U.S. troops fought hard to pacify, and recently held a victory parade out in the open.

“They had a victory parade in broad daylight with hundreds of Taliban and dozens of vehicles. They did it in broad daylight an they were unafraid of someone attacking them,” he said. “The terrorists have to fear waking up the next morning.”

Bomb blast rocks Kabul during rush hour, killing dozens of civilians

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 31, 2017:

A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) was detonated near diplomatic facilities in the Afghan capital during rush hour this morning. Preliminary casualty reports say that at least 80 people were killed in the blast and dozens more wounded. A photo of the aftermath of the bombing (seen above) was posted on Twitter by Afghanistan’s Ariana News.

The bomb exploded at 8:22 am local time “in Kabul near Zambaq Square outside the Green Zone, which houses diplomatic and government facilities,” according to NATO’s Resolute Support. Afghan security forces “prevented the VBIED from gaining entry to the Green Zone,” but dozens of nearby civilians perished.

The Taliban has already denied any involvement via a statement attributed to Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman. It is likely that the Islamic State, which has carried out large-scale operations in Kabul this year, will claim responsibility.

Even though the Taliban-led insurgency is responsible for many civilian casualties, the organization is concerned with how its violence is perceived by the Afghan population. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists have no such concern.

Resolute Support quickly pointed out that the “attack demonstrates a complete disregard for civilians and reveals the barbaric nature of the enemy faced by the Afghan people.” It “also highlights the hypocrisy of the enemy who claim that they only target Afghan Security Forces and Foreign forces, yet continue to cause death and suffering amongst innocent Afghans.”

Mujahid’s statement reads like a response to Resolute Support. “This explosion has nothing to do with the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate,” the statement reads. “Our Mujahideen are not involved in this incident and neither are the Mujahideen allowed to carry out such…large explosions at ill-defined areas.” The Taliban’s spokesman says the group “condemns every explosion and attack carried out against civilians, or in which civilians are harmed and [there is] no legitimate target.”

“Our countrymen must rest assured that the Kabul attack is not the work of Mujahideen,” Mujahid says.

The German government confirmed that the bombing was “carried out in the immediate vicinity” of its embassy. “It hit civilians and it hit those who are in Afghanistan to work with the people there on a better future for the country,” Germany’s minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, said in a statement. “It is particularly despicable that these people were targeted.” Gabriel said that German Embassy staff members were injured, but all of them “are now safe.” An Afghan security officer who was guarding the grounds wasn’t so lucky, as he was killed in the explosion.

BBC News reported that Mohammed Nazir, an Afghan driver who worked with the service’s journalists, was killed. Afghanistan’s ToloNews has also reported at least one death as a result of the bombing.

The Islamic State has carried out several high-profile attacks in Kabul this year.

On Feb. 7, the group launched a suicide bombing outside of the supreme court, killing at least 20 people.

Then, on Mar. 8, an Islamic State suicide team assaulted the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul. According to the UN, the hospital is “the largest military medical facility in Afghanistan” and “treats sick and wounded members of the armed forces and their family members.” The jihadists dressed like hospital personnel in order to confuse their victims. There are conflicting reports with respect to the total number of casualties, but dozens were killed or wounded.

On May 3, another suicide bomber detonated his VBIED at an Afghan security checkpoint near the US Embassy in Kabul. The Islamic State’s jihadist was targeting a NATO convoy, but at least eight civilians were killed. Three coalition service members were also wounded, according to Resolute Support.

The US has been leading a counterterrorism operation against the Islamic State’s Wilyah Khorasan (or Khorasan province) in eastern Afghanistan. In April, three American service members were killed during raids in Nangarhar, which has been Wilayah Khorasan’s stronghold. The so-called caliphate’s men have lost ground in Nangarhar, but are still able to execute high-profile operations in Kabul and elsewhere. [For more on the US-led effort against the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan, see FDD’s Long War Journal report: 2 American service members killed fighting Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan.]

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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