9-11, Afghanistan and NSTR
As America sat perplexed, confused, and possibly angry as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the inevitable occurred. Many started to ask, “was it worth it?” While the author of this article feels this is the wrong question most should ask, there was no stopping the pundits, academics, and politicians from using service member’s emotions as a battering ram to criticize certain actions or to predict the future of national security.
Every service member will have to ask themselves whether their time spent in Afghanistan, or any other place, was worth their efforts. This may be a case where time is better spent looking at individual actions rather than the sum of a whole deployment. Did we serve honorably? Were we focused on doing good? Most importantly, did we accomplish the missions we were given in a manner that would make America proud of us?
In the summer of 2014, I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as the Senior Intelligence Officer for Regional Command-South with the 1st Cavalry Division. We were given the mission to secure the provincial elections, train Afghan military forces, retrograde the US Marine Forces from Helmand Province and retrograde all US base in Kandahar Province to the US held Kandahar Airfield. We were given four specific missions to accomplish and under the leadership of then Major General Michael Bills, we accomplished them very well and met the criteria above. If one looks at the whole, did that successful deployment lead to what occurred recently? Looking at the whole, it’s easy to see one could be confused or not be able to answer that question and feel like they contributed. If one looks at the thousands of individual acts by brave servicewomen and men, it becomes very easy.
The morning of October 8, 2014 was like many. I would wake at 0430 and get to my office in the secure facility for my morning update from the team. First Lieutenant Lisa Biancalana, my night Operations Officer, would be waiting. As per routine, she would hand me a card of all the significant activity over the last 24 to 48 hours and provide our analysts assessments. These “SIGACTS” would give me an understanding of the barometer of threat in our area of operations.
Our forces had completed the retrograde of bases and the US Marines and had fought several battles to keep Kandahar secure. The Robin Hood like figure Abdul Raziq was still alive and the 205th Afghan National Army had been very successful. Our Special Operations forces, in conjunction with Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) had made tremendous gains. Yet everyone on the staff remained skeptical. We kept looking at the sum, not the math.
As 1LT Biancalana slid the 5x8 card across my desk, I picked it up and everything seemed to stop. There was the map of Kandahar and the acronym “SIGACTS” on the upper right-hand side. Underneath SIGACTS was another acronym “NSTR” or “nothing significant to report.” For months the right-hand side would be filled with reports of threats, explosions, killings, and all the actions of war that make it cruel. What I had failed to notice was that we had gone from months of having to pick from hundreds of daily reports to just a few.
I asked my Operations Officer, “Is this it? Do you mean nothing happen? That can’t be true, this is Kandahar.” Her reply was to take a deep breath and look across the desk and say, “Sir, it’s true, nothing happened in the last 24-48.” Everyone was tired, and we needed a victory. Even if it were just a morale one. I just said, “Let’s take it to the Commander.”
Each morning Major General Bills would assemble the staff and other Commanders for the morning “operations and intelligence update.” As everyone sat around the large “U” shaped conference table, I showed my card to then Colonel Steve Gilland, the Division Chief of Staff. His response was similar to mine and I simply said, “it’s true.”
As Major General Bills entered the room, he started the meeting the same as always, “what do you have for us today G2?” I gave 1LT Biancalana a slight head nod and she said, “Sir, the CJ2 has nothing significant to report over the last 24 to 48 hours.” The paused look on his face was what one would expect, confusion, disbelief, and then realization. Similar expressions resonated across the entire group. Some stared, some took deep breaths and some even smiled a bit.
For almost seven months US, Australian, Allied and Afghan forces had worked every day to achieve something, and we didn’t even see it coming. For at least two days that year, nothing bad happened. Kids likely played outside with little fear, Afghans walked the streets and none of them died. While this may seem limited in scope and time, it is exactly what we needed. We had done it. Two days of peace became seven and seven days became twenty-one days. Although the inevitable attack by small elements of the Taliban occurred in Helmand province, for three weeks we had made a difference.
Three weeks may not seem like much to us, but it did for the Afghans.
“Nothing significant to report, Sir.”