This is the first in what will become a weekly update on Afghanistan. Future posts will cover the situation on the ground as well as some interesting background from a unique perspective. I’m a retired Marine who spent eight years in Afghanistan as both a security and USAID contractor. I lived in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah and Zaranj and got to be pretty good at moving around the countryside without attracting unwanted attention. I enjoyed Afghanistan — I even had my kids visit me for months at a time. But things in Afghanistan are not going well. My intention with this series of articles is to explain why.
The war in Afghanistan took a catastrophic turn for the worse when General Abdul Raziq was assassinated last week on the 18th of October. He was killed after attending a regional security meeting with the commanding general for the NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller. Kandahar’s provincial intelligence chief, Gen. Abdul Momin Hussain Khel, was also killed. The governor of Kandahar, Zalmai Wesa, and Gen. Nabi Elham, a senior police commander responsible for several provinces were also hit as were two unidentified Americans. At this point it is a safe assumption that the wounded Americans were from Gen Miller’s PSD team. They’re high end contractors, not American military, so their names do not have to be reported by the Department of Defense.
General Raziq was from the Pashtun Adozai Achakzai tribe and was raised in Spin Boldak, which is a port of entry with Pakistan. His tribe has always opposed the Taliban and Raziq had lost several members of his immediate family over the years of Taliban rule. He got his start as a border guard at age 17, working for his uncle who was a commander and steadily advanced through the ranks (the way all warlords rise to prominence in places like Afghanistan). He was ruthlessly efficient in riding his area of Taliban, and he was a natural leader who had a knack for making money which expanded his influence. He attracted the attention of the American Special Forces and the CIA who mentored him for years. By the time the Americans pulled out, Raziq was a general officer who was responsible for the security of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and he locked Kandahar down, making it one of the safer cities in Afghanistan. But he did it the old-fashioned way: he didn’t take prisoners.
For this the foreign policy establishment condemned him. An attempt at positive spin can be found in a 2016 Foreign Policy article about the General:
“Considered by many as a ‘special case’ due to his outsized and abnormal means of exerting influence and holding power, Raziq serves the interests of the state-building elite by crafting an image of strength and stability in southern Afghanistan, even if that comes at the expense of accountable governance, human rights, and long-term stability. Raziq road the coattails of a coterie of ruthless warlords empowered by western intelligence and security organizations like the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and NATO military allies. He is a leading figure in the Achakzai tribe, a major power bloc along the southern border and strong auxiliary security component through formal and informal militias. Raziq grew up in Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar, and was mentored by strongmen such as Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and Asadullah Khalid, who protected Raziq from prosecution when 16 Nurzai tribal members were murdered in 2006. Numerous stories link Raziq, or men working for him, to human rights violations, torture, and murder of prisoners. While such stories of abuse are disquieting, it seems even more alarming when Raziq openly boasts of such acts. In the summer of 2014, Raziq, along with other Afghan security officials, issued a take no prisoners directive: ‘My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive.'”
There are very few military leaders who, if lost, cannot be replaced. Ahmad Shah Massoud was one and General Abdul Raziq was the only other when it comes to modern Afghanistan. General Raziq had the ability to learn from the CIA and his Special Forces trainers the tactics required to dominate an area which he combined with an old-fashioned Afghan patronage network, while operating an obviously efficient intelligence network. He was not shy about eliminating known Taliban. He may not have integrated the mandatory human rights training that accompanies American military support well, but he was self-sufficient. He had been given the one area of Afghanistan that has never been under tight government control, Kandahar, and he controlled it for years. Most importantly, General Raziq had learned what Machiavelli advised princes many centuries ago: Don’t seek to be loved, seek to be feared.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, when asked by the host of NBC’S Face The nation what kept him up at night responded instantly: “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.” That’s seeking to be feared at the strategic level where America and her allies are comfortable. General Raziq operated at the tactical level where rhetoric must be backed by action and that action often makes westerners uncomfortable. That a certain level of violence is necessary to actually lock down insurgent infested urban areas is often overlooked by the foreign policy establishment.
General Raziq’s loss is a crippling blow in a year that has not seen any positive news concerning the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). ANSF is taking casualties on the battlefield that are unsustainable. We have no idea what their true desertion rate is, but one can assume it’s not good when those formations have taken a beating all summer long. Now the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are going to have to keep the Taliban from re-emerging in Kandahar which is going to take an as-yet unknown number of additional troops. Those additional troops are going to include American advise and assist teams because the Americans cannot let the area around the Kandahar Airfield become overrun by the Taliban.
America is playing the long game in Afghanistan. Secretary Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, have built a military solution that removes most Americans and allies from direct combat while giving the Afghans significant training and support down to the Corps level. They are betting that, over time, as long as the Afghans stay in the fight the Taliban will become disillusioned by continued war and will negotiate for peace. From a historical perspective that is a solid bet, but it ignores potential black swans (events that come as a surprise, have a major effect, and are often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight). The loss of General Raziq is a black swan event. There are more of them out there but we don’t know what they are — that’s the nature of black swans.
The most important thing to understand about the current situation in Afghanistan is that the donor funding will continue to decrease significantly over the next two years. According to the DoD June 2018 report Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, donor nations have pledged 900 million in ANSF funding for 2018-2020. The total amount of aid dollars required to run Afghanistan is 5.7 billion per year. The United States is making up the difference and the current funding agreement with congress ends in 2020. What are the chances congress will be writing a blank check for 2020 and the years beyond?
Next week we’ll take a look at the recent elections and cover a little known but critical flaw in the Afghanistan political system that produces messy elections by (unintended) design.
Tim Lynch is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer who lives in McAllen, Texas. He spent over eight years in Afghanistan working in both the security and development sector. The popular blog he kept during his last four years can still be found at www.freerangeinternational.com.