I culled together some recent news items on the Internet regarding the progress or lack of it in the Afghan conflict. It’s the media’s fault that Americans know more about Tiger Wood’s putter than they do about the war in Central Asia. It’s the Pentagon’s fault for not being more forthcoming. And it’s our fault that no one is really connecting the dots.
These reports originated in various sources from the local commander to observers and writers on the scene. It doesn’t look good. It looks a lot like Vietnam’s Hamburger Hill, where American troops won hard victories against an intransigent enemy, held ground at a high cost and were surrounded by disaffected locals that they couldn’t distinguish from the bad guys, only to have the enemy fill in the places where we couldn’t stay forever.
Again, I invite anyone who can to please tell me what the mission is over there. How are we going to build a sense of national identity in people who have never had any loyalty to anyone but their clans and their own valleys? How is this a war on terrorism? It sounds like a recipe for terrorism, not a prescription for victory.
General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Thursday that despite growing concerns over the security situation in the village of Marja, the Taliban was significantly hobbled following February’s major U.S.-Afghan operation in the Helmand based community.
“They can’t come in and control Marja like they did before; they can’t raise the flag; they can’t hold terrain,” McChrystal said during a press briefing at the Pentagon. “There will always be some indication of insecurity, but increasingly security and life will get better and better.”
In February, McChrystal claimed that there was a “government in a box, ready to roll” into the village that had served as a Taliban stronghold for years. Several months later, the transfer of power to the Afghan government seems to be stalled amid intimidation and violence against the community from Taliban holdouts.
However, McChrystal contends that the Taliban’s behavior is a predictable response.
“As a counter-insurgency force pushes out insurgents, their smart move is to contest that, to undermine what we have done,” McChrystal said. “I expect them to contest this as long as they can … in any way that they can.”
U.S. and Afghan forces will soon shift focus to securing the Taliban inhabited city of Kandahar, a process that McChrystal described as a “unique challenge” that will likely not have a clear outcome until the end of the year.
The Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan is to gradually transfer responsibility to the Afghans, starting in July 2011. On the eve of President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington, there’s little evidence so far to demonstrate that this transfer process will work.
The offensive in Marja in Helmand province in February succeeded in clearing that rural area of Taliban insurgents, at least by day. But plans for the Afghans to provide more security and better governance there are off to a shaky start, officials at the State Department and Pentagon say.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s boast in February that “we’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in” to Marja sounds wildly over-optimistic now. A senior military official concedes the phrase “created an expectation of rapidity and efficiency that doesn’t exist.”
The official Pentagon line is that there’s “slow but steady progress.” But the senior military official cautions that 90 days after the offensive, “Marja is a mixed bag,” with parts of the area still controlled by the Taliban, and Afghan government performance spotty. A top State Department official agrees: “Transfer is not happening” in Marja.
Kandahar, the next big test of the U.S. strategy, will be harder. The plan is to work with the existing power structure in the city as U.S. troops pound Taliban strongholds to the west and south. A senior administration official cautions that the Kandahar strategy is “a work in progress.” He explains: “We’re still working our way through how much you can salvage (in the local government) and how much you have to rebuild.”
The following is an excerpt from an interview with CNN with Sebastian Junger, the author of a book about ground level warfare in Afghanistan.
Junger: I can’t speak for all the soldiers. The ones that I’ve talked to about it, I think they feel conflicted. On the one hand … we’re nine years into the war, so the idea that overall U.S. strategy wouldn’t change in that time and require shifting of priorities and troops just isn’t realistic. Rationally, they understand that.
On an emotional level, it is hard to watch America give up a valley that they fought over so hard. That reflects something more profound about war than it does the commanders. Every single war those decisions are made and positions are abandoned and new ones are taken. That’s just what war is, and soldiers probably understand that better than the civilians do.
KABUL — A video appearing to show the Taliban in control of a mountain outpost deserted by American troops last week in eastern Afghanistan does not cast doubt over the decision to pull out of the Korengal Valley, the U.S. military said Monday.
The footage aired on Al-Jazeera shows armed men who identify themselves as Taliban fighters and villagers walking through a former U.S. base in the eastern valley, from which the last of about 120 U.S. troops withdrew last week.
The isolated region of caves and canyons on the mountainous border with Pakistan has been the scene of near-daily battles between U.S. troops and insurgents, who use it as a route for bringing weapons and fighters into Afghanistan.
In the video, militants said they now control the entire 6-mile- (10 kilometer-) long Korengal valley in eastern Kunar province.