Alternative Futures: Assessment of the Afghanistan Bureau 2001-2021
Michael Barr is a military historian and Director of Ronin Research, which specializes in high stress performance improvement. He has 47 years’ experience in close quarter control and combat and is also the Director of the Jiki Ryu Aikijujutsu Association. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Afghanistan Bureau 2001-2021
Date Originally Written: May 30, 2019.
Date Originally Published: September 23, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This assessment paper provides an alternative history and therefore an alternative future to U.S. actions in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This paper is written from the point of view of a staff officer providing an overview of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan from 2001-2021 to an incoming political appointee in the Department of Defense.
Summary: Despite conventional force cries for large troop footprints in Afghanistan following the ousting of the Afghan Taliban in late 2001, the U.S. chose a different route. The combined interagency efforts of U.S. Special Operations Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of State have enabled minimization (not defeat) of threats to U.S. interests in Afghanistan thus enabling the U.S. military to remain prepared for large scale threats posed by Russia and China.
Text: The initial response to the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan after 9/11 involved U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA restored old ties with Afghan tribal leaders in the Northern Alliance. Backed by U.S. air power, the operation toppled the Taliban within two months and leveled the playing field allowing for the aspirations of various tribal leaders.
With these initial operations complete, conventional force proponents argued for a text book counterinsurgency operation using a series of forward operating bases to project force and prop up a weak central government in Kabul. Asymmetric proponents argued for a return to influence and shaping operations and a strategy of stabilization and deterrence. No matter how noble the objective or heroic the effort, the U.S. would not achieve a political victory through a massive intervention that would have a large foreign footprint that even our Afghan allies did not favor. In Afghanistan, the U.S. had something to lose but nothing to gain in the conventional sense. Stability was the objective and that would be better achieved by helping the Afghans fight their own war rather than U.S. troops fight it for them. The more the U.S. efforts were unseen, the better. Instead of fighting a pointless counterinsurgency, a pragmatic strategy of forging relationships necessary to keeping Islamists from developing any significant power base in Afghanistan was pursued.
The Afghanistan Bureau (AFBU) was created as part of U.S. Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), to follow a strategy of realistic, attainable goals, and restricted rules of engagement, with operations calibrated to the Afghan political, cultural, physical, and mental landscapes. AFBU allowed strategy to be custom-tailored to the reality on the ground. As a result AFBU has created stability through an often tedious and contentious negotiation of tribal interests with a minimum use of force. AFBU is primarily an intelligence and influence / shaping organization that makes suggestions and entreaties to various tribal elements. Within AFBU is the Afghan Operations Group (AOG) which includes both FID (foreign internal defense) and UW (unconventional warfare) elements:
- 100 long term advisors from CIA, SOF, and the Department of State are embedded at the tribal leadership level.
- A fluctuating number of specialists rotate through AOG based on tribal requests and advisor observations. These specialists have included military trainers, civil affairs, engineers, teachers, medical and even civilian specialist in blacksmithing and agriculture.
- Sufficient procurement and logistics elements to both support the AFBU and train their partners in the Afghan military.
- AOG forces: A light, strong, mobile force of 2000 men that continually rotates its presence living and purchasing from the various tribes. This rotation creates a pragmatic symbiotic relationship. Various force components have been temporarily added. An active drone force is maintained. Support Force provides intelligence to AFBU, solidifies tribal relations, acts as a deterrent, and makes periodic strikes to reduce opposition build ups. Terrorists may never be eliminated but AOG keeps them minimized. In this way AOG imitates the Israeli response to terrorism threats.
- A clandestine force works from within tribal support areas to collect human intelligence and reduce the need for intervention.
Despite public claims, Afghanistan is not a nation state but a tribal society with tribal interests. Even the urban elite are really a tribe. Cash and other assets which can be measured and accounted for, are capable of accommodating many tribal needs. Limited cash and assets help solidify existing relations with tribal leaders. Refusal to provide assets, threats by other leaders, the presence of AOG forces, and loss of prestige has proven an effective mix in maintaining the peace. There is a constant battle among interested parties to supplant opium income, but the broad mix of assets available to AFBU has served as a greater inducement than illicit income.
AFBU’s strategy leverages the fact that the parties do not like or get along with each other. AFBU’s small but effective presence and its outsider position allows it to orchestrate adversaries more as a referee. This relationship works to U.S. benefit and against U.S. enemies. AFBU is not creating Jeffersonian liberals but selectively supporting dependable leaders who can create stability and minimize Islamist capability. Sometime this means winning over factions of the Taliban. This winning over has been controversial, but a 51% reduction in extremism is sometimes better than nothing at all. Every tribal leader affiliated with AFBU is one less enemy and it allows us to monitor and influence their behavior.
AFBU has succeeded because of:
- Sufficient funding and bipartisan Congressional support.
- General public support or at least no vocal opposition.
- Clear, pragmatic policy objectives.
- Restraint imposed by the force size and the acceptance that there are limits to U.S. influence.
- Emphasis on assembling tools in innovative ways which are applied with sufficient foresight and duration to achieve lasting effect while avoiding major combat operations.
- High priority on intelligence.
AFBU has converted some opposition tribes, neutralized others to ineffectiveness, and isolated most resistance to the Waziristan region. Pakistan’s ambiguous blind eye support of the Taliban, although still operative, has been muted by AFBU operations. AFBU has been able to provide long term stability for the past 20 years at a minimum investment of money, materiel, and manpower. AFBU has established a template for an overall influencing and shaping strategy which provides a structure for projecting power with a minimum of intrusion and risk. By calibrating to local concerns, similar strategies have been successful in Syria. Venezuela, Central America, Cuba, the Philippines, and even larger states like Ukraine. These small operations have allowed more resources to go to conventional near peer preparation while creating a matrix of support and influence in areas distant from the United States.
In conclusion, AFBU has provided outsized results for its limited investment, while providing a first option for achieving U.S. objectives without large expenditures of personnel, material, and political support. The model has proven an excellent counter to gray zone conflicts related to Russia, China, and Iran.
This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.