Giving Thanks

10 November 2011
Kabul, Afghanistan
 
Pete,

[My personal update is up front. Click here to jump straight to the latest Afghanistan assessment.]
 
Fall has come to Afghanistan. Back home in Minnesota, it’s my favorite season; ushering in falling leaves, weekend football, warm sweatshirts, and the forthcoming crisp winter air. The weather is changing here as well, with chilly nights, frequent rain, and snow on distant mountaintops. It feels foreign to experience “fall” in a warzone—it just doesn’t compute. My previous two deployments were perpetual summers, with yearlong weather patterns cycling between hot, hotter, and hottest. Fall feels like home, yet it has arrived in Afghanistan—with winter close behind. I’m certainly glad to be rid of the heat; it just takes a while to associate the cold with camouflage.
 
Fall also means Thanksgiving—time with family, great food, and expressions of gratitude and thankfulness for life’s blessings. And while formal Thanksgiving dinner is yet to come, the past few weeks here have presented two personal—and sobering—reminders of why we are so blessed to be Americans, and why serving in wartime will likely be the highest honor of my life. War brings tragedy and death, but it also reminds us what really matters, and how fortunate we are to live in a country where brave men and women stand ready to give their lives for our freedoms. I am eternally thankful for those individuals, and grateful for the courage, honor, and selflessness they represent.
 

On October 19th, Staff Sergeant Jorge Oliveira (pictured left) was killed in Afghanistan, struck by an enemy IED while on patrol near the Afghan-Pakistan border. A national guardsman from New Jersey and veteran sheriff’s officer, it was his third deployment. His first tour was with me in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where I had the honor of being his platoon leader. “George” (as everyone called him) was then Specialist Oliveira and he was—without exaggeration—the most reliable, hard working, professional, and good natured member of our platoon. One of the finest soldiers—and men—I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Thousands attended his funeral in a fitting display of patriotism and admiration for a man who lived his entire adult life in the service of others. I only wish I could have been present to pay my respects.
 
Ten days later, one of the deadliest attacks of the 10-year-long war occurred just outside our base. Around mid-day on October 29th, a suicide bomber ran his explosive-laden van into a NATO convoy, killing 17 people, among them ten Americans, one Canadian, and multiple civilians—including two Afghan children. We heard the explosion, and arrived in time to assist with the extraction effort. The scene was dreadful, and there was nothing anyone could have done. Extreme care was taken with each person removed from the wreckage—and every responder did his job honorably. The memorial service was held a few days later, and while I only knew a few of the people in passing, it was a powerful reminder of the cost of war. Sitting in our speaker hall—staring at 14 crosses—I was overwhelmed with sadness, reverence, and a visceral thankfulness for their lives, for their courage, and for their sacrifice.
 
At the memorial service, the chaplain read from Ecclesiastes 3—“A time for everything.” I believe it’s fitting here:

             There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
             a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot;
             a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build;

             a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance,
             a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them;
             a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
             a time to search and a time to give up; a time to keep and a time to throw away;
             a time to tear and a time to mend; a time to be silent and a time to speak;
             a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

 
Like I said, Thanksgiving is not yet here—but the giving of thanks has already come to Afghanistan. I could not be more proud of our troops and I give thanks daily that I live in a country that produces such patriots. I hope each and every day to find a significant way to honor their sacrifice. May George, the seventeen, and all those who have given their lives for our country rest in peace and be forever remembered—this, and every, Thanksgiving.
 
It’s hard to transition from that topic, but I will attempt to. Alas, there is time for everything…
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I realize it’s been almost two months since my last update—my apologies, but I assure you it’s for good reason. Last month I returned from mid-tour R & R where I spent a wonderful two weeks with the two most important people in my life—my wife Samantha and son Gunner.  We spent most of it on the beach and eating good food together—soaking up the final sun and waves of the summer and doing my best to recapture receding taste buds. Gunner loves the beach, and became very proficient at dunking his father’s head in the ocean (see photo). The memories of our time together will carry me through the deployment, especially the darkest and dullest moments.
 
We often forget the sacrifice that families make on the home front. Samantha, like countless other military spouses, has put her life on hold for a year—steadfastly serving the country by taking care of our son alone and proving a bedrock of support for a warrior 8,000 miles away. I could not do it without her—and she does it without thanks or fanfare (and would have it no other way). She is but one example, and serves as a personal reminder to me that while the soldiers deploy to challenging, exciting, and dangerous places—spouses, children, siblings, and parents quietly serve (and worry) alongside them at home. I am incredibly thankful for Samantha and all the blue-star and gold-star families who support us.
 
As for our tasks here, our mission has remained largely unchanged—training Afghans and Coalition forces on counterinsurgency principles and best practices. For me, this will include trave
ling to Germany to train NATO allies (train-the-trainer) on counterinsurgency and assisting them in training their forces. Additionally, we recently learned that our training center will transition to Afghan leadership earlier than was previously scheduled; from where I sit, it’s a positive development. At our center—and around Afghanistan—the clock is ticking, and we’re working to ensure the Afghans are a trained and proficient counterinsurgency/counterguerilla force.
 

As I try to do each time, below is brief update on the situation in Afghanistan. After almost six months here, I’ve been able to digest and distill most of the critical elements of our mission. Below is a quick assessment. As opposed to previous updates (here and here) this update is a bit shorter and less dense—but I still encourage you to grab a frosty beverage (preferably barley-based) and enjoy.
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Afghanistan Assessment
 
Afghanistan right now is a battlefield of competing narratives—a “propaganda war” as some have recently called it. The good guys are touting a summer of success, with overall attacks for the first nine months of this year down slightly (roughly 8%) from the same period last year and enemy attacks for the summer “fighting season” down 26% from last summer. On the other side, either by necessity or via a change in strategy, the enemy has shifted from complex and sustained attacks to high-profile targets and hit-and-run IED attacks. So far this year, Taliban and Haqqani insurgents have maintained a steady assassination campaign, increasing attacks on Afghan leaders by 61% (130+ victims) from last year.  Likewise, enemy IED attacks have increased by 22% over the same time period.
 

Some believe these enemy trends are born of a weakened and desperate enemy (“sign of insurgent failure on the battlefield”), while others believe the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have deliberately shifted their focus, as a troop drawdown and transition timeline loom. The reality lies somewhere in the middle, especially since there is also quite a bit of dispute over the accuracy of the above figures. That said, the aggregate numbers matter less to the enemy, as they’re able to rely on a general feeling of intimidation. Conversely, the Coalition relies heavily on statistical improvements in order to demonstrate progress to domestic and international audiences and stakeholders. The metrics are meaningful to us, which causes problems when they are imperfect and, in many ways, conflicting.
 
While “overall attacks” may well be down in 2011, those number clash with a United Nations report showing the total number of “security incidents” actually increasing by 39% in 2011. I’m not normally one to agree with UN assessments, but in this case, their metrics are a better gauge of overall security and stability. The UN counts all security-related incidents, including attacks, reported threats, intimidation, arrests, demonstrations, and assassinations. Coalition statistics only include “violent attacks” against the Coalition, going so far as to exclude many of the political assassinations, as they “may not be insurgent-related.” The Coalition understandably wants to accentuate the positives, but counting only “attacks” doesn’t provide a complete picture—especially in a counterinsurgency environment where the sympathies of the people are the prize.  The population’s perception of security is what matters most, and in that sense all “security incidents” matter.  With a fair reading of the statistics, at best the overall security situation remains largely unchanged; at worst, it may be trending in the wrong direction.

Similarly, while overall attacks are down, regional numbers tell a more mixed story. Violence has decreased appreciably in the North, West, and Southwest of Afghanistan—with the Southwest being a particular success story. The South has seen attacks decrease this summer, but overall violence levels are similar to last year when compared year over year. As you know, the South was the focus of the surge—and while our troops have bravely pushed back the enemy and recaptured physical and human terrain, the enemy has remained resilient. More troubling, the fight in eastern Afghanistan has continued to intensify—with violence in the East increasing between 16-22% this year, depending on the source.
 
Again, this doesn’t mean that the Taliban and Haqqani Network have gained ground or increased their numbers; that is largely not the case, especially in the South where surge forces have been effective in disrupting their safe havens and preventing the enemy’s return. However, insurgents have been able to maintain a grip of fear over the population, perpetuating a perception of strength and a psychological barrier between the Afghan people and their government.
 
As I mentioned earlier, they have accomplished this partly though a series of spectacular attacks—amplified by the media and aimed squarely at U.S. and international political will. Just since I’ve been here, insurgents have attacked the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Kabul (June), killed the most powerful man in Kandahar, President Karzai’s half-brother (July), downed a U.S. helicopter killing two dozen Navy SEALs (August), attacked the British Consulate (August), laid siege to the U.S. Embassy for nineteen-hours (September), assassinated an ex-Afghan President who was also head of the High Peace Council (September), and most recently killed the aforementioned seventeen people in Kabul (October). Similar, smaller attacks are carried out at the district and provincial level every week.
 
Militarily, none of these attacks changed the situation on the ground. The Kabul attacks were mostly ineffective and quickly crushed by Afghan Security Forces, and the casualties caused by the effective attacks—while tragic for all of us—had negligible impact on Coalition operations. The insurgents know that, and don’t care, because their aim is public opinion. And on that front they have been successful—both in Afghanistan and the United States. In fact, U.S. support for the war dropped to an all-time low in October, with just 34% of Americans saying they support the Afghan war. Likewise, Afghans remain skeptical of whether their government and security forces will be strong enough to defeat the insurgency, or at least prevent the country from descending into civil war.
 
To be clear, none of this is inevitable. General Allen is a shrewd commander with an aggressive plan. We are taking the fight to the enemy, brave warriors are killing scores of radicals, and the Afghan Army continues to grow in size and competence. But, as I said before, the clock is ticking. And as it ticks, the following items—outlined briefly below—must be addressed in order to achieve a positive outcome:
 
Pakistan. With haven across the border, the insurgency is literally able to regenerate itself faster than we can degrade it. Likewise, conditions have not yet been made inhospitable for insurgents in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, so insurgents flow back and forth. Insurgent leadership operates openly in many parts of Pakistan, training, equipping, and indoctrinating young fighters to join the so-called “jihad.” Insurgent safe haven in, and support from, Pakistan is the single largest inhibitor to success and stability in Afghanistan.
 
Afghan Government. As I noted in previous emails, few Afghans view the administration of President Karzai favorably—undermining the national government’s ability to be seen as legitimate. More damningly, the government’s ability to project positive influence to the local level remains minimal.  Basic local governmental functions—such as dispute resolution, swift justice, good education, and land management—are going unmet, providing a tailor-made opportunity for the Taliban to fill the void.
 
Taliban. Speaking of the Taliban, they have proven to be a very resilient, adaptive, and ideologically dedicated bunch. They’re not giants, and not liked by most Afghans. But their militants—along with regional shadow governments—remain potent and influential. The way I see it, the Taliban wouldn’t kill the head of the “High Peace Council” unless they felt fairly confident they don’t need to negotiate with the Coalition or Afghan government. We’re killing lots of them, but they still believe time, history, and God is on their side.
 
Timeline. The perception of our pending exit looms ever larger, marginalizing our influence by the day. Afghans are already starting to look through, and past, the Coalition (e.g. Karzai saying he’d side with Pakistan if they went to war with us) and hoarding supplies, weapons, and equipment for whatever is coming next (i.e. “gettin’ while the gettin’s good).
 
Population Response. The people (especially non-Pashtuns) don’t like the Taliban and don’t want them to come back.  But, at the same time, they’re quietly terrified that the Taliban’s return is inevitable (and arming themselves accordingly). I’ve yet to meet a single Afghan who believes the situation here will improve once we leave. My orbit is admittedly limited, but I regularly speak with Coalition and Afghan elements from across the country—mostly mid-to-low-level folks—and the answer is universally the same. Similarly, while impressive tactical gains have been made throughout the South, there is limited evidence that the population in those areas have truly shifted their longer-term allegiance to the Afghan government or security forces.
 
Coalition Warfare. 49 nations are involved in the Coalition—but only a handful contributes on a meaningful scale. This is not to indict the soldiers from the other 40+ countries—most would love to contribute more. Yet, national (political) caveats limit their locations, missions, and activities. These nations therefore become more of a hindrance than an asset; consuming time, energy, and resources that could be spent more effectively. This fact is the worst kept secret in Kabul.
 
Afghan Capabilities. The lack of education and level of ignorance in Afghanistan is staggering. Literally, only 1 in 10 men who join the Afghan National Army can write his own name, and only slightly more can count. Similarly, the origins of our effort here is an enigma to many Afghans.  September 11th is burned in our brains, but is largely unknown to Afghans outside of large cities. That said, Afghans are not dumb—they are savvy, resourceful, and generous people.  But they are also prone to conspiracy theories, propaganda, and rumors. It’s no wonder the Taliban are so effective in using local communications mechanisms to shape the narrative—portraying the war as imperial aggression rather than self-defense and support for democratic governance.
 
Afghan Security Force Viability. In previous emails I’ve discussed this topic in the context of funding and force size. Those critiques remain. However, time has increased my concern about the long-term viability of the force. At a recent press conference, Afghan security forces acknowledged that “their goal is to no longer defeat the insurgency, but to create capable security forces.” Similarly, there is a great deal of doubt—especially at the soldier level where new Afghan combat outposts are being established—whether Afghans will maintain the initiative or just abandon contentious postings when we leave.
 
Similarly, the lack of Afghan urgency is readily on display at our center. At the end of a recent partnered class (meaning both Coalition and Afghan), and following a robust and engaging discussion on insurgent groups, the hand of an Afghan student shot up. I called on him.  He spoke and the interpreter translated—looking very embarrassed.  Sheepishly the interpreter said, “he [the Afghan soldier] wants to know when he can go home [for the day].”  It was 2:00pm.
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Some will say, “Wow, Pete’s gone pessimistic.”  Not true. I believe this war is just and important, and can be turned around. We can’t afford to allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for Islamic terrorists with international ambitions. But turning it around will take drastic measures and no matter what, a difficult and dangerous road lies ahead. Strategic and tactical decisions will soon be made that will impact this 10-year-long war. We will all salute and execute no matter the path, but there is no doubt that larger questions percolate amongst the ranks and have a genuine, day-to-day impact on the mission at hand.
 
Thank you for reading, and for your support. With Veterans Day coming soon, followed by Thanksgiving, I know I echo the thoughts of my fellow veterans that it continues to be our honor to serve this great nation.  I am especially thankful to all of our families back home in Minnesota, and throughout the country, for their constant prayers and encouragement. 
 
Godspeed my friends,


Pete Hegseth


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