.
O

n the 15th of January, five days before the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden, the Trump administration drew down American forces in Afghanistan to just 2,500. Given the chaos in Washington, DC after the election, the seditious attack on the Capitol building, and the ongoing conspiracy theories surrounding the election, one could be forgiven (but only slightly) for forgetting the American presence in that country. America’s longest war may not be over, but it is certainly not on the minds of many in the United States.

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War | By Jessica Donati | PublicAffairs | March 2021.

Grander designs of transforming Afghanistan have given     to achieving a modicum of stability by standing up the Afghan Security Forces, supporting the central government, and finding a negotiated settlement with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Yet, behind the scenes and away from the public’s eye, American forces are still engaged in the frontlines in Afghanistan, waging a war against the Taliban, and now, the Islamic State.

In Eagle Down, Jessica Donati, the former Kabul Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal, shines a much-needed light onto the (potentially) last days of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. In this exceptional book, she follows Special Forces’ Operational Detachment Alphas, or “ODAs,” on deployment to the country, the political machinations in Washington, and uniquely, the home front for these tip-of-the-spear soldiers.

The Truly Quiet Professionals

Eagle Down is an uncomfortable read at times, but it’s a book that is honest and fair to its protagonists, and one that demands to be read. Ms. Donati’s extraordinary exploration of what for many is a forgotten war brings home the challenges and complexities of America’s longest war in sobering terms and through the eyes of some of America’s most elite warriors—Special Forces. These are the truly “quiet professionals”, waging counterinsurgency on the frontlines, but largely away from the public eye, both by intent and by consequence.

Unlike their Navy counterparts, Army Special Forces receive considerably less notoriety and fewer book deals. Indeed, Ms. Donati recounts the challenges of getting access to these units early on in the book. Their mission, foreign internal defense, was largely subsumed into direct action, but as Ms. Donati explains, this core mission became the central focus in Afghanistan. The ODAs fought alongside their Afghan counterparts, or at least, were intended to do so. More often than not their “commando” partners were doing anything but direct action, often manning checkpoints, serving Afghan political VIPs, or other non-kinetic tasks. This is to say nothing of the “green-on-blue” incidents which undermined trust between the Americans and Afghanistan and resulted in considerable casualties.

The Special Forces ODA missions provided the political leadership in Washington a convenient fiction. American troops were not “boots-on-the-ground” and engaged in combat, rather they were merely advising, training, and assisting the Afghan Security Forces. As Ms. Donati illustrates, that was most certainly not the truth for the soldiers of the ODAs. The convenient fiction descended into farce with overly complex chains of command, careerism on the part of senior officers, exceedingly restrictive rules of engagement, and shifting mission sets that hamstrung the ability of the ODAs to achieve sustainable success.

The Tragedy of Afghanistan

The tragedy of this book is not just the losses, the injuries and the deaths, painful and horrifying though they are. It is that that these Special Forces soldiers were almost set up for failure from the beginning. Under President Obama, the policies were so oriented towards the withdrawal that they became exceptionally restrictive and prohibitive toward kinetic action, even when under fire. As Ms. Donati recounts, Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, would not entertain any notion other than withdrawal, regardless of the conditions on the ground, until near the end of President Obama’s presidency. Only then did the president change his course. Yet, even under President Trump, with the greatly loosened rules of engagement and increased troop presence, the likelihood of strategic success was extremely slim—tactical and operational success, certainly, but achieving a stable long-term political goal was a bridge too far.

At no point in Eagle Down does the political leadership (American or Afghan), or anyone for that matter, articulate a political end state to Washington’s involvement and commitment to Kabul. War is, as is so often said, a continuation of politics by other means and necessitates a political end. Yet, 20 years into the conflict any viable political solution that is achievable by kinetic means remains unarticulated. Tactical progress can and is made, operational progress is haltingly made, but strategic progress toward a political solution is nonexistent.

Successive administrations from Bush to Obama to Trump, and as of writing, Biden, have singularly failed to articulate an achievable political end state for the conflict in Afghanistan and resource the mission accordingly. The administrations have either articulated vague goals akin to a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan, or something attainable such as the defeat of al-Qa’ida and the denial of the country as a base for terrorist operations, but then hamstrung the mission by competing mission-sets: i.e. Iraq.

At one point in the book one of the Special Forces officers, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, suggests that the United States merely buy off the warlords and tribal leaders to ensure their quiescence and support for the government in Kabul. That is as close as one gets to a political end state throughout the book. At one point the author recounts a conversation in which President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, questions another staff member asking, “What, you don’t like winning?” Yet, what “winning” looks like remains unarticulated, even during his tenure.

The tragedy is not limited to the soldiers themselves, as through a series of catastrophic missteps and failures, a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz was struck by an AC-130 gunship supporting an ODA attempting to recapture the city. Ms. Donati deftly explores the incident, its impact on both the MSF doctors and their Afghan colleagues, and the ODA ground force commander who was relieved of command for the incident, but later brought back to aid the campaign.

Absent Partners & Half-Measures

The complete and utter absence of the government of Afghanistan is readily apparent on every page. While the Special Forces teams are embedded with Afghan commandos, their utility is limited, the efficiency and effectiveness wanting, and their value questionable. At best they were an obstacle to progress and at worst they were treacherous green-on-blue attackers. In the events described by Ms. Donati, the civilian authorities of Afghanistan were nowhere to be found. There was no follow-on action in any of the cities retaken by the Special Forces teams, no development in the provinces, and no commitment by Kabul to the long-term stability of these regions. The Special Forces teams were temporary band-aids to a strategic wound—they could staunch the bleeding, but could not heal the injury.

Special Forces are, much like covert action, not a solution to the absence of a comprehensive strategy. The ODAs and their counterparts are highly effective and efficient tools for narrow mission sets: direct action, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, etc… They can do many things exceptionally well, but they cannot overcome the absence of a strategy or clearly defined political goals. Yet, out of political expediency, these units have become the tip of not only the military spear, but the foreign policy spear as well, and this is a dangerous trend.

In the absence of a strategic appreciation of the situation on the ground and what is possible, without the mobilization of all elements of American power, and with an increasingly wary public, the White House and Pentagon have shifted to more clandestine capabilities such as the Special Forces. Smaller footprints with opaque mission sets and little public oversight (by Congress or the media) are a half solution to a full problem. Rather than define an achievable end state, communicate it to the American people and Congress, resource it accordingly, and mobilize all elements of national power, Special Forces ODAs were left fighting fires while Washington failed to stop the arsonists or change the building codes.

Ms. Donati follows the diplomatic course of the late stages of the conflict as Washington sat down with Taliban representatives in Doha and Qatar and eventually signed an agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from the country in exchange for Taliban guarantees. The efficacy of the deal, which is in implementation stages now, remains to be seen. It is unlikely that the Taliban will live up to their agreements to recognize the government in Kabul, end their support of al-Qa’ida or reduce violence. Kabul, for its part, remains riven by politics and corruption and is unable to provide even a modicum of public service to the people of Afghanistan. The progress and improvement in the daily lives of many Afghans made at great cost in blood and treasure is far from solidified.

The Home Front & Pain of Recovery

Ms. Donati also offers readers a much needed and exceptionally compassionate look into the home front and human toll of America’s longest war, treating the wounded and killed and their families with honor and respect. Ms. Donati follows Caleb through his severe injury in an explosion while on operation through to his recovery at home, including the madness that is the government’s medical and health care bureaucracy. She follows Hutch, the ground force commander in the MSF incident through his command dismissal, investigation, and eventual return to Afghanistan after evidence supporting his account of events was discovered. She also follows the families at home as they attempt to navigate the absence of boyfriends, fathers, and husbands on deployment and, tragically, when they are lost in combat. Ms. Donati’s conduct towards the families is warm and respectful, treating their pain neither as journalistic convenience nor as a bridge to some broader commentary. It is real and it is important that Americans read their stories.

Eagle Down is a gripping story of a war most Americans had thought was over or had wrongly forgotten about entirely. It is an exploration of what happens when political and policy failures meet the realities of modern conflict, and when those on the ground are charged with attempting to overcome these shortfalls. It is a story of the consequences of these failings both for those fighting the war and those at home. Ms. Donati’s book is another reminder, after 20 years at war, Americans—civilians and service members alike—should expect and demand more of their leadership, anything less is unworthy of the sacrifice of those who took the oath and serve their country.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War

January 23, 2021

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War | By Jessica Donati | PublicAffairs | March 2021.

O

n the 15th of January, five days before the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden, the Trump administration drew down American forces in Afghanistan to just 2,500. Given the chaos in Washington, DC after the election, the seditious attack on the Capitol building, and the ongoing conspiracy theories surrounding the election, one could be forgiven (but only slightly) for forgetting the American presence in that country. America’s longest war may not be over, but it is certainly not on the minds of many in the United States.

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War | By Jessica Donati | PublicAffairs | March 2021.

Grander designs of transforming Afghanistan have given     to achieving a modicum of stability by standing up the Afghan Security Forces, supporting the central government, and finding a negotiated settlement with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Yet, behind the scenes and away from the public’s eye, American forces are still engaged in the frontlines in Afghanistan, waging a war against the Taliban, and now, the Islamic State.

In Eagle Down, Jessica Donati, the former Kabul Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal, shines a much-needed light onto the (potentially) last days of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. In this exceptional book, she follows Special Forces’ Operational Detachment Alphas, or “ODAs,” on deployment to the country, the political machinations in Washington, and uniquely, the home front for these tip-of-the-spear soldiers.

The Truly Quiet Professionals

Eagle Down is an uncomfortable read at times, but it’s a book that is honest and fair to its protagonists, and one that demands to be read. Ms. Donati’s extraordinary exploration of what for many is a forgotten war brings home the challenges and complexities of America’s longest war in sobering terms and through the eyes of some of America’s most elite warriors—Special Forces. These are the truly “quiet professionals”, waging counterinsurgency on the frontlines, but largely away from the public eye, both by intent and by consequence.

Unlike their Navy counterparts, Army Special Forces receive considerably less notoriety and fewer book deals. Indeed, Ms. Donati recounts the challenges of getting access to these units early on in the book. Their mission, foreign internal defense, was largely subsumed into direct action, but as Ms. Donati explains, this core mission became the central focus in Afghanistan. The ODAs fought alongside their Afghan counterparts, or at least, were intended to do so. More often than not their “commando” partners were doing anything but direct action, often manning checkpoints, serving Afghan political VIPs, or other non-kinetic tasks. This is to say nothing of the “green-on-blue” incidents which undermined trust between the Americans and Afghanistan and resulted in considerable casualties.

The Special Forces ODA missions provided the political leadership in Washington a convenient fiction. American troops were not “boots-on-the-ground” and engaged in combat, rather they were merely advising, training, and assisting the Afghan Security Forces. As Ms. Donati illustrates, that was most certainly not the truth for the soldiers of the ODAs. The convenient fiction descended into farce with overly complex chains of command, careerism on the part of senior officers, exceedingly restrictive rules of engagement, and shifting mission sets that hamstrung the ability of the ODAs to achieve sustainable success.

The Tragedy of Afghanistan

The tragedy of this book is not just the losses, the injuries and the deaths, painful and horrifying though they are. It is that that these Special Forces soldiers were almost set up for failure from the beginning. Under President Obama, the policies were so oriented towards the withdrawal that they became exceptionally restrictive and prohibitive toward kinetic action, even when under fire. As Ms. Donati recounts, Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, would not entertain any notion other than withdrawal, regardless of the conditions on the ground, until near the end of President Obama’s presidency. Only then did the president change his course. Yet, even under President Trump, with the greatly loosened rules of engagement and increased troop presence, the likelihood of strategic success was extremely slim—tactical and operational success, certainly, but achieving a stable long-term political goal was a bridge too far.

At no point in Eagle Down does the political leadership (American or Afghan), or anyone for that matter, articulate a political end state to Washington’s involvement and commitment to Kabul. War is, as is so often said, a continuation of politics by other means and necessitates a political end. Yet, 20 years into the conflict any viable political solution that is achievable by kinetic means remains unarticulated. Tactical progress can and is made, operational progress is haltingly made, but strategic progress toward a political solution is nonexistent.

Successive administrations from Bush to Obama to Trump, and as of writing, Biden, have singularly failed to articulate an achievable political end state for the conflict in Afghanistan and resource the mission accordingly. The administrations have either articulated vague goals akin to a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan, or something attainable such as the defeat of al-Qa’ida and the denial of the country as a base for terrorist operations, but then hamstrung the mission by competing mission-sets: i.e. Iraq.

At one point in the book one of the Special Forces officers, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, suggests that the United States merely buy off the warlords and tribal leaders to ensure their quiescence and support for the government in Kabul. That is as close as one gets to a political end state throughout the book. At one point the author recounts a conversation in which President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, questions another staff member asking, “What, you don’t like winning?” Yet, what “winning” looks like remains unarticulated, even during his tenure.

The tragedy is not limited to the soldiers themselves, as through a series of catastrophic missteps and failures, a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz was struck by an AC-130 gunship supporting an ODA attempting to recapture the city. Ms. Donati deftly explores the incident, its impact on both the MSF doctors and their Afghan colleagues, and the ODA ground force commander who was relieved of command for the incident, but later brought back to aid the campaign.

Absent Partners & Half-Measures

The complete and utter absence of the government of Afghanistan is readily apparent on every page. While the Special Forces teams are embedded with Afghan commandos, their utility is limited, the efficiency and effectiveness wanting, and their value questionable. At best they were an obstacle to progress and at worst they were treacherous green-on-blue attackers. In the events described by Ms. Donati, the civilian authorities of Afghanistan were nowhere to be found. There was no follow-on action in any of the cities retaken by the Special Forces teams, no development in the provinces, and no commitment by Kabul to the long-term stability of these regions. The Special Forces teams were temporary band-aids to a strategic wound—they could staunch the bleeding, but could not heal the injury.

Special Forces are, much like covert action, not a solution to the absence of a comprehensive strategy. The ODAs and their counterparts are highly effective and efficient tools for narrow mission sets: direct action, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, etc… They can do many things exceptionally well, but they cannot overcome the absence of a strategy or clearly defined political goals. Yet, out of political expediency, these units have become the tip of not only the military spear, but the foreign policy spear as well, and this is a dangerous trend.

In the absence of a strategic appreciation of the situation on the ground and what is possible, without the mobilization of all elements of American power, and with an increasingly wary public, the White House and Pentagon have shifted to more clandestine capabilities such as the Special Forces. Smaller footprints with opaque mission sets and little public oversight (by Congress or the media) are a half solution to a full problem. Rather than define an achievable end state, communicate it to the American people and Congress, resource it accordingly, and mobilize all elements of national power, Special Forces ODAs were left fighting fires while Washington failed to stop the arsonists or change the building codes.

Ms. Donati follows the diplomatic course of the late stages of the conflict as Washington sat down with Taliban representatives in Doha and Qatar and eventually signed an agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from the country in exchange for Taliban guarantees. The efficacy of the deal, which is in implementation stages now, remains to be seen. It is unlikely that the Taliban will live up to their agreements to recognize the government in Kabul, end their support of al-Qa’ida or reduce violence. Kabul, for its part, remains riven by politics and corruption and is unable to provide even a modicum of public service to the people of Afghanistan. The progress and improvement in the daily lives of many Afghans made at great cost in blood and treasure is far from solidified.

The Home Front & Pain of Recovery

Ms. Donati also offers readers a much needed and exceptionally compassionate look into the home front and human toll of America’s longest war, treating the wounded and killed and their families with honor and respect. Ms. Donati follows Caleb through his severe injury in an explosion while on operation through to his recovery at home, including the madness that is the government’s medical and health care bureaucracy. She follows Hutch, the ground force commander in the MSF incident through his command dismissal, investigation, and eventual return to Afghanistan after evidence supporting his account of events was discovered. She also follows the families at home as they attempt to navigate the absence of boyfriends, fathers, and husbands on deployment and, tragically, when they are lost in combat. Ms. Donati’s conduct towards the families is warm and respectful, treating their pain neither as journalistic convenience nor as a bridge to some broader commentary. It is real and it is important that Americans read their stories.

Eagle Down is a gripping story of a war most Americans had thought was over or had wrongly forgotten about entirely. It is an exploration of what happens when political and policy failures meet the realities of modern conflict, and when those on the ground are charged with attempting to overcome these shortfalls. It is a story of the consequences of these failings both for those fighting the war and those at home. Ms. Donati’s book is another reminder, after 20 years at war, Americans—civilians and service members alike—should expect and demand more of their leadership, anything less is unworthy of the sacrifice of those who took the oath and serve their country.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.