Afghanistan Remembered: Ugly Times

This be some real ugliness I picked up while in the stacks. Check it out:

A soldier points out how the eyes of the tawny, dark-haired children reflect the history of this crossroad: Almond shapes suggest the long-ago westward passage of Genghis Khan and the Mongols; blue and green eyes recall Alexander the Great’s eastern push through the Hindu Kush; deep brown stands for the local Pashtun tribes that outlasted them all. It’s hard to know what mark U.S. troops will leave on this land.

Whatever it is, though, it’ll be decided here. This area near the mountainous border with Pakistan is where America’s long war in Afghanistan–10 years and counting–comes full circle. Just inside Pakistan is the sanctuary where CIA operatives once armed the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets and, later, joined al-Qaida. Nearby is the Tora Bora mountain redoubt where Osama bin Laden vanished in December 2001, eluding U.S. forces for a decade. Less than 25 miles away from Khost sits the Pakistani city of Miranshah, home to the Haqqani network, the most indiscriminately ruthless insurgent group fighting under the Taliban’s banner.

The proximity to Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal area was always a flaw in U.S. war plans, just as it was for the Soviet army in the 1980s. It explains why this area and much of Regional Command East is the last–and in many ways the most difficult–front in America’s longest war. The U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal of the 30,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan will be completed by next September; nearly all combat units will follow by the end of 2014. But this border region is where coalition forces will likely launch their last major offensives. For better and worse, this is where the war ends.

At dusk, Hudspeth knocks on a door in a narrow side street. Through an interpreter, he asks to speak with the owner, a senior commander in the Afghan border police. Night gathers and fog pools in the foothills as the two officers sit outside on plastic chairs and drink tea, chatting about the movements and evolving tactics of the area’s insurgent groups. Those tactics include roving death squads tied to the Haqqani network that are responsible for at least 35 assassinations and public executions in Khost province since the summer, including a mass beheading of 10 villagers suspected of collaborating with coalition forces. Nationwide, assassinations have jumped 61 percent to 131 reported killings for the first nine months of this year, compared with the same period in 2010, according to NATO figures.

Both men understand that this war is fast shifting into the hands of the Afghans. With 68,000 troops and police, Afghan security forces in RC East already outnumber coalition troops by more than 2-to-1, a ratio that will become even more lopsided in the year ahead. Hudspeth volunteers that, after working with the Afghan forces for nearly a year, he believes they are ready to lead the fight, albeit after a rocky transition.

As the members of Task Force Duke shoulder their weapons and don body armor to leave, the senior Afghan police officer makes an awkward request in a culture renowned for its hospitality. “He asks that you not come by his house too often,” the interpreter tells Hudspeth. “He’s worried you will identify him to the Taliban.”

“AFGHAN GOOD ENOUGH”

Even at this late stage, perceptions of the Afghan war are divided sharply between competing narratives. For the cautiously optimistic (including most U.S. commanders and NATO security officials), the quantity and quality of Afghan security forces have reached critical mass. At more than 300,000 strong, they are ready to assume primary responsibility for the conflict. Taliban insurgents have lost their traditional footholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, and they’ve increasingly been pushed into remote rural and mountainous regions in the east. Regional governments have done more to bring services and governance to their people, who, after three decades of conflict, are tired of war and Taliban violence. Accordingly, Western officials can now pass to Afghan forces the manpower-intensive “hold and build” phase of the counterinsurgency.

For the pessimists (including many international observers and much of the press), Afghan security is borderline incompetent and dependent on coalition forces. The Taliban is simply waiting for Western forces to withdraw before sweeping in from their Pakistani sanctuaries. The Afghan government is hopelessly corrupt and, therefore, unable to win the allegiance of its people, who, as survivors, are ready to join with insurgents if it seems to advance their interests. Accordingly, Western forces are as much a part of the problem as the solution to a nearly hopeless situation, and their continued presence is an insurgent recruiting tool.

Yet a close examination of Khost province and Regional Command East tells a more nuanced story. It calls to mind a favorite phrase of CIA Director David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has described the end of the conflict as “Afghan good enough.” Although they remain dependent on coalition “enablers” such as airpower and logistics, Afghan security forces have increasingly shouldered the burden in RC East and kept the insurgents on the defensive. Yes, some Afghan military commanders have fallen on their faces; and, yes, at U.S. insistence, 25 of the most ineffective battalion commanders and district police chiefs in RC East have been replaced. But American commanders still estimate that less than 10 percent of Afghan army and national police commanders are subpar. That may be Afghan good enough.

 

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