Afghan Awakening

Afghan Awakening

Mini Teaser: Can Kabul be saved? More troops are on the way, but a one-size-fits-all surge is not enough. We also need to change our tactics.

by Author(s): Bing West

IN SEPTEMBER of 2008, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a remarkable statement. He said, "I'm not convinced we're winning in Afghanistan. I am convinced we can. That is why I intend to commission and . . . am looking at a new, more comprehensive strategy for the region." Considering that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for seven years now, clearly whatever our strategy is, it has not worked.

There has developed an unquestioning consensus that we need to do more. The Democratic Party, united in demanding a swift withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, supports expanding the war in Afghanistan. The same is true of the Republican Party and the Pentagon. The mainstream press, while savaging the White House for lacking a sensible plan and sufficient troops in Iraq, accepted without question sending more troops to Afghanistan. And now that the surge in Iraq is winding down, a surge for Afghanistan is in the cards.

While U.S. troop numbers will increase, we don't know whether other NATO countries will provide willing and able boots on the ground. Regardless of NATO Europe, America must deal with Pakistan and the sanctuary for al-Qaeda and the Taliban that has festered there like a infectious wound. The corruption attendant to opium continues to tear apart the fabric of trust in Afghan society. Local military and police forces must be trained. Above all, we need to define our goals and acknowledge our limitations on this vital front.

Washington is going to have to finally take into account the country's myriad intractable problems. As the United States is about to enter a larger war, it remains unclear where we are going, or why. How did we arrive at this point? What is the problem? And what are the alternative courses of action?


AFGHANISTAN IS essential to the war on terror. And because of this it is crucial that we get it right-but we cannot until we know just how we got it wrong. Mistakes were made from day one. A massive strategic revamping must come.

As we all know, sheltered by Taliban forces that controlled most of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda planned the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City that murdered two thousand nine hundred civilians on September 11, 2001. About a month later, the United States launched strikes on key targets in Afghanistan that were followed by a small number of American special forces calling in massive air strikes against the exposed Taliban and al-Qaeda positions, while the CIA funded various warlords loosely aligned with what was called the Northern Alliance, a collection of tribes opposed to the Taliban. Without cover, the Taliban forces were pummeled and the Northern Alliance swiftly seized city after city. Victory looked assured. Yet fundamental strategic and tactical errors soon followed.

The first set of American missteps resulted from Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban and in turn the United States' relationship with Pakistan. Since the mid-1990s, Taliban fundamentalists were supported by a Pakistani high command intent on preventing Indian geopolitical inroads into Afghanistan. The Taliban was a useful cat's paw for the Pakistani army. But post-9/11, fearing American wrath, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf and his military ostensibly withdrew their support for the Taliban.

After the initial invasion, the United States allowed Pakistan to pull out its advisers embedded with the Taliban, but at the same time, Pakistan also airlifted out several Taliban leaders, indicative of the two-sided game the Pakistani military was playing. Making matters worse, a much larger force of retreating Taliban and al-Qaeda members was located in the Tora Bora mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Ignoring advice from CIA and army officers on the front lines, General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of U.S. forces, refused to deploy available marine and army-ranger task forces to seal the routes into Pakistan. Instead, he relied upon an untrustworthy amalgam of Afghani warlords to block off the area. Consequently, the core leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, escaped into the tribal frontier lands of western Pakistan.

Nonetheless, on the home front, General Franks and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were feted as brilliant strategists. The unspoken but widely held assumption was that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had been shattered as cohesive fighting forces. Although their remnants remained dangerous terrorist cells, the mopping-up phase would not require a major infusion of U.S. conventional forces. Roughly one division of twenty thousand soldiers and a like number from the other twenty-five members of NATO combined seemed like more than enough to provide security across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, special covert teams would track down what was left of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders inside Pakistan.

It was as if the war was won, the Taliban routed, and the United States able to move on to fight (and win) another war with our vastly superior military. And thus the administration turned to Iraq. But as the Iraq War escalated and turned south, it demanded more money and attention. Afghanistan became a strategic afterthought.

So, while our attention was focused on the disintegrating situation in Baghdad, violence in Afghanistan was on the rise. Dire warnings began to appear in the press. Suicide-bomb attacks had increased from eighteen in 2005 to 116 in 2006, while direct-fire attacks grew from three per day in 2005 to more than ten per day in 2006. Violence forced many schools in southeastern Afghanistan to close. Several provinces teetered on the brink of collapse.


COALITION FORCES currently in Afghanistan have been unable to effectively redress the situation. For this, there are three broad reasons: NATO fortitude is questionable, Afghanistan's army and police forces are inadequate, and U.S. troop levels are not sufficient to pick up the slack.

NATO has neither provided enough troops nor are they actively engaged. When I visited Afghanistan in 2007, U.S. commanders expressed dissatisfaction with the number of troops provided by NATO nations, and the severe restrictions those governments had placed on troops taking part in combat operations. Although in the fall of 2008, the United States had thirty-one thousand troops in Afghanistan and other coalition members were contributing an additional thirty thousand, most were support forces that did not patrol or engage in war fighting. In the southeastern section assigned to NATO-which includes the Kandahar-Helmand area-the fighting had been heating up. And in an example of their lack of commitment, the primarily British, Canadian, Dutch and Romanian troops in the region did not stop the Taliban from infiltrating back into their tribal homeland; European troops were much less aggressive than the Americans and poppy farming in the region provided money to insurgent forces.

There has not been much help from the Afghan army either. In early 2007 it had about thirty-five thousand trained soldiers, a number grossly inadequate for a country of 30 million with a thousand-mile border along which the zealous enemy can attack. By late 2008, there were supposedly seventy-four thousand soldiers, although how many were really trained remains questionable. Afghan battalions seemed cohesive, with 90 percent present for duty, but 70 percent of the soldiers were illiterate. The army rushed into fights, did not plan, lacked a noncommissioned officer corps, bungled logistics and failed to coordinate among units. Counterinsurgency doctrines suggest that about three to four hundred thousand troops are needed in the security forces. The U.S. military has not yet trained an indigenous army in numbers anywhere near sufficient.

As for the American soldiers in Afghanistan, most of the combat units, plus the forces dedicated to support-and-training missions, were in the northeast, where numerous mountain passes from Pakistan offered a short route to Kabul. These troops were deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, separate from NATO. But because of commitments in Iraq, it will not be until mid-2009 that the Pentagon will be able to provide the additional ten thousand U.S. troops that commanders have requested to fight a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Given these factors, even a modest increase of three brigades within twelve months was heralded as a "surge." However, it was really only a first step. Thus we get to the question of "What next?"

IT IS clear we need more troops-actively engaged. And most of the burden will rest with the United States. NATO may contribute another five thousand troops, but most European governments are unenthusiastic about the mission. Hence, battlefield performance and willingness to take the risk inherent in patrolling aggressively are not apt to improve. We have implored NATO to send more troops for years-to no avail. In January of 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explicitly urged the European nations to fulfill their pledges of money and troops. President Bush also prodded NATO, saying, "When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries we need additional help, our NATO countries must provide it." And though British General David Richards, upon relinquishing command of NATO forces in the southeast, may have quipped that "This is a good war," it is unlikely the next administration will have more luck rallying the Europeans.

Essay Types: Essay