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On Afghanistan

This may not seem particularly current or relevant right now, as there haven’t been too many big stories coming out of our nation’s remaining war, lately. However, today (yesterday by the time I push “publish”) marks the one year anniversary of my return home from my Afghanistan deployment, and so for me personally it’s a topic that’s on my mind. First, I’ll mention that I spent about seven months in Afghanistan. My first three months were spent in an office on a major base. In that time I studied and analyzed trends from all around the country in terms of the amount of violence, the impact of our forces, and the attitudes of the local populations. I was fortunate to have such a job both because it was relatively safe and because it allowed me to maintain a big-picture perspective on the war. The next three months I spent in the district of Sangin in Hellmand Province. There I had some interaction with local Afghans and went out on several missions, and again was lucky to experience rural Afghanistan first hand and gain an added perspective, all with minimal direct exposure to enemy actions. I’m also incredibly fortunate in that to my knowledge, I don’t personally know anyone who has lost his or her life in this conflict.

With all of that said, I would say strongly that the war in Afghanistan needs to end. I have written in the past about the detrimental effects of poor decisions by some select individuals involved in the conflict and some of the challenges created by those actions, but I want to address the military effort as a whole. These are my opinions and should not be mistaken for a well-researched military strategy outline, but they are at least opinions from someone with experience and broad perspectives.

I’ll start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Many people refer to the two George W. Bush wars in terms of the “right war” and the “wrong war,” of course referring to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I, however, think that both were the wrong wars, and not out of a peace-loving hippie mentality (but I do like and appreciate peace). Just after 9/11, I held the belief that an outright war was not the correct response. No government or sovereign nation attacked ours, and thus the response should be targeted against those responsible, not against a related government.

My ideal response would have been heavy on intelligence gathering and heavy on covert, special operations units. Naturally, some of this is true only because we have full scale operations going on in that nation, but you wouldn’t believe the high level of intelligence we have in Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure I can disclose this so long as I don’t mention a single detail, but every single day that I was there, I read at least one report that had me wondering “how on Earth do we know that?” If we could have gathered the right intelligence, and used covert operations and operatives to piece by piece dismantle Al Qaeda, I think that a strong message could have been delivered to the international community and some semblance of justice achieved without committing as much money or human capital to the cause. Just imagine if no one knew what was going on, but every so often there was a leak to an international news agency that a high-ranking Al Qaeda official had been found dead. Psychologically speaking, I can assure you that the feeling of being watched and hunted by unknown operatives is more damaging to the psyche and effectiveness of an organization than goading a nation into a war. And to be perfectly honest, I have no way of knowing whether or not George W. Bush was utilizing this strategy for the first two years prior to committing to major military operations. The whole point is that we would not know.

Absent that option, though, if we were going to enter into major military operations in Afghanistan in response to 9/11, I think that the entire strategy (especially being divided between Afghanistan and Iraq) made little sense. The fact is that in a counter-insurgency environment, a great portion of the military operations will mimic the duties and responsibilities of a police force, rather than that of an invading military. That much can be shown simply by the fact that one of the primary jobs of the U.S. forces is training the Afghan Local Police forces in addition to the Afghanistan National Army troops. It makes sense that police responsibilities take center stage with some of the goals there being to instill order, protect civilians, and provide enough security to improve services and infrastructure in order to eventually bring the civilian population around to our side in opposing roving bands of gun-toting, oppressive terrorists. It’s also true that in some regions, particularly in the northwest Afghanistan, there are as many problems with criminals exploiting the turmoil for personal gain as there are with any organized affiliation with the Taliban.

This reality of counter-insurgency brings me to a couple strategic issues. The first is numbers. It was not until 2009 that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan surpassed the number of policemen in Texas. Afghanistan is estimated to be about the size of Texas, but it also has a population about 10 million higher than Texas, has rougher terrain, less infrastructure, is a war zone and is in need of having an entire corps of replacement officers trained within a few years. When considering that police duties and responsibilities are far from the only thing that troops are doing in Afghanistan, you could imagine that the job of counter-insurgency would require significantly more people than would the job of policing Texas. I am not in favor of war in most scenarios, but when a war is to be conducted, it should be staffed beyond the required amount, if possible. The United States failed to provide the number of troops for which there could be any hope of maintaining order and security after the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The second issue I have with the need for policing in counter-insurgency initiatives is that the U.S. military is not structured or designed to carry out such responsibilities on a large scale. Yes, there are military police. However, nowhere within the U.S. military is there a force whose primary purpose is that of policing foreign nations with the numbers sufficient enough to actually carry out such a task. Converting infantry units to security and police forces and relying on these individuals to provide adequate training through which Afghanistan could police themselves in due time is a mistake; and it is a structural mistake that requires a structural answer.

The military has undergone numerous structure changes as it adapts to the challenges of a changing world. However, very little has been done to adapt our forces to the reality that there is just as great (if not greater) a threat from loosely-tied together terrorist organizations and networks as there is from sovereign nations. It is my opinion that the bulk of our military engagements in the near future (think Libya, Syria and the like) will involve either the instilling of order after the fall of an oppressive regime or pacifying an insurgency or violent uprising. Due to that fact, I think that some sort of new force structure needs to be implemented that will account for and prepare for these responsibilities as an international police force. If we’re going to get criticized for policing the world, we should at least be capable of doing the job. I would not see this as a massive expansion of the military force, but instead a shift away from some of the traditional warfare forces into this new role, while remaining prepared for the less likely traditional warfare through an expanded reserve force. There are of course many details to be worked out, but I definitely think that the structure of the military is due to be completely revamped.

Of course, then there is the issue of the massive amounts of rare metals discovered in Afghanistan during the war. In 2007, a report indicated the potential for untapped resources such as lithium and rare earth metals, and then in 2010, those reports were more specifically confirmed and made national news. It was my hope that this discovery could be a game changer for the conflict. Most knowledgeable people would agree that one of the major paths to peace comes through economic development. However, others would point out that the exploitation of natural resources is often worse for the population of a country–especially a poor, conflict-torn country. What I would have liked to see happen would be a partnership between the United States and Afghanistan in dividing the mineral rights, royalties and security obligations among themselves. The agreement could go something along the lines of this:

Afghanistan would give U.S. companies the first option for mining rights. In return, the U.S. would agree to hire and train local Afghans at non-exploitative wages, in positions that include management (or management training) positions. The United States would also assist in providing security. This would increase economic standing and activity for the Afghan people spurring domestic economic growth in addition to expanding government income through the Ministry of Mining’s sale of the mineral extraction rights. In exchange for these agreements, the Government of Afghanistan would pay the United States a small royalty percentage in order to repay the costs of the military and infrastructure investments that our government has been making. In the long-term, there could even be a path to eventually hand over control to Afghan offshoots of the mining companies if the locals gained enough experience and training on the job with American companies to form their own. Yes, in the short term, there would be much dismay among the Afghan population that America was here to “rape their land,” having strong-armed their way into the priority mining rights position. However, once those Afghans were given jobs and had their incomes and lives improve, progress could and likely would begin in earnest. Of course, providing that security to the mining companies would be much easier with that police force structure I was talking about.

What actually happened is that the mining rights were pretty much opened up to the normal bidding process. China and India got major contracts, Japan was promised priority in the bidding process, and while the increased income to Afghanistan should help the government achieve credibility and sustainability, the overall picture on the conflict and the Afghan economy has not been drastically altered. An opportunity missed, in large part because the military effort in Afghanistan is so concerned about short-term perceptions and attitudes that they seem unwilling or unable to enact the sorts of change and reform that would move the long-term perceptions and attitudes in our direction.

The reality is that the military has not undergone these drastic structural changes, the troop numbers are not and will not be sufficient to properly safeguard the Afghan populace, and the mining rights have not been changed, so I should comment on this reality rather than re-wage a war through some combination of hindsight and unrealized wishes. As I said, I got a pretty full picture of the goings on around the country during my time in the office. I can certainly attest to the fact that there are places where progress has been outstanding, where attitudes have improved, and where the Taliban aren’t tolerated by the locals. However, there are just as many places (if not more) in which the hearts and minds of the populace are completely outside of our reach.

I have a favorite analogy for the conflict in parts of Afghanistan, but in a public setting it requires some disclaimers. First, I am in NO WAY comparing the American groups used in this analogy to the Taliban. I am simply trying to paint the picture in such a way Americans can understand. Secondly, the fictional military faction in this analogy does not exist and I am not suggesting that it will exist. The ideologies could easily be switched for this analogy, but this is the way I’ve told it and it works for me. Again, the Tea Party is not the Taliban and I am not suggesting that it is. Ok, so here goes:

Imagine that some Tea Party members got tired of the Congressional deadlock and formed a military faction in a rural area of a southern state. Let’s just say rural South Carolina for fun. This military group was fairly small in numbers, but it was able to intimidate or eliminate many moderate or Democratic challengers for seats in Congress and local government. The general population of South Carolina does not approve of these violent, strong-armed tactics and wishes to be rid of the fear and oppression that this militant faction has created. To deal with this problem, the President sends in the Massachusetts, Vermont and New York National Guard units to put down the violent uprising. The citizens of South Carolina now are torn. They, of course, want the violent oppressors to be gone and to have a better life. However, they fear that by siding with the National Guard units, victory would lead to a victory for New England liberalism in the south. Ideologically, they are much more closely-aligned with the violent faction, and as much as they want those people gone, they certainly don’t want it at the expense of turning over their government to New England liberals. And no amount of help or support will ever lead to them empowering those liberals.

It’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure. But it certainly sheds some light on the issue. The people of Afghanistan are rural, conservative Muslims. They may not approve of the Taliban or its tactics, but they agree with it on several of the most important issues. They want a conservative, religious life. When western forces bring western ideologies in to put down the Taliban, Afghan people may support the end to violence, but not if it means letting such strong western influence into their country and their lives. And having walked down this road for ten years now, given where we are, there is little else that can be done.

By all means, finish up some training. And this is not at all a concession of defeat. The U.S. military eviscerated the Taliban government, they helped install a new regime, they have driven the organized Taliban out of many areas of the country, and they have provided and secured many infrastructure advancements. The relatively recent plan to embed military members in villages to establish rapport and have a more consistent presence (somewhat like a police force mixed with a development team?) has had some positive impacts. Leaving is not a defeat. But at this point, the military has been left attempting to help those who do not want our help, protect those who do not want our protection, and train those who do not want our training. The dangerous downside to that last part is that we are arming those who down the road we may not wish to have arms. The point is that, from my perspective, the war in Afghanistan has been mismanaged from the start, and has run its course on the track that it actually took. Our work there is done, and it is time to end the fight.

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  1. July 26, 2012 at 10:26 am

    So when are you running for something? I want to vote for you right now. Preferably for president.

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