Afghanistan: “It’s Just Damage Limitation Now”

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Army photo / Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Army Capt. Philip Schneider, a company commander with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, details recent events in Afghan villages to Afghan army commanders earlier this summer.

Briton Ben Anderson is a documentary filmmaker (the BBC, HBO, the Discovery Channel), but he turns to the written word in No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan. The book offers a gritty – and grim — assessment of the war.

Anderson embedded with U.S. and British troops for months in the southern part of the country from 2007 to 2011. He details corruption, incompetence, fear — by both allied troops and Afghan civilians — and a Groundhog Day kind of existence., where a battle fought for days has to be fought again, later. Most distressingly, he argues that the American and British publics are getting a misleading picture of progress on the ground. Battleland conducted this email chat with Anderson last weekend.

Why did you write No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan?

I’d been travelling to Helmand for five years, first in 2007 with the Brits, then later mostly with the U.S. Marines, covering every major operation since the war in the south was taken seriously.

Despite new troops, extra resources and new polices, it kept getting worse.

It was more dangerous for me and the troops I was with, Afghan security forces didn’t seem to be improving, and perhaps most importantly, locals were not being won over but instead were complaining of civilian casualties, damage to their homes, being inconvenienced and disrespected, or preyed upon by the Afghan police.

Yet in the second half of 2010, statements from Kabul, Washington and London kept talking of progress, goals being met and the Taliban being on their last legs.

This was the exact opposite of what I had been seeing, so I felt that I had to write this book.

I felt compelled to create a simple, honest and accurate portrait of what the war really looks like, on the ground, on the frontlines, where the policy met the Afghan people. I wanted to show how vicious the fighting was — veterans of Fallujah told me it was worse in Helmand…

I also wanted to show that the troops weren’t the violent automatons they are often thought to be and that they are often the exact opposite. There were plenty of guys who just wanted to kill anyone that looked like Taliban, for sure, but I also met many men who were thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent and even hilarious no matter how bad the situation was. Most of the men I met were also willing to question what, if anything, they were actually achieving, which really impressed me.


What is the book’s bottom line?

Despite the incredible hard work, bravery and suffering of our troops, despite the massive Afghan civilian casualties, despite the hundreds of billions spent, we have not achieved our goals in Afghanistan.

Essentially, we’re supposed to be clearing an area of insurgents and then persuading locals to chose us and our Afghan allies over the Taliban. Most areas where we are based have not been cleared of the Taliban and even if they had been, we’re fighting to introduce a largely unwelcome government.

The Afghan army cannot provide security on its own, the Afghan government is spectacularly corrupt and the police are feared and hated, for good reason.

So even if the military part of the strategy goes perfectly to plan (and it never does) the locals don’t want what we are offering.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I’ve been told countless times that locals prefer the Taliban to foreign forces and the Afghan government, particularly the police. I should point out that I’ve spent most of time in Afghanistan in Helmand and Kandahar, where the war has always been fiercest.

How different is what you saw on the front lines compared to what we’re being told back home?

It’s completely different.

Operation Mushtaraq in Marjah was a prime example.

General [Stanley] McChrystal’s claim that the operation was “Afghan-led” is one of the most ludicrous claims I’ve ever heard. It depressed me that the claim was accepted.

The same thing happened when Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates said that the Taliban had bee routed from their homeland in Kandahar and Helmand. This claim was repeated by journalists I had once respected and followed. Again, it was the exact opposite of the truth.

You’re British: how does the mood about the war in the U.K. differ from that in the U.S., if it does (and if you’ve been in both places long enough to make a fair comparison)?

It’s the same in both countries. The vast majority of the public seems to have no idea how rough it is in southern Afghanistan, for our troops and the Afghan people.

People seem to want the troops home, and have no interest in anything beyond that. The last U.S. Marines I was with — 3/5 in Sangin, suffered horrendous losses: 35 killed and 140 seriously injured, and I’m talking about double, triple and even quadruple amputees. Yet no one in the U.S. even seemed to know about it.

It’s the same in the U.K. now. I’d be surprised if one in 20 people here or in the U.S. could begin to explain why we are still there.

U.S. and allied generals tells us things are getting better inside Afghanistan, and they believe that by the time allied combat troops leave by the end of 2014, Afghanistan’s own security forces will be able to defend the nation. Do you believe them? Why or why not?

I’ve seen no evidence to suggest the ANSF are ready to take over.

You have to understand that it’s not a national security force. It’s the Northern Alliance, the historical enemies of the southern Pashtuns and the Taliban.

In the rush to get to Iraq, we handed control of the army, police and intelligence agency to the Northern Alliance, and the same old warlords whose behavior had led to the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996.

I think we were doomed to fail from that moment on. Southern Pashtuns often see the security forces we’re supporting as being almost as foreign as us and there for vengeance.

I was in the Arghandab valley in 2010 and the 101st Airborne were very nervous about clearing a village called NMK because they knew it would be laced with IEDs.

A few days before the operation, some Afghan soldiers ran into the village alone, and came back a few hours later, delighted. “How did you do it?” asked the American captain, astounded. “Did you offer the locals $50 for each IED they revealed, like we trained you?” “No,” said the ANA captain, excitedly, “we told them `show us the IEDs or start digging your own grave’.” That sums up the situation pretty well. Sadly I think that the phrase “transition” is a euphemism covering up our failures.

When were you last with US troops in Afghanistan? What was their general mood and morale?

January 2011, with 3/5 in Sangin. There were so many IEDs you had to watch every step and literally walk in the footprints of the guy in front of you.

The Marines were leaving trails of bottle tops or sweets to mark cleared paths. I didn’t see a bullet fired in anger, it was just IEDs.

Marines love to fight, but no one wants to go out on eight-hour patrols every day, through ice cold mud, when nothing ever happens apart from occasionally seeing one of their buddies get blown up.

Surprisingly though, morale wasn’t that low. I don’t think most troops in Afghanistan are fighting to achieve anything anymore. They’re just fighting for each other, trying to get themselves and their friends back in one piece, and maybe get some revenge against someone who may have killed or maimed one of their colleagues.

What was the best thing you witnessed in Afghanistan?

Tellingly, I can’t think of a single great moment where I saw something that really gave me hope that we might be achieving anything. So I’ll have to be selfish and say the best thing was always seeing the showers or the chow tent back at the forward operating bases, after weeks of either baking or freezing in rural areas of Helmand and eating nothing but MREs.

What was the worst thing you witnessed in Afghanistan?

I can still remember the exact expression on the faces of too many different families, either terrified of the fighting going on in and around their homes, or traumatized by the loss of their loved ones.

I’ve seen many Afghans who have lost almost their entire families to errant air strikes or rocket attacks. Some were given huge wads of cash as condolence payments, some actually showed me the corpses of their brothers, sisters or children.

You can only say “I’m sorry we killed your family, but we’re here to help you” so many times…

If you were in charge, what three changes would you make in Operation Enduring Freedom?

I think it’s just damage limitation now.

There is no silver bullet, there hasn’t been for at least five or six years.

People are worried about civil war after we leave. I think it’s already started.

I’d like to see some honesty used on the rare occasions when Afghanistan is discussed. And while the military effort draws down, I’d like to see a serious long-term commitment to the kind of development projects we should have started back in 2001.

What is going to happen to Afghanistan beginning in 2015?

 I think the Taliban will be in control of many districts in the south almost immediately. I think that various warlords will once again have their fiefdoms and that this will be exacerbated by the reduction in foreign aid.

I think Afghanistan will disappear from our newspapers and will remain one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt countries on earth.

Paradoxically, the withdrawal gives me a tiny bit of hope that the insurgents in the south will stop fighting and laying IEDs once we’re no longer providing them with targets. But it’s a damning indictment of our efforts if the best thing we can do is leave.