The Long War?

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 2 months ago

Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl have written a piece at The New York Times informing us how swimmingly things are going in Afghanistan.

It is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign, but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.

The shift is most obvious on the ground. The additional 30,000 troops promised by President Obama in his speech at West Point 14 months ago are finally in place and changing the trajectory of the fight.

One of us, Nathaniel, recently flew into Camp Leatherneck in a C-130 transport plane, which had to steer clear of fighter bombers stacked for tens of thousands of feet above the Sangin District of Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. Singly and in pairs, the jets swooped low to drop their bombs in support of Marine units advancing north through the Helmand River Valley.

Half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts, with Sangin ranking among the very worst. Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time.

A significant shift of high-tech intelligence resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, initiated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander, is also having benefits. The coalition led by the United States and NATO has been able to capture or kill far more Taliban leaders in nighttime raids than was possible in the past.

The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory, as it learned in Vietnam and Iraq, but it can put enough pressure on many Taliban fighters to encourage them to switch their allegiance, depriving the enemy of support and giving the coalition more sources of useful intelligence.

Afghan Army troop strength has increased remarkably. The sheer scale of the effort at the Kabul Military Training Center has to be seen to be appreciated. Rows of new barracks surround a blue-domed mosque, and live-fire training ranges stretched to the mountains on the horizon.

It was a revelation to watch an Afghan squad, only days from deployment to Paktika Province on the Pakistani border, demonstrate a fire-and-maneuver exercise before jogging over to chat with American visitors. When asked, each soldier said that he had joined the Army to serve Afghanistan. Most encouraging of all was the response to a question that resonates with 18- and 19-year-old soldiers everywhere: how does your mother feel? “Proud.”

Analysis & Commentary

Fick and Nagl continue with some challenges to the campaign, such as corruption in the Afghan government, along with supposed solutions, such as a task force to investigate and expose corruption.  Meanwhile, back here in reality-land, there are a number of salient things about the campaign that should be pointed out.

First, it’s a patently absurd proposition that we can’t “kill our way to victory.”  Of course we can.  The difficulty is in separating the insurgency from the population, which requires various and sundry methods and tactics, but if we kill all of the insurgents, then the insurgents are all dead, and thus there is no longer an insurgency.  Granted, the motivating forces behind an insurgency may not have been completely eradicated, but I’m not certain that the American public wants Afghanistan to resolve into a situation that will never need revisiting in the future.  Creating a stable nation-state in the pattern of Western democracy shouldn’t be on the list of things to do in Afghanistan.  The public won’t support it, and it isn’t possible.

Second, as far as capturing and killing Taliban leaders, I have opposed and continue to oppose the high value target program.  Not that I am offended by killing Taliban leaders, but the program is ineffective.  Furthermore, as we have discussed extensively, prisons do not work in counterinsurgency.  At least in Afghanistan, they are counterproductive.  I take the metric of capturing and imprisoning mid-level Taliban leaders to be an indication of how badly the campaign is going.  Release of commanders within months or even weeks of capture only informs the locals that the coalition isn’t serious about the campaign, and gives more fighters incentive to pursue promotion through the ranks.  There isn’t a cost associated with being a Taliban fighter.

Third, Taliban are indeed being driven away from their sanctuaries, at least some of them (and the Marines have had more success than anyone to date, including the British in Helmand).  Joshua Foust weighs in that we have concentrated troops in the “worthless backwaters of Helmand” rather than focus on the AfPak border, and thus we aren’t really sealing any portion of the border.  My take is different.  In Iraq we played “whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency until we brought enough troops to bear to create saturation.  There isn’t any area that the insurgents consider off limits, and their governance appears to be far superior to that of the Afghan government.  Focusing on the backwaters of Helmand – which was an R&R and recruiting area for insurgents – might very well have been “focusing on the backwaters of Kunar and Nuristan” if we had left insurgents in Helmand alone to start the drive up Highway 1 towards Kabul to overtake the government.  We don’t have enough troops and never have.

In fact, we are abandoning the Pech Valley, and I have previously observed that:

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, and in fact, if we began actually doing this, Pakistan might be persuaded to allow readier access to Pakistani soil (once they see we are serious about the campaign).

We argued endlessly in Iraq that the Syrian and Iranian borders must be secured in order to win the campaign.  In fact we did effectively seal the Syrian border, and our lack of focus on Iran only portends problems for Iraq today.  The things we learned in Iraq have not been transferred to Afghanistan, and rather than press for troop saturation, Fick and Nagl are arguing for troop reductions.

In Fallujah (the “City of Mosques”) in 2007, every Mosque preached anti-American sermons in the month of April.  While I cannot discuss the tactics used to persuade the city to support the Marines, within three months the sermons – all of them – had changed to a pro-American stance.  In Afghanistan, the Imams tell us the state of the campaign.

For the U.S. government, and for the 100,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan, the messages delivered last Friday could hardly have been worse.

Under the weathered blue dome of Kabul’s largest mosque, a distinguished preacher, Enayatullah Balegh, pledged support for “any plan that can defeat” foreign military forces in Afghanistan, denouncing what he called “the political power of these children of Jews.”

Across town, a firebrand imam named Habibullah was even more blunt.

“Let these jackals leave this country,” the preacher, who uses only one name, declared of foreign troops. “Let these brothers of monkeys, gorillas and pigs leave this country. The people of Afghanistan should determine their own fate.”

Every Friday, Afghan clerics wade into the politics of their war-torn country, delivering half-hour sermons that blend Islamic teaching with often-harsh criticism of the U.S. presence. In a country where many lack newspapers, television or Internet access, the mosque lectures represent a powerful forum for influencing opinion.

Finally, the endless chorus of positive voices concerning the development of ANA troopers is tiresome and silly given the history of the ANA we have discussed before.  But let’s focus on only one example to make our point.  If you saw HBO’s “The Battle for Marjah,” produced by Ben Anderson (and if you didn’t see it, you must), you noted that one Marine took out a Taliban fighter with a head shot at 500+ meters.  Not a Marine Scout Sniper, and not with a Sasser .50 sniper rifle.  A Marine infantryman, MOS 0311, with a 5.56 shot with an M4.  How many ANA troopers can pull this off?  If the answer is none (and that is the correct answer), what would have happened to the ANA in Southern Helmand if the Marines didn’t lead the assault?  And what will happen when there are no Marines?

Again, Fick and Nagl have given us a nice report from Afghanistan.  Back in the reality-land, there are many weighty things that cause us to ponder the fact that it might not be so rosy a picture as they have painted.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On February 22, 2011 at 7:47 am, Cork said:

    Mr. Smith – I enjoy reading your posts, however today points one and two under the analysis and commentary section seemed to be contradictory. Could you elaborate on why you feel that the HVI program is ineffective? Thanks.

  2. On February 22, 2011 at 9:46 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Good question. It’s rarely possible (if ever at all) to envelope my views in a single, stand-alone post. First, for what I think a HVT (high value target) campaign should look like, see this:

    Troopers in contact killed Taliban fighters when they were ambushed, and they were there the next morning to explain to the villagers why it happened. No SOF troop raids, only to be spirited away by helicopter to the nearest FOB, with the Taliban leader arrested and sent to prison, only to be released 96 hours later, with the Taliban laughing at us for the idiotic catch and release program that we are implementing.

    I think it’s better, generally speaking, to kill the insurgency from the bottom up rather than the top down. Marginalize the leaders by making it so costly for the fighters that the leaders eventually have no more fighters left because they have either been killed or have quit. Either option is okay. (I advocate this type of approach except for the highest level leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud, whom I recommended for assassination).

    So, I’m not against killing leaders, just an exclusive focus on that by SOF troopers, whom I think would be better off in the field doing counterinsurgency rather than counterterrorism.

    Does this help, or should I go further?

  3. On February 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm, Rick Keyes said:

    To go along with Herschel’s you can kill them and win point back in January the Marine Corps was able to get the Alikozai tribe in Sangin which is the largest in the area to sign on to a truce. The reason the Marine had been beating the pants off of these people.

    You beat someone with the stick (Marine Corps) hard and long enough they come around to get the carrots. This is what happened in Fallujah and the surrounding area in Iraq and seems to be happening in Helmand which has been nothing to a hell hole since 2002 for ISAF forces.

    If you now notice the northern provinces of Afghanistan are suffering from large suicide bombings and other attacks. It is because U.S. and allied forces in those areas are not using corkscrew and blow torch tactics when they are needed.

  4. On February 22, 2011 at 9:14 pm, dsent said:

    I agree with your frustration with the trout fishing concept of catch and release. It happens even when they catch the perps with explosive residue on their mitts and AK magazines in their pockets; and I don’t mean Alaska Magazine. I’m beginning to wonder policy decisions and who is in charge of the early parole system.

  5. On February 27, 2011 at 2:45 am, anan said:

    “Marine took out a Taliban fighter with a head shot at 500+ meters. Not a Marine Scout Sniper, and not with a Sasser .50 sniper rifle. A Marine infantryman, MOS 0311, with a 5.56 shot with an M4. How many ANA troopers can pull this off? If the answer is none (and that is the correct answer)”

    Herschel, you don’t aid your cause by exaggeration. There are good shots in the ANA, Pakistani Army and Indian Army. Central Asians and South Asians can be taught to be good shots. Granted, there aren’t enough good shots in the ANA.

    Sharin Shah, commander of 3rd Bde, 215th ANA Corps, is one of the best commanders in the ANA. And his brigade, while not Marines, isn’t bad. 3-215 is known for its high tempo of operations and initiative. You can confirm this through your own contacts who have worked with 3-215 in Helmand. Sharin Shah use to be the deputy 3-215 commander when BG Ghori commanded the Bde. Another good officer.

    Most Taliban aren’t Achilles style supermen. 3-215 is already better than most Helmand Taliban and shouldn’t that count for something? [although Sirajuddin/Ilyas Kashmiri/LeT/TTP/TNSM in the East would be another matter.]

    When is the last platoon are larger sized engagement that 3-215 lost to the Taliban? OK, trick question, since 3-215 has been given the safe areas of Central Helmand Valley [excluding Marjah I believe.] But still, what have you heard negative about 3-215 ANA Bde? Is it possible that one reason it is safe outside the wire in central Helmand Valley is because of 3-215 ANA Bde? Has 3-215 ANA bde played no role in the large reduction in violent attacks against British soldiers in Helmand? Sure much of the credit has to go to the Marines in Marjah, near the Pakistan border, and in Northern Helmand near Khajaki and Sangin. But all the credit? To my knowledge there aren’t any sizable number of Marines in the Central Helmand Valley outside of Marjah. Neither does 3-215 to my knowledge have many Marine advisors assigned to it [3-215 being the former 3-205 Bde and advised by Danes, Brits, Estonians.]

    Would you similarly argue that 1-203 ANA Bde in Khost and the Khost provincial AUP have played no role in the recent progress in Khost?

    Just because there are many other deeply defective ANSF units doesn’t automatically mean that the ANA Special Forces, 9 ANA Commando combat battalions, 3-215 ANA Bde, 1-203 ANA Bde, are also defective.

    When you continually exaggerate the real problems in the ANSF you are allowing yourself to be played by part of the deep state and its PR campaign against the ANSF. A major reason part of the deep state and part of the Gulf Arab establishment back the Taliban is because they see the ANSF and GIRoA and Northern Alliance as a threat to themselves. Why would they see the ANSF as a threat if the ANSF were so incompetent?

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Center For a New American Security and was published February 21st, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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