The Difficulty of Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 4 months ago

C. J. Chivers gives us a rundown of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, and the money quotes follow.

Officially, Mr. Obama’s Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration’s plan has crested.

With the spring thaw approaching, officers and enlisted troops alike say they anticipate another bloody year. And as so-called surge units complete their tours, to be replaced by fresh battalions, many soldiers, now seasoned with Afghan experience, express doubts about the prospects of the larger campaign.

The United States military has the manpower and, thus far, the money to occupy the ground that its commanders order it to hold. But common questions in the field include these: Now what? How does the Pentagon translate presence into lasting success?

The answers reveal uncertainty. “You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics,” said one American colonel outside of this province. “We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn’t working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?”

The strategic vision, roughly, is that American units are trying to diminish the Taliban’s sway over important areas while expanding and coaching Afghan government forces, to which these areas will be turned over in time.

But the colonel, a commander who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from retaliation, referred to “the great disconnect,” the gulf between the intense efforts of American small units at the tactical level and larger strategic trends.

The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led.

And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven.

I agree with Chivers’ assessment that the U.S. has the troops to hold the ground that the commanders order it to hold.  But as Chivers points out earlier in the article:

In and near places like this village in Ghazni Province, American units have pushed their counterinsurgency doctrine and rules for waging war into freshly contested areas of rural Afghanistan  — even as their senior officers have decided to back out of other remote areas, like the Pech, Korangal and Nuristan valleys, once deemed priorities. In doing so, American infantry units have expanded a military footprint over lightly populated terrain from the Helmand and Arghandab River basins to the borders of the former Soviet Union, where the Taliban had been weak.

As readers will recall, abandoning the Pech Valley is problematic, and thus I have observed:

Here is a tip for future reading, study and, well, let’s be frank – wading through the misdirects that both the MSM and military PR sends your way.  When you hear the reflexive, tired, worn out mantra that we are having difficulty defeating the Taliban and those forces aligned with AQ because Pakistan simply won’t go into their safe havens and root them out, this is a nothing but a magic trick, a sleight of hand, a smoke screen, a ruse.  The issue is fake.  It’s a well-designed farce.

Oh, to be sure, the U.S. would indeed like for the Pakistanis to go kill all of the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban and AQ affiliated groups so that we don’t have to deal with them in Afghanistan.  But we have the ideal chance to address the problem head on in the Pech Valley and other areas near the AfPak border – that Durand line that exists only as a figment of our imaginations.  Essentially, much of the Hindu Kush is available for us to do the same thing we want Pakistan to do …

Note Chivers’ observation that the borders remain porous and that the Taliban still have safe haven.  Thus, while U.S. troops can clear areas and hold them, commanders note that the Taliban are beginning to return to Sangin.  The U.S. has enough troops to hold Sangin, but not enough to press the insurgency into their safe havens, find them and kill them.  We have intentionally and knowingly opted out of chasing them into their safe havens.  So the U.S. doesn’t have enough troops to do anything except play “whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency.

While U.S. troops maintain their tactical superiority over the insurgency, that’s not the same thing as a strategically cogent and compelling plan.  We are holding terrain, some terrain – some physical terrain and some human terrain – and relinquishing other terrain.  The insurgency is being squeezed from one place to another.

Recall that someone else discussed this as well?  Take a few minutes and listen again to this interview of Lt. Col. Allen West (Ret) as he discusses the various options and why holding terrain won’t work.  Tactical superiority and strategic malaise.  Same as it’s always been in Afghanistan.  And finally, our campaign is a model of the one conceived in Army Field Manual FM 3-24.  This is expensive, long term, protracted duration nation-building by-the-book in the most logistically unsustainable and overall worst place on earth.

Can it succeed?

  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, TCJ- You pose a great question, and I don’t have an answer either. I think we are all waiting around for the Afghans to start taking responsibility for their own political system. In Iraq, a native modus vivendi was eventually reached.. not quite a blooming democracy, but a decent enough state.

    The question is how we prod the Afghans to take responsibility- in security, politics, and all other dimensions. Carrots or sticks? Threats of withdrawal or nurturing support? None of it seems to work, and our involvement often induces more corruption and dysfunction. Their political culture needs a remake/reboot, and how much time will that take? I don’t know. In Egypt, it has taken decades. In Pakistan, it is going downhill, apparently.

    The analogy is clearly Vietnam, where the extreme rot in domestic politics killed our chances of saving their country, our own many mistakes aside. If the motivation is nationalism, we can’t inject that from the outside, but only unify all enemies against.. us.

  • TS Alfabet

    At this point, contrary to Burk’s comment, I really don’t think it is all that complicated to achieve victory in A-stan.

    By “difficult” I mean to say, not complicated. The solution is fairly straight-forward and requires no wizardry nor lucky circumstances. But I admit that the solution is not likely.

    The solution is not likely because this Administration (and the last one and the one before that probably) cannot face a series of basic truths.

    First, the U.S. cannot face the truth that our near-term (or possibly even mid-term) aim *for A-stan* is not a Jeffersonian/parliamentary/Western-style democracy. At the risk of sounding kooky, if we had the enlightenment of the Federation and James T. Kirk in “Star Trek,” we would readily recognize and accept the fact that the Afghans are simply not at a civilizational stage of development where this type of democracy can be absorbed and adopted readily. It will take years of cultivation. The U.S. aim for A-stan, in the near term, is a weak, central government with stronger, semi-independent provinces, suited to the tribal/ethnic make-up of each. Aid money should mainly by-pass Karzai and the central government and go to commanders in the field to dispense as they see fit to help eradicate the Taliban.

    Second, the U.S. cannot face the truth that, as Lt. Col. West said, victory lies in beating the Taliban by going after them wherever they try to rest, re-fit, organize, intimidate or control. This strategy would dictate the tactics and call for highly mobile, high-firepower, CAS, highly aggressive maneuvering. It would require flexible ROE’s.

    Victory is achieved when the Taliban are so beaten down, when the locals are convinced that allied forces are unbeatable and the “strong horse” or the strongest tribe as West put it.


You are currently reading "The Difficulty of Afghanistan", entry #6500 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published March 10th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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