Is Afghanistan the graveyard of empires? The following article is the first of a four-part series featuring conversations with military veterans who served in Afghanistan to explore what went wrong and what comes next.
Recently, Afghanistan has seen increasingly bold attacks against U.S. and NATO forces. Afghanistan is a complex territory with a rich tapestry of history, faith, and identity that makes navigating the country nothing short of a geopolitical minefield. Previous attempts to “tame” Afghanistan have failed, and President Trump is now considering America’s own exit strategy. Will America join the roster of failed empires that couldn’t bring Afghanistan to heel?
In part one of our series, Clarion Project’s national correspondent Shireen Qudosi speaks with Edward Marsh, a counter-terrorism and national security strategist. Marsh spent seven years with the British military, carrying out operational tours of Afghanistan.
Clarion: In August alone we’ve seen multiple attacks in Afghanistan. On August 15th, 2018, ISIS gunmen attacked an intelligence training center in Kabul, while in northern Afghanistan hundreds of Taliban fighters carried out a pre-dawn attack on Afghan forces. Days prior, the Taliban attacked 106 soldiers in another part of the northern district, while ISIS launched a suicide bombing in Kabul at an education center hosting a university entrance exam.
A UN Security Council report shows that Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, has left for Afghanistan and is poised to assume a key leadership role in Al Qaeda. From your experience working with an allied nation in the war on terror, where do you think we have collectively failed?
Marsh: Our failing of Afghanistan was clear from 2006 when a British team of experts went to visit Helmand, a province in Afghanistan. This was the proposed area that the British had agreed to manage. However, the policy and the strategy were completely out of sync. The team reported on lawlessness, corruption from top to bottom, no infrastructure — and, as one U.S. officer put it, “We don’t hang around, you never know who’s shooting at you.”
Clarion: Out of the deployment of 30,000 soldiers shipped off to Afghanistan under Obama in 2009, at one point, at least 300 were sent to Helmand, which was described as a place of fear and monotony, “where yellow jugs full of homemade explosive rest in freshly dug holes under hastily packed moon dust and dirt.”
In 2009, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated, “We cannot defeat al-Qaeda and its toxic ideology without improving and stabilizing the security situation in Afghanistan.” Is it even possible to stabilize the territory?
Marsh: The proposed 3,300 British troops for Helmand were deployed under the mission statement “development and reconstruction.” Truth is, military leadership at the time wanted to get out of Iraq, and Afghanistan was the perfect deployment.
The aim was to spend three years in the region with a budget of just ￡800,000,000 ($1,030,530,000). Meanwhile, the civil service team was effectively ignored when they said it couldn’t be done. Ultimately, the number of British soldiers quickly expanded, as too did the death toll.
Clarion: That clearly wasn’t enough. By then, we already knew Afghanistan would cost upwards of $40 billion a year. So you’re low on manpower, low on funding and have a two-prong campaign of first stabilize the region and then challenge the ideology. What happened next?
Marsh: It didn’t take long for the fighting arm of the initial deployment to become engulfed in local fighting up to 70 miles from the reconstruction area including Sangin, the home of multiple drug cartels. Over the coming years, the entire position of the military operation moved, away from reconstruction to defeating the Taliban.
Clarion: In conversations with U.S. veterans I’ve had for this series, the unanimous conclusion is that we cannot identify what winning Afghanistan looks like. Do you agree with that?
Marsh: We can arch this back to the ambiguous nature of the “War on Terror” and the disconnect between what is viewed as a tangible military success and defeating terrorism or an insurgency.
Clarion: I think we can all agree Afghanistan has to be a multi-generational campaign. Correct?
Marsh: I agree. You didn’t have to go far or be on the ground that long in Helmand to know that this was in reality a 50+ year project.
The British had over 30,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and that conflict lasted 25 years. Those numbers were never deployed to Helmand and by 2011/12 it was clear to all there that the Taliban would resume control once we left. There was little or no trust in those taking up the challenge.
Clarion: What do you mean there was no trust in those taking up the challenge?
Marsh: By 2010, Western soldiers were being killed not just by the IED’s or sporadic small arms fire, but also from Afghan army and police forces undergoing training. I clearly remember a friend of mine starting his posting training young officers in the Afghan army. I would spend a lot of my time that tour on the ground, but his job somehow seemed even more dangerous. I can still think back to his own, clear apprehension. The translators were also scared for their lives. I asked one translator what he would do when we leave, and he simply said, “Die, I suspect.”
The Afghan military, with the exception of special forces, could be categorized as “poor” at best despite the best efforts of their trainers. We all knew the Afghan police would be the first to go. I remember being at one particular checkpoint for several weeks based by a key strategic road junction and town. The Afghan police were next to the check point in their own compound. They had sold most of the equipment they had been given, were constantly high on drugs and were seemingly rarely on duty at all.
Because the policy was so confused, so too was the strategy on the ground, always playing catch up with the reality, always reinventing the mission statement, always fighting an unwinnable war with the capabilities at hand.
Clarion: It looks like we’ve lost the ideological war because we never could commit to a kinetic war — we couldn’t commit to boots on the ground.
Marsh: I don’t see anything now as a surprise in Afghanistan. As we saw with Iraq, ultimately you can’t police province or country unless you are prepared to deploy the troops required. Afghanistan required hundreds of thousands of soldiers and a genuine long-term plan. The result of the Western coalition never really committing to Afghanistan is bearing fruit now; it’s become vulnerable to the threat of ISIS.
Clarion: Would it have been better if the West had not intervened?
Marsh: Many people are weary of repeat conflict and intervention. The war in Afghanistan is very difficult in terms of political opinion, especially as some narratives are taking on the idea that Western forces are imperialist invaders. However, when we talk about intervention, we’re judging it by our own Western standards. Those on the ground in Afghanistan saw the scars of the Taliban; they would rape your children and cut off your hands for tax evasions or for disobeying their shadow government. The Taliban are malicious and evil — that something we forget in the West unless you’ve been on the ground and have seen the Taliban destroy the lives of the Afghan people. It has been a just and necessary intervention.