The Weekly Standard
Our troops can win in Afghanistan. But the key battleground is in Washington.
November 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09
In any war there is often a disconnect between on-the-ground reality and perceptions back home. But rarely has there been such a yawning chasm as with Afghanistan today.
Back home, the general feeling is that the war effort is either failing or idling in neutral. A casual newsreader may note the recent suicide bombing of an armored NATO bus in Kabul, a terrorist assault on the U.S. embassy in September, high-profile assassinations (including that of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani), some of President Karzai’s disparaging comments about the United States—and not much else. In Washington all the talk is about how quickly we can withdraw—not about how to achieve “victory,” a word that has been conspicuously missing during much of the public debate over this 10-year-old conflict.
And on the ground? A seven-day visit to Afghanistan in late October, taken along with other security analysts at the invitation of General John Allen, the senior American and NATO commander, reveals that U.S. troops are fighting with wholehearted dedication—and, at least in the south, enjoying considerable success. If the United States is indeed on the way out in Afghanistan, as the political class in Washington now assumes (perhaps rightly), nobody has bothered to inform the troops. They are still risking their necks every day in order to defeat the enemy.
In Zhari District, west of Kandahar City, troops from the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division are in the process of clearing this longtime Taliban stronghold. I drove in a convoy of heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles from Forward Operating Base Pasab down roads that only a few months ago were full of buried IEDs, past fields that once sheltered Taliban fighters. The American infantrymen have been using M9 armored bulldozers and Mine Clearing Line Charges (known as “mick licks,” after their acronym) to blast their way through the Taliban’s minefields. Regular air assaults by helicopters are also taking place to leapfrog Taliban fortifications: As our troops and their Afghan partners advance, they erect their own forts and link them together with newly dug roads that are protected by blast walls to impede Taliban movements. The youthful-looking brigade commander, Colonel Patrick Frank, proudly showed us some of the spoils of war—we got to walk through what is said to be Mullah Omar’s hometown and even to see his former mosque. Another sign of progress: There are now 14 schools open in Zhari and neighboring Maiwand District, up from only 2 last year.
Just before our arrival, the brigade had finally managed to reach the Arghandab River, which marks the southern boundary of Zhari. “This is a big deal,” Lieutenant Colonel Kenny Mintz, commander of the 1-32 battalion, told me, noting that this achievement had cost him 13 men killed and 29 seriously injured during the past five months. Just before departing Zhari, I witnessed a moving ceremony in which three of Mintz’s men received medals of valor for their extraordinary heroism—including one soldier who had been badly wounded and evacuated stateside for treatment but had volunteered to return to the fight. “You’re my hero,” Mintz told him.
Not far away in Helmand Province—which, like Kandahar, has been a focus of the American-led offensive since 2010—U.S. Marines are making similarly impressive progress. Having been at their operations longer, the Marines are farther along: In most of the province they are moving from the “clear” to the “hold and build” phase. Among the districts in the process of being turned over to the Afghan security forces is Marjah, a notorious Taliban stronghold that was first entered by the Marines in February 2010. That much-publicized offensive did not meet initial expectations, leading many to conclude that the whole war effort was doomed. But, while taking a bit longer than expected, the pacification of Marjah has largely been completed.
One Marine battalion has already left Marjah. Now, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Schmitt, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told us that his Marines are moving out of central Marjah. They are turning over the population center to the Afghan police and army while they deploy to the surrounding desert to pursue the remaining insurgents who have been pushed out of town. Those insurgents who have elected to stay in town have given up the fight and decided to cooperate with the new strongmen of the area—the Marines.
Schmitt took us to lunch at the home of one influential Marjah elder where we were joined by another elder who, Schmitt explained, used to be his counterpart on the other side. Having lost two sons battling the Marines, this senior Taliban figure (whom Schmitt compared to Tony Soprano) decided that it was in his interest to make peace—precisely the sort of calculation that so many insurgents made in Iraq’s Anbar Province after butting heads with the Marines for years. The result of such opportunistic changes of allegiance is that Marjah’s markets, once shuttered, are now open and bustling, as I discovered during a walk through one of them. The Marines, who once had more firefights than they could handle, now go long stretches without any “contact” from insurgents in central Marjah.
These are vignettes, admittedly, but they are hardly anomalous. The success in Marjah has been replicated in other Helmand districts such as Garmsir and Nawa. Sangin, in northern Helmand, isn’t as far along because it was entered more recently, but it is on the same trajectory. In Kandahar, Arghandab District has also been pacified, while violence has not risen in Kandahar City despite a string of assassinations which claimed both the well-regarded police chief, Brigadier General Khan Mohammed Mujahid, and the notoriously corrupt chairman of the provincial council (and half-brother of President Karzai), Ahmed Wali Karzai.
Meanwhile “black” Special Operations task forces are conducting multiple operations every night to capture or kill insurgent leaders; more often than not they get their man without a shot being fired. Other, less covert Special Forces detachments are working to set up Afghan Local Police units, essentially armed neighborhood watch organizations that can defend their own villages from the Taliban even in areas where there are not many coalition troops. (We visited one such site in Wardak Province south of Kabul.) The Taliban are paying a backhanded compliment to such programs by targeting their leaders for elimination. Their campaign of assassination has not, however, stopped the growth of the local police. American intelligence analysts say the Taliban are increasingly weary of the struggle and frustrated by their inability to retake their safe havens in the south, and that there is bickering between the hard-pressed fighters in the field and their leaders safely ensconced in Pakistan. “The enemy is under unprecedented pressure,” one intelligence officer told us.
The tangible result of that pressure is a drop of 26 percent in enemy-initiated attacks from July to September 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. U.S. commanders had predicted an increase in enemy attacks during this period when the number of U.S. troops surged and they moved into enemy redoubts. But the insurgent response has been much weaker than expected, notwithstanding a few high-profile attacks. The north and west, where some analysts had been worried about an increase in Taliban activity, have also turned more peaceful this year. The one anomaly is Regional Command-East, along the border with Pakistan, where attacks are up between 2010 and 2011.
Before he stepped down as senior NATO commander this summer, General David Petraeus had been planning to pivot the focus of his operations from the south to the east in 2012 so as to do to the Haqqani network what U.S. troops have already done to the Quetta Shura Taliban. But President Obama’s surge drawdown (pulling 10,000 troops out this year, and another 22,000 by the end of September 2012, against the advice of his military commanders) has put that plan into jeopardy. Marine General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor, will be hard-pressed to find enough forces to hold the south while mounting a major operation in the east.
To have any chance of success, in my view, Allen must have at least 68,000 troops through the end of the 2013 summer fighting season (down from 100,000 today). That would enable him to consolidate gains in the south, expand the security “bubble” around Kabul so as to connect the capital with Kandahar, and continue to disrupt Haqqani operations in the east, while also completing the buildup of the Afghan National Security Forces. The latter have grown from just 187,000 personnel in 2009 to 306,000 today, and they are supposed to reach a peak strength of 352,000 by the end of 2012. From all that I heard, the Afghan Army is performing credibly; it is the institution that Afghans tell pollsters they esteem the most, and it is fighting hard. But it still needs a lot of support from the coalition, especially in logistics, intelligence and surveillance, fire support, route-clearance vehicles, and med-evac helicopters. The police lag behind but are also slowly improving. Their continued improvement is predicated on the presence of coalition mentors, which will be hard to pull off if U.S. troop numbers are reduced too fast.
“A further drop beyond 68,000 would be catastrophic,” one U.S. official told me—but it could well happen. In May 2012 President Obama is hosting a NATO summit in his hometown, Chicago. He could well use that occasion to announce further pullouts ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. Already the press is reporting that the White House may switch U.S. forces to a primarily advisory mission in 2012, two years sooner than planned.
War weariness on the home front is the most prominent danger facing the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, but it is hardly the only one. There is also the danger posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan—indeed by Pakistan’s active support for groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. While most insurgents in Afghanistan are locals, many of their weapons come from Pakistan, including the deadly fertilizer-based IEDs that are still the biggest killers of U.S. troops. And most of their training camps and leaders are safely tucked away in Pakistan. Iran is also providing some support to the Taliban but not on the scale of Pakistan.
Just before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen blew the whistle on the nefarious links between the Haqqani network and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), but no one has figured out how to get the Pakistanis to back off. Pakistan’s generals see the Taliban and Haqqanis as instruments of their foreign policy, and they want their proxies in control across the border. The alternative, they fear, is an Afghanistan dominated by India—an absurd fear but one stoked by Karzai’s recently concluded strategic partnership with New Delhi. The United States has tried both aiding and pressuring Islamabad. Nothing has worked.
The most effective American tool in Pakistan has been drone strikes, but these were primarily limited to al Qaeda targets. That changed on October 13 when a U.S. drone took out Janbaz Zadran, a senior Haqqani leader, near Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that has been the Haqqanis’ longtime headquarters. The strike shattered the Haqqanis’ assumption of invulnerability. More such strikes could further damage their organization—especially if the CIA manages to kill the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son, Sirajuddin, now its operational chief.
The Taliban too could be vulnerable to cross-border raids although their headquarters—in Quetta—is deeper into Pakistan and strikes there would spark more of a backlash from the Pakistanis, who can always threaten to close an important NATO supply route running from the port of Karachi. But the town of Chaman, the main border crossing point on the road to Kandahar, is another hotbed of insurgent activity that coalition forces might be able to strike without as many repercussions in Pakistan. ISI generals would also be vulnerable to sanctions that target their bank accounts and impede their ability—and that of their offspring—to travel in the West. But so far there is little consensus in Washington on such steps. The administration has not even formally designated the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization, perhaps in a misguided attempt to facilitate talks with the group. In fact, talks are doubtful given the virulence of the Haqqanis, but if they did come about, the possibility of lifting a terrorist designation could be an incentive to reach an agreement.
Yet another major obstacle to a successful outcome in Afghanistan is the pervasive corruption that drives Pashtun villagers into the arms of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai sits atop a complex web of patronage networks that rip off billions of dollars in international aid, connive in the drug trade, timber smuggling, and other rackets, steal land, and extort payoffs from ordinary citizens who need anything from the government. No one expects that Afghanistan will be as honestly run as Switzerland anytime in this millennium, but current levels of corruption are well beyond local norms, and they threaten the long-term stability of the country.
The U.S. response has been limited and belated. It was only in the summer of 2010 that General Petraeus set up a unit—Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat (“openness” in Dari)—to track the coalition’s own spending and try to prevent too much of it from winding up in the wrong pockets. Under the dynamic leadership of Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, one of the Army’s premier soldier-scholars, Shafafiyat has scored some notable successes—such as cleaning up outrageous levels of fraud at the main military hospital in Kabul and barring a number of corrupt companies from bidding for coalition trucking contracts. But much more needs to be done. Reducing corruption is a long-term undertaking, and there is a distinct sense in Kabul that time is running out for the coalition mission.
Originally the end of 2014 had been designated by the NATO Lisbon summit in November 2010 as the time when “Afghan forces will be assuming full responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan.” But the summit declaration also said: “Transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of [coalition] troops.” Now, however, most nations, including the United States, appear to be bent on pulling out almost all of their troops by the end of 2014. If the United States were to draw down to fewer than 10,000 troops by 2015, and if there is no miraculous change for the better on the ground, there is a real risk that the Afghan government and security forces could collapse, setting off a civil war of the kind that devastated the country in the 1990s. That war, recall, was triggered by the end of Soviet aid to the Najibullah regime. “Everyone is scared here,” Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told us. “We worry the United States and the rest of the international community will leave us as they left us after the Soviet Union was defeated.”
To avoid such a dire outcome, the United States will need to make a long-term commitment—something that the Karzai government, for all the difficulties it causes us, is eager to see. Negotiations are now in full swing on a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. Two issues are holding up the conclusion of talks—Karzai’s desire to end coalition detention of Afghans and nighttime Special Operations raids—but the general expectation on both sides in Kabul is that these are not deal-breakers. A signed treaty should be an important endorsement of the stability and longevity of the Afghan government. But much will still depend on two decisions, one to be made in Afghanistan, the other in the United States.
The first decision concerns Afghanistan’s post-2014 leadership. Karzai’s second term of office expires that year, and he has made it clear that he will not seek to amend the constitution to serve another term. Since Afghanistan has no real political parties, that leaves a free-for-all succession battle in which the United States, if it chooses to do so, can play an important role by trying to anoint a relatively honest and effective leader who could do a better job than Karzai has done.
The second decision, to be made in Washington, is even more important: How rapidly will we draw down and what “steady state” troop level will we seek after 2014? Last year retired Lieutenant General David Barno, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan (who traveled there with me in October), and Andrew Exum, a former Army ranger who, like Barno, is now in residence at the Center for New American Security, issued a report suggesting that Afghanistan would need a sustainable presence of 25,000-35,000 troops focused on supporting the Afghan security forces. But given President Obama’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, that may be more than he will support.
As is so often the case with wars waged by a democratic nation, the really decisive terrain is not on a faraway battlefield but in the halls of power back home. I am confident that the troops in Afghanistan can get the job done if their commanders receive the resources they need. Given the war weariness plaguing the American political class, I am less confident that those resources will be forthcoming.