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Afghanistan Is Hard, not Hopeless

Today’s newspapers bring a slew of interesting articles about Afghanistan:

In the Washington Post, Ann Scott Tyson recounts an inspiring story of heroism by a team of Green Berets who are now being awarded 10 Silver Stars, ” the highest number of such awards given to the elite troops for a single engagement since the Vietnam War.” A brief summary of their
achievements hardly does justice to the depth of their heroism and daring atop a 10,000-foot mountain: “A harrowing, nearly seven-hour battle unfolded on that mountainside in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province on April 6, as [Capt. Kyle] Walton, his team and a few dozen Afghan commandos they had trained took fire from all directions. Outnumbered, the Green Berets fought on even after half of them were wounded — four critically — and managed to subdue an estimate  150 to 200 insurgents, according to interviews with several team members and official citations.”

In the Times (London), Tom Coghlin reports on how NATO forces are indirectly financing the Taliban. Troops in Afghanistan are almost entirely dependant on supplies that arrive in the Pakistani port of Karachi and then are trucked overland. Writes Coghlin: “However, the business of moving supplies from the Pakistani port of Karachi to British, US and other military contingents  in the country is largely subcontracted to local trucking companies. These must run the gauntlet of the increasingly dangerous roads south of Kabul in convoys protected by hired gunmen from Afghan security companies. The Times has learnt that it is in the outsourcing of convoys that payoffs amounting to millions of pounds, including money from British taxpayers, are given to the Taleban.”

Such payoffs are not suprising but they are dismaying. Similar rakeoffs in Iraq from the oil industry kept insurgents there going for years but it was not necessary to bribe the terrorists into allowing U.S. supply convoys through; in Iraq they were protected by private contractors and military personnel.

In USA Today, Jim Michaels reports a related piece of bad news: “U.S. forces have sharply increased the number of airdrop supply missions in Afghanistan in the past three years, as roads have become more dangerous and allied troops have established remote outposts. The number of airdrops has increased to 800 this year from 99 in 2005, according to Central Command’s air operations center. Planes dropped 15 million pounds of cargo this year, nearly double last year’s load of 8.2 million pounds…. The number of roadside bombs and suicide attacks has risen to 1,041 this year from 224 in 2005, according to the NATO command in Afghanistan.”

It is hard to see how NATO forces can secure the roads in Pakistan. (That failure is necessitating a search for alternative supply routes.) But the failure to secure Afghanistan is a damning indictment of the state of the U.S./NATO counterinsurgency. The same situation prevailed in Iraq prior to 2007, when roads were festooned with IEDs. The Pentagon tried various high-tech solutions, none of which worked. What ultimately made the roads safe was what made the rest of the country safe (or at any rate safer): a sound counterinsurgency strategy.

In the Washington Times, Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings, one of our most astute and dispassionate military analysts, writes of his impressions after a recent visit to Afghanistan.  And he offers some good news – namely that some of the sound counterinsurgency strategies that were used so successfully in Iraq are now being applied to Afghanistan. These include “the concept of ‘clear, hold, and build,’ ” which stands in contrast to the previous approach: “Until now, NATO forces have often moved into populated areas to pursue insurgents and then pulled out once a given search and destroy operation was complete. They have then ceded control of the town back to Taliban and other insurgent forces, whereupon friendly Afghans were often killed or intimidated into never helping us again. ”

O’Hanlon concludes: “Afghanistan has a long way to go, and Gen. McKiernan is right to say the increase in U.S. forces should not be a surge but a sustained new level of commitment. …But we can and should take heart, if President-elect Obama does as he has promised and commits the United States to this war in a truly serious way for the first time. ”

Reading that reminds of how General Petraeus characterized Iraq when he arrived in early 2007: the situation, he said, was “hard” but not “hopeless.” The media naturally emphasis the former, but the latter is worth keeping in mind too.


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