Big Trouble in Little Wardak: Karzai Kicks the SOF Kids to the Kurb

by Sunny in Kabul on 2/25/2013

President Karzai on Sunday ordered the removal of all US Special Operations Forces (SOF) from Wardak province within the next two weeks. Coming as it does on the heels of his latest decree that ANSF can’t call for foreign airstrikes, this bodes ill for US plans in Afghanistan in the coming months. It’s one thing for Karzai to deny the ANSF use of foreign airpower. The US is probably going to be really OK with that, according to conclusions drawn over at the Afghan Analysts Network in a post I co-authored with Kate Clark:

The goal of US forces in 2013 is to transition fully to a supporting role in the conflict, with the final drawdown of American combat forces completed by the end of 2014 (see AAN analysis here and here). What the United States may welcome more than anything is any excuse to more rapidly reduce its footprint here in Afghanistan, and Karzai’s announcement provides it with just that justification.

If the Afghan government does not want the help of US airpower, the question is raised: why should US aircraft remain in Afghanistan? Granted, while US troops are still actively engaging the insurgency, those assets are not likely to leave anytime soon, but it does provide greater impetus for those in the US government calling for an increase in the pace of US disengagement. In a rare instance of converging agendas, Karzai’s bid for increased sovereignty aligns perfectly with the US desire to extract itself from Afghanistan as quickly as it can.

But the future of US operations in Afghanistan hinges on special operations, to whit I submit the following five things you should know about special ops in Afghanistan, and what’s happening in Wardak.

1. The standing up of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan (SOJTF-A)

The US military has dumped a ton of time and money into Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF). Last summer they took the unprecedented step of bringing them into the fold under a unified command under an American general.

Bringing Afghan forces into the overall SOF fold should make the continued execution of night raids (one of the key components of the counterterrorism campaign) easier to accomplish. It is a testament to the working relationship established by the coalition and Afghan SOF that, unlike other partnered operations during the green on blue crisis, there was no apparent operational pause in their combined operations, at least based on ISAF’s own reporting.

2. The “re-emergence” of Blackwater/Xe/Academi

Let’s not kid ourselves: the boys of Blackwater never really went away, but now they seem to be getting a little more public. From being landlords for the SOJTF-A types, to moving into downtown Kabul:

What is important to note as well is the recent involvement in Afghanistan of Academi, the new name of the company once known as “Blackwater.” Kate Clark, in her recent piece on the future of US troops in Afghanistan, referenced Spencer Ackerman’s reporting for Wired on the fact that the SOJTF-A will (at least temporarily) be housed at Camp Integrity, outside Kabul.

According to Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, the spokesman for Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, it’s only supposed to be temporary, as the command plans to move to Bagram Air Field by summer 2013. But Camp Integrity is already shaping up to be a crucial location for an Afghanistan war that’s rapidly changing.

Camp Integrity’s ‘landlord’? Academi, which is a logical (if troubling) choice, as company leadership has a long history with US special operations, reaching back to the earliest days of the war in Iraq. It is apparent that, despite Blackwater personnel stealing guns from US weapons depots and killing Afghan civilians, that relationship remains unchanged. On a more anecdotal note, a recent interviewee for Vanity Fair, also mentioned in Clark’s article, stated that Blackwater/Academi was still moving in, despite the flow of expats out of the so called ‘poppy palaces’ in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul:

With so many people leaving, who might be moving in? ‘Blackwater’s coming; that’s about it,’ said my guide, referring to the security firm now called Academi.

3. Afghan SOF (that the US/NATO mentor) is one of the ANSF “bright spots” 

I know, it’s terribly positive for me, but I actually think that the whole SOF thing might be working.

As other mentoring support seems to be rushing headlong toward the exits, this joint task force is a welcome — and maybe final — attempt to bolster the numbers of the security forces. This has, in the past, been done without ensuring that those forces are truly ready to assume control of the country. But in the case of Afghan SOF, there now exists at a framework that could enable their long-term success in stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating the insurgency in the coming years.

4. Village Stability Operations (VSO) usually closely linked to the Afghan Local Police (ALP) are run by SOF

This is VSO in a DoD nutshell.

The VSO initiative is a bottom-up program that facilitates local security and development at the village level, connecting the local population to district level governance.  VSO is grounded in the tradition of rural Afghan villages providing for their own security, and focuses on Afghan communities with the will but not the means to resist the insurgents through grass-roots initiatives, especially in areas that have limited ANSF and ISAF presence.

Not going to get into the human rights allegations (although it’s possible some of these guys were inolved, given Karzai’s pronouncement), but this is a program the US wants to expand, and Karzai wants to make go away. Why? Maybe it threatens his power base, maybe he just doesn’t like people running around loose. Either way, less SOF, more problems for VSO.

5. Don’t wait until Monday to deny claims made on Sunday

Karzai’s latest kerfluffle? Sunday. NATO’s reponse? Monday.

“We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them,” Katz told reporters. “Over the past few weeks there have been various allegations of Special Forces conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner” in Wardak.

He added that “so far, we could not find evidence that would support these allegations.”

Katz says that ISAF cannot comment until NATO meets to discuss the issue with the Afghan government.

“Until we have had a chance to speak to senior officials in the government of Afghanistan about this issue, I am not in a position to comment further on details regarding what has been said at the National Security Council,” Katz said. “We will talk to Afghan officials in due course.”

Not really related to Special Operations, but if you know without a doubt that nothing happened, then you get that word out on Sunday. What’s alarming to contemplate is the idea that ISAF/USFOR-A were caught completely by surprise by this announcement. If the relationship between the Presidential Palace and ISAF HQ (which is…literally…down the street) has become so frayed that there was no notice at all that this announcement was coming, that means a terribly rocky road lies ahead for US/Afghan relations.

But if we knew about the allegations, and said nothing publicly until Monday, that means one of three things:

  1. ISAF is hoping it all just goes away, and there’ nothing to the claims
  2. There’s something to them, and ISAF’s hoping, well, see #1
  3. There’s something to them, ISAF’s investigating, and they’re trying to wrap that up before this thing gets any bigger

Think that ship (ha…landlocked country…there are no ships!) probably sailed, though.

Until next time, you stay sunny!

Source: Sunny in Kabul

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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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