Meet the Believers: The Afghanistan War’s US Commanders are Ready For a Reboot

Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, visited newly arrived A-10s at Kandahar Air Field, Sat. Jan. 27, 2018.

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Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, visited newly arrived A-10s at Kandahar Air Field, Sat. Jan. 27, 2018.

What's different this time? New rules, new plan, new firepower, new hope.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – There’s a new faith among the latest U.S. generals who have come to win the war in Afghanistan, but plenty of old realities. U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel, who is overseeing the Trump administration’s Afghanistan War reboot, came here to see its beginning and its promise of victory, with newly arriving squadrons of attack jets, howitzer cannons, and hundreds of specialized and experienced U.S. troops.

Just hours earlier, the 4-star distinguished visitor had been in Kabul discussing those plans at the Afghan Ministry of Defense when a suicide attacker detonated a massive car bomb disguised in an ambulance. Welcome back to the war.

The blast, which killed at least 100 and injured 235 more, was blocks from Operation Resolute Support headquarters, so close that some the general’s staff heard it. As the compound locked down, troops and civilians from a dozen countries came scrambling out of the dining hall, weapons in tow. Others exchanged concerned glances. But most just told stories, complained about being stuck, and kept on eating lunch. After 16 years, you get used to some things.

In Washington, there are few believers in the Afghanistan War. In Kandahar, there is a veritable church for it. The sermon may sound a little too familiar — another strategy shift, another surge of forces, another insistence that this time the end really is in sight — but the preachers say they are armed with new rules, a new plan, new firepower, and new hope.

“I’m a believer,” said Col. Stephen “Joker” Jones, who flew a Predator drone providing intel to the B-2 stealth bomber strike that hit this very airfield on Oct.  7, 2001 at the beginning of the war, then later flew B-1 Lancer missions over Afghanistan, and before going back to flying drones. Now he is commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group, in charge of the airfield at Kandahar and all Air Force flying operations here. “This country has defined my career. This is what I’ve done with my entire adult life,” Jones told reporters visiting the airfield with Gen. Votel. “I’m here for a year. I fully expect to come back. And that’s totally fine with me.”

Joker’s serious. And eager. He sits at the deployed end of a string of officers with the same faith, a string that runs back through Kabul, Votel’s CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s Pentagon suite, and all the way to the Oval Office. All are convinced that President Donald Trump’s new “South Asia strategy” can work.

“This country has defined my career. This is what I’ve done with my entire adult life.”

Here’s why: Up to now, as senior U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan see things, they’ve never really had the chance to win. As they see it, past years have brought only fits and starts on the battlefield and in the Situation Room, troop surges that won hard-fought gains and drawdowns that gave them up again, early overestimations of Afghan capabilities and more recent failures to build on successes. But now, they say, they have the strongest and most capable Afghan force they’ve worked with, led by a combat-seasoned generation of Afghan senior officers and NCOs. And they say that Trump’s plan gives them permission to wage a sustained, offensive air and ground campaign against what’s left of the Taliban. Afghanistan, they believe, finally has a chance to win.

“The greatest part of the South Asia plan is that it created hope,” said Col. Tobin Magsig commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. “And hope’s a powerful force.” But the Kandahar-based commander has cautious hope. Magsig said Afghanistan’s corruption remains a top problem. Another concern is ensuring that economic progress matches up with security progress. If economic recovery comes too slowly, people get upset and could return to violence and insurgent groups. If it comes too soon, new buildings, roads, organizations will become targets of an active enemy.

Lately, the entire city of Kabul is the target. Saturday’s bombing, which followed an assault on the Intercontinental Hotel, was the city’s second major attack in three weeks. Any time the Taliban resorts to suicide attacks and car bombs, Pentagon officials always explain it away as a sign the enemy is desperate and losing face-to-face battles to gain territory. That may be a true, if unsatisfying answer. At the Pentagon on Friday, Mattis called the ambulance bombing a case in point. This kind of attack was to be expected, he said, as Afghan forces stepped up their defenses and repelled the Taliban’s attempts to invade and overtake cities.

“We anticipated that as they got blunted in trying to seize towns and dominate them that they would increase their efforts to murder innocent people, as a way to stay relevant in their minds, Mattis said. “It’s probably not the way to win the love, affection, or support of the Afghan people, obviously. And so, we anticipated this. There were a lot of steps taken and some were very successful at blocking some of these — we know we’ve stopped some, caught them, killed them, arrested them, whatever. Some have gotten through, tragically. But we anticipated this, as they were rebuffed.”

Related: America’s Longest War—and the Ally That Fuels It

Before he retired, Mattis held Votel’s job as CENTCOM commander. Last year, he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, formerly the top Marine Corps commander in the region and later the commanding general in Afghanistan, took Votel’s recommendations and with the White House crafted the new plan for Trump to approve. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly pointed to the Trump administration’s September roll-out of the “South Asia strategy,” like it’s their new bible.

“I think this gives us a different approach and it gives us a better way of focusing on this,” Votel said last week, explaining why Americans should give him, and this iteration of the war plan, a chance.

In a weekend visit to Kabul and Kandahar, senior military leaders who were lined up to meet with reporters traveling with Votel pointed to four key factors:

First, the leash is off. Since 2014, when President Barack Obama declared the end of combat operations, the U.S. military basically has been restricted to defending against Taliban attacks. No more. The coalition has new U.S. attack planes, ground groups, a target list, and the authorities to strike them.

“This is all part of our overarching strategy to continue to put pressure on the Taliban until they realize they’ve basically got a binary choice: they can negotiate and reconcile, or live in irrelevance and die,” said Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, who directs future operations at Resolute Support headquarters and is the lead for the strategic air campaign. “We’ll continue to go until the Taliban reconcile.”

Related: The US Air War in Afghanistan Is Nearing Surge-Era Intensity

In Kandahar, Votel walked among the tangible evidence of this new aggressive posture: the return of A-10 Warthog attack jets. With their iconic fang-teeth nose art, the jets are a physical manifestation of the American military’s new marching orders. Within hours of arriving on base, the squadron began flying sorties — 40 as of last weekend —to provide close air support to Afghan National Army and U.S. special operations forces in the area. They’ve already been giving everything they’ve got: bombs, rockets, and yes, that famous Gatling gun, said Lt. Col. Todd “Riddler” Riddle, the squadron commander, who has been flying missions here since 2002.

“They can negotiate and reconcile, or live in irrelevance and die.”

They sit on an air base that looks nearly desolate, a far cry from the bustling hub it was at the war’s peak. Parts of it feel like a ghost town whose lights are coming back on, returning to life like the robots in HBO’s Westworld.

Alongside the A-10s are some of the dozen A-29 Super Tucano light attack airplanes that began arriving here in 2016. They carry 250-lb or 500-lb bombs well past Kandahar into the northern provinces.

“That is a huge capability for the Afghan Air Force that did not exist just a couple years ago,” said one colonel. In all, manufacturers Sierra Nevada Corporation and Brazil’s Embraer are expected to deliver 26 A-29s to the Afghan force. And they are just part of the  – finally – growing Afghan air fleet dotting the flight line. AC-208 Combat Caravan light attack planes first arrived in 2010, MD-530F Cayuse Warrior light helicopters in 2013, A-29s in 2016, and UH-60 Black Hawks just last year.

All of it is backed up by increasingly active American B-52s, F-18s, and F-16s. “It is a significant plus-up,” Bunch said. And even more aircraft are arriving from the ISIS war in Iraq and Syria: JSTARS, Rivet Joints, and tankers flying from al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

“The fact of the matter is with the liberation of ISIS, the ISIS caliphate in Iraq, and over 90 percent of it, 95 percent of it liberated in Syria, the nature of the fight is different right now,” Votel said. “It’s an opportunity for us to begin to shift resources and make sure General Nicholson has what he needs, has a leg up to do what he needs to do as he implements the strategy, here.”

As the general’s bus rolls past vacant hangars, barracks, and office space once used by British forces, the colonel says, “My vision for this compound is the Afghan Fort Rucker,” a reference to the U.S. Army’s main helicopter training base. “So, we have enough space here for classrooms, simulators, and maintenance training.” There are three phases of UH-60 pilot training; already, two classes of Afghans graduated the first phase. Mission qualification training is phase two: a 10-week course with 16 students coming in February, including 10 pilots who went through courses at the real Fort Rucker. By May, the U.S. will have 16 Afghan Black Hawk pilots and 16 maintainers here.

It doesn’t compare to the F-16s that roar continuously off the runways of Bagram, north of Kabul. But it’s the kind of sustained Afghan air power that the U.S. has sought for years.

Air strikes are already underway targeting the Taliban’s financial and drug networks, just as the anti-ISIS campaign targeted oil production, banks, and cash stores in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. literally bombed warehouses of cash, sending paper flying into the sky. Bunch said the Afghan version may be more akin to operations in Colombia, which targeted the FARC’s mobile and hidden drug labs, revenue, and leadership. In Iraq and Syria, there were few oil facilities. In Afghanistan, there are 400 to 500 suspected drug labs. Bunch said there is a “deep process” to ensure that which locations to strike are “military targets.” Even so, Bunch said, “If it’s an illicit enterprise or an enterprise that’s providing funding to the Taliban and the insurgency, I’m going to target it.”

As well, there is the impending arrival of the Army’s first Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, a special unit of experienced, top-rated soldiers assembled and deployed to train foreign forces. They are set to arrive this spring, bringing two battalions and enormous expectations to this area. The SFABs have been dogged by critics before they even get off the ground. Some say they’re not elite, they’re just trainers. Some argue that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s plan to establish six SFABs — meant to provide some relief for special operations forces, stability to the personnel system, and stop fielding ad-hoc counterterrorism units 17 years into the 9/11 era — will steal all of the good talent, and “glitter gear,” from the regular army. Some just think it’s tilting at windmills.

“Yeah, I think that’s vastly overstated” by the media, said Mattis, at the Pentagon last week. “I talked to Gen. Votel and Gen. Milley at length about this.” The secretary said he is going to visit the first SFAB troops soon, before they deploy. “I’ve seen the training regimes, first of all — the quality of these troops, in terms of their experience and selection. And second, their training gives me a lot of confidence.”

Commanders at Kandahar here can’t wait for the SFABs. So far, Americans have had to go out from the base to forward locations for about 10 to 14 days, train Afghans, check on them, help with shorter operations, but then come back to base. It’s been two steps forward, one step back. Instead, the SFAB will send U.S. advisor troops to stay in those forward locations, out on point “at the lowest level” of Afghan unit, or kandaks, said Votel.

“They are absolutely paramount,” said Col. Magsig.

A fourth factor is the Afghans, whom senior military leaders have said proved their mettle in 2017, driving back wave after wave of Taliban attempts to seize city centers.

“It’s like the Afghan troops took heart. The government took heart,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. The secretary said as the threat has shifted to the cities, the U.S. now is “working hard to train up people for the kind of urban-protective tactics they need.”

But can they do it? Afghan forces will remain reliant upon the U.S. for intelligence, logistics, and air support for years to come. The history is not good. For years, Afghan soldier recruits were filled with illiterate, poorly nourished, and undereducated men with little loyalty to the national government. Lt. Col. Richard P. Taylor, who leads the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Kandahar, insists that times – and Afghan troops – have changed. “These guys, they get after the enemy now,” he said. “There’s no more cowering.”

Taylor is on his ninth deployment. “It’s a very big difference from when I was a second lieutenant in 2002.” Afghanistan’s senior military leaders have 15 years of experience, he said, and the Afghan NCOs he’s worked with are good.

“Most of the Afghans we talk to, they’re zealots. They’re in it to win it,” Magsig said. “They say, ‘We can win this.’”

Win — that’s a word that U.S. generals in Afghanistan only recently have started to use again. And in the days Votel was in-country and back home, before Trump’s new plan really even gets a chance to begin, the disbelievers already are speaking up.

For Votel, Afghanistan is one country in a region where the U.S. must stay. “This area matters to us, because we have vital interests. Whether those vital interests are protecting the homeland, securing our own prosperity, the prosperity of our partners here, through freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce. This is an area that is troubled, there are weapons of mass destruction here, so we have concerns of — stability in this particular area, I think, is very, very important,” he said, in Jordan last week.

“And the people in this part of the world want to be aligned with us, they want to be in a relationship with the United States. They recognize what we stand for and who we are, and so they want to be our partners. And so, I think this is a vital area, whether it’s threat of terrorism, concerns to our navigation or the role that Iran is playing to this, or weapons of mass destruction in this area, I think these are all concerns – these all fit into vital national interests for our country, and that drives our necessity to be engaged in this part of the world.”

At the Pentagon, four days later, skeptical reporters asked Votel’s boss whether things in Afghanistan will get worse before they get better.

“No, our intention is that it will not get worse,”  Mattis replied, “but this is war, they’re murdering innocent people, and criminals, as you know, can do things.”

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