Military helicopters have created history by going ‘down.’ Remember the botched attempt to rescue the hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran in April 1980. As the attack force was flown in by C130s assembled at Desert One in Dasht-e- Kavir, a squadron of eight RH-53D Sea Stallions took off from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, located in the Gulf of Oman. En route to the Assembly Area one helicopter lost rotor blade pressure and was forced to land. Soon thereafter the helicopters flew straight into a dust storm and another lost its gyroscope and had to turn back. The remaining six reached Desert One two hours behind schedule. There it was discovered that one of the choppers had lost its hydraulic pump and could not take off. That left five – one less helicopter than the minimum needed to carry out the rescue. The team leader decided to abort the mission. As the Sea Stallions and C130s began to depart, a helicopter collided with one of the transport planes and exploded into flames. Eight men lost their lives and President Jimmy Carter chances to win a second term at the White House went up in smoke. In 1993 the incident of Blackhawk Down took place of in Mogadishu. Despite the glamorous Hollywood sheen put on it, it fundamentally altered the American policy in Somalia. The humiliating CNN coverage of Somali insurgents gleefully dragging the Rangers’ bodies in downtown Bakara market, forced Clinton to completely reverse the course. He announced it had been a mistake to “personalize the conflict.” He sent in more firepower, but only to cover a US withdrawal and opened negotiations with Farah Aideed, the leading Somali warlord.
During the 1980s the Soviets aggressively used Mi8, Mi17 and Mi24 helicopter gunships to take out Mujahideen hiding in remote valleys and mountaintops of Afghanistan. To stop this worrisome trend, in September 1986 the US decided to arm the Afghans with shoulder fired Stinger surface to air missiles (SAM’s). About 300 SAM’s were supplied to Mujahideen groups. The heat-seeking Stinger had a range of nearly five miles and could hit aircraft at altitudes of up to 12,500 feet, significantly reducing the Soviets’ ability to flush out Afghan fighters. An American army study in 1989 concluded that the Stinger had brought down 269 aircraft with a “kill ratio” of 79 percent. Many believe that the SAM played a decisive role in turning the tide in Afghanistan. After the war, dozens of Stingers were abandoned as a messy jetsam of the conflict. Once the US invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11, the CIA initiated a $55m buyback programme, offering warlords 150,000 to 200,000 dollars per missile. Not all of them could still be retrieved, but it was assumed that by the mid-1990s battery failure would have left none of these operable. The possibility that the Taliban could recharge the batteries of the Stingers was probably not considered.
The worst American nightmare became a reality in the early hours of Saturday August 6, when a crashed CH-47 Chinook helicopter of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) after taking a lethal rocket hit. 38 people including US Navy SEALs from unit 6, which had taken part in the operation against Osama bin Laden on May 2, were killed. Also killed were seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter. This was highest number of ISAF casualties in a single day in ten years of war. The Americans claim that the helicopter was a hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), during a search operation in the Tangi Valley, in the troubled
Maidan Wardak province about 80 km southwest of Kabul. According to an ISAF statement: “Those additional personnel were in-bound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board.” As the NATO troops recovered the wreckage of the downed helicopter on Monday, another helicopter crashed in Paktia province. There were apparently no casualties but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took credit for shooting the Chinook and killing 33 soldiers on board. About the earlier crash, an Afghan government official speaking on conditions of anonymity confirmed that the Taliban had laid out a trap to lure US forces into the area to attack a purported Taliban meeting. “That night the Americans wanted to attack our mujahideen, and we targeted the helicopter with a weapon that is similar to an RPG,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. “And we are trying to get more of this weapon.” These weapons could be possibly some functional Stingers or perhaps the Taliban have tapped a new source of SAM’s.
Foreign troops, 140,000 of them are already set to depart from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Could the incident of Chinook Down be a game changer? Could it force a quicker withdrawal? Would it inhibit the dreaded night time raids? Would the Americans exercise caution inserting troops by helicopters? For now the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta vows that the US would “stay the course” in Afghanistan despite the latest loss. Only time will tell if there is a change in tactics or strategy.
The American economy just had a near death experience. As the world watched with bated breath and the stock exchanges the world over prepared to handle the inevitable fallouts, the most powerful country in the world teetered on the verge of default. Over the years the US national debt has mounted to a staggering 14.2 trillion dollars – A sum that is nearly equivalent to 97 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This condition prompted the revision of its credit ratings to negative for the first time in its history. Interestingly the United States Government (USG) has had public debt since its inception but it had been able to pay it off during the surplus years but it always borrowed more in times of wars and other emergencies. This includes the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and in the 1980’s as the US pumped in money to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and other parts of the world during the final days of the Cold War. The increase in the American national debt has been phenomenal as it became embroiled in foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the gross public debt increased from $5.7 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 trillion by December 2008. Under President Barack Obama, it further increased from $10.7 trillion to $14.2 trillion by February 2011. Although a last minute deal between the Democrats and Republicans has averted a default, it is still too early to predict how the present crisis is going to inter alia affect its defence spending and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One point that went completely unnoticed in the debate on the financial implications of the impact it is having on the troops’ morale. As the fractious battle raged on the Capitol Hill and Obama desperately tried to settle for a compromise deal over raising the debt ceiling with Republican Party’s Senate Majority leader John Boehner, the troops in Afghanistan, fighting America’s longest overseas War worried about their next pay check. The question whether they would be getting their pay in time was popped to the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen as he talked to them in a townhouse type gathering in Camp Leatherneck in Kandahar on July 29. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” was Mullen’s frank reply. He, however, dispelled the possibility of immediate layoffs and assured that they would continue to go to work each day. “I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given.” He noted, “There are plenty of you living paycheck to paycheck so if paychecks were stopped it would have a devastating impact very quickly.” The troops were not easily mollified. They wanted Mullen to tell them how much the Pentagon was spending on private contractors, when many tasks could be performed by members of the military. They questioned whether the budget pressures will focus on pay or equipment and other acquisitions. They bemoaned what it could cost to implement the new policy repealing the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military; and they wondered if their retirement pay was safe. For his part, Mullen said the cost of repealing the gay ban was very limited and that there were no immediate plans to affect their retirement benefits. Only a few bothered to question Mullen about military strategy or the planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is beginning with a 10,000 drawdown by the end of this year. Instead, it was all about money and jobs. Mullen warned the troops that as time goes on, budget restrictions will pare down the size of the military, and that they should keep this in mind as they pursue their education and try to re-enlist or further their careers in the military. In the end, he referred their questions back to Capitol Hill. Asked whether Congress members would cut their own benefits if they acted to cut military pay, he evoked laughter when he recommended the troops e-mail their representatives with that query: “They’re the ones that can answer that particular question.”
Each war has left its marks on the American men and women, who had been pressed into service. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been one of the most widely reported condition by veterans of foreign wars. Many soldiers of the Vietnam War suffered the residual effects of chemical weapons like Agent Orange. Those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will face the challenge of resurrecting their lives in a time of financial hardship, as the US national debt balloons instead of contracting.
On July 18, General David H. Petraeus handed over command of NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) to his successor Marine Corps General John Allen. Petraeus had been in charge of the military operations in Afghanistan for a little over one year. According to The Christian Science Monitor the change of command has taken place at “a time of increasing instability,” not a good sign for the Americans who want to hand over the security of Afghanistan to Afghan National Army and Afghan Police over the next three years. Patraeus had taken over command on July 4, 2010 after General McChrystal had fallen out with the White House. Violence had been peaking in southern Afghanistan since the last ten years. In order to reverse the Taliban insurgency, Petraeus wanted more troops to repeat his surge strategy of Iraq. To achieve his military objectives, Petraeus had under him some 140,000 U.S. and coalition forces including the 30,000 additional troops. On June 22, as Petraeus’s tenure drew to an end, U.S. President Barack Obama gave out the timetable for the withdrawal of the surge troops. 10,000 troops are to leave Afghanistan by December this year. The units designated for withdrawal have already started moving out. Petraeus had won considerable praise for his Counter Insurgency (COIN) tactics in stabilizing the situation in Iraq. On September 16, 2008, when he had relinquished command in Iraq to his successor, General Raymond T. Odierno, the then Defense Secretary Robert Gates had praised Petraeus for the “historic role” he had played in creating the “translation of a great strategy into a great success in very difficult circumstances.”. As the chief guest at the handing over ceremony Gates said he believed “history will regard you [Petraeus] as one of our nation’s greatest battle captains.” He had presented Petraeus with the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
There were no such homilies as Patraeus handed over command to General Allen in Kabul. In his farewell address, Petraeus had admitted that although progress had been made but warned of a tough fight ahead. He said “there is nothing easy about such a fight especially when the enemy can exploit sanctuaries outside the country.” The U.S. military has been accusing Pakistan for not doing enough to fight Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants in the country’s tribal region along the Afghan border. Allen, the new commander also hinted of “tough days ahead” and challenges but said it was his intention to maintain the “momentum of the campaign.” The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces said he wants to see Afghanistan become a secure and stable environment free from the extremism and terrorism that has plagued the country. During the transfer of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak had warned against a hasty drawdown of foreign forces.
On the day the command was handed over, there were reports of separate bomb attacks in the country’s south and east killing four NATO soldiers. Elsewhere in the south, a roadside bomb had killed the police chief of Registan district and three other police officers in Kandahar province. In western Farah province, at least two Afghans were beheaded, after being abducted last week along with at least 30 others for apparently supporting the Afghan government. More than a dozen of the kidnapping victims were subsequently released and the bodies of those beheaded were sent back to their families. A day before, a senior advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a member of parliament were killed in an attack in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of Jan Mohammad Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan province. Khan was killed along with Uruzgan lawmaker Mohammad Ashim Watanwal late Sunday when two men wearing suicide vests targeted Khan’s home in the capital. President Karzai attended Khan’s funeral Monday. The assassination follows the killing of the Afghan leader’s half-brother last week. Ahmad Wali Karzai was seen as the most powerful figure in southern Afghanistan. The attacks have fueled doubts about Afghan forces’ readiness to take over security control from international troops. On Sunday, Bamiyan province became the first of seven areas to be handed over during the first phase of the transition, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.
It is too early for the jury to give a verdict on Petraeus’s year in Afghanistan, meanwhile he will continue to have a say in the affairs of the country as the new Director of the CIA. Leon Panetta his predecessor, in his inaugural visit to Kabul as the new Secretary of Defense had alluded to the fact that CIA has a large presence in Afghanistan.
All military campaigns have life cycles. Some are short while others drag on for years but the end is always inevitable. It is this inevitability that currently overshadows American military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The war in Afghanistan has been America’s longest war. It has been costly in terms of money and lives for all countries involved. George W Bush invaded Afghanistan to avenge the 9/11 attacks; he also took the opportunity to take the war into Iraq, to pre-empt Sadam Hussain from using his alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction. After Bush’s two terms as the ‘war president,’ the public expected Barack Obama to find an end to this and start bringing American soldiers home.
The first step in Obama’s recipe to lay the Bush legacy to rest, involved the reduction of the American footprint in Iraq and to concentrate on Afghanistan. The stabilisation plan for Afghanistan included enhancing military operations to disrupt al Qaeda and the Taliban and building up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) to replace the multinational forces.
It was visualised that the bulk of the American forces would be withdrawn by 2014. Beyond that, the US presence in Afghanistan would be limited to an advisory role. In order to provide fresh impetus to the offensive operations before a gradual pullout from Afghanistan, the American generals wanted a ‘surge’ similar to the one they had conducted in Iraq. To meet this demand Obama agreed to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2010.
Announcing the surge numbers before the Corps of Cadets at West Point Military Academy on December 1, 2009, Obama had declared his intent to start bringing American forces home in the middle of 2011, since he was against an open-ended commitment. His strategy to “bring this war to a successful conclusion,” was premised on seeking a reversal to Taliban gains in large parts of Afghanistan, increasing the pressure on Afghanistan to build its own military capacity and a more effective government and stepping up attacks on al Qaeda in Pakistan.
A year later, on June 22, 2011 Obama gave out the withdrawal schedule for the surge troops: 10,000 soldiers to be pulled out by December 2011 and a further 23,000 by September 2012. Thereafter approximately 70,000 American troops would still be left in Afghanistan for two more campaigning seasons. The American plan to withdraw from Afghanistan was followed by pullout decisions by other allies like France and Britain. The Canadians and Australians are already on their way home and smaller European contingents are likely to follow suit.
Anything can happen between now and 2014, hastening or delaying American withdrawal plans, although the second option looks less likely.
Three possible scenarios
Barring a totally unexpected and unforeseen situation, anyone of these scenarios can materialise as the American military campaign ends in Afghanistan:
- The Americans are able to disrupt and weaken al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the next two campaigning seasons.
- The withdrawal takes place as per schedule in 2014.
- A residual force is left behind to oversee operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- The ANA and ANP take over from the ISAF forces.
- Controlled normality, over watched by the Americans, returns to Afghanistan.
- The operations against the al Qaeda and the Taliban prove inconclusive.
- Domestic pressure and economic compulsions preclude the possibility of any extension in combat operations and the Americans withdraw as per schedule.
- The ANA and ANP are in a position to take over from the departing foreign forces.
- The size of the residual forces is enhanced to bolster the ANA and the ANP.
- Uneasy peace in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban are able to expand their base in the south and make ingress into other areas.
- The ANA and ANP lack the numbers and capability to take over from the Americans.
- The Americans leave behind a larger force in garrisons like Bagram.
- The chances of Afghanistan imploding increase.
As the Americans struggle to control the situation in Afghanistan during the next two years, they are going to stick with their strategy of drone strikes in the tribal areas and covert operations in other parts of Pakistan. They will also enhance political and economic pressure on Pakistani leadership, both civil and military, to step up ground operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The demonising of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies will continue, providing the Americans with an excuse to bring about a regime change. Whether they will be able to pull off such an enterprise is debatable but cannot be arbitrarily ruled out.
Clearly, the coming years will see a change in the region. The American military operations will end sooner or later. The toxic debris and detritus of the war will take years to clean up. The Taliban may or may not replace the current Afghan government. Regional countries like Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia will stake their claims and fill in the space relinquished by departing Western powers, as best as they can.
The coming years will provide both challenges and opportunities in the region now dubbed as Af-Pak and whoever seizes the initiative is going to give a new twist to the current narrative.
As the military drawdown begins in Afghanistan, the Americans are upping the diplomatic ante. They want a neat transition and a solid presence in Kabul after the military exit. It was in this connection that, Ryan C. Crocker was sworn in Kabul as the new US top diplomat in Afghanistan on Monday July 25. His earlier stint in Kabul involved reopening the US embassy in 2002 after the Taliban government was replaced by that of the Northern Alliance. In his new assignment Crocker may actually be talking to the Taliban. Crocker’s predecessor, Karl W. Eikenberry was a former general, whose sole claim to ambassadorship was his tenure as the commander of NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Abrasive and brash, Eikenberry was often involved in verbal spats with President Hamid Karzai. In contrast Crocker, 62 has impressive diplomatic credentials. For his services to his nation has been elevated to the coveted rank of Career Ambassador (equivalent to a four star general). Having spent most of his career in various capacities in the Middle East and South Asia; he has accumulated considerable expertise of the region. As a child Crocker was in Turkey and Morocco, where his father had served as a member of the US Air Force. He was trained as a Persian language expert before he took up his first diplomatic assignment in 1972 in the US consulate in Khuramshahr, Iran. His subsequent assignment was to the newly-established embassy in Doha, Qatar in 1974. In 1976 he returned to Washington, DC for long-term Arabic training. He completed the 20-month program at the Foreign Service Institute’s Arabic School in Tunis in June 1978. He was the US ambassador to Iraq until 2009; he previously served as the ambassador to Pakistan from 2004-2007, to Syria from 1998-2001, to Kuwait from 1994-1997, and to Lebanon from 1990-1993. In January 2010 he became Dean of Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government & Public Service. In April 2011, President Obama nominated him as the next US ambassador to Afghanistan. He was confirmed to the post by the US Senate by unanimous consensus on June 30, 2011. Crocker is held in high esteem by the American establishment. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell called him “one of our very best foreign service officers”; President George W. Bush called him America’s Lawrence of Arabia and noted that General David Petraeus had said that “it was a great honor for me to be his military wingman.” Crocker had teamed up with Petraeus in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where both had forged a close understanding on all matters. Both would make it a point to jog together.
As his country’s ambassador in Kabul, Crocker is now charged with overseeing the world’s largest diplomatic mission. Under Eikenberry the American embassy had grown from 200 people in 2008 to more than 1,100 in 2011: the face of a civilian surge intended to bolster governance and development in Afghanistan. On his first day as ambassador in Kabul, he told the diplomatic community in the Afghan capital that although “It’s time for us to step back and for the Afghans to step forward,” there will be no “rush for the exits.” he said. On a positive note Crocker asserted that progress has been made but added that “we must proceed carefully …. Frankly, we left the wrong way in the 1990s and we all know the consequences of those decisions.”
Almost coinciding with Crocker’s ascension to the top diplomatic post in Kabul have been disclosure by the Pentagon that part of a $2.16 billion U.S. transportation contract in Afghanistan has ended up in the hands of Taliban. The United States is spending more than $6 billion a month in the conflict. A task force was formed last year to crack down on misuse of funds by contractors, some of whom pay Taliban protection money. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that the siphoning of official money to the Taliban may be an effort to win them over. A recent report by a U.S. congressional commission shows that some $34 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars have been wasted on contracts with the private sector in the wars in Afghanistan in Iraq. Large scale bribes were paid to win over elements hostile to the government as the Taliban regime had collapsed in 2002. It may yet be a tool to forge new allies, under a new political dispensation after the military exodus is complete.