By Alan Caruba
“I’m retired from the United States Air Force and couldn’t stand being away from the wars, so I signed up to become a defense contractor/military advisor here in Helmand Province—home to some of the fiercest fighting in this theatre.” From far-off Afghanistan, I heard from a gentleman who typifies the kind of warrior spirit that can be found in the U.S. military.
He is busy helping to train members of the Afghan National Army on matters of military human resources as part of the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO mission in Afghanistan. He was responding to a commentary I had written about the insurgency in Afghanistan.
I did not and still do not favor putting U.S. troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan and had pointed out that both a British and a French general had concluded the same. To put things in perspective, I wanted the troops that former President Bush had sent to be withdrawn and I now heartily disagree with President Obama’s plan to transfer some 14,000 more troops there.
In all candor I was among the many who grew disenchanted with the lengthening war in Iraq prior to the “surge” there and I was wrong. Moreover, I am not a military strategist, so I draw my conclusions from analysis by those who are and, better still, from people who have served or are serving there.
Here’s a snapshot of just how bad the situation in Afghanistan truly is. The day before President Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, arrived in Kabul, eight suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the justice and education ministries, killing 26 and wounding 57, The ministries are just down the street from where Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, conducts business.
To suggest that a functioning government exists in Afghanistan is tenuous at best. From everything I have read, not only does it not control Kabul, it barely functions beyond the city limits of the capitol, although the Afghan army under U.S. training has gotten some good marks.
The primary “industry” in Afghanistan is the growing of poppy for the manufacture of heroin. It is a major source of funding for the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that provided hospitality to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda prior to 9/11 and likely still does. Here’s what you need to know about the poppy trade. Karzai’s government, such as it is, does not want to eradicate it. Neither does the U.S. The drug lords are allies because they do not want the Taliban to benefit and neither does the U.S.
“The irony of ironies here,” says a trusted source, “is that in flying over Helmand province you can see all the desired indicators of a devastated economy coming back to life; paved roads, small business shops, even electricity. Everything the U.S. is committed to achieving for the Afghans and seemingly a real role model of a successful counter-insurgency campaign and it all comes from opium profits!”
After 9/11, the U.S. retaliated by sending in the CIA and military to presumably chase the Taliban out of Afghanistan. It shares a long border with Pakistan and that’s where the survivors headed in 2001. It is Pakistan, not Afghanistan, that is the real hotspot in the Middle East these days.
Pakistan barely qualifies to be considered a nation. It was created when India declared its independence in 1947 as a place, along with Bangladesh, where Muslims could flee rather than become Indian citizens. Great numbers were slain and, although many remained in India, they are second-class citizens there. Wherever Muslims are not in the majority, they are heartily disliked by those who are. Bangladesh later broke with Pakistan to declare its own independence.
Simply put, Pakistan has almost always been ruled by its military, as was the case most recently of President Musharref, who also retained his rank as a general. The current president just agreed to a deal with the Taliban to relinquish control over a large portion of the nation. Even under Musharref it was never able to exercise any real control and it is the Taliban’s intention to take over all of Pakistan, imposing Sharia law.
Militarily, there is virtually no way the American military, even including NATO forces and the Afghan army, can effectively conduct a counterinsurgency there. The society and the terrain are not hospitable. Re-supply of our forces now comes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as routes through Pakistan are viable, but increasingly lethal.
Writing jointly in Small Wars Journal.com, officers from the United States Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps offered a lengthy analysis of what would be required to win out over the Taliban. The question they addressed was “How Should the U.S. Execute a Surge in Afghanistan?” The paper does not reflect official policy.
They noted that the failure to execute an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) to date has resulted in a security situation that “has steadily deteriorated since 2006 largely due to the lack of forces required.” Keep in mind, Afghanistan is not Iraq and the two cannot be compared in terms of the application of a military solution.
It is not that the U.S. does not know how to conduct a counterinsurgency. The principles involved were known to the Romans who conquered Gaul. Afghanistan differs from Iraq in that it has “a predominantly rural population with strong tribal loyalties, a historically weak central government, and (a) large, porous border (that) make the operational environment in Afghanistan much more challenging.” Or, in other words, damn near impossible.
“There are approximately 42 million Pashtuns spread throughout the region with 14 million living in Pakistan. These Afghan Pashtuns serve as the center of gravity for the Taliban” that are estimated to number between 10,000 and 15,000 “hardcore insurgents.” Two-thirds of the Pashtuns live in Western Pakistan along a 2,430 kilometer border with Afghanistan. They were the original source of the Taliban movement and are “unlike any operational problem faced in Iraq.”
Now do the math. For a successful counterinsurgency it will be necessary to have a 20- to-1,000 security force density in the Pashtun areas. This would require more than 280,000 military personnel. There is simply no way the U.S. alone could achieve this “for an Afghan population well over 32 million, even with the help of NATO and Afghan National Security Forces.
The latest report from Kabul is that the International Security Assistance Force, established by the United Nations in 2001, now numbers about 55,000 troops of which nearly half are U.S. military. If it cannot even secure Kabul, what are the odds it can have any success throughout some of the worst terrain for battle to be found anywhere in the world?
The British forces in poppy-rich Helmand province have been trying without success for three years to establish a measure of security there.
The decision by the new Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, to move more troops into this situation ignores the reality of waging war in Afghanistan. If he had no stomach for the war in Iraq, it is doubtful he will be willing to sustain the increased casualties that will result from simply putting more of our troops in harm’s way.
Islamic militancy throughout the Middle East and extending its deadly intensions worldwide is going to be a long fight. The U.S. would do well to pick somewhere other than Afghanistan to wage that war. If the Russians with some 100,000 troops were eventually defeated by the local tribes (with weapons assistance from the U.S.) it seems clear that the current mission has little hope for success. The Russians had 14,000 casualties by the time they left.
We should leave now. The Taliban are analogous to the street gangs that every city in America has had for decades and longer. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to protect the Gulf States, Iraq, and Israel. The odds are that we will have to engage Iran at some point and tying up troops elsewhere is a bad strategy. It is now Obama’s war.