Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11, 2009--Perchance to Dither

He is being accused of taking too much time to determine the direction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Even to his harshest critics of dithering.

There is the feeling that this is harming troop morale—if the commander in chief doesn’t know which commands to come up with, what can be expected of troops on the ground.

Most of what has been discussed in the media has to do with troop levels—the general in charge, Stanley McChrystal, has openly called for at least 60,000 more; Vice President Biden, it appears, would begin to reduce the numbers there, contending that any conventional notion of “winning,” considering Afghanistan’s long history of resisting and defeating foreign invaders (and we are viewed more and more that way by Afghans) is doomed to fail. Just ask the Russians and the Brits before them and of course Alexander the Great.

Splitting the difference, most of the senior people on President Obama’s National Security Team, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, and his most hawkish team member, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appear to be calling for about 30,000. My sense is that Obama is a split-the-difference kind of president and will probably go along with this though, he for certain knows, this is exactly how we got mired and then defeated in Vietnam.

So I say keep dithering, Mr. President, especially this Veterans Day and after your recent visits to Dover Air Force Base to spend time with the 18 families whose loved ones were being brought home in coffins from Afghanistan, and your subsequent visit to Walter Reed Hospital, and just yesterday to Fort Hood. You need to imbue yourself in the inevitable consequences of this most fateful decision.

And you need to read every word of the attached article from the New York Times about the daunting challenges some of the best of our young people face every day in that inhospitable place.

For openers, the McChrystal strategy calls for an expanded effort to train an indigenous Afghan national police force and army so that they can take over responsibility for protecting their own people and holding off the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Besides “Where have we heard this before?” let’s take a look at our and our allies’ record of success in Afghanistan since that has been at the heart of our mission for more than eight years. One thing Obama called for consistently throughout the presidential campaign was for us to look at the record of progress in any situation and then do more of what has demonstrably worked. Good advice.

In regard to increasing the size of the Afghan army as quickly as possible, in September McChrystal called for it to be expanded in one year from its current level of 90,000 to 134,000 and eventually to 240,000. And he would expand the police force to 160,000. This, he said at the time, would require 10,000 to 15,000 additional trainers from the U.S.—trainers, incidentally that we do not currently have.

One thing McChrystal has not emphasized is that one out of every four or five men in the security forces quits each year and it thus takes tens of thousands of new recruits just to maintain current levels. He also seems reluctant to point out that the number of Afghan battalions capable of fighting independently—our strategic goal—actually declined this year.

Further, an internal Pentagon report grimly concluded that even after these eight years of effort, “The most significant challenge to rapidly expanding the Afghan National Security Forces is a lack of professional leadership at all levels and the inability to generate it rapidly.”

There is more to make one pessimistic of more-or-the-same, but allow a few final comments—

Afghanistan is not the kind of country that we see in the West. In fact, it is a country in many ways in name only. It is a place where in the 19th century the British and Russians in what was blithely called The Great Game draw artificial borders that totally ignored the local cultures and history, a border that circumscribed an amalgam of tribal regions. So any notion of a National Security Force as we know it is inappropriate and doomed to fail in a “country” made up of independent and frequently contesting tribes.

And our approach there thus far has failed to respect and adapt to the way Afghans actually lead their lives. We relate better to the educated urban elites—corrupt though their leaders may be—but have consistently failed when it comes to working with the rural Afghans who, as in America, are more inclined to consider a dangerous career in the military—they like our lower-income youth have fewer options.

To make this vivid, note the self-induced frustrations our troops have experienced when attempting to build barracks to house the hoped-for expanded National Security Forces. This should be a relatively simple matter—we are not, after all, trying to build luxury quarters. But we have been stymied in this effort because of ignored cultural realities.

We are not getting the job done because of a shortage of materials or lack of local labor. We manage to get the barracks built, but they are quickly rendered uninhabitable because the recruits tear the bathroom sinks off the walls so they can wash their feet in them which is required before praying. And then they tend to burn the places down because they ignore the spanking new kitchens and furnaces we’ve provided and build open fires on the floors of the barrack for heating and cooking.

My recommendation—

In addition to visits to Dover and Walter Reed and Fort Hood, Mr. President, make one to Afghanistan. You will already be in Asia next week.

Leave the generals and your entourage behind but take Michelle and spend three days with our troops . . . and theirs. While in country, take a look at the terrain—perhaps the most difficult place on earth to fight any kind of war. On Air Force One on the way home reread David Halberstam’s distressing chronicle of the Vietnam War,The Best And the Brightest. Then convene your National Security Team and emphatically tell them . . . No!


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