You know the story. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked our nation. A few weeks later, we sent over a couple of Special Forces ODAs, a battalion of Army Rangers, and a few brave CIA paramilitary officers to extract a price from the responsible parties, as well as anyone who harbored them.

We were going to wage a war on terrorism. The good guys were gonna go get the bad guys.

Sixteen years, 2,407 American service members, three presidents, and $841 billion later, most Americans no longer care what we are doing over there or why we’re doing it.

But some people still care. I care. You might say I have a vested interest. I’m old enough to remember deploying to Afghanistan when it was nothing but an afterthought compared to the seemingly more important war in Iraq, and I’m young enough to remember deploying to Afghanistan again after our engagement had turned into a massive conventional war with more than 100,000 American service members in country.

Almost eight years after I did my last combat mission in the mountains of Afghanistan, the opportunity arose for me to return — not as a combatant but as a journalist.

Here’s what I learned.

We’re not leaving Afghanistan… maybe ever.

I know this may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the swift defeat of the Taliban just three months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Or the Surge. Or the “drawdown.” Or even the triumphant announcement back in December 2014 that our official combat operations had come to a successful conclusion. But the plain truth is we’re there for the long haul, and we may as well abandon any expectation of the contrary. It was evident almost from my first minutes at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul that the United States leaving Afghanistan is about as likely as our leaving Germany, Japan, Korea, Italy, or most of the other 138 countries around the world where we maintain a military presence.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that friends I served with a decade ago are still deploying to Afghanistan. (I bumped into some of them actually.) I know that my youngest sister, currently in the initial stages of her Army career, will probably deploy there. I won’t be surprised if my 3-year-old daughter, should she decide to join the military, deploys to Afghanistan someday.

So as hard as I’ve tried to develop a comprehensive account of where the conflict currently stands, I know it’s only a snapshot — a single moment in a long narrative.

During my trip, I interviewed Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, the director of future operations for Resolute Support since August 2017, at the headquarters in Kabul. The conversation began awkwardly — just the two of us sitting in a small sterilized office with a fireteam of public affairs officers. Media outreach and regular embeds were a key part of U.S. strategy earlier in the conflict, but as the war slogged on, the military became somewhat press-shy. My invitation appeared to be a tentative effort to let the American public know what was going on, a shift in approach seemingly ordered by the mission’s media-savvy commander Army Gen. John Nicholson. Though initially quite guarded, Bunch warmed up after I was able to “talk shop” with him about the utility of Afghan joint terminal attack controllers.

Courtesy photo
The author on his last deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

He didn’t mince words about how long the U.S. military will be committed to Afghanistan: “The Afghans are reassured that we’re here for the long term.” A former F-15 pilot with three previous deployments to Afghanistan himself, Bunch’s statement reflects the U.S.’s change in commitment from former President Barack Obama’s approach, which favored drawing down and eventually leaving, on a regularly shifting timeline that was considered too aggressive by many. Bunch went on to say that it was an “exciting time” to be deployed to Afghanistan and repeatedly emphasized that the Afghan government wants the coalition to be a part of the rebuilding process.

That said, the coalition might not be as involved as the Afghans would like: President Donald Trump has expressed hesitation over spending more money on nation-building in the country, despite the open-ended commitments he has made to Afghanistan on multiple occasions.  

Either way, the focus on “rebuilding” should not distract from the fact that the destroying part is still not over. During my stay at Bagram Airfield, the roar of American fixed-wing fighter jets taking off could be heard throughout the day. This year, the U.S. military has dropped triple the amount of ordnance it used in 2016, with over 3,554 bombs delivered thus far. Air offensives intensified in recent weeks, resulting in the deaths of key Taliban leaders and the destruction of $80 million in narcotics — marking the first time U.S. air power has been used to counter narcotics operations in the country.

On the ground, all six of the Afghan National Army (ANA)’s corps are simultaneously on the offensive and actively engaged in combat. Predictably, the intensification of NATO and Afghan ground and air operations against the Taliban and ISIS-K has come at a steep cost to civilians, with 159,000 Afghans internally displaced through the first half of 2017 and 1,601 civilian casualties (an eight-year high) during the same time period.   

In numerous conversations with general officers, grunts on the ground, and the Afghans themselves, it became clear to me that the conflict is no longer about winning or losing. It’s not even really a “war” as typically defined — at least not as far as NATO forces are concerned. It’s about achieving stability, or at least reducing instability. And, in the end, it may simply come down to how you define those somewhat slippery terms.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
Many conventional U.S. soldiers are tasked with escorting trainers and advisors around Afghan military bases. This is referred to as “guardian angel” duty.

That’s not an especially easy idea to sell to the public or to our allies. It lacks the dramatic flair of a “Mission Accomplished!” — which may help to explain Nicholson’s assertion on Nov. 28 that “we are on our way to a win” less than one week after saying the conflict was “still in a stalemate.”

Regardless of these conflicting assessments, Afghanistan is not likely to achieve stability — at least not as we understand it — anytime soon. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants 80% of the population under the control of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — a reasonable goal, given Afghanistan’s tumultuous history. Government control has been moving in the right direction, going from 63% earlier this year to 68% in November. Unfortunately, the government is losing ground when it comes to geography: The Taliban  are no longer able to mass their forces — now they spread out in squad-sized elements and control or influence more territory than six months ago.

Nonetheless, Bunch expressed confidence in the four-year roadmap laid out to achieve Ghani’s 80% goal, telling Task & Purpose that among the coalition leadership there is a “clear feeling that the Afghans are continuing to improve” and that everyone is “moving in the right direction.”

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
Afghan commandos-in-training take a knee while their instructor briefs them on the next portion of training they will be conducting.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because many military leaders have expressed the same sentiment in years past. Either way, we no longer have a real choice — or even the illusion of one. If the United States were to withdraw, we would pull the rug out from underneath the Afghan government, giving the Taliban and possibly ISIS-K the advantage — at which point every life lost and every dollar spent would effectively be for naught.

After watching the rise of ISIS following the withdrawal from Iraq, no politician will be willing to risk a similar failure. Regardless of who is in the White House, the American presence in Afghanistan may fluctuate in terms of size, but a complete withdrawal won’t happen in our lifetimes.

Afghanistan is not really about Afghanistan.

Once upon a time, we waged war with the clear-cut goal of taking out a bunch of extremists, opening up schools, reestablishing the control of the central government, and so on. But while those things still matter, they’ve become secondary. In the intervening years, Afghanistan has increasingly become a geopolitical chess board on which a number of regional and global players are engaging in a much bigger struggle. The fate of Afghanistan is now fraught with a whole new set of international political and strategic implications that go well beyond the fate of the country itself — not just for us, but for our NATO partners as well.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
A variety of flags hang inside the “team house” for NATO advisors assigned to the GCPSU. Soldiers from 39 different countries are currently in Afghanistan in support of Resolute Support.

And it shows. Walking through Resolute Support headquarters is a little like a visit to Disney World’s Epcot Center. There are 39 nations contributing to the effort in Afghanistan. Oh, and a slew of private contractors.

Whenever the justification for the ongoing war in Afghanistan is called into question, the response is typically that it’s a vital national interest. In fact, that was the very justification Obama used for his troop surge in 2009. That sentiment has been echoed more recently by Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., who said that continuing to put pressure on terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and the greater South Asia area “is critical and vital to our national interests.”

But is it? In 1996, a bipartisan working group, The Commission on America’s National Interests, proposed “vital national interests” be defined as “conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance America’s survival and well-being as a free and secure nation.” How could an unstable, non-nuclear, economically unthreatening nation in Southwest Asia merit such a label?

I received a little bit of clarification during an intelligence brief at Resolute Support headquarters. Officials explained that the country is home to approximately 20 of the world’s 98 U.S.-designated terrorist and violent extremist organizations, and the rationale has long been that it’s better to “fight them over there” than on American soil. That said, many of these groups did not even exist when Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force on Sept. 14, 2001.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan Special Forces soldier stands guard nearby his American counterpart during a graduation ceremony for newly minted Afghan Special Forces soldiers.

The fact is our real national interest in Afghanistan has very little to do with Afghanistan at all. Increasingly, the more important conflict playing out is our ongoing effort to contain Russia. In recent years, the Kremlin’s escalating aggression has included incursions into Georgia, the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent poaching of Crimea, and a habit of meddling in foreign elections, as well as successfully maneuvering for unilateral control of Syria. These power plays have not escaped the attention of NATO-aligned countries, who have certainly made note of Russia’s recent hints about ramping up military operations in Afghanistan if the situation there grows too unstable.

Meanwhile, Iran and Pakistan see the country as a vital trade partner, and also a critical stage on which to exert regional influence. Additionally, many of these countries see untapped economic potential in Afghanistan’s significant mineral resources — including enough battery-grade lithium to become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Blackwater founder Erik Prince seems to have had the same thought, recently pitching the Trump administration on the idea of tapping this mineral wealth to finance private military operations in the region.

Despite seeming to benefit from increased stability in Afghanistan, Resolute Support officials speaking on background have identified Russia, Iran, and Pakistan as working to undermine the government’s efforts — a major area of concern for the coalition. In Nicholson’s testimony to Congress in February, he said that Russia was “overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts,” and that Iran was “providing support to the Taliban while also engaging the Afghan government over issues of water rights, trade, and security.”

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan soldier from the mobile strike kandak that was tapped to go through commando training as a unit.

According to one intelligence official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, the Russians initially got involved because “Afghanistan provided them a very good microscope into our operations — both military and intelligence-wise.” The source added that for the Iranians, “it is simply warfare by proxy. They provide material support to the insurgents because it benefits their regional instability initiatives.” The source also said that both countries have criminal elements that profit from the heroin exports in Afghanistan.

Whether our NATO partners see Afghanistan as part of their own vital national interests or are just trying to stay in the good graces of the United States in light of the looming threat of Russian aggression, they have shown an increased willingness to stay actively involved. As of November 2017, 27 NATO countries have agreed to increase their troop levels in Afghanistan.

In many ways, conditions have declined in recent years.

I had just loaded my gear into the bus at Bagram Airfield that would bring me to a waiting helicopter. I was disappointed that I had to leave a fresh cup of Green Beans coffee inside the terminal, but otherwise things were going fine. That is, until one of the terminal workers rushed onto the bus, proclaiming, “We need everyone off the bus right now! Don’t worry about bags, just get inside.”

Moments earlier, I had heard something that resembled incoming mortar fire off in the distance, but assumed it was just a shipping container being dropped too hard. After we got inside and I located my hidden cup of coffee (still hot!), the loudspeakers announced that their was indirect fire in the area (which usually means mortars or rockets) and that everyone should remain indoors.

I was never in any real danger, and I doubt it was anything serious enough to warrant a response from the base, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a wave of nostalgia.

The fact of the matter is you can still go to Afghanistan and get smoked by an enemy mortar round if luck isn’t on your side. It’s still a war zone.

Right before I arrived in Afghanistan, the latest edition of the quarterly Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) came out, the 37th of its kind. The report to “promote economy and efficiency of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan” didn’t contain a lot of good news.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan commando-in-training listens intently as his instructor teaches a machine gun class.

In addition to pointing out that the Taliban now controls 19.9% of the total land area and that another 20% is considered “contested,” the report suggested that the U.S. approach to training the more than 100,000 Afghan police officers had been lackluster. “One U.S. [military] officer watched TV shows like Cops and NCIS to learn what he should teach,” the report said. To make matters worse, the NATO training mission for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is chronically understaffed by more than 50%.

There were also issues with construction projects not being completed on time, missing money, corruption, and rising death tolls for the Afghan National Defense Security Force. The increase in ANDSF casualties makes sense given the increased operational tempo, but as the SIGAR noted, the rate at which they are being killed is “unsustainable.”

There has also been an increase in “insider attacks” in the ANDSF. Through Aug. 15 of this year, there have been 54 such attacks, six of which were against coalition partners. These 2017 numbers are on pace to exceed the 60 insider attacks endured in 2016, which is especially worrisome as it significantly impacts the “train, advise, assist” mission NATO forces are conducting.

The coming year will probably be the bloodiest to date.

Most Afghan and NATO military officials that I talked to agree that 2017 was a year to build momentum, and that the first-year goals of the four-year road map have been met. But the violence will get worse before it gets better.

2017 was the first year that the Afghan security forces planned a true year-long campaign that did not recognize the traditional fighting season, and then followed through on it. They prevented the Taliban from accomplishing their strategic goals, which called for a dual political-military campaign aimed at establishing a capital city and driving ANDSF along with coalition forces out of Taliban territory.

Operation Khalid denied the Taliban control of any major population centers and resulted in the deaths of over 100 Taliban commanders and 3,000 militants by the end of the summer. This, according to one intelligence official, forced the Taliban to increase their high-profile attacks on civilian targets, a strategy they’d hoped to avoid. After several attacks reduced Taliban support, they shifted their emphasis back to military targets. In October, their so-called Red Units, the Taliban’s version of Special Forces, executed a coordinated attack on Afghan police checkpoints, killing 71 people — 46 of them police officers.

The Red Units have garnered a fair amount of media attention recently after the Associated Press reported that they have received support and training from Russia and possibly other foreign nations and are employing American weapons along with night-vision scopes (these are usually Russian made, and possibly procured in Iran’s black markets). Notably, their longtime commander Mullah Shah Wali, also known as Mullah Naser, was killed recently in Helmand thanks to information gained from the Afghan National Interdiction Unit raid on a narcotics facility.

This isn’t the experienced Taliban of the 1990s. At this point, we’ve killed off all of the group’s senior leaders and anyone else who was relevant when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. The “new” Taliban is led by young, inexperienced commanders who have essentially transformed the organization into a narco-terrorist syndicate. Amid a global opioid epidemic, in which the United States is the chief consumer, Afghanistan currently supplies 85% of the world’s opium, accounting for the Taliban’s main source of revenue. “Without drugs, this war would have been long over,” Ghani recently said. “The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”

The new Taliban’s primary goal is keeping control of opium export routes, according to senior intelligence officials. The illicit business is equal to 16% of the nation’s gross domestic product, and although that number is down from 50% in 2004, the amount of land under poppy cultivation has nearly doubled in the same time period.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
A lookout tower on the perimeter of Camp Commando sits in the shadow of the looming mountains just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan.

All of this could lead to what NATO and Afghan forces expect to be a peak in the violence in 2018. Ghani wants to force the Taliban to “fight, fracture, talk” as he puts it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a recent town hall meeting, seconded that idea: “The Afghan government has to … create the conditions to have an inclusive government that allows for participation of all ethnic groups, including the Taliban,” he said.

But as several Afghan military leaders told me, it more accurately boils down to a “reconcile or die” policy.

The Taliban isn’t the only threat that needs to be dealt with. Despite the fact that ISIS has been largely defeated in almost every other country it once occupied, the Afghan offshoot, ISIS-K lives on. That said, intelligence officials I spoke to describe ISIS-K as a force with no support in the country — even from the Taliban. In fact, some ISIS-K members are said to be ex-Taliban trying to execute a power play against their former organization. That’s a net plus for NATO forces.

Stepped up operations by the Afghan military will likely lead to an increase in American casualties as well. Especially with the troops from 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) embedding with conventional ANA forces, who aren’t as highly vetted or trained as the Afghan commando units who have taken on much of the fighting.

If the conventional Afghan army has not proven to be as successful as their commando counterparts, that may be in part because they have not had the benefit of 15 years of the most elite ranks of the American military training them. But the issues with the army, which break down to six geographically dispersed corps, go deeper than just training deficiencies. The ANA faces high desertion rates, and is also plagued by illiteracy, corruption, drug abuse, and a general lack of discipline — often the result of inconsistent pay and logistical issues that often leave Afghan soldiers in need of medical supplies and food in certain areas. Conventional ANA soldiers are often heard complaining about the lack of government support while they are fighting for their lives.

A problem the Department of Defense has tried to ignore for years is the custom of turning children, specifically young boys, into sex slaves. There have only been 16 reported cases since 2010, but many have alleged that the problem is more common than reported and that a system should be put in place to facilitate victims coming forward. Afghan law has also been updated to clearly address the issue, which had drawn increasing criticism in the West and clearly presents a problem for coalition partners.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan commando sniper trains at a range on Camp Commando, Afghanistan.

These issues have improved over the years, and more recently the country’s leadership has started to oust legacy holdovers from the pre-Taliban days from the senior ranks. Ghani has asked over 150 ANA commanders to retire, including five out of the six corps commanders. This allows younger, more experienced and generally less corrupt military leadership to rise to senior positions. It will take time for the effects of those changes to be fully realized, but the Afghan security forces will need to step up quickly in the face of increasing violence. The Afghan military is authorized 352,000 personnel, but is only currently at 336,000. The recent Afghanistan Nationwide Quarterly Assessment Research survey, by D3 Systems and ACSOR Surveys shows a 5% increase in Afghans who say they would never join the ANP (39% to 44%). “No one addresses the problems of soldiers when they are injured, killed or surrounded (by insurgents),” Afghan MP Abdul Wadood Paiman explained. “These are things that soldiers are facing.”

Despite the expectation for increased violence, the rate of casualties per operation is down according to one U.S. intelligence official speaking on background. If the 1st SFAB is successful in their train and advise mission, and if they can keep Afghan morale high and continue to drop the casualties per operation— that may be enough to overcome lackluster accessions numbers.

The U.S. military strategy finally makes sense.

Inside NSOCC-A headquarters in Bagram, Afghanistan, a large sign in the entryway reads “The cautious seldom err.” It’s a quote from Chinese philosopher Confucius, and its presence got me thinking as I sat on the couch in the waiting area: Was it a nod to special operations soldiers who often take calculated risks in the pursuit of a successful mission? Or perhaps a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the many ill-considered decisions on the part of U.S. policymakers that have contributed to the current situation, and a reminder to do better?

At this point in the war, just about everything has been tried — both cautious and incautious. But many forget that the strategy in Afghanistan was actually showing promise before we became distracted with Iraq, and definitely before we decided to send over 100,000 troops to the country.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan Special Forces soldier converses with his American Special Forces counterparts.

We started this war the right way. Guys with beards who rode horses into battle and worked by, through, and with Afghans saw real success in a short period of time with an incredible economy of force. Back then, you didn’t have to worry about “green on blue” attacks; our Northern Alliance partners literally risked their lives to shield Americans from enemy fire.

We threw in a few American commandos to do a bit of head hunting, but the overall footprint was relatively small. And it worked.

The turning point came in 2009, when the status of forces agreement went into effect in Iraq, essentially ending offensive operations in that country. Unfortunately, we were drunk on combat and looking for the after-party.

Enter the conventionalization of the war in Afghanistan; or how America lost its mind somewhere along the Silk Road. For some reason, we thought putting a fire team on every street corner in Afghanistan — a country that had been repelling foreigners for millennia — would be a sure path to victory. The result? The highest friendly casualties in the entire war.

Courtesy photo
The author’s platoon on a mission in Afghanistan, 2009.

I was there for part of that period. Sure, I had a blast going out every night with a high-performing strike force that was operating at the peak of American special operations in Afghanistan. We regularly captured or killed high value targets at the upper levels of the Taliban and Haqqani network. But I could never quite reconcile the overall strategy of pouring so many conventional troops into the country. When I came home in December of 2009, it didn’t feel like the violence was winding down. Little did I know that 2010 would be the war’s deadliest year yet.

Having huge numbers of conventional forces in Afghanistan didn’t make sense to me then, and it doesn’t make sense to me now. Which is why I was reassured by the fact that I never saw platoons of conventional troops rolling out the gates on this return trip.

NATO troops are largely relegated to their bases while executing the train, advise, assist mission, I was told. The exception are a handful of Special Forces Operational Detachments – Alpha (ODA) who accompany Afghan commando units on offensive operations, as well as a small counterterror task force that only comes out for the most sensitive missions.

I was skeptical of those claims until I heard Special Forces soldiers complaining in the chow hall about not getting to go out as much as they would like. The conventional soldiers that I interacted with were relegated to the bases they lived on. It seemed their main purpose was pulling “guardian angel” duty, which meant providing force protection for American trainers and advisors as they went about their duties. No matter where I went in the country, large convoys — an everyday staple of the war in years past — were nowhere to be seen.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An American Special Forces NCO tasked with advising Afghan Special Forces soldiers just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Was it true that American service members were actually just … training and advising? The available evidence suggests that we have in fact scaled back our involvement to only supporting the Afghans in fighting their own war.  

That said, even training and advising carries risks — a fact I was reminded of during my visit. The news of Sgt. 1st Class Stephen B. Cribben, a Special Forces communications sergeant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, spread like wildfire through the special operations camp I was staying on early in my trip. He was killed on his way back from a mission accompanying Afghan Commando’s in Logar Province on Nov. 4, 2017. This was his second deployment to Afghanistan, and he left behind a wife and two young sons.

It was not lost on me that I was hearing about another American killed in Afghanistan almost eight years to the day after the man in whose memory I now wear a black bracelet every day was also killed in action there. But that was a different war.

Back then, we deployed more than 100,000 conventional forces across the country. The fighting was fierce for all involved, and Afghan troops, largely disregarded as incompetent, were a mere afterthought during American led military operations. All told, 496 Americans died in 2010 — one every 18 hours and 17 times the number killed in 2002. That didn’t stop then-Vice President Joe Biden from announcing that the U.S. would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 “come hell or high water.”

It seems that we have now endured both and come full circle. If we remain committed to our original approach, success is at least possible.

Afghan special operations forces are the country’s best hope.

I spent a lot of time with Afghan special operations troops at Camp Commando, positioned strategically just southwest of Kabul, which is where the 14-week selection and training course for all prospective commandos is located. As a point of reference, the last time I was around commandos was 2009; we only had a few of them attached to our strike force and they were never trusted to do anything more than pull security.

To say they have come a long way would be an understatement. The commandos I met this time around had the look of experienced special operators; they carried themselves confidently, appeared physically fit, and talked about the tactics they were teaching with all the hard-won confidence that you’d expect to hear from an American NCO. The commando NCOs I talked to usually had between five and 10 years of experience, and had seen more than their fair share of combat in that time.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan commando NCO looks on as his troops train at a range on Camp Commando.

Their training was almost entirely Afghan-led — the only American I saw instructing was a retired mortarman who now teaches the mortar specialty course for newly graduated commandos. This is an important indicator of the Afghan army’s potential for self-sufficiency. At some point, the hope is that experienced commando NCOs will help raise standards throughout the entire Afghan military.

I asked Command Sgt. Maj. Said Jalal Sadat, the senior enlisted soldier for the entire Afghan special operations command, about the stiff resistance from the Taliban in the southern part of the country. “They should have been wiped out by now, but they keep coming,” he explained, adding that he and his commandos remain undeterred. “We have high morale to kill a lot of enemy.”

His resolve was consistent with that of every other commando I spoke with, whether students or seasoned veterans of the special operations kandaks. Many were blunt about the Taliban’s future prospects. “They don’t have any choice,” Sadat said. “They either need to put their weapons down and surrender, or face the commandos… and the commandos will destroy them.”

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
CSM Sadat in his office at Camp Commando, Afghanistan.

And that’s just what they have been doing. Afghan commandos are planning and leading 70% of the offensive operations — many of them unilaterally with their own Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance platforms and their own special operations aviation assets in support — despite only making up 7% of the force. They boast a 97% retention rate, in stark contrast to the Afghan military as a whole, which has had desertion rates as high as 35%.

There is no discussion of going back to an American-led combat strategy. After years of throwing U.S. tax dollars at corrupt officials without success, the Afghans themselves are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of this mission now — as they should have always been.

To pull it off, units like the commandos, the elite Special Missions Wing, and the General Command of Police Special Units have announced plans to double their forces in the next four years. That said, there are five truths that American special operations units ascribe to, two of which would seem to apply here: Quality is better than quantity, and special operations forces cannot be mass produced.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
Afghan commandos-in-training run through drills in the shoot house on Camp Commando, Afghanistan.

Doubling in four years will be a challenge, and success will largely depend on how the Afghans go about the process. The commandos recently commandeered an entire mobile strike kandak, which is approximately the size of a battalion, and are putting the whole unit through the 14-week commando selection and training course. The unit has fared better than previous classes — likely because everyone in it had already served in combat together.

That said, one metric about the 14-week commando selection and training course stood out to me: there is a 90% pass rate. That’s high for a special operations selection, and could indicate that the commandos have more in common with U.S. Marines than U.S. special operations forces and that increasing the size of the force so rapidly might therefore be feasible.

Expansion of competent Afghan special operations units is not an indicator that the American commitment is drawing to a close. Indeed, as part of Trump’s new strategy for the country, we have committed to a significant increase in troop levels with an emphasis on additional trainers. According to the military officials I spoke with, the new troops will be primarily coming from the U.S. Army’s newly formed and controversial 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigades. Their goal is to replicate the success seen with Afghan SOF in the conventional Afghan military. It’s a tall order but a logical step, as the Afghan National Army still needs a lot of help before it can stand on its own.

We can’t kill our way to stability.

A solid military strategy alone won’t bring stability to Afghanistan.

Right now, over 50% of the local population is under the age of 19, and 39.1% is considered impoverished. The country’s GDP is ranked 207th in the world and grew at a rate of only 2% in 2016. That’s a lot of young, impressionable kids with nothing to lose and every reason to earn a living through illicit means or to join an insurgency.

And the problem is only going to get worse. Afghanistan’s population is swelling at an unsustainable rate in relation to its economic growth. When the United States invaded in 2001 the population was approximately 21 million people; today it sits at about 35 million. For anyone hoping to disrupt the Taliban’s force generation model, this is very bad news. The Taliban’s opium trade accounts for 400,000 jobs alone — more than are employed by the ANDSF.

If the success of Afghanistan’s economy directly impacts America’s ability to combat violent extremists and pursue our vital national interests, then why aren’t we importing more goods from the country? According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Afghanistan was the United States’ 148th largest supplier of imports in 2016, totaling only $34 million in 2016 (a 43% improvement over 2015 but 26% the amount in 2006).

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Afghan commando NCO corrects trainees conducting shoot house training, which teaches soldiers how to enter and clear a building properly.

A large reason for these lackluster numbers is the absence of a free trade agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. The idea has been debated by U.S. legislators multiple times since the initial invasion without notable progress.

Another area of concern is the country’s rampant corruption. According to the SIGAR, Ghani vowed to “account for every penny of American assistance to his government.” He recently suspended a $134.9 million contract after a corruption investigation that exposed bribery.

According to Lt. Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami, the acting minister of defense, 331 suspects in the Afghan National Army have been detained on corruption charges.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Afghans who have a corruption problem. Multiple American soldiers and civilians have also been charged, mainly with accepting bribes. In one bizarre instance, U.S. Army Spc. Kenneth Blevins was charged and sentenced to 51 months of confinement and the repayment of $289,276 for smuggling DFAC food off base to be sold on the black market.

Neither corruption nor a stagnant economy will be effectively addressed with military power. Such issues are best handled by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Trump administration has proposed a 30% cut to the State Department budget, and the office for long term strategy in Afghanistan was recently shut down.

Ultimately, the United States will not be successful in Afghanistan unless Afghans themselves care enough to fight for stability. If everyday citizens can now imagine their lives improving in the future and are committed to making it happen, then that is more important than military strategy, anti-corruption initiatives, counter-narcotics operations or bombing campaigns.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
A young boy wears his father’s new tan beret at a special forces graduation ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Despite how Americans view the situation in Afghanistan, those who live there struck me as somewhat optimistic. “We have some good news,” Mohammed Amin said in an interview. Amin is 25 years old, lives in Kabul, and sports a pair of Oakley sunglasses everywhere he goes. He told me there are problems in his country, but he feels good about the president and the increased educational opportunities. “I think Afghanistan is going to be a good place.”

In some ways, they’re already ahead of us: Their congress actually passed a budget.

According to results from the recent Afghanistan Nationwide Quarterly Assessment Research Survey, 62% of Afghans are satisfied with their current quality of life, up from 57% the year prior. And despite the violence, Kabul is now the fifth fastest-growing city in the world. Additionally, the treatment of women is steadily improving, and Afghanistan now has more women in senior positions in government than any other time in its history.

Meanwhile, education has improved for most Afghans — and access to information is growing — further bolstering a sense of national identity. The wide availability of accurate information and decrease in extremist propaganda is an important step in countering Taliban recruiting efforts.

Task & Purpose photo by Marty Skovlund Jr.
An Mi-17 pilot with the Afghan Air Force’s elite Special Missions Wing. This pilot bears a scar on his cheek from a recent “hot” infil to deliver Afghan commandos to a target.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of Afghanistan. The violence will get worse before it gets better, and we won’t get the win we may have expected when we first invaded years ago. We’re going to have a presence in the country for a long time — and yes, if my 3-year-old daughter makes the decision to join up some day, there’s a good chance she’ll end up serving in the same provinces I did. She may even come home wearing a black bracelet on her wrist in memory of a friend.

I can’t deny that a lot has changed since the last time I was in Afghanistan though. The newest generation of Afghans is better equipped to lead their country to stability than their parents. They are eager to stand on their own feet, and that might well happen if they continue to have a partner in NATO. It will take decades; the results we hope to achieve are not possible without a long term commitment. But one thing seems clear: Afghans are motivated to take back their country, and talented enough to pull it off.