27 May 2009

The War in Afghanistan

The War in Afghanistan
Date: Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 3:38 PM

Along the Durand Line, Northeast Afghanistan
The view from the Karir Pass on the Durand Line separating Afghanistan from Pakistan is spectacular. To the west, a river meanders toward the city of Jalalabad. To the east, Pakistani towns lie amidst emerald green swaths of farmland that stretch to the horizon. I am accompanying Lt. Col. Mark O’Donnell, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 32nd Infantry Regiment, and his scout platoon on a visit to the Pakistani outpost, 100 miles northeast of Kabul. Although their post has a panoramic view, the Pakistani soldiers say they haven’t challenged anyone crossing the border. They explain that they cannot even visit the nearby Pakistani village, because the Taliban would kill them.

Because the Pakistani (and Afghan) border forces aren’t up to the job, the mission of the 1st Battalion is to control an 80-mile section of the border. But the Durand Line runs for 1,600 miles. Looking down on the valleys on both sides gives an impression of the vastness of the challenge. After leaving the Durand Line, I visit the seasoned French 10th Mountaineer Brigade, operating in the mountains and valleys east of Kabul. I ask their commander what the critical strengths of the Taliban and the ten other fundamentalist gangs opposing him are. “Watchers and information manipulation,” he says, succinctly summarizing the security problem.
By “watchers,” he means the network of sympathizers and sentries, including women and the ubiquitous goat herders, who warn of the approach of NATO forces. When I accompanied patrols with Viper Company of the 26th Infantry Regiment in the Korengal Valley, the interpreters could hear the watchers reporting our movements over handheld radios. The fundamentalists took inaccurate shots at us from 600 meters away and then ducked into ravines when our A-10 jets appeared. This system of over-watch has enabled the enemy to control their casualties in their mountain strongholds, while in the villages their spies intimidate the people, preventing the flow of information to friendly forces.

When I accompanied a U.S.-Afghan army platoon to make a rare arrest in a thriving town north of Kabul, hundreds of unsmiling Afghan males with folded arms gathered around us. Some muttered “feringhee” (foreigner) as I walked past. Well, I was wearing my Red Sox cap in a cricket-playing nation. But who was watching them? “I don’t know what’s in their minds,” First Sgt. Jason Rivas said, staring back at the dispassionate crowd. “I do know the Taliban owns the night. They come and go as they please. We’re rarely out here, and everyone knows when we’re coming.”

Maj. Jason Dempsey, the battalion’s operations officer, showed me pictures of teenagers placing boulders behind U.S. vehicles so they cannot turn around when under attack. The Taliban and other opposition groups appeal to a mixture of tribal jealousies, xenophobia, and Islamic fundamentalism. Yet instead of issuing a nationalist rallying cry to discredit the Taliban, Afghan president Hamid Karzai emphasizes civilian casualties caused by American air attacks. “We don’t have the moral high ground,” Karzai said recently, while comfortably ensconced in a TV studio in Washington, D.C. A weak leader likely to be reelected for another five-year term in August, Karzai is politically tone-deaf. He reinforces the disinformation campaign of the Taliban, instead of developing messages that undercut theirs. Despite little fighting and very low casualties by Afghan or other historical measures, his administration has lost ground to the Taliban and like-minded fundamentalists. A shadow government has gradually emerged in large swaths of the rural areas.

In response, over the past year, the U.S. military in Regional Command East, around Kabul and to its north and east, has adopted the Petraeus model from Iraq and deployed over 100 U.S. and Afghan companies in outposts among the population. This maneuver has reestablished some control, as evidenced by a drop in violence affecting civilians. But the Americans are still foreigners controlling a population that, fearing retribution, rarely offers information that identifies the fundamentalists. In Iraq in 2007, Gen. David Petraeus presided over a shift in Sunni attitudes that led to a steady flow of information against al-Qaeda. Nothing similar has happened in Afghanistan. Until the local population decides to inform, the government in Kabul faces a serious problem.

In Regional Command South, including the key poppy-growing centers and the city of Kandahar, the security situation is worse. But 10,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines are surging into that area to clear the populated zones and then turn over the task of population protection to Afghan forces. By the fall, they can be expected to push back the Taliban. But what happens after that? How will Kabul solidify the gains?

On May 11, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replaced the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Changing commanders had less to do with redirecting strategy than with strengthening teamwork. In March, President Obama had announced a new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy that sounded like a continuation of the Bush policy. At that time, Bruce Riedel, Obama’s point man on Afghanistan, stressed that the president had laid out “a strategy” and that “it’s not intended to be a campaign plan.”
Not picking up on the clear signal that a campaign plan was necessary but still missing,

McKiernan failed to produce one. Petraeus, when in Iraq, had issued clear letters of his intent to all the soldiers. In contrast, McKiernan did not share his vision with his soldiers. He remained aloof and detached from his troops and from Washington. So Gates, in a shift that showed the power of Petraeus behind the scenes, selected some aggressive but compatible personalities. McChrystal had worked closely with Petraeus, Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Because they are comfortable with one another, these four men share perspectives candidly. Soon there will be five: Adm. James Stavridis has just been appointed NATO commander. For the past three years, he has served as U.S. commander for Latin America, dealing with the drug wars. That experience is critically needed in Afghanistan, which is a major opium producer.

Gates must insist that either Mullen or Petraeus provide an objective risk assessment, independent of McChrystal. By way of analogy, every corporate board of trustees has an assigned risk assessor. Some senior general must remain detached enough from the day-to-day diplomatic and military crises in Afghanistan to warn if the strategy writ large is going awry.
As for the military campaign plan itself, it has still not been written. “Our mission,” Gates said, “requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders.” Does that mean that the deployment into outposts was a mistake — or that the Marines are wrong to try to clear the populated areas and then transition population protection to Afghan forces? No: The basic concepts appear sound. But operations are proceeding at a slow pace, because the size and bulk of each unit leaving the bases is large in order to minimize casualties.

So what “new approaches” should be included in the campaign plan? The first step is to agree that the goal is not to win, but to turn the war over to the Afghans. Many — perhaps most — Afghans have become accustomed to letting America and NATO do most of the fighting for them and deliver economic improvements. At the same time, they want to keep their distance from foreigners, accommodate the fundamentalists, and cling to the tribal values challenged by modernity. How do we put Afghans in the lead in their own country, to settle their own differences, while not losing the country to fundamentalists intent on attacking us?

There are two basic options. First, we can put more resources and urgency into the standard counterinsurgency approach. Militarily, this means recruiting more local militia at the village level. Once the overt Taliban fighters are pushed out of a populated area, a force has to come in to impose order, and that includes arresting seditionists. The traditional solution would call for improving the wretched police and installing American civilians to advise (and supervise) the district and provincial officials and thus strengthen the sinews of government. This approach would take several more years and several hundred million dollars not yet budgeted.

The second approach is more radical: strengthen the Afghan military as the backbone of government. Since the war cannot be won by killing the fundamentalists, they must be separated from the population. That is not happening. The U.S. holds about 600 prisoners in Afghanistan. Another 400 are held in the central Afghan prison. The number of enemy fighters imprisoned is absurdly disproportionate to the violence and intimidation — and amounts to a severe critique of intelligence and police effectiveness.

The enemy lives somewhere; it needs housing, food, transportation, resupply, etc. We have not trained Afghan units to acquire and run agents at the village and district levels, and to arrest the supporters of the fundamentalists. Our Special Operations Forces and CIA do a good job with the high-level enemy operatives, but the lower-level agents are walking around free and without fear. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and 13,000 Americans were arrested under martial law. There must be a similarly stiff penalty for sedition, and knowledge among the population that the Afghan government has agents, a net of informers, a military that makes arrests, and adequate prisons.

The U.S. should fund a pension plan to allow the quick retirement with dignity of a raft of superannuated Afghan officers who are performing poorly but have no means of living if they retire. In return, the U.S. should insist on joint U.S.-Afghan promotion boards for Afghan military and police officers at the company command level and above. As it stands now, our advisers can tell which leaders are poor or corrupt — but they can do little about it.

The police cannot function without a military umbrella, but the military can function as police. Instead of moving frequently, Afghan battalions should remain for years in one locale, so they become acquainted with the local politics. The police should be placed under army control. The army can also supervise the services supposedly provided by district and provincial officials.

This is a step back from the democratic model by which the Eastern European nations emerged from Communism. It points toward Turkey or Pakistan, or Mexico until recently. The American goal, however, is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming again a sanctuary for Islamic fundamentalists. The Afghan army, the nation’s most respected institution, is already working hand in hand with our military and offers the fastest means of reducing our burden in that country.

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