Ben Jones, Kim Il Sung, and Boys Who Would Be Marines
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Recently I stood behind five young South Dakotans as they raised their right hands and swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic.
Then they hugged their families, said goodbye, and shipped off to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in hopes of becoming United States Marines.
We took photos. Some of us cried. We lingered at the airport, breathing deeply through our uncertainty and apprehension and pride.
Later, in the quietude of home, I was sorting letters from my own time in the Marines. I found a letter I had writen to my grandmother in which I told her I hoped Kim Il Sung would stop threatening to wage nuclear war.
The postmark: Republic of Korea.
The postdate: 1993.
I implored my grandmother not to worry.
What does all this have to do with Ben Jones? Only this, dear listener: Ben Jones has lived Afghanistan, and (like so many South Dakotans) he understands the cost of not understanding one's enemy.
We pause. We remember those young South Dakotans on their way to becoming Marines.
We recognize the sacrifice they are willing to make. We recognize the sacrifice they have already made.
May the conversation with Ben Jones be of service to you.
Ben Jones is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University. He retired from the Air Force after 23 years at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He's been an assistant professor of history at the US Air Force Academy. He served in Afghanistan twice, and from 2011 to 2012 he was a member of the strategic transition and assessment group. He's the author of the book ‘Eisenhower's Guerrillas, the Jedburghs, the Maquis, and the Liberation of France’, but he's also featured in a new book, which we're diving into today. It is called ‘Our Latest, Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan’.
Let's start with the origins of this book, because they’re noteworthy.
Yeah. The editor, Erin O'Connell, we were in the same office for about a month or so in 2011. He was a Marine Corps Reserve officer and taking a tour from his job teaching history at the Naval Academy. I was there from the Air Force Academy, he was there from the Naval Academy, and we were working General Petraeus' Commander's Initiatives Group, without about six or seven others. Then that tour ended, [and] he went home, I went home. He went in July of '11, I came home in January of '12, and sometime in early 2014 he emailed me and he said, "Ben, I know you're a dean now and all busy and everything, can't do scholarship anymore, but how about writing a chapter on the transition since you worked on that in Afghanistan?"
The interest of the book really grew out of the counterinsurgency manual that was authored, formally by Petraeus, and a Marine Corps general in 2007. Then, the University of Chicago Press decided that publishing an Army manual would be something that they wanted to do, [because] there was so much interest in what was going on in Iraq and how the United States might do counterinsurgency. The Army puts this manual out for all of its people and it's a PDF or whatever, and you can download it or get a free copy. The University of Chicago Press in 2007 or '08 decided they would publish a copy and sell it on Amazon for 10 bucks. That did evidently pretty well. So, that was Erin's hook to approach them about doing this book.
He said, "How would you like some practitioners who were there in Afghanistan trying to implement the counterinsurgency doctrine, who are also scholars and have their experiences to hold up against that doctrine and their scholarship, whether it be history, or political science, or sociology, or whatever their scholarship might be in, and to write a book?" They thought that was something they wanted to do, so then he started formalizing contributors, and he reached out to me.
What was your role in the transition? How big is that stuff? What exactly are you doing day-to-day? From 2011 to 2012.
Well, the transition staff was run underneath the two star general who was was in charge of planning and operations for the Commander, on behalf of the Commander. It's a coalition headquarters. NATO is part of that coalition, as well as other countries. So, when I got there in January of 2011, there were 50 troop contributing nations.
You walked down the opening, the foyer and the headquarters building, and you'd see all the flags, it was jam packed full of flags. You go into the chow hall, and it's like scene from Star Wars, everybody is there.
[You see] All the flags and you think, "Well, it's a NATO operation, why is this guy from Fiji here? Why are all these people from Latin America here? Why is a medical unit from Japan here?" And so forth. Japan actually had uniformed troops prior to my arrival--they had a small contingent of medical soldiers there in Afghanistan. Everyone--for various national reasons--outside of NATO, also wanted to contribute, so it was about half NATO and about half non-NATO. Even the Irish were there.
Really? What were the Irish doing there?
They had a small group of seven guys, a couple enlisted and four or five officers, they were doing protocol and IEDs, or improvised explosive device [training].
They were advising the headquarters staff and some of the forces on the latest type of enemy use of IEDs.
So, herein lies one of the first challenges, which is [that] there's a whole lot of people involved, everybody's got their own agenda in some ways. We should put this in context for people who don't remember. President Obama is elected in 2008, surge in 2009, and now there's a deadline for American troop withdrawal by 2014, which is the original deadline that President Barack Obama set.
Now, that transition plan needs to be implemented. Does everybody want that transition plan to happen, essentially? Does everybody want the same thing and then they just have different reasons for wanting it? Or do people actually want different things?
People want different things, and that was the thing that I tried to explain in my chapter—that the transition meant different things to different people. When I first got there, somebody shared with me a quote from Angela Merkel, the prime minister of Germany, that said, "Hey, we went in together, we will go out together." By that means, if you have 4,000 troops in Afghanistan or if you have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, we will draw down those troops proportionately, so no one gets to say, "Oh, your area is now transitioned over to the Afghanistan troops and you can leave lock, stock, and barrel," because many countries just had certain providence or region in Afghanistan that they were in charge of. So, if that region transitioned first or early in the process, you got to send all your troops home. She saw that—she’s a very shrewd lady, she saw that as a way that nations might want to fudge the books and say, "Well, things are good enough here, we're out of here," and they could leave.
She made her position and it became kind of an accepted thing, "Nope, we went in together, we will come out together, so everyone will draw down proportionately."
Is it that President Obama campaigns on this, and it's a political issue? Or is it a strategic issue that it's time to turn this over to the Afghans?
Well, I think it was both for him. I think, as far as I could discern, from President Obama's perspective, as he came in, he ran on getting out of Iraq and winding down the presence in Iraq, and coming to a positive conclusion in Afghanistan. I don't recall during the campaign he ever illuminated what that was, but he then inherited a troop request from the Bush administration that President George W. Bush didn't wish to sign because he knew, "I don't want to make this decision for my successor." So, when President Obama came into office, he quickly approved the surge, and then the new Commander in Afghanistan finished a strategic reassessment and said, "I need another 30,000 more." This caused a lot of consternation in the White House and in the Pentagon, and so forth. That was General McChrystal.
McChrystal then was later fired for other reasons, but that request, I think ... Secretary Gates writes about this in his book that, that request in President Obama's mind made him think, "What the heck's going on? I just gave you these additional troops, my national security council advisor, who's a retired Marine Corps General approved those, he's been to Afghanistan, and he advised me to see the impact of those initial surge troops before I give you more." This all goes to kind of a part of the discussion I think is unfortunate, that sooner or later, very quickly, you wind up just talking about troop numbers.
Never did I ever hear anybody, in a serious, responsible way, who was in a position of authority—from the President, to the Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of State—talk about goals and objectives in a public way that was aimed in getting the American people, or the populations of the other troop contributing nations, to say, "Yes, we can go ... That sounds achievable, it's desirable, and we can do what's necessary to accomplish those goals." Because, once you define a goal, then you would go back to the generals and you'd say, "Okay, we're going to accomplish this, how many troops does it take?" Instead, we had the argument about troop numbers before we knew what was going to happen.
Which is backwards. So, we never really ... Now, in classified documents, there would be a lot of, "This is the goal and this is the aim," which is ... I better not say what those documents said. Essentially, it was shutting down Al-Qaeda and trying to make Afghanistan not a haven for terrorists.
The question is, how do you do that?
The debate that General Petraeus and McChrystal—and to some degree their predecessors—or the strategy that they wanted to have, was counterinsurgency. That can be done in various ways. The ways that General Petraeus wanted to do it and McChrystal wanted to do it was to think of it as an ‘all of government’ approach. So, we not only have military people doing military things, we will also do public works, we will also do education, we will also enable Afghanistan's government to grow and develop, to collect taxes, to be a normal government. When you think about how far they have to go—[for example], I was there for a couple weeks and I realized, there's no functioning post office in Afghanistan. They have no way to collect an income tax because there's no ID number, like we use social security numbers. People don't have addresses, or personal ID numbers, and you can't get a library card.There's no way to function that way, to collect taxes.They have their own foundation, and we find hard to understand.
Let's talk about that, cultural difference here and how the clash of cultures really significantly impacted the transition and the war itself.
Yeah. Sure. I began to realize the war that's going on there now, is really a ‘search to win the peace,’ as you might say. If you think of World War II, which is an abnormal war in the American experience, you think of World War II, and huge armies, and navies, and front lines that are discernible, and a parade at the end of the war and troops coming home. Most wars aren't like that. We live in a part of the country where the Indian Wars went on for decades; those wars didn't have that kind of thing. So, when we think about war, you also think about the peace that results from the war.
In fact, the peace wasn't solved in the second World War until 1991 when the Two Plus Four Treaty happened and the Soviet Union dissolved, and Russia, the United States, Britain, France, and the two Germanys decided on how Germany would reunite and how the peace would resolve in Europe. If you think of '45 to '91 as kind of the time where outside nations—outside of Germany—are resolving their disputes, the United States and the Soviet Union, and so forth, and then when that gets resolved, then we can resolve this hanging over from 1945.
Which is what people don't currently understand about the Korean Peninsula.
Exactly right.It's the same conversation, the war is still going on, there's just an armistice.
If you're in North Korea, they authorized ICBM a couple days go, [and] I'm sure Fourth of July was chosen for a reason, right?
They're sending a message that peace has yet to be won in the Korean Peninsula.
So, there's no end, there's a transition, in this case, and a deadline.There's great cultural differences for how this whole thing has really unfolded up until now, as well. How do those cultural differences sort of impact the transition itself? How is the leadership pushing that deadline? Are folks who are doing the work saying, "Slow down, there's a different metric, as it were to look at here?”
Well, in November of 2010, General Petraeus had been in the job since July of 2010 and in his capacity as a coalition commander. He went to a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, and he got the language written in the NATO Lisbon protocols that transition would be based on conditions. So, when the Afghans were ready to take over the security of their nation, which they would do. It explicitly says this, it did not mean withdrawal of troops, it meant that the Afghans were willing to win the war on their own, to some degree. That degree meant largely having a standing army and police force that could handle their own nation's security, even though others might be. Because they can't really tax, they don't really have the tax base to afford all this,. Other nations might be contributing funds, and perhaps some advising along the way, and other assets. They would be in charge of the day-to-day combat operations against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and so forth.
That's what it was in the protocol. So, when he came back from that a few months later. When I arrived, he needed to setup a group of staff inside the headquarters that would deal with transition, so he grabbed some people from around the headquarters. I was one, kind of yanked out of that job, and told to go over here and do this, and I would be sitting next to some RAF offices, a couple Australians, and a Spanish guy joined us. We're all lead by a British brigadier, royal marine.
He was one of the smartest guys I ever met in uniform a really a brilliant man. [There were] about seven or eight of us, and we were told, "Okay, figure out the ways by which you will judge the conditions of the readiness of the Afghan forces and of the enemy, so that we can balance ".
If we are handling the enemy in a certain area, the Afghans have to get up to that level of capacity, skills, and competency, so they can handle the enemy in that area. So, it very much depends on what the enemy activity is by region, by province, and by city, versus what the Afghans are able to do for themselves. Over the course of 2011, we developed this, which was taken from some other practices that preceded the staff group that was set up to do this, about readiness and so forth. Now, if you think about how you have ways that everyone agrees upon judging a unit's readiness.
You have so much gas on hand, you have so much ammo on hand, you have training, you have certain occupations within the unit that are trained to their skill level that they're supposed to be and so forth, or they're not. You have your people or you don't. They're trained or they're not. Or, they're in some capacity of training. They have all this process setup in the armed services already. Now you go to the Afghans and you look at the Afghan generals and you say, "What's your stocks of supplies?" Well, if they've just been selling them off because they're corrupt, they'll say one thing, but reality is another.
What was the role and the level of corruption in the Afghan government and how things worked there in the transition? How did that play a part?
Well, it's difficult a lot of times to discern because of the difference in the culture. So, what they might think is understandable activity or even expected activity, would be [different].In their patriarchal culture, the head guy is to take care of everyone and distribute his largess or his capacities or his materials or his jobs, or his things like that. That's his job and everyone's inside that clan or that family. He sees that as his job. The grandfather, the father, that's what they're supposed to do. So, if they have these materials, these supplies, and they're not doing that, then they're not living up their role in their society. That's kind of the basic understand that they have. We look at that and say, "Oh, there's that mafia crime family just taking care of themselves."
They view government as not having a role of active participation at the citizen level and so forth like we would. They see government's role as taking care of those people that they have obligations to take care of through family reasons.
So, for us it's corruption—it’s illegal activity. We try to root it out and they had a whole task force there led by General McMaster, he was a one star at the time and a real bulldog, and so forth. You can only go so far when you've got 1,000 years of that cultural habit that predates Islam. I had some guys tell me that's their old Soviet mindset, but the Soviets had nothing to do with that mindset.
They encountered it, as well, it frustrated them, as well. In fact, I found, frankly, the officers, the generals, who had been—as young officers—educated and trained in the Soviet Union were easier to deal with, because communism and socialism and Western ideas. At its base, it shares a notion of progress that's a Western notion of progress. That the calendar is, in many ways, linear. So that if we do this and this, tomorrow we'll be better, you know?
That notion is not ... You don't find that kind of concept outside the West.
Right. During this transition, for the Americans who are there and coalition forces, what's the morale like as the deadlines get pushed a little bit, the conditions [change], leadership wants the numbers to come down by a certain date, and leadership on the ground says these condition have to be met. [That it’s not safe, there’s a risk of doing this too quickly. Does that affect the mood?
Well, yes. I mean, anytime you get a lot of mixed signals, you kind of wonder, "Do the bosses know what they're doing?"
When President Obama and political leaders would talk about transition, as in numbers only all the time, most of their rhetoric we'd read in the papers was only concerning numbers. We'd walk across the street to the US Embassy and they were talking about numbers. We were the only ones not talking about numbers, but we were the ones that were bringing about the transition on the ground in Afghanistan, the military ones, the coalition leadership and so forth. General Petraeus kept saying, "No, this is conditions-based. This is conditions-based, it's going to go according to the Afghan's ability to take over the war," essentially. He briefed that then, and unbeknownst to me, although I saw the message traffic afterward, he went to the NATO meeting and he briefed his timeline, that there would still be some troops in the country, but that transition would start in every place in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But, because transition is a phased process all the way through, there are four phases, and all the way through the fourth phase there would still be coalition troops there alongside Afghan troops at some level.
This became very alarming. When that disconnect in communication between Washington and Kabul became apparent at that NATO meeting, General Petraeus was told through the US ambassador at that meeting, "This isn't squaring with what the President has said, so how do you make sense of that?" In an email that the ambassador wrote to me in 2014 in researched for this book, he said kind of vaguely that General Petraeus' answer was unsatisfactory, or something like that. So, he reported that up until then, that became a talking point in a C meeting. President Obama felt very much like he was being pushed again, to do this. I think his level of distress almost approached Kennedy's level of distress after the Bay of Pigs for the CIA as guys are messing this up and I can't trust them to do the job, and things are going wrong, and I'm not going to be put in a box. So, he just basically said every time that it came up, this is the way it is. In June of 2011, when Petraeus came back to Washington to testify, to take over the CIA for his Senate confirmations, he gets called to the White House for two or three meetings, I guess, to talk about the withdrawal and the transition. At the end of the day, at the end of the last one, President Obama pulls rank and says, "No, they're all going to be out."
When we were told that over a video conference call in June of 2011, morale hit the floor.
We had been working in an orderly transition that was going to win the war, as far as we could tell, but would give the Afghans a chance to win the war, and now that was going to happen.
What are the consequences of that? Are we seeing that today?
We are seeing that today, exactly right. President Trump and Secretary Mattis—who was Petraeus' boss when Petraeus was in Afghanistan at the US Central Command—they are now having to deal with the reality of what the NATO Secretary General, and I say this in the book, we can't do transition wrong—words to that effect--and he says, "That would be a disaster." Well, we're seeing this now. NATO recently heard our call, or our commitment to send some more troops and so they will probably be sending more troops [as well].
Disaster for whom? Go back a minute, that would be a disaster for whom?
Well, for all involved. I think the Afghans, for United States, it could lead to another attack. I mean, if there are terrorist areas facilitating where they can do training and congregate and so forth, and think of plots against the West, then that could be a disaster. I think that's what he was getting at.
I have a friend whose son just joined the Marines, let's talk about those people who are signing up now and on the ground, willing to raise their right hand all over again. It's easy to say, "Take your time, make the transition right,” but people are dying during this time. Americas are dying during this time and it's costing a whole lot of money, a whole lot of American taxpayer dollars. What's the message that you would have to those families about what their kids are off to do now?
Well, it's a very good question. I think that's really what it's all about. You have to understand, we have had 20,000 troops in South Korea, plus, since 1952. We had occupation forces and then NATO forces in Germany and so forth. I think winning the peace is often something that's certainly more valuable than winning the combat action in the war. For those who are considering joining now, what they will do is be a part of making sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven again. The tricky thing that I think in the end, the two things that President Trump and Mattis, General Nicholson, and Secretary Tillerson, are all going to have to figure out is, how to stave the Taliban off its support, which is coming from Pakistan.
General Nicholson had said in the Senate committee that he testified in January, "This has to change. They've recently released a formal report saying we have to essentially make a sober judgment on what Pakistan is doing for us or to us, and we have to stop sending them arms for their F-16s, updating their engine and equipment, and so forth. Through all this stuff, they clearly are supporting the Taliban." I think, personally, I'd like to see the United States in India, put the squeeze on Pakistan, and start playing tough, because that's where the war, I think, is really to be won is in the hearts and minds of the Pakistani government.
How do you defeat an ideology?
Well, you have to have some way to bring that ideology into the political process. In Afghanistan, Ghani has started to do that, actually. One guy, Hekmatyar, a couple of months ago, agreed to come back. He's been forgiven of his war crimes and combat action and so forth, and he's setting up a political party in Afghanistan. His name was in the paper the other day, too, with the Ghani government, as he's forming a party and he's going to run his candidates in the elections and so forth. You have to get to a point where the various wings of the Taliban may wind up being split off and one by one come in from the cold, and join the political process. They have to see that constant fighting is not going to get them where they want to go.