Endgame in Afghanistan approaches
A humid summer evening in the swamps of Virginia’s semi-prehistoric wilderness. A platoon of sixty young men—sweaty, sun-burnt, caked with mud and smelling like a herd of gastro-intestinally distressed bison—sits in a semicircle around the one man with brass on his lapels.
Pens scratch on waterproof notebooks as we, the officer candidates of Echo Company, 4th Platoon, the future leaders of the United States Marine Corps, pick the brain of our platoon commander in an unusually casual question-and-answer session. Training is almost over. Our platoon commander, a captain, still speaks to us with a dry mixture of impatience, sarcasm and contempt.
I stand up at the position of attention. “How would the platoon commander go about approaching the only known river crossing,” I ask, “if he strongly suspects that the bridge is booby-trapped?”
Expressionless stare. “Are you retarded, Manty-cone?” the captain says. “Don’t cross it. Makes sense, right?”
“Yes sir,” I say.
“Unless you want to get Marines killed.” He cocks an eyebrow. “You do, right?”
“Sit down. Next question.”
Another candidate stands up. “Sir, as a veteran of Afghanistan, what is the platoon commander’s opinion of the war at this point?”
“We’re winning,” he says. “Next question.”
The questioning continues until nightfall and another hour and a half of sleep.
We’re winning. A year ago, that statement would have seemed ridiculous and ill-informed. That was then. Now, thanks to several key strategic overhauls, and the always exemplary efforts of our service men and women, I’m inclined to agree.
My first op-ed article with the Vanguard covered the then-current situation in Afghanistan, in the stale half of 2010. By then, Afghanistan was already something of an obscure topic. It has been interesting to watch the war in that country drift further out of the public consciousness, to the point that it hardly even seems relevant to American politics in this day and age.
Back then, I was pessimistic, as many were. The situation was dismal, looking every day like a longer, costlier Vietnam.
The problem was easy to identify: We had the troops (eventually), the resources, the initiative. What we didn’t have was even more fundamental, and a hundred times as critical– answers to life’s most
important questions: who, what, where, why and, most importantly, how.
Strategy can be broken down into three core segments: what you want, how you’ll get there and what you’ll do when you arrive. In Afghanistan, even as late as 2010, we had problems with all three.
What we wanted was a stable, Western-style democratic nation. We got an unstable, anti-Western, anarchical patchwork of pastoral communes. We decided we’d get there by killing all the bad guys. We did that, and we did that well; we had a harder time finding good guys to replace them. When we got there—“there” meaning approximately the time when the opium fields turned to gumdrops and the IEDs became smile fountains—we’d leave.
We haven’t left yet.
The year is now 2011, soon to be 2012, and things have changed. I’m glad to say for the better.
In my first article, I argued that the goal of an Afghanistan run by a strong central government was simply unfeasible. No such government has ever held lasting legitimacy in so decentralized a country as Afghanistan, where even the term “nation” is basely wrong. Power there has always been held on the local level, by smaller, influential personalities known to everyone in the given community.
The International Security Assistance Force has since taken this into account, shifting attention away from the unpopular federal government in Kabul to areas of key influence—areas of high commerce or population density, particularly. This is “divide and conquer” at its most productive. And it appears to be working.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re winning. After all, Afghanistan is hardly a war in the traditional sense, so much as a state-building/law enforcement operation. This makes for an interesting debate. At what point can we logically say we have won? When law enforcement is no longer necessary? When sectarian conflict disappears? When Afghanistan’s economy equals a country of similar size, say, Pakistan? France?
Insurgencies rarely die out completely; rather, they lose enough influence and become so unpopular as to fade into irrelevance. Crime of this type will always be there. Like any state, Afghanistan will always be imperfect. Especially if those parameters are defined by Americans, derided the world over for our peculiar habit of idealism when it comes to the function of the nation.
How do I define “victory” in Afghanistan? We’re moving in the right direction. As of now, the number of Afghan National Army personnel outnumber NATO forces in the region by over 20,000. Over 135,000 Afghan National Police officers—trained by the U.S. military, the German Bundespolizei and Scotland Yard, among others—are currently shouldering a major security commitment in the total operation. Their numbers swell with ever year. As they do, men and women begin the slow process of withdrawal.
I don’t define victory in Afghanistan as an Afghanistan without problems, or even an Afghanistan with minor, easily managed problems. Such a scenario is unrealistic, and, frankly, impossible. What is possible is an Afghanistan governed and defended by Afghanis.
To me, realization of that goal would mean victory for both us and them. Democracy? That would be nice. A forward-thinking, progressive society, marked with pro-Western sentiment? That would be grand.
Realization of that goal might be a bit trickier.