Monday, May 25, 2009

Eight Years On, We Still Can't Figure Out the War in Afghaninstan

We're doing it wrong. We've been doing it wrong for eight years now. It's what McClatchey Newspapers calls our "risk averse, shorthanded strategy" to combat the Taliban. No matter how you play those cards, it's a losing hand:

...Taliban fighters rule the day and the night in the Bermel district, using threats and atrocities to control the civilian population, Afghans in the valley told a visiting reporter in interviews over two weeks. Accompanied by Arab and Chechen advisers, they behead civilians or sever their hands to force their cooperation. One of the latest Taliban edicts is a ban on cutting trees, so that insurgents can hide and lay ambushes for foreign troops.

From a distance, the U.S. base in Margha, occupied by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, is a monument to a risk-averse, shorthanded American strategy in Afghanistan.

...The small U.S. base can be defended against as many as a thousand insurgents at once, confident American soldiers said. That sums up their dilemma, however: The fortress protects American troops, but it does little to help win a guerrilla war that's now in its eighth year and about to enter another violent summer.

The faltering U.S. and NATO efforts in eastern Afghanistan have in effect surrendered the countryside — village after village — to insurgent bands, many of them criminal gangs but some of them with weaponry and the backing of al Qaida.

The American [and NATO] troops descend from their bastion only on occasion, and there's no one to protect Afghan civilians from Taliban fighters, who collect a "zakat," or religious tax, from many residents in Bermel.

Living apart from the citizens they're charged with protecting isn't the only challenge to American forces. Afghans complain about errant U.S. artillery fire, which causes civilian casualties, and the constant infiltration of guerrilla bands from Pakistan.

If the goal of counterinsurgency strategy is to persuade the local population that the U.S. and its Afghan fighting partners are protecting them, it isn't working in this district, which sits opposite the al Qaida haven of South Waziristan in Pakistan.

...A U.S. military intelligence officer working in the district said he was well aware of intimidation by Afghan security forces, in particular a local commander.

"When you (the United States) don't do counterinsurgency well, it is important to make others more afraid of you than the next guy can," the official said of the local warlord, whom American forces have come to rely on. The officer couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to a reporter.

"The other option when you don't do counterinsurgency well is to intimidate the population," he said. "But when it comes to that, you are really no better than the people you are trying to get rid of."

Read more here;

The Americans are touting their new commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as being a guerrilla fighter who can make a real difference but David Petraeus was also a top counter-insurgency man and he didn't make a dent in the problems besetting Afghanistan. McChrystal will have an additional 17,500 troops but in a country the size of Afghanistan with a metastasizing insurgency, that's a drop in the bucket and many of the reinforcements in any case are scheduled to be assigned, not to seek out the Taliban, but to defend the capital, Kabul.

The insurgency holds the initiative. It has the US and NATO forces on the defensive, forced to fall back to protect the major cities, abandoning the countryside. If Obama wants to persuade the Taliban he's serious about thwarting their plans, he'd better send 175,000 additional combat soldiers, not 17,500.

I wonder if Barack Obama is beginning to feel a little like Lyndon B. Johnson.

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