Putting Some Fight Into Our Friends
The end of the ground war in Afghanistan, already America's longest, is nowhere
Even as he assures America that we are on track to achieve our goals," President Obama has set 2014 for a complete handover of combat duties to local forces. Three factors has made the conflict so difficult — and two of them are beyond America's control. The first is the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy just across the Pakistani border. The second is afghanistan's wretched leadership.
The third factor, though, is the emphasis America's senior officers have placed on winning hearts and minds as an end in itself, rather than as a means to identifying and killing insurgents. This policy has weakened soldiers' fighting spirit and encouraged risk aversion.
Tasked withnation-building chores better suited to the Peace Corps, most conventional U.S. forces have seldom engaged the Taliban. Instead, Special Operations Forces - about 7 percent of the total U.S. strength — have accounted for most of the Taliban's losses.
Obama's surge of 30,000 troops has broken the Taliban's momentum. The biggest progress has been in Helmand province, where in a huge operation in the Nawa district Americans proved ehat they could do. However, what Afghans would do remained a mystery. In July 2009 I accompanied the first Marine patrols into Nawa. I stood by and listened as Sgt. Bill Cahir promised the elders of a dirt-poor village funds and protection. In return, he asked them to give the Taliban a message: "You are no longer welcome." The elders refused. A few weeks later Cahir was killed in a Taliban ambush nearby. In the years
since, U.S. Marines have combined w1th Afghan soldiers to patrol the area relentlessly. They have recruited new members for the local police; arranged the dismissal of the old, unreliable
police chief; and invested millions to improve villagers' lives. But none of the villagers has ever identified the Taliban in their midst who killed Sergeant Cahir.
In a recent survey of Nawa residents, 60 percent said that the Marine presence does not protect them, and that the Taliban should be given a place in the national government. Despite the Marine accomplishments, most Pashtun villagers are seeking refuge in a shell of neutrality. They do not want to live under Taliban rule, but they are sure the Americans will eventually leave and the insurgents will return. Former U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus referred to the villagers as "professional chameleons." They will not commit until they know which group of Afghans — not Americans — is going to win.
That means the focus has to be on building Afghan forces that can defeat the Taliban — and I have seen it done. Early last year, at the start of the push into the district of Marja, just west of Nawa, there were not enough U.S. troops to control the whole area. A team of 10 seasoned U.S. Special Forces advisers was supporting an entire Afghan battalion in the offensive. It was not working: the Special Forces team lacked the manpower to provide advice, accompany patrols, clear IEDs, and perform all their other essential tasks, especially because Afghan troops tend to be reluctant to engage the Taliban, who fight with the cunning and ferocity of the Apaches in the 1880s.
So the Marines assigned a rifle platoon and engineers to work with the team. That gave Capt. Mark Golsteyn a task force of 40 U.S. advisers to fight beside his 400 Afghan soldiers. The battalion's confidence and performance skyrocketed. "Afghan forces will never take a lead role in fighting as long as the coalition is there to carry the burden," Golsteyn told me during the fight for Marja. Afghans, though, will need advisers with them in battle for quite a long time.
Unless America wants to extend its stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, it would be sensible to create a professional adviser corps and more task forces like Golsteyn's in the coming year.