Word on the Street
I don’t know what you’re hearing, but the word on the streets of FOB Ramrod is that there’s a lot of debate back home on the direction the war in Afghanistan will take over the next year. I’ve been getting several letters and emails from friends, mentors, and colleagues asking for my take on the situation from the line. I understand that GEN McCrystal is requesting a “surge” of troops while popular support for the war is waning. It’s a complex situation, and we’ve already invested billions of dollars and hundreds of lives into this conflict. It’s a topic that divides, not only the nation, but even the army… even my platoon! What I would like to do in this post is present, not an argument for either withdrawal or persistence, but rather a few important considerations to take into account in this discussion; ones that you probably won’t hear on the 24 hour news networks.
Here are the facts I’m working with: Right now, the United States has 62,000 troops in Afghanistan. McCrystal’s plan would take us up to about 80,000. This puts NATO at around 120,000 troops which is about where Iraq was for the majority of our time there (it got up to about 160,000 with the surge). General McCrystal’s argument is that he needs more troops over here to accomplish the mission of securing Afghanistan within the next year, or we’ll reach “mission failure”.
Here are some things to consider:
1) Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same conflict:
Al-Qaeda and Jesh Al-Mahdi were both foreign groups who came to Iraq to fight a war. Their leadership had little vested interest in the future of Iraq or its people. To Al-Qaeda and Jesh Al-Mahdi, Iraq was not much more than a battleground upon which to kill more Americans. We “surged” our way out of Iraq because Al-Qaeda and Jesh Al-Mahdi had no ties to Iraq and could leave the country without sacrificing their global strategic objectives. Moreover, they were each losing public support in Iraq due to inflicting tremendous civilian casualties. When we added 60,000 troops to Iraq, the opportunity cost for these terrorist groups to invest in their Iraq campaigns grew dramatically, and the relative gain of killing Americans in Iraq did not match the cost to continue the conflict. Thus, Al-Qaeda and Mahdi members in Iraq either died or left, and Iraq is safer today because of it. The Taliban, on the other hand, is a home grown terrorist group. It is an Afghan organization that has existed for decades; but its members have been fighting occupiers for centuries. Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, the future of Afghanistan is a vital part of the Taliban’s strategic objectives. The Taliban want control of Afghanistan as a part of its win-criteria. Thus, they actually care about their reputation with the local populous and do their best to minimize civilian casualties. They have hugely successful and widespread information campaigns. They understand and blend in with the local population far better than an Infantry platoon can…I’m not sure if two or three infantry platoons would do it much better. Any sort of “surge” we want in this country will thus have to take a different form than what was used in Iraq because our enemy is home grown and will not leave.
2) The Afghan population doesn’t understand us:
When my platoon goes into an Afghan town or village, people are terrified of us. They think we’re there to kill them. I was on an Observation Post in the Arghendab district a while back. We were about two blocks from a mosque. I happened to run into a village elder passing by our position. Since he was the only villager we had seen all day, I stopped to ask him a few questions. He told me that villagers were not going to mosque because they were afraid we were there to kill those who prayed. Most Afghans don’t talk to us, look at us, or trust us. The majority don’t give up intelligence either. I can’t say I blame them either. If I was a common Afghan villager who saw a platoon of soldiers roll into my town on a monstrous vehicle, wearing RoboCop like armor, and holding rifles and machine guns, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to them either.
3) There are Shades of Taliban Gray:
The official Taliban organization is not all that big. There’s more to this operation than just the person who makes the IED and the one who triggers it and that help comes from outside. What about the guy who operates on the Taliban’s vehicles? What about the person who allows the Taliban to hide his or her weapons on their land? What about the person who simply informs the Taliban when and where he found Coalition soldiers? When our enemy doesn’t wear uniforms and the population has varying degrees of involvement with Taliban attacks, how do we define who is a bad guy and who is a good guy? Are we here to kill every single person in the supply-chain of an attack? Are we okay with just settling for the triggerman? Without clarity on who the enemy is, how would we define our expanded mission with more troops?
4) There are hundreds of villages and leaders with whom we don’t have time or resources to build relationships.
Just looking at the map of Afghanistan and seeing where our troops are operating, and the districts where we have our focus, there is a lot of blank space. This is a big country, and it’s true that the coalition footprint in many areas is weak; providing ample opportunity for Taliban regrouping. More importantly, a typical Army unit’s tour in Afghanistan is only a year long, minus at least 2-3 weeks for R&R leave, minus a month or so for in and out-processing. I imagine it takes months if not years to earn the trust of an Afghan elder. Secondly, not only are there hundreds of local leaders we are unable to engage, but the few units and commanders who are able to build strong relationships with villages and their leaders are out of the picture after only a few months. Though my year in Afghanistan feels long, in the eyes of an Afghan elder, I’m as ephemeral as a blink of the eye.
5) Our Rules of Engagement don’t let us do all that much:
Our new ROE restrains the American use of force. While I won’t go into much detail, I will say that we have a severely limited scope of targets we can engage here and limited means to engage them. I appreciate that we must win the favor of the local populous in this conflict. With every Afghan who dies, regardless if they are Taliban or civilian, we incur against us the wrath of each parent, spouse, child, and friend. How does having more combat troops in Afghanistan align with an ROE that doesn’t use the full combat power of troops already here? Also keep in mind that the limiting factor on most of our missions are not the American forces, but the Afghan National Army and Police who are required to be on all missions with us. We out number them almost 10-1. There just are not enough of them to go around, and we are unable to do our job when they can’t fill numbers or just decide not to fight. If we bring more troops without a greater-than-proportional increase of ANA/ANP, how would more troops operate while still abiding by our new ROE?
6) What are soldiers trained to do, and what are you asking them to do?
My platoon is a mix of tankers and infantrymen. Our training consisted largely of conventional tactics, maneuver, blowing stuff up, etc. I am sure the rest of the combat forces in the Army are the exact same way. But the kind of war we are being asked to fight is not conventional, I won’t even say it’s asymmetric; it’s clandestine. It’s a war of relationships and information. So at what point is Private Snuffy from the boondocks going to get trained on how to befriend a local Afghan? When does Private Joe Schmoe from a violent neighborhood learn how to win a war without using his rifle? Is it fair to send more soldiers into a clandestine, unconventional fight with only training in conventional and urban warfare?
7) Are We Ready at Home?
I have my doubts that the American political will to stay in this country will not outlast the time that the Taliban are willing to wait us out. Between the Americans, the Soviets, the British, the Persians, the Monghuls, and the Greeks, this society knows a thing or two about how to expel an unwanted occupier; many of whom brought even more troops than we’re willing to invest. If we add more troops, will we have the political and economic will to support us for the long haul?
8 ) What really is the question here?
To me, the question isn’t “do we send more troops or not”. The question is not “Is America safer with troops in Afghanistan”. The critical question to me:“Is Afghanistan the most effective place for America to spend its defense resources?” We must also consider if sending soldiers and resources to Afghanistan potentially makes us weaker as we divert focus and assets away from domestic security. Afghanistan is not the only country with people wanting to kill Americans. I imagine there are plenty of threats from Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia, and other unstable countries who wish to attack us at home.
The thing I love most about the Army is that, behind closed doors, leaders can disagree and argue all we want. But, once a decision is made, everyone walks out of the room devoting ourselves 100% behind whatever course of action the commander chooses. There are no hard feelings, there are no whiners; only people who are ready to work. We understand that the sum of our efforts is greater than its parts; people who unenthusiastically go through the motions of following orders could end up costing lives. No matter what decision President Obama and GEN McCrystal make, I know my soldiers and I will execute it with all our hearts. Back home, however painful it will be for those who don’t get their way in this debate, I hope they can find it in themselves to take a bite of humble pie and give their support; if for no other reason, it will make change politically expedient, logistically sound, and thus safer for all of us over here. This is a national mission…and the sum of our efforts is greater than its parts.