Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Impossible War

Obama commits more troops to Afghanistan -- with the wrong strategy

Story and Photos by DAVID AXE

[caption id="attachment_847" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Staff Sgt. Ashley Hess from Able Troop, in Logar on Oct. 15. 2009."][/caption]

BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan -- The soldiers from Able Troop knew the attack was coming. Not only had they received several ominous warnings from some sympathetic local farmers in this agricultural district 50 miles south of Kabul, in mountainous central Afghanistan -- they could also feel it in their bones. Some Afghan towns, on some nights, practically seethe with potential violence. Oct. 21 was such a night.

Staff Sgt. Ashley Hess, a toothy, heavy-smoking man, had first felt the building tension six days prior. "Let's go get blown up," he'd muttered as he strapped himself into the passenger's side of his eight-seat armored vehicle, while preparing for a reconnaissance mission to the outskirts of Baraki Barak. Hess' feeling was right -- it was his timing that was off. Hess' patrol returned to base unscathed. It was a separate patrol on the 21st that found itself caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of the now eight-year-old Afghanistan war.

It was a war launched with the clearest of objectives: to hunt down the men responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, and to disrupt their group's ability to plan further attacks. In the beginning, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was clearly focused on Al Qaeda -- although, at the time, that meant also disrupting the Taliban, the Islamic regime that had harbored the terror group.

But then something happened. Al Qaeda all but disappeared from Afghanistan, fleeing into neighboring Pakistan, where vast swaths of the country are under the control of the Taliban's Pakistani branch. The Taliban, too, melted into the Afghan countryside, its ranks depleted and its leaders under constant threat of assassination by U.S. commandos and drone aircraft.

A couple years after the first company of U.S. Marines leaped out of their assault helicopters at a former hunting lodge outside the southern city of Kandahar, in November 2001, we had effectively won the war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda no longer used the country as a base in any meaningful way. The Taliban, once a functioning government, had been reduced to a guerilla movement, albeit a highly deadly one. "The extremists have lost sanctuaries and popular support in Afghanistan," then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote in 2005.

Still, we stayed. Worse, we dug in deeper, steadily adding troops, building new bases and pressuring our NATO allies to expand their own commitments to a now aimless war effort that, to date, has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 coalition soldiers. In the absence of clear enemy, our goals in Afghanistan shifted. No longer were we just finding and killing terrorists. From late 2002 on, we drifted into nation-building, laboring to establish a Western-style democracy in a vast, rugged country of poor, illiterate, xenophobic and corrupt people.

Pentagon officials tried to link counter-terrorism and nation-building, as though the two were obviously the same thing. "Democracy is the opposite end to the [traditional Islamic] Caliphate, which is what Al Qaeda is trying to establish," one unnamed military official said in a 2006 news release, implying that justified the effort.

But nation-building rarely works, especially at the barrel of a gun. Afghanistan, one of the world's most corrupt, fractured countries, is particularly resistant to external reform. Nevertheless, eight years into the war the U.S. military is trying to persuade Afghans to act like ideal Americans -- obeying laws, voting in free elections, respecting human rights and due process -- all in pursuit of the unproven theory that representative democracy can be forcibly exported to corrupt, non-democratic societies, and that that democracy is the only way to truly suppress terrorism.

That conflation of counter-terrorism and nation-building lies at the heart of U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to add 30,000 troops to the current force of more than 60,000, and to pressure NATO allies to add as many as 7,000 to their combined 30,000-strong Afghan contingents. The reinforcements "will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans," Obama said as he announced his decision, in a speech at the U.S. Army's Military Academy in West Point, New York, on Dec. 1.

But everyday Afghans have a say in the direction their society takes. And in a contested, fraudulent election this fall and with innumerable smaller acts of corruption, Afghans have said a resounding "no" to democracy. For that reason, the U.S. war effort is doomed. Deploying tens of thousands of extra troops in a failed bid to reform an entire society just means putting tens of thousands of extra troops in the cross-hairs of the tattered remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which fight on despite their serious setbacks. Not to mention, the reinforcements will cost $1 million per person per year, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget -- this during the worst economic crisis this nation has suffered in nearly 100 years.

"Winning" in Afghanistan does not mean reforming Afghan society. Winning means disrupting terrorists, and that does not require nation-building. We must get back to our original and realistic war goals, and bring home the tens of thousands of soldiers currently laboring to export democracy to an Afghanistan that wants nothing to do with it. Until we do, our soldiers are fighting, and sometimes dying, for nothing.

Back in Baraki Barak on Oct. 21, the ambush began with a chest-thumping boom. A bomb, buried in the middle of a dirt road, exploded underneath one of Able Troop's vehicles. The blast shattered the truck's front half; the soldiers inside were miraculously unhurt. Taliban fighters hiding in a tree-line opened fire with AK-47s and Rocket-Propelled Grenades, peppering the now-stalled American convoy.

The Americans fired back. For 20 minutes, fields burned, cows died from stray bullets and walls and canals collapsed amid the fighting. The Americans had come to Baraki Barak to build a democracy, but that had proved impossible. That night, it was all they could do just to stay alive, pinned down as much by the U.S. government's fundamentally-flawed nation-building strategy as by the Taliban's bombs, guns and rockets.

There would be a deeply ironic coda to Able Troop's October battle. In the hours after Obama's West Point announcement, the top officer for Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stan McChrystal, held a press conference where he highlighted examples of success in Afghanistan -- models for the way the war would be waged, from now on. His major example: Baraki Barak.

“Some months ago it was almost under complete insurgent control," McChrystal said of the district. "Now with a partnership between coalition forces, Afghan forces and local government and some smart counter-insurgency techniques, some reinforcement of local leadership, violence is down something like 80 percent and it is all because we link up and partner and we make it work.”

A closer look at Baraki Barak undermines McChrystal's claims, and challenges the Obama Administration's assumptions regarding the Afghanistan war. Baraki Barak is less an example of gradual progress towards a democratic, peaceful Afghanistan, and more an example of the depth and permanence of a traditional Afghan society that rejects Western-style democracy, and will not mold itself to Obama's notion of "success" in Afghanistan, no matter how many troops we send in.

[caption id="attachment_848" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption=" Baraki Barak district sub governor Mohamed Yasin Ludeen on Oct. 18, 2009."][/caption]

A Tale of Three Districts

A year ago, there were just 100 Americans in all of Logar, just south of Kabul. One of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Logar is home to an estimated half a million people and, with its fertile soil irrigated by the Logar River and by snow melt streaming down the mountains, is one of the country's major bread baskets. Looking down from the mountains on a fall day, you can see heaps of orange corn drying on rooftops.

At the time, the 100 Americans occupied a fortified hilltop compound that once belonged to a Turkish gravel manufacturer. They represented an insignificant force, especially considering Logar's role in a previous war. The province was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. A Soviet formation of some 400 vehicles was cut off in Logar's southernmost Kherwar district -- a natural "bowl" ringed by mountains and accessible by a single narrow road -- and systematically destroyed by U.S.-funded mujahideen fighters.

Many of Logar's so-called "muj" would eventually join the Taliban and turn their weapons against their own former patrons, the Americans. U.S. officers were worried that sending more soldiers to Logar, on top of the original 100, might doom them to the same bloody fate that befell the Soviets. For years, however, the issue was moot, for there simply weren't enough Americans in Afghanistan for every province to have its own large contingent. Then, as one of his first acts as president, Obama ordered an extra 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, boosting the occupying army to a new high of around 60,000. Several thousand of those reinforcements made their way to Logar.

They initially avoided Kherwar and its deadly "bowl," instead setting up at a former Soviet prison in Baraki Barak, a northern district that intelligence reports indicated would be friendlier towards foreigners. The Americans beefed up the prison's defenses and replaced a wall still bearing hundreds of bullet holes from a mass execution of Afghan prisoners in the '80s. Baraki Barak would be the wedge for gradually inserting more forces into Logar.

The Pentagon had big plans for Logar. The province would be a test case for a new phase of the Afghan war -- Obama's phase -- characterized by more troops, more resources and a more determined push to reform Afghan society. Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, the gruff, bulldog-faced commander of U.S. forces in Logar, including Able Troop, named the campaign for the province after a popular American reality show in which producers descend on a needy family and pay to refurbish and improve the family's home. "It's my 'Extreme Makeover: Afghanistan Edition,'" Gukeisen said. He was seemingly unaware that many makeover recipients on the reality show end up losing their "new" homes, when they discover they can't afford higher taxes and upkeep. The makeovers are often illusory.

[caption id="attachment_849" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Able Company Capt. Paul Shepard interviews Afghans at a mosque in Baraki Barak on Oct. 18, 2009."][/caption]

Gukeisen's soldiers identified the villages and neighborhoods that were safest for Americans, and began offering small reconstruction projects to the local elders. Marginal communities that wanted their own projects had to rally against the local Taliban, and other criminal and insurgent elements, before the Americans would help them, too. All it took to active the American projects was for someone to hand over to the Army a list of names of known Taliban. Or, the Afghans could detain the Taliban themselves. It was an approach that hinged on creating what Gukeisen called "dislocated envy" between villages. "It gives us the carrot and the stick," Gukeisen said.

In this way, the Americans spent nearly a million dollars in Logar in just over six months time in mid 2009. Projects included new public toilets; paint, carpet and new loudspeakers for mosques; and greenhouses for growing winter crops. Gukeisen's intelligence agents kept an eye on the toilets. Based on growing traffic at the latrines, the agents estimated that Baraki Barak's population nearly doubled in 2009, as more and more villages signed onto Gukeisen's plan and thousands of war refugees returned home.

That, plus some high-profile Taliban arrests and the reported 80-percent decline in insurgent attacks, told Gukeisen that his strategy was working. Gukeisen told McChrystal. McChrystal told his boss, Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus surely told the president. Word circulated that Logar, and Baraki Barak in particular, was a worthy model for the whole war effort. A legion of senior officers, think-tank analysts and reporters descended on Logar to see for themselves.

[caption id="attachment_851" align="alignright" width="300" caption="An Able Troop soldiers in Baraki Barak on Oct. 23, 2009."][/caption]

In October, hawkish historian and analyst Max Boot -- a mousy, bespectacled man -- landed in a Blackhawk helicopter, and spent the day chatting with Gukeisen and Capt. Paul Shepard, one of Gukeisen's subordinates. Gukeisen sketched out ambitious plans to extend his influence across Baraki Barak, into neighboring Cherkh district and ultimately into the feared Kherwar district. As Gukeisen saw it, he would gradually change Afghans' attitudes about the U.S. and their own government. The strategy, Gukeisen said, is about "changing human behavior."

For all of Gukeisen's optimism, there are cracks just under the surface of the so-called Extreme Makeover: Afghanistan Edition. Local improvements in Baraki Barak are immediate reactions to the larger American presence and the influx of American money. But when the Americans leave, as they eventually must, the villages will surely back-slide -- for there has been no commensurate improvement inside the Afghan government that might maintain the province's forward progress. Gukeisen's strategy amounts to a band-aid on a festing wound. Only internal improvements can heal the wound.

So the question is, is the Afghan government in Baraki Barak making any effort at all to truly govern the place? Or is it business as usual in a country that hasn't had effective centralized rule in centuries?

The Sub Gov

The Americans call him by his nickname, "Sub Gov." Baraki Barak Sub-Governor Mohamed Yasin Ludeen, a deeply tanned man with a carefully trimmed moustache and a sharp, distinctive nose, is the top government official for the more than 100,000 farmers, herders and their families that live in Baraki Barak's lush valley. Ludeen was appointed, not elected. His uncle is the provincial governor -- in other words, Ludeen's theoretical boss, in a country where hierarchy is considered very important, but rarely actually works.

Ludeen, and the district governments he represents, is key to building a peaceful, Western-style democracy. In a lawful democracy like ours, local government provides essential basic services, without which people might resort to violence in order to care for themselves and their families. Local government also serves as a bridge to higher levels of government, all the way to the national level. In the U.S., layers of government and society are connected by innumerable links: voting, paying taxes, phoning in tips to police, traveling between jurisdictions on roads maintained by one layer of government or another -- these are all links for everyday people. Our networks of local, state and federal laws -- and the taxes, grants and police assistance flowing in all directions -- are links between layers of governments.

These links do not exist in Afghanistan. Government does not interact with the people, except to extort them. Government provides essentially no services. The people do not support the government with taxes, because they do not respect the government -- nor need it in their daily lives. They don't follow written laws. They may not even be aware of the law, because the government has never tried to educate them. In the vast spaces between the people and "their" government, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and criminal gangs have ample space to hide. People accept the bad guys' presence because there's no way to get rid of them or because they're no more offensive than the occasional, corrupt Afghan National Army patrol that comes through and steals everyone's valuables.

[caption id="attachment_850" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="4) Able Troop patrols past a marijuana field in Baraki Barak on Oct. 21, 2009."][/caption]

Ron Barkley, a tall, soft-spoken State Department official, is all too aware of Afghanistan's lack of good governance. Barkley is the State's Department's top advisor to the U.S. Army in Baraki Barak. "It doesn’t multiply," Barkley said of the Army's reform efforts in the district. "It stays in one little area." What he was describing is a society that lacks all the links that we, as Americans, take for granted.

"What we’re trying do is to take the Sub Gov" -- that is, Ludeen and his government -- "and expand out to other villages," Barkley added. "Let’s expand up from the district. From the district to the province. That’s where we’re going to make our money. That's where people are going to see their government doing something.” And that, in turn, would reinforce those new links that would, eventually, result in an American democracy in the mountains of Afghanistan. Terrorists and radical Islamists would be anathema. Peace would reign. And the U.S. and NATO could leave Afghanistan, job well done.

Too bad that'll never happen. Ludeen is supposed to be the solution to Baraki Barak's lack of governance. But he's actually part of the problem. Ludeen, like practically all Afghan officials, seems to see a government post not as an opportunity for public service, but as a way of lining his own pockets. When the U.S. Army first moved into Baraki Barak, Ludeen -- who doesn't even live in Baraki Barak, rather drives in from Kabul several days a week -- helped arrange the contract to provide gravel for the Army's main base. In return, Ludeen demanded, and received, a roughly $20,000 kickback, according to an Army source.

Not that he doesn't talk a great talk. "There's not one good almond in the bunch," Ludeen said through an interpreter, when Boot asked the Sub Gov about Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet.

"So how should we root out corruption in Afghanistan?" Boot asked.

"Impossible," Ludeen said. "There's just one way to get rid of corruption. You've got to get rid of the current cabinet. Change all of them. Bring in fresh views."

As guilty as he is, Ludeen was not wrong: corruption is endemic to Afghan society. It was just four months ago that incumbent president Karzai rigged the country's presidential election. He got caught by a U.N. watchdog group and ordered to repeat the vote. But when his sole challenger dropped out, Karzai won anyway.

Earlier, a paramilitary force established to help NATO patrol outlying provinces had to be scrapped soon after its creation, because the militiamen were supplementing their $70-a-month incomes by shaking down Afghan motorists. In Kabul, mini-bus drivers must bribe traffic cops just to pass through key intersections.

In Kandahar, in the south, the commander of the local Afghan air force wing, Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, is related to the provincial governor, who is allegedly also the major player in the drug trade. The Sherzai family owns one of the region's biggest construction companies, and Brig. Gen. Sherzai is suspected of using air force helicopters for company business -- and for smuggling, as well.

"Corruption in Afghanistan is endemic," Kai Eide, the U.N.'s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said last year. The nonprofit group Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimated that the typical Afghan family pays a third of its income in bribes; the value of all bribery in the country runs to half the roughly $500-million internationally-funded development budget, the group asserted.

You can't get rid of corruption in Afghanistan, because everyone is corrupt. As along as that is true, "Afghan governance" will remain a contradiction in terms, and military-led efforts to build connections between layers of Afghan society will fail. Local development work, like that Gukeisen's troops are doing, will work only as long as the Americans remain. If we are in Afghanistan to build a nation, then we will be in Afghanistan forever.

Another Way

Remember that building a democratic Afghanistan was not our original goal. The goal was disrupting Al Qaeda. For that, there is a cheaper, less bloody way.

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. Special Forces dropped into Afghanistan and, with the support of the CIA and the Air Force, mobilized sympathetic Afghans -- and paid off many hold-outs -- to fight back against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In northern Afghanistan, just a few dozen Americans and their local allies defeated a 25,000-strong Taliban army.

All over the world, small numbers of American commandos, with a big boost from the growing fleet of inexpensive, armed drone aircraft, have managed to keep terror groups off-kilter by way of precision raids. In 2008 alone, drone strikes picked off as many as 80 Al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Pakistan. A lightning-fast commando raid in Somalia in September killed a Kenyan man suspected of orchestrating several terror bombings.

Victory in Afghanistan does not mean leaving Afghanistan with an American-style government. Besides, that's an impossible task. Victory means disrupting terrorists -- something we already know how to do, on the cheap.

Oddly, Obama seemed to acknowledge this, in his West Point strategy speech. "I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies," the president said. "Since then, we've made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we've stepped up the pressure on Al Qaeda worldwide."

So why are we also trying to reform, by force, an Afghan society that has no interest in changing? With Obama's announcement, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will soon reach 100,000. That's a hundred thousand, mostly young Americans, who like Able Troop must continue absorbing Taliban bombs and bullets, as they labor towards an impossible goal.

For Able Troop, there's an especially ominous note to the Administration's ongoing support for Afghan nation-building. As Gukeisen expands his influence in Logar with money and small projects, the Army edges closer and close to the natural "bowl" in Kherwar district where the Soviet division was massacred, two decades ago. As the U.S. war effort expands, young soldiers will find themselves marching into killing fields that have claimed the armies of empires, for centuries.

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