Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
Like The Energizer Bunny, The Fight Against ISIS And The Taliban Keeps Going, And Going, And Going
As 2018 draws to a close, there is precious little evidence that your humble Pentagon correspondent can cite as progress in the U.S. military’s efforts to annihilate ISIS and force the Taliban to negotiate peace with the Afghan government.
The United States’ Kurdish and Arab allies in Syria have failed to crush ISIS’ enclave in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, in part because Turkey has made it clear it will not accept a Syrian Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are “not losing” in Afghanistan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said in November. Even retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Jedi Knight of counterinsurgency, couldn’t come up with a better plan than, “Keep a limited number of forces there and just kind of muddle along.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. military’s official position is that things are not as bleak as this reporter sees them. ISIS still controls less territory now than it did at the start of 2018, and the Taliban agreed to a temporary cease fire with the Afghan government for the first time ever, Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told Task & Purpose.
“We are closer now than ever before to a political settlement with the Taliban,” said Army Maj. Maj. Bariki Mallya, a spokesman for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
However, no one is celebrating victory either. The Marine three-star general who has been nominated to lead U.S. Central Command recently told lawmakers that ISIS will continue to have a presence in Syria for some time.
“The enduring defeat of ISIS is not going to be the absence of ISIS,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said at his Dec. 5 confirmation hearing. “ISIS, if defeated in the lower Euphrates river valley, is going to transition to an insurgency, and there are going to be continued attacks from ISIS and derivatives of ISIS both in the region and really globally.
“Our goal would be that those attacks, typically, would be of an intensity and a scope where they’d be able to be contained by local forces that would not necessarily require our assistance. It’s getting to that point, but I want to emphasize that – for a while – it won’t be pretty; it won’t be silent; there will be pockets that are going to continue to crop up.”
McKenzie also estimated the Taliban had 60,000 fighters, but analyst Bill Roggio puts the Taliban’s strength at more than 100,000. To put those figures in perspective: The Red Army faced 82,300 full-time fighters out of a total force of 173,000 Mujahedeen by the end of 1988, according to Soviet historian Maj. Gen. Alexander Antonovich Lyakhovsky. (Remember when we laughed at the Russians for spending a decade in Afghanistan? That seems like the Gulf War compared to the current conflicts.)
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, is trying to strike a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government – which the Taliban refuse to recognize.
“There is an opportunity for reconciliation and peace,” Khalilzad said in October. “All sides now need to organize themselves to seize the potential opportunity to put Afghanistan on the path towards a political settlement and reconciliation and an end to the war.”
But NBC has reported that Khalilzad is moving quickly because State and Defense Department officials believe President Trump plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential elections.
When asked about the story, an administration official did not elaborate on what the president’s future plans for Afghanistan are, telling Task & Purpose: “We are constantly refining and adjusting our strategy with the ultimate objective of reaching a political settlement that ends the conflict and ensures the country never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.”
To get an outsider’s perspective of what’s going well and what’s not, your friend and humble Pentagon correspondent reached out to retired Col. Steve Leonard, a former Army strategist and author of the “Doctrine Man” cartoon.
Overall, the U.S. military is doing a better job fighting ISIS than it is the Taliban, said Leonard, who teaches at the University of Kansas’ business school.
The fact that ISIS remains contained in a small pocket inside Syria is a success in itself, especially when compared with how much territory the terrorist group controlled a couple of years ago, he said.
“The problem with ISIS is that we're down to trying to kill an idea, and what's left of them probably won't give up alive,” Leonard told Task & Purpose. “They don't really represent much of a threat at this point, so would it be wiser to contain what's left and focus efforts elsewhere? I also think that a clearer understanding of the broader regional strategy might be helpful, and ISIS is only one part of that.”
When it comes to Afghanistan, it seems that no one can say what the U.S. strategy is anymore, Leonard said. The main rationale why the U.S. military has remained has been to prevent terrorists from re-establishing their base in the country, yet terrorists have their pick of developing nations that would serve their purposes just as well.
If the United States is committed to helping Afghanistan become responsible for its own security, then leaders need to examine how much such an enterprise would cost in terms of money, people, and time, he said.
“We have the resources, but it would take generations to achieve a secure, stable, self-sufficient state, with Taliban opposition throughout,” Leonard said. “Remove the Taliban and you might save yourself a generation.”
“Rather than ask why we haven't made progress against the Taliban in the past year, ask what would be different if we left Afghanistan today or 10 years from today,” he continued. “Probably not much.”
Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 13 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P;, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at email@example.com or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.
NASA is reportedly investigating one of its astronauts in a case that appears to involve the first allegations of criminal activity from space.
Hackers could have breached US bioterrorism defenses for years, records show. We'll never know if they did
The Department of Homeland Security stored sensitive data from the nation's bioterrorism defense program on an insecure website where it was vulnerable to attacks by hackers for over a decade, according to government documents reviewed by The Los Angeles Times.
The data included the locations of at least some BioWatch air samplers, which are installed at subway stations and other public locations in more than 30 U.S. cities and are designed to detect anthrax or other airborne biological weapons, Homeland Security officials confirmed. It also included the results of tests for possible pathogens, a list of biological agents that could be detected and response plans that would be put in place in the event of an attack.
The information — housed on a dot-org website run by a private contractor — has been moved behind a secure federal government firewall, and the website was shut down in May. But Homeland Security officials acknowledge they do not know whether hackers ever gained access to the data.
The State Department doesn't really care if its human rights training for partner security forces is working or not
By law, the United States is required to promote "human rights and fundamental freedoms" when it trains foreign militaries. So it makes sense that if the U.S. government is going to spend billions on foreign security assistance every year, it should probably systematically track whether that human rights training is actually having an impact or not, right?
Apparently not. According to a new audit from the Government Accountability Office, both the Departments of Defense and State "have not assessed the effectiveness of human rights training for foreign security forces" — and while the Pentagon agreed to establish a process to do so, State simply can't be bothered.
A Kansas VA hospital police supervisor reported 'dangerous' deficiencies among his officers. Now he says he faced retaliation
The Kansas City VA Medical Center is still dealing with the fallout of a violent confrontation last year between one of its police officers and a patient, with the Kansas City Police Department launching a homicide investigation.
And now Topeka's VA hospital is dealing with an internal dispute between leaders of its Veterans Affairs police force that raises new questions about how the agency nationwide treats patients — and the officers who report misconduct by colleagues.
A New Mexico woman was charged Friday in the robbery and homicide of a Marine Corps veteran from Belen late last month after allegedly watching her boyfriend kill the man and torch his car to hide evidence.