“Tell us about Mark.” It was a simple request born of a search for answers to a seemingly intractable conflict.
Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar was 37 years old when he was killed in eastern Afghanistan on April 8 while fighting the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (“ISKP”). The husband and father of five was helping to root out this latest cancer menacing a desolate land that has bred terror attacks against the United States and around the world.
Three days after Mark’s death (and two days before the US dropped the MOAB bomb on an ISKP cave complex), I, along with several colleagues from the House of Representatives, was in an austere office at a U.S. military forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan. We were there for an update on coalition efforts against Al-Qaeda and ISKP, as well as Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban.
I asked about Mark because it was important for us to hear, on a personal level, from one of the base officers about how the Afghan war continues to impact American soldiers and their families.
Mark’s death happened in one of the most hostile places on earth. It is a mountainous region along the eastern border with Pakistan where 20 of the 98 UN-designated international terrorist organizations have a presence. Mark was engaged in a battle that inflicted heavy losses on ISKP. Tragically, enemy fire hit Mark, and he fell, becoming the latest of nearly 2,400 service members since 2001 that have made the ultimate sacrifice fighting terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
No issue haunts policymakers more than the death or wounding of U.S. service members. More than 15 years since the September 11 attacks, America’s work in Afghanistan remains incomplete. In the early- and mid-2000s, American forces conducted continuous operations throughout the country. These efforts allowed Afghanistan the space to establish governmental institutions and hold elections, notwithstanding ongoing corruption and a persistent Taliban insurgency.
President Obama pivoted from Iraq to Afghanistan with a surge of his own, dramatically increasing American troop presence between 2009 and 2012. At the peak of the surge, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which was reflected in increased American casualties. Between 2001 and 2008, we lost 532 service members related to the Afghanistan conflict. From 2009 to 2012, we lost more than 1,500.
The Obama administration drew down to the current troop level following the signing of a bilateral security agreement in 2014, giving the United States a counter-terrorism and train, advise and assist mission. There was an expectation that U.S. troop levels would be down to 5,000 by the end of 2016. With a resurgent Taliban, however, President Obama reconfigured his plans and left 8,448 U.S. troops in the country as his presidency closed.
While Afghanistan remains a chaotic land, with the Taliban having control of nearly a third of the population, it is a vastly different country from the one our troops first saw in the fall and early winter of 2001, when the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul. As career diplomat and current Ambassador Hugo Llorens explained to us, there was not much of a country in 2001.
Basic services of water and electricity were irregular, at best, in cities. Education was nearly non-existent and closed to girls altogether. There was no police or army. The Taliban conducted a reign of terror while allowing safe havens for international terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Today, the lights are on in Kabul, more than 8 million Afghan children, nearly 40% of whom are girls, are in school, and there are functioning governmental ministries as well as a functioning, though imperfect, police and military.
None of this would have occurred but for the heartbreaking sacrifice of our service members and their families.
Despite the gains, corruption continues to be a problem, and both U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Afghanistan told us the country’s most serious challenges involve the drug trade and its neighbor, Pakistan.
Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin. While the heroin used in America today comes from Mexico, Afghanistan’s continued production contributes to a global supply that has pushed down the price of the drug.
As bad as the supply of heroin is, of equal concern is what flows back to Afghanistan. The Taliban earns hundreds of millions from the drug trade, and operates a de facto narco-terror state that uses drug proceeds to fund its own operations, which include providing Al-Qaeda cover in Taliban territory.
Drug eradication efforts have waned along with the surge drawdown. According to U.S. embassy officials, in last year’s harvest, Afghanistan eradicated only 355 of the more than 200,000+ hectacres of poppies. Interdiction efforts fared a little better. Last year, Afghanistan was able to intercept $200 million, or 10%, of the supply. Much more work needs to be done, and the U.S. and the world community must not let up on counter-terrorism and illicit finance measures. As a member of the newly-created Terrorism and Illicit Finance Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues to do everything we can to interrupt the flow of drug and terror money.
As for Pakistan, complaints about it were common among U.S. personnel we met. Pakistan has allowed the Taliban and the Haqqani Network haven and allowed them to cross the border freely. Last year, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee reviewed Pakistan’s conduct in Afghanistan and highlighted serious concerns with Pakistan’s conduct. It is time for a renewed focus on the United States’ relationship with Pakistan, from foreign aid to assessing whether Pakistan is a state sponsor of terror.
We continue to face hard choices in Afghanistan. American service members and their families have paid a tremendous price over the past 15 years. But we left Afghanistan before, after the Cold War, and we know what happened. With renewed pressure on Pakistan and continued strategic support to those Afghans willing to fight for a better future, this is no time to give up.
“Tell us about Mark.” It wasn’t the third sentence of his reply before the officer with decades of experience caught a lump in his throat. It was a tender moment of grief, in a remote forward operating base thousands of miles from the place where a family in Maryland is experiencing a personal and much deeper grief. God help us. God bless our troops. And God especially bless, console and protect the families of our service members who have been so faithful in supporting this mission through unbelievable hardship.
Keith Rothfus represents Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District and serves on the House Financial Services Committee (FSC) as well as the FSC Subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance.