28 September 2011

The View From the Ground in Afghanistan

As Jon Compton notes elsewhere, "winning" is the wrong term when applied to every-shifting conditions. But "winning" is what the US population wants, and at least one Afghanistan veteran says it's not out of reach.

I am an Army Special Forces officer by trade, and spent the past year leading a small team of Dari- and Pashto-speaking Americans whose mission was to embed with Afghan Army units. We went weeks wearing Afghan uniforms and sleeping at tiny outposts, eating local food and staying up late speaking with Afghan soldiers in their own languages. While I can’t pretend to know the intricacies of Afghan-Pakistani politics (nor can most “experts” on the evening news), I can describe the truth on the ground.

The southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were ground zero for the 2010 Afghan surge and the area where we devoted the full weight of our resources and resolve. The headlines hide deeper trends in places where the Taliban until recently enjoyed uncontested rule. Riding around with Afghan soldiers from dozens of different units, we heard one message everywhere: “Last year we couldn’t even move out of the front gate without being shot or blown up. Now we control as far as you can see.”

And the civilian population is starting to stir in these newly reclaimed districts. In little-known places like Arghandab, Panjwai and Nad Ali, Afghans are moving back into their long-abandoned homes. Weekly tribal shuras — like town hall meetings — are beginning to flourish in areas where not even a handful of elders would attend a year ago, for fear of being assassinated. The Taliban are not standing idly by. Pushed out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics, focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian) targets. But we fail to see the subtleties at home.

In May, after one such attack in Kandahar, I joined some Afghan officers watching the local news coverage, expecting looped footage of explosions and chaos. We were all surprised to see four small children, their faces blurred, in an impromptu news conference. They recounted how the Taliban had given them candy and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that they wouldn’t die and that their impoverished families would be provided for.

Regardless of their political views, all Afghans regard children as off limits. That night, watching the children tell how they were recruited, the Afghan captain at my side, a tough Pashtun named Mahmoud, shrugged and said in Dari, “They’re getting desperate.”

h/t Blackcloud 6

By: Brant


ltmurnau said...

"A small team of Dari- and Pashto- speaking Americans" - I think he must have had most of the available supply of such people with him.

This reminds me of the "tribal strategy" another Special Forces officer, Major Jim Gant, got some media and think-tank mileage with, a year or two ago. What happened with that? At least he was not under the illusion that some kind of central and effective governance (you probably won't get either, and you certainly won't get both) will come to Afghanistan.

Major Lujan and his team helped to clear a few districts in the South. Life there is returning to what passes for normal, for now, because yes the Taliban have been pushed out to - where? Well, somewhere else, but they'll be back.

All of ISAF is about 130,000 people right now, most of whom are not combat troops anyway, and this is as good as it's gotten. The Afghan National Army is not much larger right now, and while it's supposed to get up to 260,000 in a few years, twice the size of ISAF (though it will be gone by then), I would not look to see it get much better.

There are exceptional men in any army, but they are not always enough to turn the tide. Ask the ARVN, though I'm loth to draw comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Brant said...

I am starting to believe more and more that the key comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam is not one of homefront political will. Instead, the key lesson is that if your enemy is not going to respect political boundaries (Laos / Pakistan) then you shouldn't either. If the nation on the other side of the "border" is unable / unwilling (again, Laos / Pakistan, respectively) to control it, let them know that you'll be doing it for them and they can get over it.

brtrain said...

It's still a good basic axiom that insurgencies need a sanctuary, or at least a fairly secure rear area, to work from if they are to have any chance of success. Even better if it's protected by an international border the government has to respect. The Afghan insurgency, at least in the south, has this.

The differences are that Laos did not possess nuclear weapons and a large standing army that probably would act to protect its sovereignty, nor did it have to contend with fundamentalist wackos, nor did it have a special interest in either becoming a dominant regional power or, failing that, keeping the entire region unstable.

Aside from that, yes, perfectly good analogy! (snicker)