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It was a strange thing, listening to Army Secretary Mark Esper’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday. The gulf war veteran, former Capitol Hill adviser and Raytheon executive answered questions about his lobbyist past, Iran, China, Russia, the space force, hacking, the Southwest border, securing the 2020 elections and more.
But nothing about Afghanistan. Nothing about Iraq. There was one query about withdrawing troops from Syria. Niger, where four Americans died two years ago in a brutal ambush by Islamic State fighters and where American troops still patrol? Nothing. America’s long wars on terrorism disappeared, at least for a few hours. These conflicts are so tiresome that they don’t even merit a mention during the confirmation hearing of the man nominated to be the next secretary of defense — or as it was once known, the secretary of war.
But between the lines, that void highlighted the Pentagon’s motives to shift the narrative away from being mired in unending wars in the Middle East to basically insurance policies, which is how former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster described the war in Afghanistan in May. And at the heart of those insurance policies are small numbers of American troops, mostly Special Operations forces, fighting alongside local forces in other conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Somalia. McMaster argued that those alliances could offset the billions of dollars in costs.
Cheaper, and politically palatable, whack-a-mole.
Afghanistan has become an example of this, where the American-led mission has outsourced combat missions to Special Operations troops fighting alongside their Afghan counterparts with American air support orbiting overhead. The unwieldy infantry battalions deployed there in 2010 are no more; they act more as cannibalized support for the commandos while helping to train Afghans.
With only 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from 100,000 in 2010, there are no more press briefings about the battle rhythm or current operations. It is welcome silence for American military commanders, afforded often by the obscurity of the “Special Forces” moniker.
But with at least 20 Army Special Forces teams spread out across the country’s 34 provinces, the commandos conduct dozens of missions a month against Taliban fighters and Islamic State extremists at an unwavering pace. The brutal fight against the Taliban is part of an effort to keep them at the negotiating table during peace talks in Qatar. Raids against the Islamic State are meant to contain the insurgent group to the mountainous areas in the eastern part of the country.
This smaller-scale version of war isn’t without personal cost or problems of its own. Ten Americans have died in combat in Afghanistan this year. On Saturday, Sgt. Maj. James G. Sartor, a 40-year-old Green Beret, was killed in Faryab Province.
Sartor’s death is part of a larger issue resulting from the Pentagon’s struggle to juggle the counterinsurgency wars in which the United States is still engaged while also preparing to confront threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. On Wednesday, my colleague John Ismay and I reported that the Army has failed to adequately train and equip the soldiers — including bomb-disposal technicians — that support Special Forces missions.
Documents we obtained and interviews with seven military officials indicated that the support forces in Afghanistan often do not have the necessary gear for protection or the same level of training as the commandos they join on Special Operations raids and patrols. “It looks like a broken model,” David W. Barno, a retired lieutenant general who led the war effort in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, told us.
The long war — even if it doesn’t come up in a confirmation hearing — rolls on.
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Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff
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