By all accounts (read ‘Google search’), General John Campbell seems like a decent guy. He probably never shot up a family restaurant in Waco. He’s most likely never threatened Alderaan or matched wits with the captain of the Enterprise. Pretty safe bet that he had nothing to do with the cancellation of Firefly, wasn’t at the helm of the Exxon Valdez, and didn’t create Ebola in some secret lab at NATO’s headquarters in Kabul.
But since I’ve made snarkerific commentary on all things Resolute Support my wheelhouse, in my world Campbell and his predecessors fall somewhere between a Sith lord and Apocalypse. And by “Apocalypse” I don’t mean the dystopian dictator from the Marvel Universe. I mean the actual Apocalypse where we hear the hoofbeats and the pestilence arises and we all get a front row seat at the end of everything.
Which means what I’m about to say pains me. I’m pretty sure I’m going numb on my left side, and can no longer feel my toes. So I’m only going to say it once: General Campbell is right, and the New York Times read on these airstrikes is wrong.
Late last month the New York Times ran an article, “Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan,” detailing how American special operations units were taking advantage of loopholes in their legal mandate to broaden the scope of their offensive against the Taliban. Much of their argument hinges on public statements made by Obama and others toward the end of last year.
Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.
You’ve got my attention, Messrs. Ahmed and Goldstein. You work for a fine paper that’s produced some quality Afghan reporting over the years. This…well, this sounds like a scoop.
Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March, months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totaled 128 in the first three months of this year, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.
They did conduct 52 airstrikes in March, and they conducted 30 in April. By contrast, in April, Operation Inherent Resolve (currently filming Iraq II: the Rise of the Islamic State), launched 1,685 airstrikes. Since the Air Force started releasing airstrike numbers publicly in 2010, that’s a crap ton more than any single month in Afghanistan. ((‘Crap ton’ is a unit of measure equal to roughly 600 airstrikes.))
As for those ‘air assaults,’ I’m…gonna have to jump in on this one, since an air strike and an air assault are two different things. I know, you’re using them interchangeably here, but an airstrike means that someone dropped a missile. Or a bomb. An air assault means there were men coming out of helicopters. But…continue.
“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”
That’s a bold statement. And it was probably made by officials with lots of rank on their collar and lots of medals on their chest. The kind of officials who are, in theory, literate. Remember that: they can read. That point will be important later. Quick spoiler: they don’t need guys on the ground to justify the strikes. Campbell’s take? He’s not too worried about whatever’s being said in DC.
“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”
Here’s how I know I’ve crossed over to the dark side. Because part of me did a little fist pump at that ‘media piece’ line. There’s enough of the uniformed veteran in me that does enjoy it when someone on the hot seat throws the heat right back.
Oh, and he’s right. 100%. And not in an op-ed infographic way. As in a legal, there are words that explain it, kind of way. So I’m agreeing with the commander of NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. I may have to stop blogging after this.
“What I’m thankful for is that I have the authority and flexibility to make those very tough decisions,” General Campbell said. “They could have said, ‘Every time you hit a target, you have to get approval.’ ”
For a commander to be effective, he has to be able to operate with some degree of autonomy. ‘Authority’ and ‘flexibility’ are a print-friendly way of saying, “respect my authoritah!” On a related note, I have no idea if Campbell has a Cartman impression. Now that we’ve heard from the military, time to bring on that concerned civilian.
“I’m not surprised they are continuing in this way,” said one Western diplomat living in Kabul. “What’s surprising is how much of it they’re doing.”
Of course we need to hear from the unnamed concerned diplomat in K-town. The one wringing their hands over the plight of terrorists being droned into a red mist by the might of ‘murcan air power! Even though said diplomat seems blissfully unaware that, Americans or no, there’s still a war on in Afghanistan.
The Times and Campbell weren’t done with the verbal jousting, and the topic of one Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim came up. The former Taliban commander who was repping the Islamic State, Khadim was killed by a drone strike in Helmand province.
When asked to justify the strike, the American military did not say it was for counterterrorism purposes but rather described it as force protection — despite there having been no American forces stationed in the area for years.
When asked about that decision, General Campbell responded with a question of his own: “Do you know what was in his mind?” he said of Mullah Khadim.
Bravo, sir. Hearty non-cynical applause for that shot across the bow. Finally, of course, we get commentary from other administration officials. In November, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the Times that the US military would “not be engaged in specific operations targeting members of the Taliban just because they’re members of the Taliban.” That American operations would be limited to protection of American soldiers and the counterterrorism mission. With, of course, a caveat from the NSC.
On Sunday, however, a spokesman at the National Security Council issued a statement that appeared to broaden the circumstances, saying that American forces may provide combat support to Afghan troops “in limited circumstances to prevent detrimental strategic effects to these Afghan security forces.”
Except that statement wasn’t issued on Sunday. The releases was reported on a Saturday. In November. In another Times article on the lifting of a night raid ban.
On Saturday a White House official responded to an article in The New York Times that said that President Obama had issued a secret order continuing combat operations in 2015, after their planned end on Dec. 31. The official reiterated that “the United States’ combat mission in Afghanistan will be over by the end of this year.”
The American mission in 2015, the official said, would primarily be training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces. “As part of this mission, the United States may provide combat enabler support to the ANSF in limited circumstances to prevent detrimental strategic effects to these Afghan security forces,” the White House official said.
So that sounds familiar. And like I said for Vice News at the time, night raids were never banned at all. So there’s my shameless bit of self-promotion for the day. About six weeks later, whatever secret orders had been issued got pretty public in this statement from the White House on operations in Afghanistan post-2014. And by “White House” I mean “the President”:
At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States–along with our allies and partners–will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.
Which probably explains the White House denials that operations are expanding. Since they’re not. Depending on how one reads all the words, and the quasi-legal question of whether Campbell’s right.
Or, if in the Greenwaldian Snowdenized world we live in he’s recklessly putting American lives in danger so he can turn terrorists into a droneified red mist. I refer you to my earlier point about literacy being key to a successful military career, and submit this from the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the American and Afghan governments. From Article 2.4 of the BSA:
The Parties acknowledge that U.S. military operations to defeat alQaida and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism. The Parties agree to continue their close cooperation and coordination toward those ends, with the intention of protecting U.S. and Afghan national interests without unilateral U.S. military counter-terrorism operations. U.S. military counter-terrorism operations are intended to complement and support ANDSF’s counterterrorism operations, with the goal of maintaining ANDSF lead, and with full respect for Afghan sovereignty and full regard for the safety and security of the Afghan people, including in their homes.
- US counter-military operations are allowed
- They can’t be unilateral
- Intended to complement the ANDSF
That last one’s kind of key when it comes to the loophole debate: that’s the intention, but I read it this way: if US/Afghan interests clash, guess who wins? Where Resolute Support/US Forces – Afghanistan (RSM/USFOR-A) is screwing up in is in not playing the counter-terrorism card more. What the Times got right was in pointing out how ridiculous the ‘self-defense’ justification was if American special operations forces (SOF) are putting themselve in harm’s way intentionally. ((It’s worth noting here that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that covers NATO operations doesn’t mention the counter-terrorism mission. That makes the whole NATO/US mission overlap confusing to follow. Which, given the history of senior military leadership in this country? Probably intentional.))
The authorities Campbell’s refers to is the BSA and the enormous leeway that agreement grants American forces in pursuing the counter-terrorism mission. That’s key to understanding what’s happening with airstrikes in Afghanistan: they’re not all in ‘self defense,’ and that’s (legally) ok.
It’s entirely likely that in the course of ‘advising,’ US SOF working with Afghan SOF called in airstrikes that they’d justify as being in self defense. What’s also happening are airstrikes when neither American nor Afghan troops are on the ground, carried out by US aircraft (drones) under the auspices of the BSA (and Obama’s) counter-terrorism mandate.
Since those targets have been designated as terrorists (as was the case of Mullah Khadim), dropping high explosives on them is very much in line with the counter-terror mission being conducted by American troops. And so General C(he who shall not be named)ll is (le sigh) right.
A better question is whether those legally acceptable airstrikes are still killing civilians, which was one of the reasons they pissed Karzai off back in the day. Given Ghani’s drive to keep the counter-terror gravy train rolling, any reports of civilian deaths aren’t going to enjoy the same public hearing as they did under His Hamidness. In the interest of Afghan security and the effectiveness of the US counter-terror mission, that’s a good thing.
You want a good counter-terror omelet, you’re going to have to break a few collateral eggs. Which, since it’s a war, you can do, and people will eat it up and ask for seconds. Because you tell them it’s all about security. And funding for that security.
Back when I had a soul and NATO was wrong about everything, that used to make me sad. Now? I don’t know what to think. C(hewhowillnotbenamed)ll was right.
It’s a brave new day, blog fans. Maybe it’s time to get on board the Transformation Express. Break out the pom poms and root for Operation Ready or Not: How to End a War on a Deadline. I’ll sleep on it. In the meantime, you know what to do: stay on the sunny side of the street. Take it away, Mr. McGowan.
Also published on Medium.