It is easier these days for journalists in Afghanistan to embed with the Taliban than with the US military. While the media and the military have long had a conflicted relationship, the effort to close off operations in Afghanistan in the name of operational security is a relatively new development. It started in the final years of the Obama administration as part of a broad effort to sell the idea that the war was over as promised. It has continued through to the present day as successive administrations have sought—for the most part, successfully—to keep the Afghan war well out of public view.
The result has been a failure in accountability that has allowed Washington to overlook or ignore fatal flaws in the mission. The price was paid by soldiers on the frontlines—who were equipped for advise-and-assist operations but ultimately found themselves engaging in direct combat operations against the Taliban—and, ultimately, by the mission as a whole. The lack of sound policy in Afghanistan—for years—has weighed on the morale of special operations forces and contributed to the United States’ strategic failure in Afghanistan. With little media access or scrutiny of the war in recent years, there have been limited opportunities for a reality check.
Over the course of almost a decade of reporting on America’s war in Afghanistan, senior administration officials often told me that the Afghan war was hard to fix and easy to ignore because there was no public pressure to change course or review goals. If the Pentagon had given journalists more access, policymakers might have been forced to face up to a more unvarnished—and more accurate—picture of the situation on the ground. Increased scrutiny from the media might have prevented policymakers from dodging difficult strategic decisions about the overall purpose of the mission. A healthier relationship between the media and the military would not have solved all the problems that have dogged America’s war in Afghanistan. But it might have led to a more sound US policymaking process, a lesson the Pentagon would do well to learn now—better late than never.
Flawed Assumptions and Wishful Thinking
As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I have dedicated much of my career to telling the story of what happened in Afghanistan after most US and NATO troops pulled out in 2014. My book Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting The Forever War describes what happened in a war fought mostly in the shadows by US special operations forces, who suffered grievous wounds and sometimes paid the ultimate price.
I have a unique view of the war in Afghanistan, having spent much more time among Afghans than Americans. I arrived in 2012 to report for Reuters, when the US presence was winding down. I left after serving as the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Kabul in late 2017, and continued to follow the war from Washington, DC, where I cover foreign policy for the paper.
The US military refused to offer meaningful access in those years, so I often embedded with Afghan forces instead, or traveled alone with Afghan reporters, under the cover of a burqa where necessary. The Obama administration’s initial plan was to transfer the war to the Afghan government and pull all troops out by 2016. The deadline was timed to the electoral calendar, with the withdrawal due to take place before the 2016 US presidential election. In the transitional period, the United States would offer behind-the-scenes financial support and training to help the Afghans learn to stand on their own two feet.
In Washington, this was seen as a neat and logical way to wrap up the war while preserving the billions invested in building a friendly partner in a difficult neighborhood. It did not pan out that way. Instead, the administration was dragged deeper and deeper into a conflict without end in sight.
How did this happen?
The entire approach to the US withdrawal was based on several key, flawed assumptions. Perhaps the most crucial was that Afghan forces would actually want to fight for the US-backed government. The US approach early on in Afghanistan was to rely on a network of warlords, strongmen, and powerbrokers to establish security. The government was made up of such characters, compromising American efforts to fight corruption and promote Western values.
For Exhibit A, consider Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord trained and mentored by the Central Intelligence Agency, who served as vice president from 2014 to 2020, and who has been accused of a range of human rights abuses, including the mass execution of Taliban prisoners and the torture and rape of a political rival.
Unsurprisingly, given the reliance on the very warlords that many Afghans blamed for the country’s original descent into chaos, Afghan forces were reluctant to fight, regularly abandoning their posts, selling weapons and ammunition to the enemy, and switching sides. This led to the second key flawed assumption: that the Afghan army would improve over time and eventually take full responsibility for the war. Instead, security declined precipitously, leading to the fall of Kunduz in September 2015, and other provincial capitals after that.
Kunduz city fell within hours, as Taliban fighters who had amassed on the outskirts attacked and met little opposition. The police melted away, leaving Afghan commandos to hold the front lines. The battle to recapture it set the template for future US operations. As I describe in Eagle Down, the US military scrambled together a mission led by a promising Special Forces officer to help the Afghans recapture the city. As an indication of how poorly prepared the Americans were for such an event, the Special Forces soldiers slipped into Kunduz without basic equipment, including armored vehicles. They had no maps. They soon ran out of food and batteries. The chaotic effort arguably led to the tragic bombing of a hospital run by the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, which could perhaps have been avoided with adequate preparation.
The Kunduz mission, which successfully recaptured the city from the Taliban in a week or two, set the template for future operations. Afghan cities and district centers fell, and US special operations forces were dispatched to recapture them. Washington claimed that this was all part of the “training” mission. To the men on the ground, it seemed like an effort to cover up the deterioration in security by using special operations forces as firefighters. As one Special Forces officer told me, “We laughed at the idea we were not in combat.”
Throughout this period, the Pentagon granted virtually no media access to US operations, and the increasing reliance on special operations forces happened out of public view. In the absence of a reality check, the rules of engagement remained designed for the fictional training mission the administration wanted, rather than what was actually happening. As I describe in Eagle Down, troops on the ground often found themselves at greater risk as a result, struggling to get equipment and air support even in life-or-death situations.
This was illustrated in Marjah, for example, during an operation in January 2016,in which a US Army Special Forces team was dispatched to kill or capture a local insurgent commander. The team landed at night, came under fire in the morning, and soon suffered its first casualty. A Black Hawk sent to evacuate the wounded soldier crashed upon landing, drawing even greater numbers of insurgents to attack the small compound the team was using as a base for the operation. Surrounded and under fire, the team could not get air support because of the restrictive rules limiting the circumstances in which it could be provided. Instead, the team members tried to clear the buildings around them on foot, an effort that cost the life of Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock. The request for air support was eventually granted from US military headquarters in Kabul, but only after his death.
Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant?
Many of the flawed assumptions that underpinned US strategy in Afghanistan were obvious to the few journalists who remained on the ground and were able to navigate the country on their own. They would have been more apparent to senior policymakers had the American media had better access to the mission. Although many of these problems were clear to US advisors in Afghanistan as well, in the absence of public pressure from the media, inaccurate assumptions about Afghan forces often failed to travel up the chain of the command.
There were several reasons for this. First, as I learned from servicemembers I interviewed during the course of my research, many of the problems observed by US Special Forces teams on the ground were edited out of situation reports by more senior officers. Whether the whitewashing was intentional or not, it presented an incomplete picture to decision makers. Indeed, when I confronted general officers or senior policymakers in Washington with my reporting on the frustration among US Special Forces, some expressed surprise; at least one commented that he was simply unaware of how bad things looked to the teams on the ground.
Another problem, which was increasingly evident over the years that followed the 2014 withdrawal, was the lack of access that US teams had to Afghan commandos. Afghan commandos were often on fighting mode and skipped the training part of their cycle. That meant US troops had few opportunities to train them and to build rapport, a crucial part of their mission. This, in turn, limited the amount of information they could gather and send upwards. And US Special Forces were themselves overstretched. Teams were often dispatched at short notice to villages and district centers that were under threat to fight alongside a partner force the team members did not know well, or perhaps had never even met—once again limiting their ability to transmit accurate information back to Washington.
All these problems were obvious to reporters that spent time in Afghanistan. But there were only a handful of us, and our reporting was drowned out by the day-to-day news from Washington, DC and elsewhere. In the absence of public scrutiny from the media, policymakers faced little accountability for the deteriorating situation and did not understand the complex dynamics that were contributing to the downturn. As a result, the pressure that could have pushed them to make difficult, but necessary, decisions about strategy never materialized. This, in turn, led to increasing frustration among the US servicemembers given the impossible task of improving Afghan forces and turning the war over to the government.
To be sure, the Pentagon’s resistance to allowing journalists access to complex and risky operational environments is understandable. And the media shares some of the blame: every major US television network pulled out of Afghanistan after most US troops left, and only a few newspapers were willing to continue the investment as reporting became more difficult.
Still, military and civilian leaders need to recognize that the mission is more likely to succeed if it can stand up to outside scrutiny. And the US military could have supported information gathering without even opening up its own forces. One of the problems for journalists trying to embed with Afghan forces in far-flung places was getting there in the first place. The US military often flew troops and supplies to these locations and could plausibly have taken journalists too (as it did in Vietnam, for example). But this never happened. Instead, when we embedded with Afghan forces in Kunar, or Nangarhar, or Kunduz, we drove to them in our unarmored Toyota Corollas at great personal risk. We made these trips as often as we could convince our editors it was worthwhile, but the lack of cooperation from the military hindered access for us and other media outlets. Put simply, the US military could have supported the media’s access to information about military operations in Afghanistan—information that would have contributed to a more informed and realistic strategic discussion back in Washington.
But these decisions have to come from the top. Senior military officers should have more training to understand how the media works. If they had a more sophisticated understanding of the media, their concerns about operational security could be mitigated through discussions with journalists and their editors to understand each other’s priorities and objectives and to agree on what information is sensitive and should not be reported. Starting these discussions at a higher level could also help build trust between reporters and the military. And finally, as a matter of principle, the United States uses financial aid, diplomatic outreach, and other means to promote media freedom around the world. In this regard, as in so many others, the US military would do well to lead by example.
Jessica Donati is the author of Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War. She reported from Afghanistan from 2012 to 2017 for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
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