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

July 25, 2013

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“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

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

  1. As a student of the war in Afghanistan and Sangin in particular, this article is disappointing for several reasons:

    – The Ishaqzai are still disenfranchised and were never in Sangin’s “aristocracy”. They achieved some level of notoriety following the rise of Malawi Atta Mohammad, but have been second class citizens dating back to the 1880s when they were forced to leave Helmand to populate areas of Northern Afghanistan and returned to find their lands taken by other resident tribes..

    – To suggest an entire tribe supports the narcotics industry and Quetta is ridiculous. ALL tribes in Sangin support the narcotics industry. You also do nothing to explain why the Ishaqzai have been disenfranchised and what has motivated them to maintain overt and/or tacit support for the Taliban. Nor do you say that every tribe in Sangin maintains its own contacts with the Taliban. Your characterization of the Ishaqzai is incredibly misleading.

    – Saying “yes” in counterinsurgency is easy. Saying “no” is much harder. Why, in December 2010, were you promising a local elder that the Marines would be there to stay? Were there ever any clear indications that there would be a Marine presence in Sangin in perpetuity?

    – You mention nothing of the “commitment” the United States offers when you, as a civil affairs officer, likely completed a six-month tour in Afghanistan and then left, to be followed by a new Marine who would need to re-learn all of the information you learned, establish his own relationships, and implement his own plans. Six months later a new Marine would come in and do it all over again. And again. And again. What kind of commitment is that to a people?

    – You make a fairly typical Marine blunder that has followed the United States Military from Iraq to Afghanistan: wanting something more than the Afghans. You talk about how WE need to commit more to the Afghans and that WE are letting them down. During your time in Sangin, I doubt you ever jointly planned anything with the Afghans. I’m sure you completed a patrol where you spoke to a few Afghans and said: hey guys, I have great insights into the minds of Afghans now! I’m sure you and your fellow Marines were very good at telling Afghan counterparts what WE were going to do in THEIR district, or pushed and pushed and pushed without accepting that the Afghans have different priorities and different ways, means, and time horizons to achieve those priorities. This war is NOT about the U.S. military as much as you probably want it to be. It is about the priorities of the people, government, and security forces of Afghanistan.

    1. SGN,

      Karl was my Team Leader in Sangin, so I have a bit of insight into his thinking, command style, and actions.

      Some of your critiques would be well-founded for an article of a difference type, but I think you missed the thrust of Karl’s piece.

      He is obviously well-aware of the problematic nature of our deployment-based operational strategy, but that has little to do with the explicit commitment to the larger campaign.

      Specifically regarding your final point, Karl worked directly with the District Governor, District Chief of Police, and the District ANA Commander to ensure joint planning during our deployment. Karl made sure they were involved. And this was in the most violent district in Afghanistan at the time.

  2. SGN:

    Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading War on the Rocks. I think you read something different into the article than I did. I took Karl’s subtle argument about commitment not to mean that we SHOULD have stayed longer, but that by messaging our withdrawal deadline, we ceded crucial ground and showed the local populace we could not be relied upon. General Mattis recently spoke at the Aspen Security Forum (we linked to it here) and he said something very prescient to the effect of “Never tell your enemy what you aren’t willing to do.” We told the Taliban we were not willing to stay beyond 2014. Now, I think that is a sensible calculation (in my mind there is very little in Afghanistan worth our blood and treasure. You can read more about my thoughts here but to broadcast that calculus was strategically incompetent. Hence the subtitle: everybody knows about 2014.

    And I think Karl would agree with you about the rotation times, but I will let him speak for himself.

    As far as the Ishaqzai, I think you are correct. They were a lower ranking tribe that received land under the Taliban regime in the 1990s, but were not considered high status before. Small error that doesn’t take anything away from Karl’s main argument.

  3. SGN – Magnificent to hear the thoughts of an armchair general, and a student no less.

    Lots of meaty assumptions made there, some good points but the descent into a rant took the polish off somewhat.

    Ryan, you correctly remind us of the article’s point – in setting and broadcasting a deadline for withdrawal ISAF made it’s position in Districts like Sangin untenable.

    Karl, having heard you speak about your experiences its evident you were much more cerebral than the majority of your contemporaries and clearly took the interests of the local population as a primary consideration despite the constraints the orders from your superiors placed upon you

  4. Very good article.
    To SGN: I find your above comments out of place. I don’t pretend to know much about the Ishaqzai, but their societal and cultural history was not the main point of this article. For an article of this length, there simply wasn’t enough space to go into the detail that you demand. That’s a topic for a whole other article. If the author misrepresented the Ishaqzai in this piece, it would have been more appropriate to have just mentioned it as an FYI, rather than to blast him over it.
    As far as the rotation schedule goes, I think the author agrees you, and presented that in this article. I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that the author is somehow in favor of the 6 month rotation.
    Regarding your comment, “This war is NOT about the U.S. military as much as you probably want it to be…” I don’t know how you came to that realization either. That’s total speculation on your part as to what the author’s intentions are. I think he adequately displayed in this piece that the conflict is totally about the people of Afghanistan and NOT the U.S. military. As to whether or not he jointly planned with Afghan counterparts, that’s even more speculation on your part.
    My advice to you for next time you want to trash an article would be to first evaluate your own comments. If any of them seem speculative in nature, then don’t post them.

  5. I think that announcing our 2014 withdrawl was a magnificent political AND military maneuver. Here’s why:

    – Lets talk about assumptions. Are you all obviously so naive as to think that the Taliban were not/are not waiting for our withdrawl regardless of when that might be? What if we announced our withdrawl date as 2015? Or 2020? Or 2030? Or never announced one? Taliban tactics would not have changed with a different date or no date at all. You talk about assumptions. The author assumes that if no date for withdrawl had been provided the Taliban would eventually give up…none of you honestly think that the Taliban wouldn’t have/won’t wait?

    – The United States has been training ANSF for over a decade. And where has it gotten us? In reading recent news reports about Sangin we’ve gotten to see what that decade of training has gotten us. The Taliban launched massive attacks against ANSF in Sangin. And ANSF held its own without us. By announcing a withdrawl date we demonstrated to ANSF that we would only be around for so much longer…simultaneously telling them that it was time to “put up or shut up”. Giving the Afghans a four year window to absorb what it would actually mean to be in a world without ISAF was a blessing, and gave ISAF time to pull back gradually, instead of suddenly.

    – In December of 2010 the author could have had a wonderful answer to those local elders he met with concerned that “Everybody knows about 2014.” I imagine that the conversation could have gone something like this: “Haji Sahib, yes, the United States will be pulling troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. That give us 4 years to work with you, work with your government, and work with your military to help make Sangin a better place for you and your family. Your government is getting stronger, slowly providing more services for you and your people. Your military is getting stronger, slowly providing greater security for you and your people. With your support, we know these gains will only continue to grow.”

    – And again, I go back to my original comment that this should not be about us. You talk about how the author only had so much space to make a specific point. He fails to discuss the number of articles and reports that point out how the majority of residents in Sangin really don’t want the Marines in their District at all. They want to be left alone. They don’t want Marines knocking on the door of their compounds to come in for chai, immediately making them targets of insurgents that are oftentimes members of their own family. The Marine mission was to “expand governance and development” to a people that neither wanted to be governored nor were asking for development.

    1. SGN, I’m not sure if your comments above were meant to be ironic, but there is some internal conflict with your statements.

      You’re advocating that the people of Sangin don’t want the Marines there in the first place. If that’s the case, then what weight is going to be given by the people of Sangin to the word of a Marine officer about the credibility of the Afghan government? It’s all well and good to tell that elder that the government’s providing more services, but if the government can’t support those claims (which they still can’t in many places, including Sangin), it’s only going to feel like more lies from the foreigners.

      I for one would be very interested in reading the reports that the ANSF are able to fight off the insurgency by themselves. All indications are still that any major defensive operations are still undertaken with significant support using assets providing by the coalition, especially when it comes to aerial support.

      Finally, your assertion that the people of Sangin didn’t want the Marines there is indicative of a very recent view of history here. It’s true that in areas like Sangin, they knew very little of foreign intervention, but for those Afghans aware of the American presence from the start of foreign operations in Afghanistan, there was a distinct sense that we were going to provide a way forward after the horrors of both the civil war and the deprivations of the Taliban.

      However, that hope was quickly extinguished when the Afghans realized that we were going to support many of the same people who had been wreaking so much havoc prior to the assumption of power by the Taliban here. That’s where it fell apart, and not due to the simple presence of Marines or others.

      All of which is, of course, moot if you’re just being ironic.