Afghanistan and the second rise of the Taliban: an interview with former NCIS agent Craig Covert

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Since last August the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan after the US withdrew their troops. To understand what happened and why, we invited former NCIS agent Craig Covert for an interview; Covert is also a Pentagon responder and we made a first interview with him about 9/11 a few years ago.

We would like to thanks Craig Covert for his kindness and help.

Undicisettembre: Would you like to tell us something about your mission to Afghanistan? What role did you have and what were the most striking aspects of Afghanistan back then?

Craig Covert:
In 2011, I was deployed with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, or II MEF (Fwd), to Kabul, Afghanistan, where I was assigned as the United States Marine Corps Liaison Officer to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Not many people were aware that the DEA had a field office in north Kabul aboard a small Afghan compound just several miles from the Kabul International and military Airport. DEA’s mission was to train and mentor Afghan counter-narcotics police, known as the NIU or National Interdiction Unit, as well as Afghan investigators from the Special Investigations Unit, or SIU. Though mentored and trained by the DEA, NIU and SIU were Afghan led and run, reporting to their own Afghan chain of command.The DEA agents in Kabul were similarly supervised by their own executives, and despite working in close proximity with the NIU and SIU daily, lived in a separate compound housed within the larger NIU/SIU base. This location was ideally situated to give the DEA and NIU/SIU teams independence of movement, by virtue of their separation from the larger, bureaucratic coalition forces situated at the airport, the Embassy and the various US military FOB’s (forward operating base) in Kabul.

As you well know, the Taliban funded many of their operations through the export and sale of illicit opium products that were produced in the poppy-fields of Afghanistan, mostly growing in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand to the south.As such, the NIU and SIU were learning not only how to identify and dismantle large, well-run drug labs, but also how to conduct complex drug investigations and how to cultivate informants and utilize technology in the exercise of those operations.Drug investigations can be highly complex, especially when targeting the dangerous drug networks that were spread throughout the provinces.

DEA utilized and deployed small strike force teams in the various Provinces, and were almost always embedded with a larger U.S. or coalition military unit. The strike force teams were manned by a small team of DEA agents who trained and mentored squad-sized units of NIU paramilitary troops. Often, the existing military units in a particular area were already aware of drug labs in the vicinities of their patrols or operations and were eager to embed the DEA/NIU teams into their patrols to handle not only drug lab encounters, but also to sweep up and arrest high profile drug targets who were identified during operational planning. DEA was far more directly involved in the on-ground military operations than most U.S. civilian organizations, as they embedded directly with Marine Corps and Army units.

As the liaison to the DEA, it was my job to coordinate and de-conflict DEA operations in Helmand Province, where the Marines of II MEF (Fwd) were living and operating. As the Province with the most active drug operations and investigations in the 2011/2012 timeframe, DEA recognized a need for having an on-ground Liaison Officer who could introduce a law enforcement perspective during military operational planning events. The military understood the rule of law, as dictated by their chain of command, but few career military planners had any understanding of drug investigations; the legalities of search and seizure; or the utilization of pen registers, trap and trace operations or informants.

Weekly, I would fly to Helmand to meet with the C-3 Operations cell and coordinate in the planning of operations against the Haqqani drug network, a major source of Taliban funding. As such, the Marine Corps was very interested in suppressing the drug trade in Helmand, knowing every dollar obtained by the Taliban through the export and sale of opium would be used to purchase another bullet that would potentially be aimed at US Marines.

Undicisettembre: The next inevitable question is, was what happened in the last weeks and months the only way to end this war? Was this the only inescapable conclusion?

Craig Covert:I believe the situation that occurred this summer was preventable, but only had the U.S. and her coalition partners maintained an indefinite presence in Afghanistan.History has proven that no matter how well-armed and financed an occupying force is, the will of the Afghan people will always outlive the perseverance of the military force attempting to tame them. The British attempted to colonize Afghanistan in the 1800’s and suffered miserably during the Anglo Afghan wars.In 1979, the Soviet Union conducted an invasion of Afghanistan that eventually led to a withdrawal and absolute failure, eerily similar to ours. It is often referred to in Russia as “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.”

While we could have stayed and continued to fund and maintain the Afghan National Army (ANA) indefinitely, there was no political will to do so within the Biden Administration. The high financial cost has always been a lightning rod within the US Congress, and after 20 years, many Americans and politicians alike felt it was time to bring our troops home. Unfortunately, the President appears to have conducted a premature withdrawal that was clearly not in line with the recommendations of his most senior military advisors. The failure was exemplified with the unexpected withdrawal of US forces from Baghram Airbase under the cover of darkness, with troops leaving behind millions of items. They included everything from insignificant bottles of water, MRE’s and office furniture to hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of civilian vehicles.

One could easily argue the beginning of the end actually goes back to 2014 when US forces turned over the massive forward operating base in Helmand Province, or “Camp Leatherneck”, to the ANA. Although the ANA technically took possession of the base, Leatherneck remained mostly deserted, as well as looted, thus leaving large swaths of land in the Province open to the return of the Taliban. To the east, the forward operating base in Khandahar slowly downsized and eventually closed her doors in 2021, leaving the entire southern region occupied by poorly led ANA forces with a minimal footprint.It came of little surprise that the Taliban quickly filled the vacuum created by the disappearance of coalition troops, and much like US politicians, the ANA had no will to continue the fight against them. As the Taliban presence grew, the provinces slowly returned to their old ways of life, plowing under the western-recommended wheat and cultivating new poppy fields. With the poppy, the Taliban once again had a steady source of income with which to finance their militias.

The hasty withdrawal of forces from Kabul absolutely emboldened the Taliban, who conquered Province after Province with lightning speed. All of the warning signs were there, but apparently those in charge of the Pentagon and the White House were asleep at the helm.Despite gathering at the outskirts of the city, I do not believe the Taliban would have entered Kabul had American personnel remained. Unfortunately, American politicians have no stomach for war. They only see diminishing polling percentages and short-lived careers in their current jobs. Today, American exceptionalism is measured in votes, nothing more. Hence, an immediate, unexpected and hastily conducted withdrawal was executed.Without an administration that was willing to sacrifice for the good of the Afghan government and her people, it was an inevitable conclusion.

Undicisettembre: Let's set the point straight on who made the worst mistakes on this: was it the previous administration by signing the peace deal with the Taliban or the incumbent one by withdrawing from Afghanistan so fast?

Craig Covert: Blame lies partially with both administrations, although it was indeed President Biden who made the ultimate decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan.While it is true that President Trump started the downfall by signing the Doha Agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan(Taliban), it can be argued that the agreement with a group that is not officially recognized by the United States cannot be considered valid and can, as a matter of record, be invalidated for good cause.

Many believe that had President Trump still been in power, he would have maintained a nominal presence of troops at KIA, if only to protect our military interests, assets and civilians still living in Kabul. What could have or would have happened had Trump been reelected will never be known, but what cannot be denied is which President ordered the actual that occurred in 2021.

President Biden had an opportunity to escape from the Doha agreement based on the failed Afghan peace talks, but for whatever reason, he chose not to do so. Unfortunately, President Biden was the Commander in Chief when the decision to withdraw was made. Therefore, the blame must rest with him and those General’s who failed to argue against his decision.It should be noted, however, that even General’s cannot make the decisions for POTUS – they can only advise. Ultimately, it is the civilian Commander in Chief – namely the President of the United States, who makes the call.

Recently, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Generals Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commander of Central Command respectively, all reported President Biden had been given recommendations to leave between 2,500 and 4,000 American troops on-ground. While America certainly had the military might and technology to keep the Taliban at bay and from taking over Kabul, at least for the short term, the President’s politically charged short-sightedness clearly led to the Taliban quickly taking Kabul. The President failed to grasp what nearly every military man and woman who’d served in Afghanistan already knew – if we left Afghanistan in the hands of the ANA without our support, they were doomed to fail.

Undicisettembre: How come the Afghan army collapsed so fast?

Craig Covert: There were many issues leading to the collapse of Afghanistan, with far too many to list. However, I will touch on a few.First, Afghanistan was never a country to be conquered by a foreign invader, for it isn’t a “country” in the sense that we as westerners think of a country. There is little to no sense of national unity. Afghanistan is truly a conglomeration of tribes and warlords, peasants and politicians, most of whom will fight for their tribe or clan before fighting for their government. Their true loyalty lies with the tribe, clan and group, not the capitol or political leadership. One may speak Pashto or Dari, or one of a dozen different dialects.In fact, Pashtun nationalism is believed to be as great as, if not greater than, political nationalism. This very real lack of national identity creates walls when soldiers and politicians from your country’s ruling government cannot even speak the same language as you or your neighbors. How can one expect national programs to work when dictated by one tribe or clan to another? It doesn’t. As with a lack of national identity, the value of western styled democracy falls on deaf ears throughout the provinces. One cannot introduce a constitutional republic, complete with its western business opportunities and expectations to be accepted by an Afghan national overnight, considering the history of Afghanistan. Westernization is a foreign concept to most Afghans, just as the 1700’s Samurai leadership of Japan would be unfathomable to Americans today.

Corruption within the civilian and military leadership was certainly a factor in the collapse of Afghanistan. We empowered warlords to garner provincial cooperation; we overlooked bribery among politicians; we allowed the Afghan government to by-pass safeguards against the smuggling of cash from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. For every pair of boots we gave to an Afghan Commander for his troops, a certain percentage ended up at the local bazaar, often sold by the Commander himself, with troops showing up to formation in slippers and sandals. Corruption was and remains wide-spread and a lack of will, combined with the lack of resources, to stop the corruption simply led to a deteriorating system of government that would never stand on its own for very long.

The collapse of the ANA itself was always on the mind of every soldier or Marine who had served with them. While there are certainly exceptions, most troops had little confidence in the abilities and the capabilities of the ANA, many of whom were illiterate, poorly educated, or who simply failed to show up for duty at specified places and times. The biggest worry among US forces was the tepid will of the average soldier, which seemed to come and go with no apparent reason beyond how hard the soldier was pushed or how difficult his mission was presumed to be.

There is an old adage that goes something like this:“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” There couldn’t be a better explanation for the ANA’s failure. The US and our partners spoon-fed the ANA, day in and day out, for twenty years. We provided them with resources; we effectively paid their salaries. We allowed the ANA to place incapable and ineffective leaders within their ranks without saying anything for fear of offending them. We provided all logistical resources and combat equipment used by their units, from uniforms to small arms and vehicles. The ANA never took true “ownership” of their end-item equipment when it came to maintenance and caring for that equipment. American service members are expected to master their military occupational specialties and become experts in their field after the first three years of their enlistment, which results in advancement in rank and responsibility. Yet somehow, despite giving the ANA twenty years worth of training and equipment, they mastered little. It all boiled down to dependency. As long as US and coalition forces provided the beans, bullets and band-aids, maintained the vehicles and weapons and babysat the ANA on every patrol and route reconnaissance, the ANA would stay nothing more than a uniformed group of individuals who collected a semi-reliable paycheck, but were ineffective on their own as a fighting force. This became apparent when the ANA quickly laid down its arms at the first hint of an oncoming Taliban offensive. We created a monster that all of the money in the world couldn’t fix.

Undicisettembre: As far as you know are the Taliban in possession of American vehicles and weapons? If so, how come that happened?

Craig Covert: Absolutely! It only takes a quick search on YouTube, social media or any reputable online news agency to find dozens of videos proving US assets fell into the hands of the Taliban. Uniforms, armor, radios, vehicles, trucks, armored personnel carriers, munitions…. the list is endless. Naysayers will state that US troops ensured that the armored vehicles and aircraft at KIA were disabled before the pullout, and that may be true, but those actions have no bearing on the thousands of vehicles, the tens of thousands of weapons, nor the millions of rounds of small ammunition that were captured by the Taliban from surrendering ANA forces who simply dropped or handed over the equipment without a fight. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has effectively outfitted the Taliban with enough gear and weaponry to become a formidable military force that we will one day have to face on the battlefield.

Undicisettembre: The Taliban are somehow presenting themselves as more modern and maybe more moderate than before. In my opinion they are just faking it and they will prove themselves as violent as they were in the 90s. What do you think, are they somehow reliable in this case?

Craig Covert: The Taliban have proven themselves dishonest and disingenuous and were not in power for more than several weeks before showing their true colors. Barbershops can no longer cut men’s beards or play music.Convicted “prisoners” (for what crimes we may never know) have been strung up beneath cranes and displayed throughout Kabul. Women have been denied schooling and are being segregated from men throughout the city. Interpreters and others who worked for or alongside the US and former Afghan government have been hunted down and executed. The short answer to the question is apparent - the Taliban have never been reliable or truthful and will certainly mimic the fundamentalist savagery they displayed 2 decades ago.

Undicisettembre: One important difference that I see with respect to the past is that while the Taliban used to be allies with al-Qaeda, now ISIS Khorasan is their enemy therefore they probably won't allow the terrorists to build and run their bases. What do you think of this? Can this be an important difference?

Craig Covert: Certainly there will be factions of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan who consider other radical Islamist organizations their enemy, even if both consider the US their common enemy. It would be naïve to think that ISIS-K would submit to the Taliban and vice versa, as both wish to assume power within the country. Much like the divide between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq, or for that matter, the divide between ISIS Iraq and the Iraqi Government, Islam alone will not be enough to bring ISIS-K and the Taliban into partnership. I believe the US and her allies will continue to covertly target elements of ISIS-K in the near future should they exhibit any threat toward western civilians in Afghanistan, with the inevitable targeting of Taliban forces should they continue to tamp down on the freedoms of the Afghan people. I do not believe it will be long before we see the Taliban’s first offensive movement against groups of westerners still remaining within her borders.

Undicisettembre: Isn't it unfair to say the war was lost by the US? I mean, the reason why the US went to Afghanistan was to destroy terrorists' bases, which they did and another 9/11-like attack is now unlikely. What do you think?

Craig Covert: The last war won by the US was World War II. America withdrew her forces from Korea following the signing of the Korean Armistice in 1953. America left Vietnam following the signing of the Case-Church Amendment in 1973, officially ending US involvement. This resulted in the failure of the Paris Peace Accord and the eventual capture of Saigon. Since that time, America has done a great job winning battles, but winning wars has become a lost art. Some will argue that America and her allies “won” Desert Storm (the Gulf War), but Saddam Hussein remained in power and the war was reignited only a decade later.

It was not unexpected that once again, American politicians would bow to the will of the people (aka: the power of the vote) and withdraw her forces from Afghanistan.What was unexpected by most was the manner in which it was done and the speed of the withdrawal. In my opinion, it was done without forethought and thorough planning; in haste and with reckless disregard for the interpreters and Afghan civilians who’d previously assisted US forces.

We left before credible governance was accepted by her own people. We left an Afghanistan that was either unable, or perhaps unwilling to save itself from the Taliban.

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