U.S. forces struggle with Washington’s perceptions and reality in Afghanistan
WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — American soldiers are fighting a war in Afghanistan. But it’s not just against the Taliban.
A U.S. counter-explosives staff sergeant was killed recently trying to defuse a complex homemade bomb planted in the road in this hostile region. But legal and forensics experts had to jump through regulatory hoops set up by their own chain of command just to ensure that the Afghan suspects in the bombing would face prosecution.
Americans fighting shadowy Taliban insurgents embedded within the wary civilian population here put their lives on the line to build up a local police force. But those Afghan police officers frequently release suspected insurgents because of bribes, tribal allegiances or threats of retaliation. And sometimes the police themselves target U.S. soldiers.
A munitions supply officer recently pointed out that because of budget cuts, American bomb technicians are no longer getting a full supply of the C-4 explosives they use to destroy the homemade Taliban bombs.
As public support for the Afghan war, which is in its ninth year, withers back home and President Barack Obama deliberates whether to commit even more U.S. forces to the faltering struggle, morale among American troops is flagging.
Soldiers on the ground and their immediate officers say that a lack of concrete results, coupled with mixed signals from Washington, have eroded their confidence in what they are fighting for.
So acute is the problem that the commander of U.S. forces in Wardak recently sent out a brigadewide e-mail aimed at boosting the spirits of his troops.
“While it may be hard to see the tangible gains or benefits from every mounted or dismounted patrol,” wrote brigade commander Col. David Haight to his soldiers in an Oct. 12 e-mail, “every hour on the [observation post] or guard tower, every vehicle repaired, every conversation with a local leader, etc. ... it all adds up to the overall success of the mission.”
Part of the morale struggle, many agree, is the limits imposed by senior commanders on the use of traditional military force in pursuit of Taliban fighters skilled at hiding behind civilians. But even officers practiced in counterinsurgency techniques to weed the bad guys from the good guys and win over Afghan civilians say that the rules — and the message — coming from Washington are disconnected from the situation on the ground.
“The rules of engagement here have been very frustrating,” said Capt. Tammy Lanning. As the intelligence officer for the 4th Battalion, 25th Artillery Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade operating in Wardak, she must fight a daily battle to keep detained bombing suspects from being released back onto the streets.
“Guys back in Washington need to get, I think, a better operational understanding, [of] what goes on here,” she said. “To separate the enemy from the population to make progress will take a really long time, and the administration really needs to understand that. Even more than in Iraq, to get to the point where they … they can build a government — which they can’t do now — [and] get rid of corruption, is going to take years.”
If the U.S. is not in this fight for the long haul, she added, “you may as well not waste the effort and not kill any more soldiers.”
Lanning isn’t alone.
Another military officer involved with what is perceived as revolving-door justice in Afghanistan complained that even if the evidence against a Taliban suspect is airtight, he is often back on the streets within days, or even hours.
One man spotted planting a bomb in a culvert was released because he had “a brick of money” in his pocket, according to one U.S. officer involved in detainee operations.
A senior Afghan counterterrorism officer routinely releases insurgents affiliated with the “HiG group,” the military’s name for the network run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the main factions fighting U.S./International Security Assistance Forces in the east. Tribal, familial or even former mujahedeen affiliations are enough for a suspected bomb maker with a stack of evidence against him to walk free.
It doesn’t help that there is a growing perception in Afghanistan that the U.S. is not fully committed to a war that promises to last many more years, cost billions more dollars and kill many more American soldiers.
“The main problem we are seeing here is that everybody in power in the NDS [the Afghan intelligence agency] and the ANP [the Afghan National Police] are playing a delicate balancing game,” the official said. “They are uncertain of our will, our ability to stay here. They are helping us to a small degree.”
But the Afghans are also under severe threat from insurgents not to cooperate with coalition or Afghan forces, noted the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issues with the media.
“Us, they will simply kill,” the officer said of the insurgents. “But they (the Afghans) will be tortured or hanged from a tree in a badly made knot for helping us. So, while it’s easy to get angry with the ANP, we have to carefully consider what they have to deal with because they don’t know if we will pull out tomorrow.”
Moreover, there’s also a feeling shared by American soldiers that political pressures in the U.S. often outweigh what officers feel is necessary on the battlefield.
“I joke that we have to fight our own rules more than we fight the Taliban,” said Staff Sgt. William King, 38, a technician with the Washington National Guard’s 319th EOD, who watched his colleague, Staff Sgt. Thomas Rabjohn, disintegrate in a blast in the violent Tangi Valley earlier this month.
The unit then swept the area for evidence and rounded up 22 detainees in a single operation, he said. Of those, three were ultimately held. But the midlevel officers had to argue with the decision-makers in Bagram who, following policy, did not want too much of an American fingerprint on the detention process.
“From a COIN (counterinsurgency) perspective, it makes sense. We have to get Afghans to take care of their own needs. Part of that is holding them responsible for what happens in their area,” said King, a single father of two from Lacey, Wash. “We spent 10 days diving through hoops before we finally found a solution to get these guys into custody, where we had reason to believe they would stay in custody.”
The officer involved in the detentions put it this way: “It’s very, very difficult, very frustrating, when you have a disconnect between the people who make the rules that you have to abide by and the reality on the ground — and criticism in the States as to the way things are done.”
King said that forces working under such constraints often feel helpless to change anything. In Afghanistan, soldiers are offering all carrot and no stick, while rampant corruption severely hampers real progress, he said.
“We have money to give them projects, but nothing to hold them accountable,” King said. “We can’t take prisoners of war. We have no way to hold them accountable when the government won’t.”
Last month, two chaplains on this U.S. base in Wardak spoke out in The (London) Times about the growing disillusionment of troops who’d lost their understanding of what they were supposed to be accomplishing in Afghanistan.
Capt. Jeff Masengale, chaplain for the 10th Mountain’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, said he then spoke to Haight, the brigade commander, and told him the troops were hungry for more communication from their leadership.
In the Oct. 12 e-mail message, Haight says, “We knew that the summer months would bring increased enemy activity. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader headquartered at the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, transmitted that Wardak would be his main effort because it straddled Highway 1 and provided direct access to Kabul. … We knew that developing good governance would be difficult because of the culture of corruption that runs rampant in this society. But we continue to help and supervise local politicians and are seeing evidence that these councils are improving ...”
“Still, from the individual’s foxhole, it is probably difficult to see the bigger picture,” Haight added. Haight included a slide that he said indicated the crushing impact the brigade has had on the enemy and said that while losses were devastating, they were just slightly over half of what was projected by analysis of historical combat trends. Honoring those casualties meant continuing to win on the battlefield, he wrote.
For Masengale, the letter was a source of comfort and encouragement.
“We are here to follow orders, to do a mission, but it is a lot more comforting to know the whole country is behind you,” Masengale said. “Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like a political pawn in a game of life and death.”