By Scott Taylor
Last Tuesday, a senior U.S. military official gave some startling testimony before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. According to Lieutenant-General Kenneth McKenzie, the current rate of battlefield casualties among the Afghan security forces is “unsustainable” in the ongoing conflict with the Taliban.
While the Kabul regime no longer publishes exact casualty numbers, it is estimated that the Afghan Army is losing at least 500 soldiers killed and hundreds more wounded every month.
In an earlier statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani admitted that between 2015 and the present, over 28,000 Afghan troops have been killed in battle.
At present, the U.S. maintains a force of 14,000 – mostly elite Special Forces and aircrew – in Afghanistan. McKenzie told the Senate Committee that without this U.S. commitment the Afghan security forces would be crushed in no time. “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country”, McKenzie testified.
This U.S. general believes that what is required is more training and more equipment for the Afghan security forces, and most importantly more time for these Afghans to become a self-sufficient military force. Unfortunately, McKenzie could not predict or even give a reasonable estimate as to how long this international commitment will be required.
To put a little perspective on this latest assessment we need to remind ourselves that seventeen years ago, in December 2001, the U.S. declared that they had defeated the Taliban.
A corrupt unelected regime of former warlords was then installed in Kabul and the Americans called on their allies to help rebuild a post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to which Canada contributed a sizeable contingent, was only ever meant to be an interim measure to maintain order until the Afghan security forces were trained and equipped to self-sufficiency.
Along the way, objectives got blurred, the Taliban re-emerged, the insurgency flared up, and ISAF troops – including Canadians – found themselves fighting and dying to prop up the most corrupt regime on the planet.
For some reason no one in our senior military leadership – not even U.S. LGen McKenzie – has figured out that what the Afghan security forces lack is not training or equipment. The missing ingredient is motivation.
There is no question that Afghans are fierce and determined fighters. The Taliban have been waging a bloody David versus Goliath campaign with a heroic determination that would be applauded were we not in Goliath’s camp. To date, a force of illiterate Afghan fighters with small arms and improvised explosive devices have been able to withstand the most technologically advanced military alliance ever deployed to a battlefield.
The one category in which the allied command structure has been consistent is there inability to correctly assess the true situation on the ground.
In December 2013, I interviewed Major-General Dean Milner at the ISAF base in Kabul. At that juncture, Canadian troops were winding down their three-year training mission, and Milner considered our work to be a success. “We have built that [Afghan security] force to those numbers and with the professional capability to beat the Taliban”, said Milner.
Whoops. Five years later that security force is taking unsustainable casualties at the hands of a Taliban that was pronounced defeated seventeen years ago.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that Canadian generals and historians cannot grasp what has actually transpired. One prime example of this is a book written by Major-General David Fraser, which was released earlier this year. The title is Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban.
According to L Gen McKenzie’s testimony, that battle to save Afghanistan has yet to be fought and the Taliban remain a very clear and present danger.
Similarly delusional was a statement by historian David Bercuson in an article written in a recent Legion magazine. The gist of Bercuson’s op-ed was a comparison of Canada’s current policy of maintaining a series of penny packet military deployments – Mali, Latvia, Iraq, Ukraine and Romania, versus the good old days when we had all of our combat eggs in a basket called Kandahar.
Bercuson wrote of the Afghan mission; “It will be up to the historians and political scientists to show, over time, whether there was any merit to that approach.”
I personally do not think we need any more time to pass to conclude that we failed in Afghanistan. What we need is a full parliamentary inquiry into how it was that our political and military leadership could have gotten it so wrong for so long. The sacrifice of our soldiers to a cause that could not be ‘won’ demands answers in order to prevent a future fiasco.
Re-writing history will not change the truth. We lost the war.