As the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan mission drew to a close in December 2014, President Obama said:
For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.
More than a year later, in President Obama’s final State of the Union address, concerning the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, he said … nothing.
This is disappointing, but not surprising. The Obama administration often prefers to leave open difficult questions about U.S. failures to meet its goals. This leads to inconsistencies between White House messaging about the campaign and realities on the ground.
So those who are looking for some understanding of how things are going and exactly what we are now doing in Afghanistan must search elsewhere. And to make sense of the critical decisions that will be made in 2016, such an understanding is essential.
NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) is the inheritor of ISAF and has become the main effort for coalition forces in Afghanistan. RSM is designed to train, advise, and assist senior leaders and headquarters in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the Ministries of Defense and Interior to do the kinds of things that armed forces need to do to maintain an army and sustain combat operations in the field.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan are operating under the auspices of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS). The majority of those forces are performing missions and tasks in support of RSM. However, there are other operations being conducted as part of OFS that are focused on counterterrorism.
On multiple occasions, administration officials have taken great pains to explain that the war in Afghanistan is “Afghan-led”; that U.S. troops working with Afghan forces, though involved in a “combat situation,” are not conducting a “combat mission”; that there are no more embedded combat advisors in ANDSF kandaks (battalions); and that the focus of the train, advise, and assist mission is in the high-level headquarters, at corps and above.
So what do we make of the sad news of the latest combat casualties in Afghanistan?
Earlier this month, Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed and two other soldiers wounded in a firefight while conducting operations against the Taliban with the ANDSF in Marjah, a district in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. By all accounts, these soldiers were involved in direct combat. The objective of the operation does not seem to have been related to the U.S. counterterrorism mission. They were embedded in an ANDSF combat unit, providing advice and assistance well below the corps level.
So what do we, the American people, really know about what we are doing in Afghanistan, even those of us who profess to be following the situation there closely?
It turns out that, almost in passing in a very few documents, the Department of Defense alludes to U.S. missions that are focused on neither attacking terrorist targets nor building capacity in high-level headquarters. Take this from the latest edition of the Defense Department report, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan:
U.S. and coalition forces conduct TAA [train, advise, and assist] efforts at the ANA corps level, the ANP equivalent level, and with the Afghan security ministries to improve their ability to support and sustain the fighting force, and at the tactical level for special operations units and the AAF. [emphasis mine]
Afghan National Army (ANA) special forces are organized into special operations kandaks. There are currently 10 special operations kandaks in total, most aligned regionally with ANA corps. Those not aligned with ANA corps are considered a part of a strike force available for employment anywhere across the nation. These special operations forces have proven themselves reasonably capable and are regularly called upon, especially when the mission is to take back control of towns or districts that have fallen under Taliban control, as was the case in Marjah last week and Kunduz late last year. In both fights, U.S. special operators accompanied the kandaks as embedded advisors.
This is not to argue that the advising below the corps level is inappropriate or unnecessary. By all accounts, the work being done by U.S. and allied units with Afghan special operators has yielded good results, adding a necessary capability as the effort to strengthen the ANDSF continues. But, as Gen. John Campbell, the commander of our mission in Afghanistan, prepares to advise President Obama on troop levels for 2016 and beyond, and also to testify before Congress on this advice, it might be useful to take a full accounting of what we are doing now, and what might be in store for the upcoming year.
To start, it is reasonable to expect that regardless of the timetable for further drawdowns of U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban will continue to press to seize cities and districts in key areas of that country. A recent report cited in the Long War Journal counted 35 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts under Taliban control, with another 35 being contested.
Since, in many cases, the ANSDF have turned to Afghan special forces to be the “shock troops” in operations to regain critical territory, it appears that the special operations kandaks will be increasingly busy as 2016 progresses. It is also reasonable to assume that unless standard operating procedures change, these Afghan special operators will often be accompanied by U.S. advisors.
But, of course that’s not all. Throughout the war, U.S. and other coalition forces have generally operated under the umbrella of in extremis support (fires, close air, MEDEVAC, quick reaction force, and the like) that has habitually been brought to bear on the call of a U.S. element on the ground in emergency situations. If the United States does indeed embed more special operators with Afghan forces, it will require more support elements to maintain in extremis cover for all of them. There have already been recent incidents where bringing this support to bear when it has been needed has proved problematic — the recent combat in Marjah is a case in point. As Afghan special operators become more engaged in efforts to take back Taliban-controlled territories, the demand for U.S. advisors will no doubt increase. That will leave key U.S. decision-makers facing a tough choice: limiting the number of missions that include embedded U.S. advisors (the trend has been the exact opposite); providing the additional capabilities to back up and support these teams of advisors (even if that means more “boots on the ground” — a tough decision given the current political climate); or accepting increased risk to our special operators as current trends continue apace.
As such, the stage is set for commanders in Afghanistan to strongly resist any further U.S. drawdown in the near future. Arguably, if current trends continue — increased Taliban activity, more ANDSF operations to recapture Taliban-controlled territory, higher demand for special operations kandaks with embedded U.S. special forces accompanying them into battle — there will be a strong case for relief from the current restrictions on how U.S. forces are being employed with a concomitant change in the types (or mix) of forces on the ground, and possibly even an argument made for relief from the de facto force cap that is now in place.
If pronouncements from President Obama on ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan are any indication, recommendations on the way ahead that are based on the realities I discuss here will not be warmly received by him or his key advisers. A president who has made a commitment to end a war by the end of his administration is unlikely to approve a set of recommendations that require more forces and, likely, more fighting that will endure beyond his presidency. But it is certain that the debate over a drawdown in Afghanistan will intensify as 2016 progresses. And if Taliban advances increasingly threaten key regions in Afghanistan and the tempo of operations to defeat their advances continues apace, it will be important to understand what role we are really going to play as that war continues, and what it will take to fulfill that role. That is, an understanding of what we are doing in Afghanistan, on the part of key decision-makers and the American public, is going to be critical to an informed discussion and analysis of policy options and choices, and to decisions that will affect the outcome of this war and the future of Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson (U.S. Army, retired) was the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) from 2002-2005. From 2004-5, he also served as the commander of Combined/Joint Task Force-76 in Afghanistan.
Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia