Commentary Magazine


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Not Quite Iraq

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — I only just arrived in Afghanistan yesterday after a grueling, 36-hour journey by commercial airliner from Florida to Washington to Kuwait and finally, via an Air Force C-17, to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. The military flight only left Kuwait at 3 am local time, and there is a nine and a half hour time difference between East Coast time and Kabul time, so I am still quite a bit disoriented and jet lagged. Moreover, I have only conducted a couple of meetings with my hosts at the 101st Airborne, the division in charge of operations in eastern Afghanistan (Regional Command East).

So I don’t have much by way of substantive information to pass on yet about the current status of Operation Enduring Freedom. Rather I have only an immediate, somewhat superficial impression to relay as someone who has made five trips to Iraq and only one, very brief prior visit to Afghanistan. What struck me upon arrival is how much smaller the scale of U.S. operations is in Afghanistan compared with Iraq. That should be no surprise, of course, since there are only about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan compared to over 140,000 in Iraq. There is also a much more substantial contractor contingent in Iraq.

But it’s one thing to hear those figures and another thing to see their impact on the ground. I am not referring to the low number of troops who have to police vast amounts of terrain; I will see and  hear much more about those problems in coming days. But even from my very limited time at Bagram I can see how much more spartan the base is than any of the major bases in Iraq. The gym I worked out at this morning would fit into a tiny corner of the giant, airplane hanger-size gym at Camp Victory outside Baghdad. The same might be said of the Dining Facility where I ate lunch yesterday. It seemed positively Lilliputian compared to the gargantuan chow halls in Iraq.

The facilities that are available for troops and their visitors to live and work in are also much more modest. The Taliban did not have the money or desire to build the kind of gaudy palaces that Saddam Hussein constructed and that, starting in 2003, served as office space and sometimes living quarters for the American occupiers. Whenever I visited Camp Victory, I, along with many other visitors, stayed at the Joint Visitors Bureau “hotel” located in one of the marble mini-palaces grouped around the main Al Faw palace which is now the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq. Better known was the Republican Palace occupied by U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in the Green Zone, which came complete with its own swimming pool that was much in use before the buildings were turned over to Iraqi control on December 31, 2008.

Afghanistan is a much poorer country than Iraq, so such extravagances are out. The U.S. military made only limited efforts to build its own infrastructure over since 2001 because, from Don Rumsfeld on down, senior leaders were convinced that our presence in Afghanistan was only temporary. That is starting to change. With more American troops flowing into Afghanistan (one additional brigade just arrived, two more are on the way), a more elaborate support network is being constructed. You can see new buildings going up all over Bagram, which is the main U.S. military hub in the country, even though General David Mackiernan and the senior NATO staff are located in Kabul.

This is good and bad. More permanent infrastructure implies that we are finally coming to grips with the long-term nature of the task we face in Afghanistan. But it also runs the risk, as in Iraq prior to 2007, of isolating the troops from the population. I am sure I will hear much more in coming days about how U.S. commanders plan to deal with such challenges.