Thursday, March 5, 2009


“War’s objective is victory – not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory” – Douglas MacArthur

I recently read with some amusement where a leading American commander of the war effort in Afghanistan referred to the overall military situation here as a “stalemate”. I found this characterization of the war amusing because just a few days prior I had spent the better part of an evening discussing the situation on the ground here in my little part of Afghanistan with my Afghan commander, concluding the discussion using the same allusion to the famous board game invented not far from here in India (though Afghans apparently don’t play chess).

By stalemate I meant to say that basically, the enemy, whether you want to refer to them as insurgents or Taliban or whatever, does not have the power to really decimate us and move us out of areas we focus on, but we don’t have the power to hunt him down in the hinterlands, and so they control the majority of the country, if not in population then at least in land area.

How to rectify this? Certainly that’s the big question, and I was heartened to see the increase in the number of troops that will fight here. Hopefully the increased troop numbers will demonstrate to the Afghan people that we’re serious about winning, and as a result they will be encouraged to take more responsibility for what goes on here…because in reality, only the Afghans can win this war. Quite frankly, despite all our firepower, air support, and technology, a couple of sniper teams hiding among the mountains and villages are maddeningly difficult for us to come to terms with, so the solution is probably not a military one.

This was the lesson from the ‘surge’ in Iraq – the local people have to get on board with the program or we’ll only spin our wheels without ever really getting traction (And an important part of getting the local people on board is getting the Afghan Army out there providing their security, not a bunch of outsiders, however amiable we are as Americans.). Will the same ‘medicine’, i.e. increased troop numbers, cure both patients? I’m not a doctor, but I suppose if two patients are essentially alike in their makeup and have the same disease then the same regimen should cure them both. In this case, the disease is pretty much the same, [simplifying] a power struggle fought by Islamic extremists using guerrilla tactics, however the problem is the patients are different: Afghanistan is not Iraq. For all of Saddam’s depredations, Iraq remained relatively developed, wealthy, and educated when compared to Afghanistan; Afghanistan is probably one of the five poorest countries on Earth. I was dismayed to learn that roughly 10% of my Afghan soldiers can read or write…in any language…never mind the difficulties in national unity that come from speaking several different major languages and many lesser tongues. The geography alone presents manifold problems with development, and has probably led to the country’s current state as much as any other single factor. Just getting supplies here to continue the war effort is becoming more and more difficult.

Given the shattered state of the country after 30 years of war, whatever the medicine we employ, the cure is bound to take some time, especially if our heart is not in it. Upon my arrival to the country some months ago, I was surprised to see the dreary state (though I reckon anything built by the Soviets is bound to retain some residual dreariness) of our main air base here in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Field. It was not that Bagram was that bad, on the contrary I think it’s just fine for our purposes, but I had expected the main air base in the country to be nicer and more developed after eight years of being run by Americans – my expectations the result of all the infrastructure projects and improvements throughout Iraq I saw us investing in during my time in the Middle East. Afghanistan’s needs being so much greater than Iraq’s, one would have to conclude that our level of commitment in all areas will need to be at least as high here as it was in Iraq in order to achieve a comparable result.

The increase in the number of troops is a good start, but if our investment in Bagram Air Field to this point is indicative of our future level of commitment to Afghanistan as a whole, then prolonged indecision is the result we’re likely to get, and our fate here will mirror in some respects the end result of General MacArthur’s last war - where a lack of commitment and decisiveness by our political leadership ‘ended’ that war in a stalemate, bequeathing to the world a rogue state that has endured more than 50 years.

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