I apologize for the extended back story that follows -- sorry, I have been immersed in this stuff for several days – when probably it would have been sufficient to say that recent events were too important to go without mention in the book. The Afghanistan portion of the first draft ended the portion on Afghanistan soon after the battle at Tora Bora (see below) with brief comments that mainly highlighted changes in strategy over the next two decades. Excerpts from the new portion follow later in the newsletter. It is a rough draft that I probably need to fiddle with some more. The addition makes the newsletter longer than the usual version. If you are not interested in the Afghanistan stuff, just skip to “Other Writing News” (about 9/11, as it turns out) or the “Puns” portion which has the usual really bad stuff.
As with other sections of the book, the portion on Afghanistan focused on the Forgotten Military Leader who did exceptional things during the conflict that few people are aware of. The forgotten leader I chose to write about was a CIA officer named Gary Berntsen, who right after 9/11 led a small contingent of the CIA’s National Clandestine Special Activities Division (the CIA’s military arm – truthfully now, how many of you knew that the CIA had a military establishment?) into Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was known to have taken refuge. Bernsten’s team arrived in country on September 19, eight days after 9/11. His small group of 60 or so was joined soon after by a Special Forces commando unit, some coalition allies, and by forces from the Northern Alliance, an organization of Afghan fighters who opposed the Taliban. Then, as they are prone to do in Afghanistan, events moved very quickly. On November 9, Mazar-e-Sharif, a major city and provincial capital in the north was taken by Bernsten’s coalition. Two days later Kabul fell. Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, was captured on December 7, effectively ending the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan.
An action of major consequence to the United States took place from December 6-17 at Tora Bora, a complex of fortified caves and bunkers 90 miles southeast of Kabul, where bin Laden and large numbers of followers were believed to have encamped. Berntsen led his coalition forces to Tora Bora, where they first surrounded the stronghold and then pounded it with massive airstrikes. As preparations were made for the assault, Bernsten asked U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to send 800 U.S. Army Rangers, readily available at nearby locations, to assure the area was sealed and enhance the prospects of preventing bin Laden and his contingent from escaping. Franks refused the request. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld apparently acquiesced in that decision, perhaps thinking that even if bin Laden left Tora Bora, the U.S’s Pakistani allies would take him captive as he crossed the border into that country. Bernsten did a masterful job of assaulting the complex. Bin Laden, however – possibly through negligence or bribery, or some combination of both, on the part of a Northern Alliance commander who al-Qaeda representatives had talked into agreeing to a temporary truce – had escaped.
General Franks later insisted that bin Laden “had never been within our grasp” at Tora Bora. Based on interrogations of prisoners and captured documents, a Senate investigation concluded the opposite. The committee’s assessment was that bin Laden had, in fact, been at Tora Bora and had escaped during the siege. One analyst called General Franks’ failure to support the Tora Bora operation “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. military history.” Berntsen saw Tora Bora as a way to quickly end the “war” by killing or capturing bin Laden and his functionaries and preventing al-Qaeda’s survival. We will never know for sure how it would have turned out. The outcome leaves us with one of the first of the many “what ifs” associated with the Global War on Terrorism: the possibility that it – or at least the portion dealing with Afghanistan -- might have ended in December 2001, three months after 9/11.
This portion of the new material picks up with actions over the past few months that shaped recent events.
The upsurge in violence in the middle of the decade was fomented in considerable measure by ISIS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State government operation in Afghanistan. Founded in January 2015, the ISIS-K acronym is derived from the organization’s formal title: Islamic State Khorasan Province. Violent and aggressive, by 2018 the group was assessed by major intelligence services as being one of the four world’s four deadliest terrorist organizations.
Initially, ISIS-K drew much of its strength from the Nangarhar Province and the Tora Bora region. Abetted by millions of dollars, training programs, and advice provided by ISIS core organizations in Syria and Iraq, the group rather quickly spread throughout the country. Focused on creating conditions of panic and instability, ISIS-K sought to undermine national authority by casting doubt on the government’s ability to provide security and care for its citizens. Interestingly, these objectives frequently made ISIS-K a strategic rival of the Taliban. ISIS-K’s ultimate goal is a global caliphate, whereas the Taliban, in the view of ISIS-K leaders, is an organization whose more benign ambitions are limited to Afghanistan. As fighting became more widespread, on occasion the U.S. and its allies found themselves in an unusual informal partnership with Taliban forces, sometimes providing air support and other assistance to Taliban operations against ISIS-K.
For a time circa 2019-2020, it appeared that these actions and others by the Afghan Army and coalition allies were achieving success. One operation resulted in the mass surrender of 1,400 ISIS-K fighters. Eventually, though, the number and intensity of ISIS-K operations increased coincident with a nationwide resurgence in Taliban operations.
Three events may have influenced the insurgents’ calculus.
On February 29, 2020, the Trump Administration signed a peace agreement with Taliban officials. Among other provisions, the pact called for U.S. and coalition forces to be withdrawn within 14 months (May 2021) and for release of the Taliban prisoners held by Afghan and coalition forces. The arrangement was conditions based, contingent on a reduction in violence and the exclusion of al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates from territory controlled by the Taliban. Raids, ambushes, and bombings of civilian establishments continued, however, although Taliban-affiliated groups denied responsibility for them. Afghanistan government officials were not represented in these talks which were held in Doha, Qatar. Their exclusion from negotiations drew criticism from many analysts who argued that their absence signaled a lack of support from their American allies.
On July 2, 2021, in an operation that sparked considerable controversy in America, the U.S. vacated Bagram Air Base, its primary operating base throughout the nation’s two decade involvement in Afghanistan.
On July 8, President Joseph R. Biden announced that U.S. forces would depart the country on August 31, ahead of the previously announced September 11 date.
Possibly aided by the visible drawdown of American and allied troop strength, the declared intention to leave by a date certain, and the weakness and corruption of the Afghan government, the Taliban offensive gathered momentum with a speed that took allied and Afghan officials – and the Taliban -- by surprise. In June 2021, A U.S. intelligence estimate had assessed that Kabul could hold out for six months. A follow-on estimate in August reduced that projection to late fall.
It all happened much faster than that.
Zaranji, the first provincial capital, fell on August 6. More than 20 others followed in the next nine days. In the north, Mazar-e-Sharif, thought to be an anti-Taliban stronghold, fell on August 14. Jalalabad was lost overnight. By August 15, Kabul was isolated.
As conditions deteriorated, U.S. officials sought Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s support for an approach brokered between U.S officials and the Taliban. The agreement called for the Taliban to remain outside Kabul. Ghani would step down, paving the way for the formation of an inclusive interim government that would include the Taliban and other parties. With some reluctance, Ghani agreed. For a brief time, it appeared that a path, though precarious, might be open to a peaceful transition.
That prospect was short-lived. Perhaps mislead by staff members who, alarmed by the presence of Taliban troops at the city’s gates, misrepresented the threat to his personal security, President Ghani fled the country without advising the U.S. or many of his own officials. Ghani’s route took him first to Uzbekistan and then to the United Arab Emirates where he eventually found refuge. Soon after, other government officials sought sanctuary in Pakistan and the UAE. By the end of the day, Afghanistan’s government had disintegrated. In Kabul, looting and violence began soon after.
The government’s collapse prompted hurried talks in Doha, Qatar, where key officials including U.S. Marine General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, Commander CENTCOM; American Ambassador Ross Wilson; and Abdul Ghani Baradar, chief of Taliban’s political wing, had assembled. According to sources, Baradar told McKenzie, “We have a problem. We have two options to deal with it. You (U.S. military) take responsibility to secure Kabul or you have to allow us to do it.”
McKenzie, aware of President Biden’s official mandate and personal determination to withdraw all U.S. forces, told Baradar that the U.S. mission was to safely extract American citizens, Afghan allies, and others at risk – and that the U.S. would need the airport to do that. An agreement was immediately reached: the Americans could have the airport until August 31; the Taliban would control the city.
The first contingent of U.S. Marines arrived on August 14 to provide security for round the clock withdrawal actions. On August 26, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. servicemen and women guarding access to the airport and 170 Afghans awaiting entrance to the grounds. The U.S. retaliated with a drone strike that killed the alleged perpetrator. A few days later a second drone attack blew up a vehicle carrying explosives to the airport to carry out a second attack. Two vehicle occupants and nearby civilians were killed. When the evacuation efforts concluded, 5,500 Americans amid a total of 124,000 at risk persons had been flown to safe haven areas.
At one minute before midnight on August 30, the last American serviceman, U.S. Army Major General Christopher Donohue, boarded the final flight out of Kabul airport. He was the last of the American forces that at the peak of the U.S. involvement (2012), numbered 99,800 troops deployed throughout Afghanistan.
This narrative closes with General Donohue’s departure. It seems clear, though, that the final chapter in Afghanistan’s story has yet to be written. Many analysts predict an extended period of unrest, arguing among other things that Taliban leaders do not have the skills necessary to run the country. Some see the possibility of civil war, perhaps initially between the Taliban and ISIS-K, or of a split into several areas controlled by rival tribal groups or warlords. Indeed, an hour northeast of Kabul an incipient opposition movement, the National Resistance Front, quickly formed in the Panjshir Valley region under the leadership of Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massaud. Massaud is the son of Ahmad Shah Massaud, a legendary guerilla fighter who successfully fought Soviet forces and was assassinated by Taliban/al-Qaeda operatives two days prior to 9/11.
Military considerations aside, it appears problematical that the political climate, at least initially, will be conducive to attracting the foreign investment necessary to extract the nation’s extensive mineral resources. At the same time, the ten billion dollars in assets held abroad by the Afghan central bank may be difficult for a Taliban-dominated government to access. For the foreseeable future, Afghanistan will be dependent on foreign aid. International agencies assess that hunger affects one-third or more of the country’s 38 million citizens.
Other Writing News: The local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, is planning a special feature edition to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I have not received official word, but it seems that a small piece that I wrote in the morning of the following day may be included as part of the memorial publication. The poem won the Iliad Press International Writing Competition and has been published in Gatherings, Bridges, Acclamations, and other books of poetry.
THE DAY AFTER TUESDAY
History crashed into our living room
Irreversible, mountainous, cruel.
Transgressor from a nether world
Where dark, not light, would rule.
Sixteen acres of tears remain
In avenues of shattered dreams.
Reason answers not the cries at night
Or the days of silent screams.
Shards of glass and fire and dust
Bear witness to the pain.
Testimony to the power of hate
And beauty made profane.
But voices answer from the pile
Like beacons on the martyred sky.
They speak the victory of hope and love
And of spirit that will not die.
Resurrected through tears and fire
Indomitable, magnificent, strong.
Certain as tomorrow’s sunrise
Right will triumph over wrong.
And now, dear readers, the increasingly seldom acclaimed feature TRULY AWFUL PUNS.
I wanted to be a monk, but
I never got the chants.
A dung beetle walks into bar and asks
“Is this stool taken?”
My wife says I should not have used that last pun, what with this being a G-rated website and all. I blame it all on my daughter who sent it to me. You try so hard to raise children properly but …
Hope this finds everyone well. There’s lots of bad COVID stuff still going around. Stay safe.