Quagmire: What the Attack on General Miller in Afghanistan Tells Us

This week, the Taliban ambushed the latest senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan – General Miller. Though he was unhurt, senior Afghan officials were killed. I knew one of them – General Raziq – and he might just have been a war criminal…that’s instructive.

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This week, the Taliban ambushed the latest senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan – General Miller. Though he was unhurt, senior Afghan officials were killed. I knew one of them – General Raziq – and he might just have been a war criminal…that’s instructive.

by Danny Sjursen

This week, the Taliban demonstrated – once again – that they can strike where and when they choose. The target was General Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan, as well as some senior Afghan security officials. It was a close call, but General Miller was unhurt. The same can not be said for three top Afghan security leaders who were killed or the two American soldiers wounded in the crossfire. More disturbingly, the gunmen appeared to be Taliban sleepers embedded in the provincial governor’s (who was among the dead) bodyguards. Thus, this was another fatal "insider attack," of which I’ve recently written. What, then, can we say about this near miss ambush, and how does it reflect on the war effort – America’s longest – in Afghanistan writ large?

Perhaps this: the US mission is failing by ever measurable metric – notably in politics and security. The attack, and the identity of those killed, demonstrate the murky nature of the entire mission in this landlocked, inhospitable corner of the globe. Two salient facts standout – 1) the Taliban contests a record number of districts, and, obviously can strike where and when they choose – killing a provincial governor, police chief, and nearly hitting the top US general in country; 2) some of the Afghan dead were themselves shady figures – demonstrating the gray zone of US operations in Central Asia.

Let’s begin with the problem of insider attacks. There have already been 102 such fatal attacks perpetrated on US forces over the years. They all follow the same script. The very soldiers and policemen that American soldiers are there to train turn their guns on their mentors and shoot them in the back and/or at close range. A couple hundred Americans and several allied troops have been killed in such assaults. As if the loss of life weren’t tragic enough, the "insider" attacks also devastate the purported US mission in Afghanistan and demonstrate the futility of America’s occupation.

Officially, in fact, the US military and Washington would have you believe the American presence in Afghanistan does not constitute an occupation at all (though it sure looked that way when I served there in 2011-12). On the contrary, the American people (who aren’t paying attention anyway) are told that our relatively modest – 14,500 man – force is there only to "advise and assist" the various Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in their ongoing campaign against the Taliban.

If that is indeed the case – and let’s assume it is – then what could be more destructive to that mission than the Afghans (even in relatively small numbers) turning their guns on their US trainers? These attacks create distance and distrust between the two sides and make the job nearly impossible. Heck, give credit where its due: this is a brilliant Taliban tactic. So much has trust dissipated, indeed, that the US military has created a new force to watch over the trainers – they’re called “guardian angels,” and keep their protective gear on and weapons at the ready as they carefully surveil America’s Afghan "partners." How’s that for a symbiotic relationship between the soldiers of two – ostensible – democracies? The whole thing, like the entire notion that an external Western military force can build a democracy at the point of a bayonet, is absurd.

Then there’s the messy matter of who, exactly, the dead Afghan officials were. These were our "partners," yes – but there’s a dirty backstory. I’ll focus on just one, the Kandahar provincial police chief, General Abdul Raziq. I knew the man, at least a bit. He was young, he was aggressive, and the Taliban genuinely feared him. Raziq, as we referred to him, was, simply put, a bad ass. Indeed, he was the only Afghan cop or soldier that ever – during my year in Kandahar – willing to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban without US military support. My bosses, up through the whole chain of command, celebrated his arrival in Kandahar in 2011. Why shouldn’t they? He got. shit. done.

There was just one problem – Raziq, our "man" in Kandahar – was a war criminal. It’s not like we didn’t know it either – Harper’s had reported on (credible) allegations that he had executed innocent people and prisoners before he’d ever set foot in our wayward province. I read the Harper’s piece while I was in Afghanistan and raised a few questions to my chain of command: "Is this really someone we want to partner with?" "Might he, and his tactics, not be counterproductive in the long run?" "What about ‘American values’?" I was wasting my breath. Raziq fought, hard, and beat up the local Taliban. Rumor had it, of course, that he also terrorized villagers and executed prisoners – but, hey, at least he was a "winner." Suffice it to say my unit stuck with Raziq throughout our deployment in 2011-12.

Now Raziq is dead. So is the provincial governor and intelligence chief. Two American troopers are wounded, and the senior-most American general in the whole country had a close call. What does it all mean? I wish I knew for sure, but some conclusions leap forth with ease: the Taliban is far from beaten; they will overrun at least the south and east of the country regardless of whether American troops stay or go; US"partners" in the Afghan government and ANSF are utterly flawed – sometimes warlords or war criminals. So it goes…

It’s time to admit the inconvenient truth: the war is over – America’s longest war. There will be no liberal democracy in the Hindu Kush. Not now, and not anytime soon, regardless of how much blood and treasure the United States commits. This author, for one, wishes that policymakers in Washington would have recognized this – utterly knowable – fact in 2001. Had they, then three of my boys would be alive and so would more than 2000 American troopers we purport to love and honor…

Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen