Welcome to the gray zone: Why the numbers don't add up for Trump's failing Afghanistan war
The news from Afghanistan that essential data about the numbers of dead in its country's own army is to be kept a secret from now on is worrying but not at all surprising - either from Kabul or Washington. The campaign is not working and, according to recent reports from credible media outlets, the territory taken by the Taliban - and ISIS - is slowly but undoubtedly expanding. The writing is on the wall for both the Kabul government and Washington: prepare for increased numbers of deaths of Afghans - both civilians and security forces - as American airstrikes increase and the Taliban moves closer to inevitably taking power once again.
But that's not happening. Trump sees PR value in US troops fighting a war against both the Taliban and ISIS and is preparing for a long, bloody battle. The problem he faces though is that his strategy is based almost entirely on the tenet of having the Afghan forces doing the bulk of the fiercest, front-line fighting. He needs the numbers. And if what we have read is true in the most recent SIGAR report, that it is the Kabul government which wishes to conceal the numbers of deaths of their own soldiers, then this raises some questions over the validity of the entire campaign. Is Trump's bold move in the graveyard of empires, already about to implode?
Arguably, it's probably true that the Afghan government asked to keep the number of its own army casualties a secret as this would seriously impede the numbers of new recruits. Compared to 2014, where there were about a thousand deaths, we're looking at a new type of conflict which, according to SIGAR's quarterly report in July found what it called "shockingly high" casualties: 2,531 members of the Afghan security forces killed and 4,238 wounded between January and May, 8. No wonder someone wants this incendiary information to be buried.
In today's new conflict, which is taking at least five times the number of Afghan casualties, it seems the first casualty on the battlefield will be the truth. The numbers shouldn't have surprised anyone since ISIS came into the theater and it is only natural that the numbers of new recruits is being affected by the militants' recent victories, like the one in April this year which took 140 Afghan soldiers in one swoop. Clearly, as militants take more ground, and the attacks become bloodier, fewer Afghans are willing to enlist.
But we should also be very skeptical about whether this initiative was entirely theirs or someone suggested that they request the Pentagon from now on keeps this kind of information away from the public eye. When you witness firsthand, as I have, the sheer scale of 'mentoring' which has been going on in Kabul, by US senior officers as early as 2008, then it's hard to imagine that this initiative is Kabul's alone.
I would estimate that US generals in Kabul who advise President Ashraf Ghani told him to stop releasing the data as the figure in recent months must have jumped considerably. If during the spring period it has jumped five times, we can only imagine that it might be tenfold during the summer months. I recently argued in an article that Trump's only way to win in Afghanistan was through the manufactured consent of Western journalists' ignorance of the war; Trump press kits were given to third rate news agencies who aren't interested in fact checking too much and are just click bait hungry. But buzz-feeding the wannabee journos might not be enough.
I would argue that this latest move is the thin end of the wedge and we will see more and more ambiguity in such intelligence sharing - and consequently a new 'gray zone' in reporting. Yet it's not just about keeping the media guessing over the number of deaths. If the Americans can keep up this farce and Pentagon spin doctors can just shrug their shoulders when asked tough questions - and attribute everything to the Afghans - then how far can this new stunt be taken? Are there other critical areas which the Trump would like covered up?
Thin end of the wedge
One visible gray area when things start to slip in a downward spiral might be US soldiers badly wounded. Obviously, it would be impossible to fudge the figures of actual body bags, but those coming back hideously injured without limbs or suffering from PTSD might also be hidden under this latest ruse. Or, under this blanket cover of need-to-know basis, perhaps US troop numbers will slowly be increased in very small numbers over the months, without the press knowing. All is feasible when you have a premise to withhold data.
Perhaps a more obvious one would be how much money is the US government giving to the Afghans? To date, according to Forbes magazines, the 17-year-old war has cost over a trillion dollars, with training for the Afghan forces reaching a staggering $30 billion in 2016. The figure of only $5.7 billion for 2017 seems trivial - that is when it's compared to what the US has given to Afghanistan in non-military aid since 2002, a monumental sum of $100 billion. The number of critics lining up to point out the failure of this development aid is growing, with even some US media outlets exposing the amount "wasted and stolen" and given that it is a tenth of the whole bundle shelled out since the war began, we have to wonder if Afghanistan is not a gray area of disinformation for a reason: to cover up corruption and embezzlement to the tune of billions of dollars.
Presumably, with Trump’s new carpet bombing campaign kicking off – and a dramatically higher number of civilian casualties – this 2017 figure of only $5.7 billion will have to rise. But will it be hidden this time under the guise of the Afghans apparently wanting to keep it quiet, as it would be a PR coup for the enemy?
But $100 billion in aid vanishing into a black hole is pretty impressive. Is that a record?
It might be. And so while Baghdad had its green zone, Kabul now has its gray zone. If the next chapter of Afghanistan's war against insurgents is at best, going to slow down the demise of the US operation, then expect a lot of shrugged shoulders and idiotic, helpless grimaces from Pentagon spokespersons as all part of an insidious plan to wane away the truth of what’s really happening there. I'm convinced Trump and his accomplices in the Pentagon want to extinguish all factual, objective reporting from Afghanistan and reduce the entire operation to one which can be only reported on when the US has 'hand-out' press kits or doctored reports. We’ve gone from a quarterly study, which once had vital data in it which could be written about by armchair ‘foreign journalists’ in the US, to now the farce of even these news items having no value whatsoever.
And it's working. It's as though there are no journalists left in the US anymore who don't whiff the stench of foul play or even graft when Afghanistan abandons its Russian helicopters, which it can get cheap parts for and has leagues of Russian-trained mechanics waiting to service - in preference for America's overpriced ones. The deafening sound of silence from America's best investigative journalists was notable as it is on the subject of how Trump’s cabal seem to be doing more business with one of the most corrupt countries in the world which supplies the entire planet with illegal heroin. MSM in the US struggles to even acknowledge that Afghanistan’s opium production continues to climb and that, in 2001, before the US went to Afghanistan there were only a few thousand heroin addicts in the US. There are presently almost 5 million and climbing; or indeed that it was the Taliban in 2000, when in power, which agreed to ban the heroin trade altogether. Is the US campaign also about protecting this industry?
Similar cynicism should be leveled at the SIGAR report having critical data airbrushed out. Soon it will get harder for journalists to even go to Kabul on journalist visas, as the Trump campaign sinks further into the quagmire. Mark my words. Afghanistan will soon be a gray zone for media, wherein the interests of not helping the terrorists, all information will be off limits. But not to worry. Many journalists will merely put on green wigs and wear silly t-shirts and mock their rivals who demand this information, and then write stories about that instead.
Martin Jay is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.