The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning into one of the longest breakups in history.
The Afghans are more than happy to keep their not-quite-ex around in order to use its airpower and generals. And like the ex that "forgets" things at your apartment, the Americans keep finding reasons to launch more drone strikes and night raids.
Still, the US continues to insist that the Afghans are in complete control of the security situation. According to the US, with just a little bit of American help and advising, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are capable of taking on the insurgency on their own. The exponential increases in Afghan casualties, they say, are just part of being the tip of the counterinsurgency spear, so there's no need to delay the complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2016.
While all of this sounds fantastic at a press conference, it ignores the regular increases in coalition air strikes over the last two fighting seasons — essentially, the spring and summer — the increased US presence at the battlefield level in places like Nangarhar, and the role of General John Campbell, the commander of all NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, who is reportedly serving as the de facto Afghan minister of defense.
The Afghan military has repeatedly requested more air support since the US put Afghans in charge of the country's security beginning in 2014. Because the Afghan Air Force (AAF) doesn't have enough aircraft to support those requests, the Afghans look to the Americans, and Campbell says he's limiting the airpower support he's providing; instead of approving every request, he told the US Congress earlier this year, he's pushing back:
"'Do you have a Quick Reaction Force out there?'" he said he asks the Afghans. "'Have you fired your mortars? Have you fired your artillery? Have you taken your Mi-17 (Russian helicopters) that have forward-firing machine guns on them? You have a few Mi-35s [also Russian-made helicopters]. Have you used them?'"
By placing those generals in an operation that's going to counter not only the Taliban but also the Islamic State presence in the east, it sends a clear message that the US is taking the IS threat in the country seriously.
Airpower statistics from the coalition bear this out, at least when it comes to what's termed "weapons releases." Over the last few years, the number of bombs being dropped on Afghan soil by US warplanes has decreased. Which supports the argument that the Americans are providing less air support to the Afghans.
But a closer look at the data reveals some dramatic shifts in the level of support during fighting seasons in recent years. Beginning in 2010, unclassified weapons release data from May through August shows massive year-over-year increases in the number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan in both 2014 and 2015, after the Afghan military assumed responsibility for all security in the country. For example, in June 2014, US planes dropped 66 percent more bombs on Afghan soil than they did the previous month. And in June 2015, that number was even greater, with 159 percent more bombs dropped than in May. By comparison, in June 2013, weapons releases were down 8 percent from the month before.
In August of 2014, weapons releases were up 113 percent from July of that year, and this past August they were up 91 percent from the previous month. In August 2013, the last year the Americans were responsible for the country's security, releases dropped 38 percent from the previous July.
Those kinds of shifts in airpower aren't the result of a war that's going as planned. Increases in bombs dropped means that the fight isn't going as well as the Americans had hoped, so they're having to provide the Afghans with more fighting-season air support than they had intended. There is also an indication of an increase in drone strikes, which are no longer accounted for separately in American reporting.
In the eastern province of Nangarhar, there is Islamic State (IS) fever, and the only prescription isn't more cowbell — it's more triangle. In this case, Operation Iron Triangle, a massive joint Afghan National Army (ANA) operation in August that saw for the first time in 2015 the forward deployment of US conventional troops to the ANA's Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly. It was also the first operation in 2015 that received heavy coverage from US military public affairs outlets. For the Afghans, the most significant part of Iron Triangle was the deployment of the new MD-530F gunships, which were delivered to the Afghans earlier this year. The MD-530s were pressed into service in order to bridge the airpower capability gap that's been left by the delay of the first A-29 Tucanos, a dedicated counterinsurgency aircraft that will (eventually) give the AAF all the close air support capability they need.
Particularly significant is who the US sent to help advise the Afghans as they prepared to take on "armed insurgents" in the province: Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, Resolute Support deputy chief of staff for operations, and Major General Mark R. Quantock, Resolute Support deputy chief of staff for intelligence.
Buchanan discussed the role of foreign advisers, saying that they "play a critical role in the success in this operation, but it's not to make things happen. What we want to do is ask leading questions, help the Afghans think about the best way to synchronize their efforts to achieve the best possible effect."
The rank of who is asking those "leading questions" in support of Iron Triangle is significant — the Americans were concerned enough about the success of the Afghan operation that they sent two of their most senior officers to provide oversight and mentoring assistance. By placing those generals in an operation that's going to counter not only the Taliban but also the IS presence in the east, it sends a clear message that the US is taking the IS threat in the country seriously.
While a NATO spokesperson denied the New York Times report that Campbell was effectively acting as the country's minister of defense — with the encouragement of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — the presence of Buchanan and Quantock indicates that their boss is more interested in direct involvement with the Afghan military than were some of Campbell's predecessors. It's also indicative of how far Ghani is willing to go in order to accommodate American interests in an effort to demonstrate that this administration is nothing like that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. And it underscores how little faith the Americans have in senior Afghan leadership that at this stage they'd send two senior generals to keep an eye on a single operation in Nangarhar.
There's nothing revelatory about the notion that the war in Afghanistan isn't going well — plenty of reports mention casualty statistics and the inability of the Afghans to so much as order engine parts successfully. And it's not terribly groundbreaking to point out that the Americans are doing their best to make it look like everything's going according to plan.
But what's now happening in Afghanistan, as the US has to deal with the possibility of a growing threat from IS, is the same thing that's happening in the battle against IS in the Middle East. The Americans and their coalition partners are doing whatever they can to avoid putting troops in contact, choosing instead to rely heavily on air support and the occasional raid by special operations soldiers against so-called high-value targets.
If after 14 years the Americans can't predict levels of air support for fighting season, don't trust Afghan military leadership enough to let them oversee their own operations, and are reportedly filling in for constitutionally mandated ministers, it says something about how the US actually thinks the war is going. In a bid to finish this thing on time, the Americans are making one last push with their airpower and their generals to keep Afghanistan in the win column.
The US can't quit Afghanistan. At least, not until the clock runs out.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani
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