LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- On April 15, 2002, in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, at least five U.S. Army soldiers from a Explosive Ordnance Disposal team -- a military bomb squad -- were working to dismantle a stockpile of old, Soviet-designed 107-millimeter rockets. The munitions had been discovered during the U.S.-led invasion targeting the Al Qaeda terror group and its Taliban protectors.
There was an explosion. Sergeants Brian Craig, Daniel Romero, Jamie Maugans and Justin Galewski died and a fifth soldier was wounded. Initial reports labeled the blast an accident. Later, as it became apparent that one of the rockets had been rigged to detonate as the Americans worked nearby, the media referred to the rocket as a â€œbooby-trap.â€
It would take several years and another war thousands of miles away from Afghanistan for the current term to take root. What claimed the lives of those four Americans is now known as an Improvised Explosive Device, or â€œIED.â€
After becoming the biggest killer of U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq war, IEDs spread across Afghanistan like some kind of suddenly-erupting, fatal disease. Originally honed in its current form by Chechen rebels battling the ruthless Russian army in the early 1990s, the IED is now the deadliest weapon of the Afghan insurgency -- and the single biggest reason the free worldâ€™s armies have failed to subjugate the Afghan countryside.
Their variety is staggering. The earliest were simply leftover artillery shells or rockets connected to a triggerman by a length of copper wire and ignited with the press of a button. More sophisticated current versions explode on command via a distant radio signal or go off when something passes over a pressure plate. Still others feature infrared â€œtripwires.â€
They can be buried in dirt, paved over by asphalt, placed in culverts or drainage pipes alongside or under roads or on footpaths or packed into cars, trucks or donkey carts or on motorbikes. Some pack sophisticated mixes of modern explosives or specially-crafted shaped charges capable of punching through thick armor. There are some made of commercial fertilizer.
Some are encased in shrapnel-producing metal. Others, in undetectable plastic or wood.
Their sheer diversity complicates ISAFâ€™s efforts to find them in time to defuse them. Every permutation requires a different method of detection and defusing. ISAF engineers and Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams admit that they could never prevent every bomb blast.
Every month, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force discovers around 1,300 IEDs. Some get spotted before they explode. Many donâ€™t.
As of this writing, 1,513 Americans have died and thousands more have been wounded in Afghanistan. The war has also claimed no fewer than 867 members of the ISAF coalition plus tens of thousands of civilians. Bombs have accounted for around 90 percent of the American casualties so far -- and that percentage could be increasing as IEDs continue to proliferate.
I understood all this at around 3:00 PM, local time, on March 19. But I didnâ€™t appreciate it until around 3:02, after the vehicle I was riding in with members of the U.S. Armyâ€™s 10th Mountain Division had been demolished by a buried bomb in the village of Pakhab-eâ€™Shana, just outside Logarâ€™s Baraki Barak district. Five soldiers were injured and required aerial medevac. I escaped with bruises and cuts.
Surviving the blast did not alter my negative opinion of the now decade-long Afghanistan war, but it did anchor my opinion in something more personal than politics or analysis. As I write this, I number among the many thousands of Americans whose lives balanced on the razorâ€™s edge of a conflict that shows no sign of tipping our way.
In direct financial costs alone, the bill for the Afghanistan war currently totals some $300 billion. Add to the ledger the blood of 1,500 slain Americans and weâ€™re paying too high a cost for debatable gains in a conflict that years ago drifted far away from its original purpose. We are no more preventing domestic terror attack in Afghanistan than we are building a free and functional Afghan state.
At a decade and running, the Afghanistan war now vies for the title of longest American war. Itâ€™s inevitable, and right, that funding, political will and popular support would wane. As our enthusiasm has flagged, our desperate, last-ditch efforts to cobble together something resembling victory is producing a divided Afghanistan -- one that will continue consuming American cash and, more tragically, American lives ... until the day we finally leave.
For Want of Volunteers
â€œOur forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population ... The status quo is not sustainable,â€ U.S. President Barack Obama said in December 2009, acknowledging what close observers of the Afghanistan war already knew. Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, boosting Americaâ€™s ISAF contingent to around 100,000.
The â€œAfghanistan surgeâ€ was modeled on a similar campaign in Iraq in 2007 that was spearheaded by Army Gen. David Petraeus. Tens of thousands of U.S. reinforcements flooded into Baghdad; a year later, violence in that city -- and across much of Iraq -- dropped 90 percent.
But the real reason the Iraq war ended the way it did had little to do with the American reinforcements. Around the same time fresh U.S. troops were deploying throughout Baghdad, an experiment in creating pro-U.S. Iraqi volunteer forces spread from the deserts of western Iraq to the opposite side of the country.
These â€œSons of Iraqâ€ represented kind of â€œneighborhood watch,â€ in the words of U.S. Army Capt. Shannon Reickert, who as a young lieutenant witnessed the groupâ€™s rise. The Sons of Iraq were decisive in creating the street-level security that broke the insurgencyâ€™s momentum.
Today Reickert commands a company of 150 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistanâ€™s Baraki Barak district, 50 miles south of Kabul. Baraki Barak, population 180,000 is a key crossroads district between Kabul, Pakistan and the restive mountainous regions that lie in between. For all its importance, Baraki Barak is patrolled by just a few hundred American and Afghan soldiers and, most worryingly, fewer than 50 police.
Poor leadership, inadequate pay and a reputation for corruption and brutality have stymied the Afghan National Police forceâ€™s growth.
A shortage of security forces means ISAF has had to effectively surrender portions of Baraki Barak to the Taliban and other extremist groups. â€œIn some ways you can only be in so many places at one time, so you have to pick your priorities and move forward with that plan,â€ said Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, Reickertâ€™s predecessor.
In theory, a Sons of Iraq-style organization could help ISAF retake lost ground. Indeed, the alliance has tried no fewer than six times to raise pro-U.S. Afghan volunteer groups -- most recently in the months after Petraeusâ€™ assumed command in Afghanistan last summer. Each time, the initiative has failed entirely or stalled at the local level.
â€œThe difference between Afghanistan and Iraq and their volunteers is that here they [the civilian population] is more hesitant because they look at them as militias. Theyâ€™re wary of that kind of thing.â€ And for good reason: even amid the insurgency, local warlords and their personal militias are still the source of a high proportion of the violence in Afghanistan.
Today there is no nationwide local-volunteer organization in Afghanistan, leaving just half a million ISAF and Afghan troops and police to protect 30 million people living in a rugged country the size of Texas. While that might seem like a lot of troops, at least half of them play supporting roles -- training, logistics, administration, etc. -- and many of the Afghans arenâ€™t yet fully trained.
In reality, there are probably fewer than 200,000 alliance combatants spread across 400 districts, each roughly equivalent to a U.S. county. Most U.S. counties have a higher ratio of police patrolmen to civilians -- and none of them are at war.
An already stretched-thin ISAF is about to get stretched farther, as the Afghanistan surge expires and the first U.S. combat troops leave the country for good in July. The Obama administration is hardly a bunch of doves, but even it realizes that with a struggling economy and rising budget deficits, America can no longer afford its wars. Petraeus anticipated removing the bulk of U.S. combat troops by 2014.
In one sense, thatâ€™s a dozen years too late. By our original definition of victory, weâ€™ve already won this war: we won it in 2002, when a battered Al Qaeda fled into neighboring Pakistan. But rather than quitting Afghanistan after the Talibanâ€™s defeat, ISAF -- conflating nation-building with counter-terrorism -- â€œpicked sides in the Afghan civil war,â€ to quote analyst Robert Lamb from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Today ISAFâ€™s main enemies are the Taliban and several other extremist groups whose most immediate beef is ISAFâ€™s very presence -- and whose long-term goal is to displace the current government in Kabul. We could leave Afghanistan today, allowing Afghans to fight among themselves, without jeopardizing our national security. Our retreat could only bolster our counter-terrorism efforts worldwide by freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars and 100,000 troops for raids against international terror groups.
But thatâ€™s not the plan. Instead, ISAF is hoping to salvage some kind of nation-building victory from the ruins of an ill-conceived, under-resourced war -- by fortifying a small number of Afghan communities and effectively cementing the countryâ€™s division into opposing armed camps.
Baraki Barak is one of those fortress towns -- or, as ISAF calls them, â€œkey terrain districts.â€
â€œOur priority is to focus where the population centers are,â€ Rothlisberger said. That makes some sense, as ISAF has always enjoyed its strongest support among Afghanistanâ€™s wealthier, better-educated, mostly Tajik urban population, centered around Kabul and a handful of other cities. The insurgency, by contrast, is rooted in the countryâ€™s rural south and far east and their ethnic Pashtuns.
Even as ISAF begins its slow, overall contraction, Baraki Barak and as many as 100 other fortress towns are getting more foreign and Afghan troops, more money for development projects and more attention from Kabul and ISAF headquarters. The result is a dichotomy between the fortress towns and the surrounding countryside that could inspire jealousy among the have-nots
ISAF is aware of this possibility. Indeed, the alliance is betting that the resources it pours into fortress towns will inspire jealousy in outlying villages and convince them to lay down their arms, eject their extremists and side with ISAF. â€œIf they give us a chance to show [that] these are the services ourselves in conjunction with the ANA [Afghan National Army] can provide to them, hopefully we can turn them into pro-coalition villages,â€ said U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Sean Mahard, deployed to Baraki Barak in 2009.
But that jealousy could just as easily inspire conflict. Baraki Barak has scores of mosques. ISAF has donated paint, rugs and other supplies to some mosques in exchange for the cooperation of their imams and mullahs. Attendees of neighboring mosques have raided the recipient mosques to steal their supplies.
Scaled upward, that kind of banditry could exacerbate existing tensions in Baraki Barak and across Afghanistan. As the country becomes increasingly divided along lines established many years ago -- a process ISAF is inadvertently encouraging -- U.S. troops, manning that contact zone between the two sides, will remain at risk.
A week after Iâ€™d been nearly killed outside Baraki Barak, the score evened somewhat when Mohamed Ajan, a notorious IED-maker based in Baraki Barak, accidentally blew up himself and another man while working on one of his improvised bomb. In the blastâ€™s aftermath, U.S. Special Forces launched a nighttime raid to round up anyone recently spotted near Ajan.
The suspects included six men. Two, Ajanâ€™s brother and nephew, had clear ties to Ajanâ€™s activities. They quickly disappeared into the murky U.S.-Afghan detention system that includes an Abu Ghraib-style prison at ISAFâ€™s Bagram air base outside Kabul.
The four remaining suspects insisted they were innocent. The police in Baraki Barak conceded that there was no firm evidence against them and, after one night in jail, released them -- but not before requiring they sit down with local subgovernor Mohamed Rahim Amin.
Still sore from the IED blast, I rushed to Aminâ€™s dimly-lit office to see about interviewing the detainees. I didnâ€™t expect them to talk: why would they? But to my surprise, all four agreed to go on the record.
Laborers Gulla Agha, Said Rahman and Barayali and taxi driver Said Omar all said the same thing. They did not know why they had been arrested. They were not upset at the coalition for detaining them. They knew nothing about the Taliban. Things were going great in Baraki Barak.
On the face of it, their shared response was absurd. But it made sense in context. Here were four men violently yanked from their beds by armed Americans, held overnight by the notoriously ill-disciplined police then paraded in front of the subgovernor and an American reporter. Of course they would say exactly what they think their foreign occupier wanted to hear.
They were afraid. At least as afraid I had been for an entire week, as the emotional trauma of my near-death experience slowly faded. Agha said as much in a surprise interjection after I had asked my last question. He wanted to know if I could write him a letter stating that he sometimes worked in a local quarry, with explosives. He said he if he got arrested again, the police might detect traces of TNT on his fingers and use that to brand him an insurgent. â€œTheyâ€™ll send me to Bagram,â€ Agha said, his eyes growing wide.
Improvised bombs and late-night raids represent the tragic, daily stuff of our war in Afghanistan -- and a price too high for the dubious gains of an occupation that should have ended nine years ago. With our military ambitions bumping up against the hard limits of our trillion-dollar budget deficits and understandable war-weariness, our involvement in Afghanistan can only wane.
One way or another, weâ€™re headed for the exit. To an extent, itâ€™s up to us what kind of country we leave behind. We can make a swift departure and allow Afghans to work out their own future, however violently -- while we remain off-shore, vigilant against terrorists everywhere. Or we can continue deepening Afghanistanâ€™s existing divisions in an unnecessary effort to salvage something from our bloody, pricey, decade-long misadventure in nation-building.