Conflict & Justice

Afghans leading everywhere but on the ground

Every day, journalists reporting on the Afghanistan War are assaulted by news of “Afghan-led” operations by the coalition’s press office.

The other day, I received these four headlines:

“Afghan-led clearing operation kills more than 20 insurgents in Paktiya”

“Afghan-led force detains suspected insurgents in Kandahar”

“Afghan-led force detains Haqqani facilitator in Paktiya”

“Afghan-led security force detains Taliban commander in Wardak”

Today is no exception. I receive at least two, sometime four or five press releases per day about similar “Afghan-led” achievements.

NATO officers and coalition officials constantly lace their language with the phrase.

“Afghan-led” is everywhere.

Except on the ground.

During two months embedded with four different units from Khost and Paktiya provinces in the East to Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, I never once went on, saw or heard about a patrol that was actually “Afghan-led.”

To journalists and other impartial observers, the words seem at  best wishful thinking and at worst misleading and outright spin.

Brig. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, the coalition’s operations officer for the southern command, uses the words “Afghan-led” often. He objected to my characterization of the term, and offered this explanation.

“When we talk about Afghan-led in [Regional Command — South], we are mainly talking about political leadership first and foremost,” he said. “Does it require American enablers? Of course it does. Nobody has the logistical capabilities or the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability that we have. So, in order to mount operations on that scale, that comprehensive, we are very much a part of that. But in terms of political objectives, overall command and control leadership, those are Afghans.”

Hodges, however, agreed that this might only be happening on an overall strategic level but not on the ground where I was.

The problem with the persistent use of the words “Afghan-led” is that it doesn’t usually refer to a political or strategic decision. The press releases and pronouncements of “Afghan-led” often describe specific tactical operations or incidents where Afghan soldiers or police were probably present but not likely “in the lead.”

The use of the phrase in press releases, speeches and interviews ascribes a tactical proficiency and capability that I’ve never seen on the ground in Afghanistan from Afghan security forces. Ever.

Often, Afghans are literally in the lead – meaning they walk in the front of the patrol. And they might have input on where to go and what to do. But I have yet to meet an American platoon or squad leader willing to cede command of his highly-trained men to an Afghan army solider or officer who has had little training and who, which is often the case, is illiterate.

For this reason, American and coalition troops provide most of the planning, and all of the logistics and support elements at the battalion, company, platoon and even squad levels, in all the units I embedded with in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

Misleading spin like “Afghan-led” only serves to make an already skeptical American public (and press corps) less receptive to any kind of rationale for continuing the war.

“It is time … to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan,” Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in June. “It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take. It is not going to be won by “spin” or artificial news stories, and it can easily be lost by exaggerating solvable short-term problems.”

Things don’t look good right now in Afghanistan. But like Iraq in 2006, coming to terms with that reality, rather than sweeping it under the rug, might be a more productive approach.