Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Remember Why We Went To Afghanistan

In the swirling winds of the War on Terror, eight years of war has worn out all Americans as well as the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. As our involvement in Iraq slowly comes to an end because of the Status of Forces agreement mandating our exit by the end of 2011, the war in Afghanistan moves to the top of the agenda.

After the attacks of 2001, we went to Afghanistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda who planned, directed and helped execute those attacks. We did not go there to build a new Afghan society. The Taliban's defense of Al Qaeda resulted in the need to drive them from power - that is how we came to the job of "nation building" in Afghanistan.

The mistakes we have made in entering many battlegrounds - whether Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan - come from a failure to understand the history of both Asians and Arabs. Most of the Afghan people are living in a society based on standards of hundreds of years ago. They don't understand "democracy"; they understand tribes, warlords, power, and what an empty stomach feels like.

Although I haven't served in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to work with a group of Afghan soldiers and police officers who came to to train at Fort Bragg a few years ago. (The above photo shows me with one of them in a Walmart near Fort Bragg). Right off the bat, two of these guys fled Bragg and became the object of a frantic search by military and civilian officials. The men were finally located in Fayetteville, supposedly at a mosque.

Once the two "fugitives" were returned to Fort Bragg, all the Afghans were locked down in two barracks. They took a group of us who had gone there as trainers and used us as "guards" as we provided twenty-four hour security to prevent any more "escapes".

The Afghans who didn't try to leave in the beginning began to resent us and said they felt like they were "prisoners". Before they returned to Afghanistan, the only official trip off Fort Bragg was a bus ride to a Walmart. Each Afghan was accompanied by an American soldier. They were allowed to spend what they had as allowances. Then we bused them back to Bragg where they were once again confined to their barracks until they flew home.

The Afghans I escorted to the Walmart were like children being taken into a candy store. Most of them came from small towns and villages and had never seen such excess. They couldn't believe the televisions, cell phones, and the vast array of consumer goods. Like foreigners visiting Disney World for the first time, they took pictures of each other in Walmart, for crying out loud. It was impossible not to feel sorry for them.

We would all like to make everything right for the Afghan people, but they must rise to the occasion. It is their country. Unfortunately, their society is filled with corruption and a vast segment of that society won't ever accept the American presence any more than they accepted the Russians or other "interlopers" over the centuries.

Our warriors, our civilian experts, and those who have volunteered to help the Afghan people are brave and dedicated to their missions. They are also digging a hole in the sand right now that keeps filling up.

We cannot completely throw Afghanistan to the wolves, but the following op-ed piece by conservative columnist George Will makes a lot of sense. Ground troops in any number will never conquer the ancient, almost instinctive Islamic hatred for foreign armies.

We must remember our primary mission and focus on it. We must kill or capture those who planned and helped execute 9/11, no matter where they are. As President Bush said, other countries are with us or against us. When that mission is done, our assistance to Afghanistan can continue as it has for other nations. As long as they remain on the democratic path, we will trade with them, advise them, and be their mentors. But we cannot perpetually fight a war for them - any more than we could in Vietnam or in Iraq. If they want freedom, they must demand it for themselves, and they must be willing to fight for it.

A change in strategy is not defeat. We must acknowledge the limitations of our involvement in Afghanistan. Let's get the bad guys who killed our citizens, then offer assistance and encouragement for the Afghans as long as they head in the right direction.

Once we eliminate the leadership and core of Al Qaeda, we have achieved the victory that we went to Afghanistan for in the first place. By the time we leave that country, whoever ultimately runs it will understand that if you attack America again, we will return and hunt down every one of you.

I think they've gotten the message so far...

This is George Will's column for today:

* * * *

Say 'when' in Afghanistan - and 'when' means now

George Will
Washington Post Writers Group

"Yesterday," reads the e-mail from Allen, a Marine in Afghanistan, "I gave blood because a Marine, while out on patrol, stepped on a [mine's] pressure plate and lost both legs." Then "another Marine with a bullet wound to the head was brought in. Both Marines died this morning."

"I'm sorry about the drama," writes Allen, an enthusiastic infantryman willing to die "so that each of you may grow old." He says: "I put everything in God's hands." And: "Semper Fi!"

Allen and others of America's finest are also in Washington's hands. This city should keep faith with them by rapidly reversing the trajectory of America's involvement in Afghanistan.

U.S. strategy — protecting the population — is increasingly troop-intensive, while Americans are increasingly impatient about "deteriorating" (says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) conditions. The war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars, and NATO assistance is reluctant and often risible.

U.S. strategy is "clear, hold and build." Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.

Military historian Max Hastings says Kabul controls only about a third of the country and "'our' Afghans may prove no more viable than were 'our' Vietnamese, the Saigon regime." Just 4,000 Marines are contesting control of Helmand province, which is the size of West Virginia. The New York Times reports a Helmand official saying he has only "police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for 'vacation.'"

Afghanistan's $23 billion GDP is the size of Boise's. Counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that development depends on security, and that security depends on development. Three-quarters of Afghanistan's poppy production for opium comes from Helmand.

Even though violence exploded across Iraq after, and partly because of, three elections, Afghanistan's recent elections were called "crucial." To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals, all of which militate against American "success." Creation of an effective central government? Afghanistan has never had one. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry hopes for a "renewal of trust" of the Afghan people in the government, but The Economist describes President Hamid Karzai's government — his vice presidential running mate is a drug trafficker — as so "inept, corrupt and predatory" that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords.

Adm. Mullen speaks of combating Afghanistan's "culture of poverty." But that took decades in just a few square miles of the South Bronx. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, thinks jobs programs and local government services might entice many "accidental guerrillas" to leave the Taliban. But before launching New Deal 2.0 in Afghanistan, the Obama administration should ask itself: If U.S. forces are there to prevent re-establishment of al-Qaida bases, must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?

U.S. forces are being increased by 21,000 to 68,000, bringing the coalition total to 110,000. About 9,000 are from Britain, where support for the war is waning. Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.

So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now, before more American valor, such as Allen's, is squandered.

Contact George Will at

* * * *

Charles M. Grist

No comments:

Post a Comment