Toyota war wagons, take 3!

The vehicle in question. (Credit: US Army via Task & Purpose)

The military-focused website Task & Purpose brings us a new chapter in the never-ending saga of apparently indestructible Toyota trucks on the world’s dusty battlefields.

I first wrote about this exactly six years ago when it became clear to US anti-terrorism officials that ISIS was really fond of Toyota pickups. They just couldn’t figure out how they got their hands on them. Apparently, with ISIS monopolizing the supply of Toyotas, other jihadist groups in Syria had to look elsewhere for their war wagon needs, like scoring a used Ford F-250 traded in at a dealership in Houston.

When tricked-out Toyotas showed up on both sides of the Yemeni civil war in 2018, I wrote about that too. As I noted in 2015, the Toyota Hilux and Toyota Land Cruisers have long enjoyed devoted fan bases across the rebel-jihadist-insurgent-revolutionary-guerrilla spectrum, not to mention cash-strapped militaries.

So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find this new story, which unfolds at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during August’s hurried evacuation of Americans and allies from Afghanistan.

Here’s the details, as reported by T&P:

Most of the security posts around the perimeter of the airport had been abandoned, said Lt. Col. Andy Harris, commander of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Soldiers with the battalion quickly set about bolstering the airport’s defenses, yet the situation remained volatile — Taliban fighters were just meters away, outside the airport’s gates — and much of the equipment they’d typically use, like heavy vehicles and machine guns, had yet to arrive at the airport.

What they did have, however, was a green pickup truck outfitted with an anti-aircraft gun. 

The obvious question, of course, is how American paratroopers managed to get their hands on a fully tricked out Toyota technical. Well, apparently, they traded for it. Two cans of “dip,” i.e. smokeless tobacco, to be exact. Skoal, brother!

Task & Purpose continues the story:

Because Harris and his soldiers were some of the first to arrive in Kabul, they were light on equipment. The focus was getting troops into Kabul, he said, which meant there wasn’t much room for “our heavy equipment or vehicles with our heavy machine guns.” 

“We just had our basic weapons, we didn’t have any heavy machine guns, any gun trucks or anything,” said [Iraqi-born] Pfc. [Alsajjad] Al Lami.

But the Afghan forces had their own gear, including an olive green Afghan National Army truck mounted with a Russian-made 14.5mm ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun. On Aug. 17, when the Afghan troops informed Bravo Company that they were moving to another area of the airport, the paratroopers asked if they wouldn’t mind handing over the keys. 

“There were two guys standing by the truck, and we asked them if they had the keys,” Al Lami said. “They were like, ‘Yeah we do have the keys.’ And they gave us the keys for two cans of dip.”

This whole episode may end up memorialized at the 82nd Airborne Division Museum at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. If the unit gets permission to bring it into the United States, that is.

Yes, the Taliban has terrorists in its government (but that’s not unusual)

The Taliban announced the makeup of an interim government the other day, and what should have been to no-one’s surprise, it is made up of figures notable for their close ties to the movement’s late founder, holdovers from the last time the Taliban held power, and a host of hardliners who made their reputations during the last 20 years of insurgency.

In that mix are terrorists.

For example, Sirajuddin Haqqani is the new interim interior minister. He is the head of the Haqqani network (a US-designated terrorist organization), which has been carrying out brutal terrorist attacks across Afghanistan for the last two decades, including a 2017 truck bomb in Kabul that killed and injured hundreds of Afghan civilians. The FBI has a $10 million bounty on his head for information leading to his arrest.

Khalil Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s uncle, is acting minister for refugees. Another leader of the Haqqani network, the FBI has a $5 million bounty on him because of his past ties to al Qaeda. Four former Guantanamo Bay detainees have landed senior government positions as well. These all had been mid- to high-level officials in the old Taliban regime who were captured early in the US war. They were released in a 2014 prisoner exchange.

Interim Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund is under United Nations and European Union sanctions for his close ties to the Taliban’s founders and his role as a military commander. Interim Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, in addition to serving as a key diplomat, was also a senior military leader coordinating attacks on US and coalition forces during the war.

So yes, the Taliban’s new acting government includes terrorists. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow unprecedented. Let’s look at some examples.

Israel is perhaps the quintessential example of terrorists turned government leaders, at the highest levels. Menachem Begin, who became Israel’s sixth prime minister in 1977, assumed leadership of the Zionist terrorist organization Irgun in 1944 and was the architect of its violent campaign against British occupation of Palestine. Under Begin’s leadership, Irgun was responsible for an escalating series of attacks on government offices and police stations. The most infamous of those attacks was a direct strike against Britain’s administrative and military establishment which was based at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Begin ordered the bombing of the King David, which resulted in the destruction of a wing of the building and the killing of 91 people, mostly British, Arabs, and Jews.

In 1983 Begin was succeeded as prime minister by Yitzhak Shamir, who was himself a former terrorist, a leader of Lehi, also called the Stern Gang, a more militant offshoot of Irgun. Under Shamir’s leadership, Lehi carried out a series of assassinations including that of Lord Moyne, the British Minister for Middle East Affairs. Shamir also ordered the assassination of one of his fellow terrorist leaders, Eliyahu Giladi, the culmination of an internal dispute over strategy.

In January 1947, members of Lehi drove a truck loaded with explosives into a British police station in Haifa, killing four and wounding 140. It is thought to be the first truck bomb in the history of terrorism. A little more than a year later, in a combined operation, Irgun and Lehi terrorists staged an attack on the Palestinian Arab village of Deir Yassin. The resulting massacre left more than 100 Palestinian civilians dead, including women and children.

Northern Ireland provides yet another example of terrorists moving into the halls of government, and at the highest levels. Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorist Martin McGuinness, served from 2007 to 2017 as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. But before he moved into politics, in the 1970s he led the PIRA in his home city of Derry, later rising to head the PIRA’s Northern Command in the 1980s and a seat on the organization’s seven-member Army Council. And in another piece of delicious irony, former PIRA member Alex Maskey, having moved into electoral politics in the early 1980s, found himself some 20 years later with a seat on Northern Ireland’s Policing Board. A former terrorist overseeing the police.

And let’s not exclude ourselves from this discussion. By today’s definitions, the violent revolutionary movement that we remember as the Sons of Liberty was an anti-British terrorist organization that in the 1760s and 1770s carried out attacks against representatives of the Crown, destroyed Crown property, and assaulted and assassinated prominent loyalists in the American colonies. Many of its most notable members went on to play prominent roles in the American War of Independence and the subsequent government of the new United States.

Our patriots of the founding era, familiar names such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, Christopher Gadsden, and Patrick Henry, got their start as members of or leaders in a terrorist group.

So yes, the new government of Afghanistan is loaded with terrorists. But the Taliban are far from the first to make the leap from terrorist to politician to government. As history shows, they’re just a recent example of a pattern in which we ourselves are a part.

What’s a life worth?

(Credit: US Marine Corps/Reuters via BBC)

According to billionaire mercenary kingpin Erik Prince, it’s $6,500, plus expenses. That’s what he’s charging for a seat on one of his chartered flights out of the chaos that is Kabul Airport.

(The situation may be becoming even more dire for those trying to flee Kabul following an apparent suicide bombing attack this morning at one of the entry gates to the airport. The ISIS -affiliated Islamic State of Greater Khorasan claimed responsibility. More than a dozen were reported killed with many more wounded. UPDATE — Apparently there are a number of US service personnel among the dead and injured.)

Of course this is far from the first time Prince has tried to profit from America’s failing military adventure in Afghanistan. Four years ago this Michigan native son, and brother of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss, proposed a scheme to the Trump Administration in which the Blackwater founder would hire a mercenary army to conquer and pacify Afghanistan on behalf of the United States.

Prince, naturally, would set himself up as Viceroy of Afghanistan, ruling the country in the manner of Britain’s storied East India Company. In fact, this was precisely the model Prince had in mind, a private corporation whose private army would conquer and exploit a country on behalf of the crown. Of course he’d line his own pockets in the process.

As I wrote about in December 2017, one of the ways that Prince sought to profit from his gracious offer to liberate Afghanistan from the burdensome yoke of American bureaucracy was by stealing the mineral wealth of the territories his mercenary army would pacify. According to the pitch he made to the Trump Administration, Prince estimated the value of strategically important minerals at $1 trillion in Helmand Province alone.

It’s a long way from a possible $1 trillion in stolen loot to a measly $6,500 each extorted from people desperate to flee a nightmare, but to Prince’s credit, the vulturine grift goes on. Never say the man stops hustling.

Given this sorry record, it looks like White House press secretary Jen Psaki has captured Prince perfectly:

I don’t think any human being who has a heart and soul would support efforts to profit off of people’s agony and pain if they’re trying to depart a country and fearing for their lives.

As pointed out in The Independent, Prince’s companies made billions of dollars off of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it any surprise he’s found a way to profit from America’s most recent defeat?

The Afghan debacle

Taliban in the presidential palace, Kabul (AP photo)

I certainly didn’t think that this would be the topic that got me back to the blog, but here we are.

Let me caveat this by acknowledging that I’m no expert on Afghanistan, and looking back over the archives here, I see I’ve not written much about it, beyond noting some of the more recent absurdities, like dropping a $16 million “mother of all bombs” on a cave to target a few dozen ISIS-affiliated fighters, or mercenary Erik Prince’s proposal to privatize the war and pay for it by stealing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 2017, I noted that President Trump, with his first policy speech on Afghanistan, was taking ownership of a foreign policy failure that was at that point three presidencies in the making. A year later, his administration entered into peace negotiations with the Taliban (tellingly, the actual Afghan government was not included in the talks), which culminated in a Feb. 2020 agreement in which Trump pledged to remove all US troops by the end of May 2021. In return the Taliban agreed to play nice.

This April President Biden announced that the withdrawal would be carried out in full, but pushed the timeline to the end of this month. We know the rest of the story.

Unlike me, actual experts have had some smart things to say. For example, my friend and fellow academic Steve Saideman, who has written books about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Canada’s experience there, has two new posts over at his blog where he looks at some of the big questions emerging from the Taliban’s victory.

Another academic blogger, Dan Drezner, is well worth reading on the international relations and US foreign policy implications of the fall of Afghanistan. His big takeaways, that the damage to the US here is not in terms of raising doubts about American resolve but rather policy competence, are ones that fully agree with.

I was on the radio less than a week ago repeating what was then the conventional wisdom, that the Afghan government would likely only be able to hold off the Taliban for 90 days or so once the US withdrawal was complete. Turns out it only took six days, with our withdrawal still in process.

What has perhaps been the most shocking to observers, pundits, and policymakers alike is the stunning collapse of the Afghan National Army, one we spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.

The explanation for the largely bloodless conquest of the country over the last several days may lie less in American or Western failures of training or equipping than in a collective failure to understand Afghan society. As Anatol Lieven writes in Politico, the pattern witnessed over the last several weeks, in which Afghan government security forces surrender to Taliban units, often without firing a shot, is one that has persisted since the Soviet occupation and the decades of civil war that followed:

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse. 

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

A lot of smart (and not so smart) people are now going to pivot to the “lessons learned” portion of the American adventure in Afghanistan. Lieven, I think, has the most important part figured out:

The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.