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Afghanistan’s Pentagon Papers

Amid the likes of the Vice President and the Congressional Republicans who enabled his Administration’s foreign policy criticizing Barack Obama on a host of national security issues, it’s instructive to take a look at this military history of the war in Afghanistan from its beginning in 2001 to fall 2005, a story of neglect, missed opportunities and a prelude to disaster, turning a broadly popular mandate for throwing out the Taliban into an occupation adrift, a country in tatters, and a future in doubt. Maybe those lambasting Barack Obama for a failed terrorism plot out to be judged on their own actions.

The 422-page history, called “A Different Kind of War” and prepared by senior US Army commanders to teach future generations about the Afghanistan conflict, shows pretty definitively that the strategy for the post-war period conflicted with the demand for a “light footprint,” to the extent that 800-man battalions were covering areas in the country as large as the state of Vermont. Among the specific reasons cited by this official Army document for that light footprint is the siphoning away of manpower and resources by the invasion of Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with 9/11 and represented no material threat to the United States.

James Dao, the New York Times reporter who obtained the document, lays this out very starkly in his opening grafs:

In the fall of 2003, the new commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, decided on a new strategy. Known as counterinsurgency, the approach required coalition forces to work closely with Afghan leaders to stabilize entire regions, rather than simply attacking insurgent cells.

But there was a major drawback, a new unpublished Army history of the war concludes. Because the Pentagon insisted on maintaining a “small footprint” in Afghanistan and because Iraq was drawing away resources, General Barno commanded fewer than 20,000 troops […]

“Coalition forces remained thinly spread across Afghanistan,” the historians write. “Much of the country remained vulnerable to enemy forces increasingly willing to reassert their power.”

That early and undermanned effort to employ counterinsurgency is one of several examples of how American forces, hamstrung by inadequate resources, missed opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan during the early years of the war, according to the history, “A Different Kind of War.”

For almost six years of the Bush Presidency, their commanders in Afghanistan were trying to fight a counter-insurgency war on the cheap, with practically no troops and no attention from the civilian leadership. The Defense Department knew by 2003 that their effort would amount to nothing without additional resources. And they did nothing. The lack of manpower led to bandaging the war through airstrikes which generated civilian casualties and ill will from the population. The lack of funds for development ceded ground to a Taliban willing to provide for the people. The Pentagon did not plan in any meaningful way for how to achieve stability in the political or economic sphere in Afghanistan after the war ended. The mandate was clear, as put by Gen. Jack Keane, one of the intellectual fathers of the surge in Iraq, in 2002: “We are in and out of there in a hurry.”

Simply put, the tragic state of Afghanistan today was cultivated by years of neglect.

The accounts here are almost comical:

In one telling anecdote from 2004, the history describes how soldiers under General Barno had so little experience in counterinsurgency that one lieutenant colonel bought books about the strategy over the Internet and distributed them to his company commanders and platoon leaders.

In another case, a civil affairs commander in charge of small-scale reconstruction projects told the historians that he had been given $1 million in cash to house and equip his soldiers but that bureaucratic obstacles prevented him from spending a penny on projects. It took months to reduce the red tape, the historians say.

Instead of merely transcribing the opinions of Dick Cheney, maybe the media could force him to come to terms with the mess he caused. Afghanistan is but one example. But the release of this historical document, along with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Tora Bora and the escape of Osama bin Laden (as well as Peter Bergen’s authoritative account), is robust enough to really challenge the notion that anyone should listen to a word that a Dick Cheney could say about terrorism or foreign policy.

Lest you think that the current Administration should be let off easy for their own assumptions in the wake of a failed 8-year effort to secure Afghanistan, take a look at a separate leaked report from the Pentagon about the state of the Afghan National Army. Punchline: there is none.

This is a copy of that report. It was prepared for a briefing for CENTCOM commander, General David Petraeus. It was also copied to his commanding general in Afghanistan. And the military says that it is still a preliminary report, that it’s not final, but that does not change what this says about the Afghan national army, or the ANA.

The 25-page study obtained by NBC News says senior Afghan commanders are, quote, “not at war. Many ANA leaders work short days, are often absent and place personal gain above national survival.” The report says Afghan troops simply aren’t leading the fight, but remain dependent on US forces, and show few signs of wanting to take off the training wheels. But what’s striking about the report is that it goes to the heart of President Obama’s argument about the war. When announcing the surge, the president said Afghan forces must be trained and equipped quickly, so American troops can return home. But the report’s section on the Afghan army’s personnel says, “Corruption, nepotism and untrained, unmotivated personnel make success all but impossible.”

And there may not be nearly as many Afghan battalions as the country claims. The report said previous estimates are not believable. “Estimate for soldiers actually in battalions far below reported,” it said. “Example: between 40 and 50 percent in some areas.” And Afghan soldiers still in the ranks have literacy problems, and that “mentally, physically unfit and drug addicts hurt units.”

Perhaps the most controversial finding, however, has to do with timing. President Obama has said he wants the troop surge to start drawing down in July 2011. But the assessment said it will take time to expand and rehabilitate Afghan forces. The report said it “cannot take a year to fix this problem.”

The report is dated from mid-December, and it just goes on and on, mostly complaining about leadership and corruption within the Afghan security forces.

It seems that the questionable assumptions and faulty logic that put the United States in such a deep hole in Afghanistan are also being deployed to justify our continued presence, at odds with the facts. I don’t think anyone wants to perpetuate a situation where Afghans simply substitute the current President’s name in their “Death to X” chants. “A Different Kind of War” is a historical document, meant to be studied and learned from. Obama’s team, in deploying additional resources, do seem to have drawn lessons – but eight years on, they may be the wrong ones.

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David Dayen

David Dayen