Monday, April 11, 2011

The reality - and tragedy - of war in Afghanistan

I've written many times before about the war in Afghanistan, and I've stated on more than one occasion that it's a war without a military solution. The US cannot win there, in military terms, just as no other power - from Alexander the Great, through the Sassanid Empire and the British Raj, to the Soviet Union - has ever won a war there. Sooner or later, no matter how many temporary or short-term victories they won, they were forced out.

Three articles - two old, one new - highlight the dilemmas posed by our involvement in that country. I highly recommend all three to those interested in understanding more about this war, and the impossibility of finding a military solution.

The first article is from the New York Times Magazine in 2008. It examines the experiences of a US unit in the Korengal Valley. Here's a brief excerpt.

The Korengal Valley is a lonely outpost of regress: most of the valley’s people practice Wahhabism, a more rigid variety of Islam than that followed by most Afghans, and about half of the fighters confronting the U.S. there are homegrown. The rest are Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks; the area is close to Pakistan’s frontier regions where Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda figures are often said to be hiding out. The Korengal fighters are fierce, know the terrain and watch the Americans’ every move. On their hand-held radios, the old jihadis call the Americans "monkeys", "infidels", "bastards" and "the kids". It’s psychological warfare; they know the Americans monitor their radio chatter.

As far as "the kids" are concerned, the insurgents are ghosts - so the soldiers’ tactics often come down to using themselves as bait. The insurgents specialize in ambushes, harassing fire and hit-and-run attacks. NATO’s military advantage in such a war is air power. The soldiers don’t hesitate to call in Big Daddy (who, in today’s military, often flies in with the voice of a female pilot). But while these flying war machines are saviors to the soldiers, they cannot distinguish between insurgents and civilians.

I went to Afghanistan last fall with a question: Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes? As of September of last year, according to Human Rights Watch, NATO was causing alarmingly high numbers of civilian deaths - 350 by the coalition, compared with 438 by the insurgents. The sheer tonnage of metal raining down on Afghanistan was mind-boggling: a million pounds between January and September of 2007, compared with half a million in all of 2006.

After a few days, the first question sparked more: Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign? More than 100 American soldiers were killed last year, the highest rate since the invasion. Why were so many more American troops being killed? To find out, I spent much of the fall in the Korengal Valley and elsewhere in Kunar province alongside soldiers who were making life-and-death decisions almost every day - decisions that led to the deaths of soldiers and of civilians.

There's more at the link. The US proved unable to establish control in the Korengal Valley, and pulled out last year, after losing 42 dead and hundreds of soldiers wounded (not to mention Afghan casualties, both Government military, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and civilians, which certainly ran into thousands).

The second article, from 2009, comes from Wired online magazine. It examines how the Afghan air war became bogged down, and offers an interestingly different perspective on air power from that in the New York Times article referenced above. Here's an excerpt.

A pair of F-15 jets circle overhead. Cameras on the bellies of the aircraft capture the standoff: the opposing compounds, the tree line to one side, the fields between. The images are relayed to Echo’s headquarters, a burned-out schoolhouse just over half a mile away surrounded by sandbags and mortar tubes. Inside the school, Eric Meador, the company commander, leans over a small table and looks at the footage on a laptop. Meador is on the small side - 5'9", 140 pounds - and is a bit quirky for a Marine officer. A former Mississippi cop from a family of musicians, he has a weakness for chewing tobacco and reality TV - he keeps a picture of Kate Gosselin on one wall of the schoolhouse. But he radiates authority, and in the command post everyone focuses on him. Meador asks air controller Josh Faucett to review the standoff. "This is where the friendlies are," Faucett says, pointing to the screen. "This is where we think the sniper is." It’s a building in the northern compound, next to the main east-west road.

The next step seems obvious: Call those F-15s and have them reduce the Taliban’s positions to rubble. That’s how the Marines took out insurgents in Fallujah in 2004. Hell, it’s how they went after the Taliban in August 2008. But it’s August 2009, and today Meador is not sure.

A month earlier, just as Meador, Paz, and 4,000 other Marines were getting ready to move into Helmand province, the US military modified its counterinsurgency strategy. Incoming top general Stanley McChrystal issued strict guidelines forbidding air strikes except in the most dire circumstances. The number one priority in Afghanistan, he declared, was to secure the population so normal life could resume. The US needed to rob the militants of popular support, he argued. Dropping bombs only disrupted lives and drove people into the arms of the Taliban. So civilian casualties from air strikes had to stop - immediately.

The directive has required a radical shift in the approach to Afghanistan. For most of the first eight years of the war, the US and its allies relied heavily on air power to keep militants in check. US aircraft, the generals believed - with their precision bombs, sophisticated targeting, and sheer omnipresence - could minimize the number of troops required to wage the war. The problem is that air strikes - even with maximum precision and care - can alienate the people needed most for a successful counterinsurgency campaign. America’s mightiest engineering accomplishments - drones and smart missiles - are actually impediments to the social engineering required in Afghanistan. So with a single stroke, McChrystal took the US’s biggest technological advantage off the table. The military would have to make do without one of its most potent weapons.

It hasn’t been easy. While accidental civilian deaths dropped by 87 percent in the eight weeks following the order, American fatalities have more than doubled from 2008 levels.

Again, there's more at the link.

Both of those articles are a few years old. However, the dilemmas they describe are no less real today than they were then. Furthermore, the strain of so many years of warfare is now dividing Afghan families against themselves, as an article yesterday points out.

The Northern Alliance, backed by the might of the United States, overthrew the Taliban when Gul was 13. He felt no allegiance to the Taliban regime, but he gradually developed an admiration for its interpretation of Islam. He spent more time at the mosque than Razziq. Gul objected to their younger sister taking classes in a neighbor’s home. His classmates called him "little mullah", said Asadullah Nawabi, a friend and pharmacist in Zabul.

Gul’s views hardened when U.S. soldiers killed a cousin, Ismat, during a night raid in their village, according to both brothers. "The Americans had surrounded a compound. When he tried to leave it, he was shot," Razziq recalled. Ismat was a bystander, they said, not an insurgent.

"That was the moment I realized the Americans were not here to build our country," Gul said.

Not long after, he dropped out of high school and left home to find the Taliban.

"It’s every Muslim’s obligation to fight the invader and occupier," he said. "I was nervous when I left. I didn’t know what would happen to me. But I was also happy because I was going to join a group of people who were fighting for God."

. . .

Razziq was disgusted. He had pleaded with Gul not to join the Taliban. It would put him in danger, the younger brother had argued, and would draw unwanted attention to the family. As the eldest son, Gul was responsible for tending the farm and supporting their parents and siblings. As it was, their meager harvests earned them barely enough to survive.

Razziq did not consider U.S. troops occupiers. They were in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, he noted, and have paid to build schools and hospitals and train Afghan soldiers and police. The Taliban insurgents "bomb bridges, they plant mines, and most of the time, civilians get killed," Razziq said. "He joined the very people who burn down schools, who don’t let women go to school, who do all sorts of evil things."

. . .

To help his family, Razziq needed to find work. Unlike Gul, who nearly finished high school, studied in a madrassa in Pakistan and could speak broken English, Razziq was illiterate - a condition he likened to blindness. The Afghan police paid $220 a month and required no education. "I wanted to serve the country," he said. "And I wanted to be part of the team that makes it possible for children to go to school."

His father hated the idea. Where they lived, the Taliban had more authority than the government: The group’s members spoke at the mosque and regularly passed by asking for food and shelter. Anyone who joined the police was asking for trouble. But Razziq refused to stay home. He joined an outpost in Taziq, an about 45-minute drive from his house. That was a year ago. He has not been home since.

"I cannot go back there," he said. "The Taliban will cause problems."

Each month, Razziq sends $130 - more than half his salary - to his family, usually with a friend acting as courier. When his father had errands in the provincial capital, Qalat, they would meet for a few minutes to catch up. But that has been rare. His connection to his family has been severed.

To Gul, his brother’s new job was a betrayal: a choice of money over freedom. "I know my brother made the wrong decision. I hope he quits his job and comes back home. Nobody will touch him," Gul said. Until Razziq does, they will be enemies.

More at the link.

If you want to understand the reality of war 'on the ground' in Afghanistan, and its impact on both US forces and the people of that country, these articles are essential reading. Highly recommended.

Two more 'good reads', for those with an historical bent, are Col. Francis Younghusband's classic book "The Story Of The Guides". It's available online from Project Gutenberg. It's the history of the Corps of Guides, who saw service in the British Raj (including Afghanistan) during most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second is "Bugles And A Tiger", the first volume of his autobiography by the novelist John Masters. It describes his service with a Gurkha unit on the North-West Frontier prior to World War II. Both books give a valuable historical perspective on the conflict there. I'm sure both the Guides and the Gurkhas of those times would find nothing new or strange in what's happening in Afghanistan today.

(You might also try Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "The Ballad Of East And West". Regrettably, such mutual respect between enemies seems to be a thing of the past in Afghanistan . . . but it was once very real.)


1 comment:

Stretch said...

Damn you! Like I don't have enough time sucks. And just another reminder I'm living in the wrong century. Thank you for bringing this e-book to my attention.
Last time I saw a copy was in a bookstore in Dublin at a price I couldn't afford.
Have read Masters and even shared drinks with his son.
Kipling is a must.
And Flashman should be required reading for anyone interested in things "East of Suez."