In 2015, the United States’s longest war was supposed to be ending. The administration of President Barack Obama had celebrated the shift of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from combat to training, charting a course out of the war. But combat didn’t end for U.S. Special Forces still in the country, working to back up their Afghan counterparts but with fewer resources.
In “Eagle Down,” Jessica Donati takes us to Afghanistan in 2015, following the last U.S. Special Forces fighting “the forever war.” Donati, who covers foreign affairs and national security for The Wall Street Journal, headed the paper’s Kabul bureau in 2015 and her book covers the period from 2015 to 2020. “Eagle Down” weaves a narrative from two threads: the personal experiences of soldiers in Afghanistan trying to do the mission and come home alive, and the efforts of policymakers in Washington to extract the United States from a domestically unpopular conflict without generating too much noise.
The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz asked Donati about “Eagle Down,” the practical implications of Washington’s policy decisions, and the parallels between then and now, as the United States teeters again on the edge of an exit plan.
In 2015, the war in Afghanistan — as explained by political leaders — was supposed to shift away from U.S. forces conducting offensive operations and toward a “train, advise, and assist” mission. What was the political rationale for that narrative?
President Obama was opposed to forever wars, but found himself unable to go against the advice of the national security establishment, which warned against withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Instead of admitting the failure to end the war, officials claimed the U..S had shifted its posture to a training mission, and that American soldiers were no longer in combat.
The Obama administration’s claim that U.S. troops were no longer in combat was proved demonstrably false when U.S. Special Forces were dragged into the battle for Kunduz. It became the first city to fall to the Taliban in September 2015. As my book explains, the presence of U.S. troops was meant to be secret, but the U.S. bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital exposed the extent of their role in the battle.
After the battle for Kunduz, U.S. forces found themselves increasingly in combat alongside Afghan commandos to restore the Kabul government’s control over contested territory.
Obama officials never admitted that the U.S. had returned to a war footing and instead expanded the “Train, Advise, Assist” narrative to fit the unraveling situation on the battlefield. Media access to U.S. soldiers was heavily restricted, and embeds with troops on the “frontlines” were pretty much non-existent.
The effort, evidently aimed at keeping Afghanistan out of the news ahead of the 2016 election, was successful in that the war was barely mentioned during any of the presidential debates.
Ironically, President Trump found himself in the same situation as his predecessor. He had railed against forever wars, but was similarly unable to end any of them. U.S. operations initially ramped up, and then wound down after the deal signed with the Taliban.
All along media access to U.S. troops has remained heavily restricted. It is clear that keeping Afghanistan out of the news suits both Republican and Democrat administrations.
From the perspective of the Special Forces that you highlight throughout the book, what did that shift mean in practical terms?
In practical terms, it meant doing more or less the same job, with more restrictions and fewer resources. They were still trying to help local forces stand on their own, but they were given a lot less freedom to help them, because of rules limiting offensive action and movements outside the wire.
Many U.S. soldiers were frustrated because the restrictions seemed politically motivated, and limited their ability to support Afghan commandos, who were left to die without U.S. support in some situations.
The U.S. soldiers also felt that the shift increased their own exposure to risk, because of limited access to air support for example. Some think the restrictions led to the unnecessary deaths of their fellow soldiers in the field. The death of Matthew McClintock is an example. His teammates think he might still be alive if they had received air support early on.
In the longer term, as the security situation declined, U.S. Special Forces increasingly moved into the role of firefighters, backing up commandos wherever they went, saving villages and cities that had fallen or risked falling under Taliban control.
The limitations on resources meant that sometimes they didn’t even have working vehicles or supplies they’d normally have in the field. Also, the same places would fall over and over again, because there was no plan to hold ground. This was frustrating to them as well.
In covering the fall of Kunduz in 2015 and the bombing of a MSF hospital in the provincial capital you recount perspectives from both the Special Forces involved and a doctor inside the hospital. What was the immediate effect of that chain of events and were there longer-term repercussions for not just the individuals involved but in policy terms?
From a policy perspective, the U.S. saw the mission in Kunduz as a success overall. The city was recaptured from the Taliban without a long, drawn out battle unlike what was happening with cities that had fallen to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In fact, Kunduz became a template for future operations. Whenever a city fell, this was the same model used to recapture it: send in U.S. Special Forces, get them to set up a foothold there, and drive out the insurgents with commandos and airstrikes.
Outside of policy, for the local residents of northeast Afghanistan, the loss has been immeasurable. The hospital was often the only hope of survival for victims of war who needed a high-standard of medical care. The number of people that have died as a result of the lost access to treatment is unknown, and may be considered the true cost of the bombing. MSF is trying to relaunch the project, and hopefully will start operations again this year.
For the soldiers involved, the incident will be a lifelong scar or burden, which some have learned to carry better than others.
The political leadership, from the perspective of the Special Forces on the ground, did not wholly understand the “operational environment.” Did that misunderstanding go both ways? Did the Special Forces appreciate the overarching political narrative or were they divorced from it?
I think some of the Special Forces tried to focus on their narrow lane of responsibilities and deferred to the judgment of the higher ups when it came to strategy. But many of them saw the policy for what it was, a confused mishmash of goals and imperatives.
As my book tries to illustrate, at every level, military leaders and policymakers were chasing different goals. The U.S. military was trying to prevent the collapse of Afghanistan. The National Security Council (NSC) was trying to package the Afghan strategy into a plausible policy to end the war. The State Department was trying to negotiate with the Taliban, but with little leverage.
In sum, the U.S. policy was to continue to ensure the survival of the Afghan government in the short term, without a long-term plan to make sure the order left in place was sustainable.
I think soldiers saw through this, but in the end, they tended to fight for their brothers in arms in the field, rather than grand policy ideas. Some felt personally committed to Afghanistan after spending many years at war there. And some, of course, found it hard to let go of life at war after so many years experiencing it.
In terms of the narrative that the U.S. needs to be in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks, it is clear that many soldiers are skeptical. A range of ranks have questioned the argument, including recently retired Special Forces general Donald Bolduc, who argued in an op-ed that there’s no basis to this claim.
The book closes on President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which the current Biden administration is reviewing. There are fewer U.S. forces in Afghanistan than at any point since the very start of the war, but it’s unclear, at this juncture, what happens next. Do you see parallels between 2015 and 2020? Has the covert war continued?
I think the parallels could be between 2015 and 2021.
The year 2020 was unique, in that the Taliban have avoided — with one or two exceptions — major, headline-seizing attacks on provincial capitals.
The Trump deal of course does not provide for a reduction in violence overall, but it seems there is a tacit agreement by the Taliban not to embarrass the U.S. by over-running major cities as it has done in the past.
What is concerning is that the Taliban appear to have been consolidating and building up in areas around major cities, making them appear vulnerable if the Taliban do decide to attack.
If this happens, the U.S. will likely be dragged in because the Afghan government has proved unable to win these fights without support (including intelligence, logistics, and, of course, air support). With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, there will be less scope for the U.S. to back Afghan forces if this happens. If the Taliban attack in multiple places at the same time, the U.S. might have to choose which place to try to save.
Even if it has enough Special Forces teams, it seems unlikely to have enough air support to fight in several places at once.
And last: One particularly wrenching section recounts that a bomb-sniffing dog which missed an explosive received greater media attention than the man who lost his leg in the explosion. What does that say about how the American public has been, by and large, disconnected from the war?
I think it’s the deliberate result of an effort by U.S. politicians to keep the war out of the headlines.
Since the Obama years, U.S. politicians have not wanted to discuss the wars. Journalists find that it is easier these days to organize an embed with the Taliban than with the U.S. or Afghan government. This is because the U.S. doesn’t want the media talking about the war, reporting on what is going on, or drawing attention to it.
The war is unpopular, but the establishment — and let’s not forget the defense industry — believe that it is too risky to leave Afghanistan. It is politically expedient to try to get the public to forget about it, and the way to do that is block access to journalists and refuse to disclose basic information about what the U.S. is doing, even when U.S. lives are lost.
While part of the responsibility lies with the U.S. government, the media is also to blame, because few news organizations are still invested in covering the Afghanistan war. After 20 years, it does not generate income, and bureaus in Kabul are expensive to maintain. Articles about the war after 20 years generate few clicks, and the media closely tracks their online audiences.
We forget that journalism is also a public good, and sometimes covering stories may not be profitable but is the right thing to do.