Commitment in Afghanistan’s Darkest District: “Everybody knows about 2014”

July 25, 2013

“I believe we’ve learned our lesson,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a September 2009 interview, referring to the lack of attention that the United States paid to Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal more than two decades ago.  “Both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.”

Four months prior, President Obama had reaffirmed our nation’s “lasting commitment” to the mission in Afghanistan following a May 2009 meeting between the leaders of both countries.  And yet, four years later, we’re talking about a “zero option,” one in which we will remove all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Since 2001, the United States military has made seemingly incredible strides: the publication of a new counterinsurgency field manual, applications of cutting edge technology and data analytics to support training and planning for stability operations, a shift in the basic considerations of societal instability by junior officers, and the list goes on.  Yet, we limited the efficacy of those tactics by attempting to execute a conditions-based mission according to temporal milestones.  This single strategic decision skewed the Afghans’ perception of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whom they branded as a liability.  Therefore, as the U.S. broadens its gaze to a host of global challenges and emerging threats beyond Afghanistan, it should finally learn to demonstrate commitment at all levels if it is to affect positive, lasting change.

In a March 1776 letter to his friend, Horatio Gates, with revolution about to erupt, John Adams wrote, “In politics the middle way is none at all.”  Any level of commitment “in the middle” is a precarious position at best, one in which politically palatable decisions endanger those who are on the ground.  In the context of the Afghan campaign, transition was an easy word to pronounce in Washington as President Obama demonstrated in November 2010 when he announced the plan for “transition in 2014” with great fanfare.  While his intentions were good, he made a seminal error in judgment by telling the enemy what we weren’t going to do.  And to the Marines with whom I served in Sangin, a violent rural district in the Northern Helmand River Valley, this crafted rhetoric of politicians carried little weight, and actually jeopardized the lives of those Afghans who cooperated with our forces.   And it added another challenge to my duties as a civil affairs team leader for my Marine infantry battalion.

In Sangin, the Christmas of 2010 had come and gone with little fanfare for the Darkhorse Marines of 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (“3/5” in the vernacular).  I set out with 3d Squad, 3d Platoon, Kilo Company to conduct what we referred to as “civil reconnaissance” in terrain where coalition forces had never trod.  We trudged through the muddy farmland, each Marine gingerly stepping into the footprints of the Marine who preceded him, desperately trying to avoid death and dismemberment via IED.

The Southern Green Zone is a collection of agrarian villages that hug the Helmand River, kept fertile by a network of canals.  It is also home to the Ishaqzai, a tribe of farmers and landowners who used to represent the disenfranchised agrarian aristocracy of Sangin, but who now have close ties with the narcotics industry and the Quetta Shura Taliban.

The patrol leader wanted to look for enemy weapons caches in the nearby village, so we decided to stop in a house from which we could establish security over the squad’s route.

We entered the modest gated compound, still well aware of the latent threat that lurked beyond the mud walls, and began speaking with a man of about 70 years (ancient for an Afghan), who offered me a glass of green tea.  He introduced himself – I’ll call him Hajji Sahib – as a local worker who made the dangerous walk to the district center high school every day to earn a salary of a few dollars per day.

Since our arrival at the beginning of September, I had made it my business to see every corner of Sangin that I could, to talk with its residents, and to make contacts upon whom I could rely for regular updates to the civil, economic, and political situations in their respective areas.  At the time, this conversation with Hajji Sahib and his family seemed to be another one of these routine conversations.  As the months of the deployment wore on, and as casualties continued to mount, this interaction lingered in my mind.

After about an hour of pleasantries and several glasses of tea, the elderly Afghan’s brow furrowed and he asked how much longer we planned on staying.  I knew he wasn’t referring to our stay in his compound – I’d had this conversation before.  As with so many other similar conversations in this war torn district, Hajji Sahib was concerned about the implications of maintaining a relationship with the Marines and their partners in the Afghan National Security Forces.  In his lifetime, he had witnessed the Soviets, the mujahideen, the Taliban, four years of British battle groups, and now the United States Marines come through his property and promise “security.”  After a thirty-year pattern of broken promises, residents of Sangin now view any mention of commitment with intractable skepticism.

And why shouldn’t they be skeptical?  The Marines had a mission: to conduct full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations in order to expand the governance and development of the Afghan state.  This conditions-based mission required a large number of forces on the ground – a number we did not have.  Moreover, the mission would now be based on a timeline that everyone in the world knew, making it that much more difficult to shift the long-term loyalty of the Afghans away from the Taliban and toward this new government.   Population estimates for Sangin District range from 40,000 to over 100,000, depending on whom one asks.  The Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual suggests, “Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective [counterinsurgency] operations.”

Since the Marines assumed command of the Sangin area of operations in September 2010, they fought a ferocious war against a determined enemy with between a quarter and half of the ratio prescribed by the manual.  While the outnumbered battalion was in a slugfest with foreign fighters and narcotics barons since its arrival, it eliminated hundreds of enemy combatants in the process, and spent millions of dollars improving infrastructure and rebuilding what was caught in the crossfire.

Despite the supposed progress made during the years of occupation, true government influence in Sangin is still far from dependable, let alone universal.  Its beleaguered residents conform to the wishes of whichever the “strongest tribe” is at the moment – or whatever local militant group last had a gun to their heads.  The Marines and Sailors of 3/7, 3/5, the battalions that followed, and the small number of advisors to the Afghan National Army and Uniformed Police did make progress, but the definition of that progress was relative to the perception of those on the ground who patrolled and had daily conversations similar to this one with Haji Sahib.  Little did these Marines realize that the fate of their progress aimed at the “expansion of governance and development” had been doomed for months, when the conditions for mission completion had migrated from a set of standards to a timeline.

In this tiny farmhouse, it quickly became apparent that Hajji Sahib knew the United States and its partners wouldn’t stick around to see the job through, and neither he nor any other peaceful patriarch landowner could be reasonably expected to put his faith in a fledgling government whose resources paled in comparison to its extremist predecessors.

I scribbled away in my green notebook, taking down the pertinent details of the conversation.  He believed local business had increased because we had restored cellular service.  He respected the Sangin District Governor and his efforts to improve the quality of life for Sangin residents.  The Taliban routinely harassed him because of his involvement in the government-operated high school.

He still wanted to know if we planned to stay.  “We will be happy if the Marines make their patrol bases near here.  That will keep the munafiqeen away,” he said, using the term meaning “hypocrites” to describe the Taliban.

“But if you plan to leave after only a short while, my family will be in greater danger than before you came.  Everybody knows about 2014.”

Throughout the district, Marines were having similar conversations with local residents.  Both parties knew the truth.  While skepticism of our ability to provide lasting security and stability had plagued my other conversations, this was the first time someone had explicitly mentioned the timetable and wanted to discuss the details.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to see his house from our patrol base, but I assured him the Marines were there to stay.  It became dark, and his son built a fire to shield the Marines, who were searching the fields for enemy spotters, from the freezing winds.

The Marines from the patrol returned to Hajji Sahib’s house having destroyed a sizable cache of homemade explosives, bomb parts, and high-powered rifles in a nearby collection of compounds.  The patrol was deemed a success.

After a hug and a handshake from Hajji Sahib and his son, every Marine thanked the old man and exited the walled compound through the four-foot high doorway.

This man had opened his home to the Marines.  He had given them a place from which to watch over their own.  Haji Sahib was well aware of the risk he had taken by extending his hospitality to these strangers.  Yet his risk was borne of hope that the Marines would stay until they had truly achieved local stability, despite his thirty years of experience that led him to believe the contrary.

As the patrol passed through the adjacent field, winding around the next set of mud walls, Hajji Sahib’s compound became invisible in the darkness.  I prayed that his hospitality had not earned him his death.


Karl P. Kadon is a contributor to War on the Rocks. He served four years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps from 2007-2011 as a ground intelligence officer and civil affairs officer.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dexter S. Saulisbury