10-26-08, 08:45 AM
The battle for Afghanistan <br />
U.S. mapping new strategy in response to dire assessments of war <br />
By Michael Gisick and Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes <br />
Mideast edition, Sunday, October 26, 2008 <br />
10-26-08, 08:46 AM
Commanders say getting more troops into Afghanistan is crucial
By Michael Gisick, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, October 26, 2008
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Commanders say they need them. Both presidential candidates promise to send them. But how much difference will more U.S. troops make in Afghanistan?
The answer, commanders on the ground say, is a lot.
But there are differences of opinion over where the troops are most badly needed. And while something of a political consensus seems to have emerged in the U.S. over the need for an "Afghan surge," commanders warn not to expect the kinds of dramatic security gains that followed the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq.
And don’t call it a "surge," they say.
"We don’t need a ‘surge’; what we need is a sustained increase," said Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, the deputy commander for U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Name a U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and you can find officers who believe they are undermanned, often critically so.
Commanders in the east say they would use the bulk of additional troops to bolster efforts along the border with Pakistan. Though they acknowledge they could never entirely shut down illegal crossings along the rugged border, they believe they could make it significantly harder for insurgents to move weapons and fighters.
And as the insurgency has spread across southern Afghanistan and, in the east, into provinces near Kabul, U.S. and NATO officers openly acknowledge that there are critical areas where they can’t maintain a sustained presence.
Commanders say increased numbers would allow them to beef up their presence in the countryside where the insurgency is at its strongest. At many U.S. outposts, under-strength units are only able to patrol a few hours a day, if that, and officers say insurgents simply blend in with the population or hide in the hills, returning to reassert themselves when the patrols return home.
As a result, according to a broad consensus of military officers, most Afghan civilians remain "on the fence," unable to openly oppose the insurgency.
"You have to be here for real and for the long haul, and the people in the villages need to know that," Milley said. "They need to see you all the time like a cop on a beat. Otherwise, the insurgent waits an hour and he’s back in. In order to maintain that sort of persistent presence, you have to have the numbers."
Some officers, however, believe that simply sending additional combat brigades to Afghanistan isn’t the answer. Instead, they say the U.S. should focus on bolstering efforts to train Afghan soldiers and policemen.
"We can’t win this war for them," said Capt. Jack Nothstine, with a police mentoring team in southern Afghanistan. "The Afghans are going to be the ones who have to win it for themselves."
Plans are already under way to nearly double the size of the Afghan army by next year. Additional troops from other NATO countries are also needed, Milley says.
But not all in the western coalition believe that more troops are the answer. A leaked French diplomatic cable recently quoted the British ambassador to Afghanistan as saying that more troops appeared to be making things worse. The British government has said the report mischaracterizes the British position, but has not denied its validity.
The conventional wisdom in the U.S. that more troops will produce improvements is largely rooted in the experience in Iraq, where dramatic security gains took hold within a year of the arrival of 30,000 "surge" troops. But Afghanistan is a far different country, and commanders say most of those differences point to the likelihood of a longer and ultimately more difficult project.
For all its problems, the Iraqi government could always count on its oil wealth, and is now believed to be running a budget surplus of as much as $79 billion. The Afghan government, by contrast, last year raised revenues of just $750 million — not enough to support its current army, let alone launch reconstruction projects in a country with virtually no modern infrastructure outside a few major cities.
Afghanistan has virtually no history of effective central control, few roads and adult literacy rates as low as 20 percent. The tribal safe havens in Pakistan fuel the Afghan insurgency.
Which brings commanders back to the need for more troops. Though most are reluctant to discuss specific numbers — and acknowledge that the availability of troops will largely be dictated by a continued drawdown in Iraq — the need is not small, they say.
"We are facing an active insurgency in a semi-preindustrial society with rudimentary infrastructure, struggling rule of law, an immature government, a national income of $750 million, a raging drug trade and enemy sanctuaries across an international border," Milley said. "And people ask, ‘Why all this violence?’ "
Stars and Stripes reporter Drew Brown contributed to this report.
10-27-08, 10:42 AM
The Battle for Afghanistan:
Isolation defines fight in the deadly east
By Michael Gisick, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Monday, October 27, 2008
Second in a two-part series
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — No U.S. troops had ventured into that particular middle of nowhere before, and as the patrol hiked into one of the more distant of eastern Afghanistan’s multitude of lonely villages, the soldiers had limited expectations.
Getting shot at was a decent possibility, although they hoped for a more restrained round of introductions. At the least, they figured the Afghans would know who they were.
Instead, soldiers say, the villagers believed the Americans were the Soviets.
"That was kind of a weird one," said Lt. Col. James Markert, whose cavalry squadron patrols along Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Pakistan. "The Russians left here a minute or two ago."
The scene, which might have been the beginning of a decent Monty Python skit, was hardly typical — the majority of Afghans know exactly which country American troops are from, and that the Soviets left two decades ago. But the episode was still a fair indication of the isolation in many parts of the eastern mountains, where soldiers raised on video games operate in what can often seem like the pages of an anthropology textbook.
In what has become increasingly deadly terrain, it is the isolation that in many ways defines the fight.
Supplying American outposts in the mountains is complicated by the lack of roads and the rugged terrain. Development efforts — seen as key to building village support for the Afghan government and paving the way for an eventual American exit — have struggled to take root in areas with little modern infrastructure. When it comes to fighting, the mountains favor the guerrilla tactics of men who, in some cases, have been fighting since the foreign troops were the Soviets.
But if the remoteness, both geographic and cultural, mostly works against U.S. efforts, the middle of nowhere is still where American commanders are trying to keep the fight.
"In some ways, it’s a good thing, because the enemy is finding he can’t operate where the bulk of the population is," said Col. John Spiszer, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, whose troops are spread across a four-province area in the northeast. "If you look and see where the fighting is, most of it is up in the mountains, and there aren’t a lot of people up there."
Moving the battle
Increasingly, however, insurgents have sought to push the battle, or at least the appearance of it, into more populated areas.
Suicide bombings and rocket attacks have increased dramatically in the capital over the past two years. Attacks on the roads surrounding Kabul have also increased, as have assassination attempts against government officials, including a recent attempt against President Hamid Karzai.
The governor of Logar province, about 50 miles south of Kabul, was assassinated in September, and U.S. officers there see signs of a growing insurgent presence. Three aid workers were killed in Logar in August, prompting some international nongovernmental organizations to publicly reconsider their presence in Afghanistan.
Attacks have also risen in other surrounding provinces, such as Kapisa, east of Kabul, where a coordinated attack on a French patrol left 10 soldiers dead at the end of August.
"They’re trying to isolate Kabul. They don’t have the capability to encircle Kabul, but they’re trying to isolate it and create the psychological perception that Kabul is surrounded," said Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, the deputy commander of operations for U.S. forces in the east. "They’re trying to create an atmosphere of fear. It’s classic guerrilla tactics."
Classic anti-guerrilla tactics focus on isolating insurgent groups from the local population and preventing fighters from developing refuges where they can train, re-fit and base their operations. But in the mountains, U.S. forces have been able to apply those tactics only episodically. U.S. units can’t establish a regular presence in outlying villages, especially since the rough terrain and lack of roads means that many U.S. outposts can only effectively control a small area.
Insurgent safe havens across the border in Pakistan are an even more difficult problem, allowing dedicated fighters and money men to pass into Afghanistan, often recruiting or joining up with part-time local fighters before crossing back to their safe havens, officers say.
"Our assessment is that there are clearly more foreign fighters infiltrating across," said Col. Pete Johnson, whose 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division patrols a West Virginia-size swath of east-central Afghanistan. "Historically, it’s been at a command and control level, but now we’re seeing it at a fighter level, and it’s not just at the hot spots along the border, but in the interior."
Cause for optimism
Commanders on the ground still see some cause for optimism in what has not happened in 2008. A promise by insurgents based in the Tora Bora mountains to open a new front around Jalalabad has largely failed to materialize. Major road projects are going forward in several key areas.
Though violence has increased, by far the worst of it remains centered along the border and in a relatively small number of remote valleys. According to the military, 80 percent of the fighting in the east takes place in 20 percent of the area.
While much attention has been focused on hot spots like the Korengal Valley, Spiszer sees a more important, if more nuanced battle playing out in Jalalabad. A city of perhaps 1.5 million, Jalalabad is one of the few places in eastern Afghanistan where development efforts are not starting virtually from scratch.
Commanders believe those efforts are nearing success. The last serious attack in Jalalabad was in May. Police in the city are mainly focused on fighting crime, rather than insurgents.
Spiszer talks of turning the province over to Afghan control the way U.S. units in Iraq have transferred provinces there to Iraqi control while adopting an "overwatch" role.
Lt. Col. Patrick Daniel commands a battalion based in Jalalabad and surrounding Nangarhar province. About six months ago, he says, insurgents started targeting cell phone towers. That plan "went over like a lead balloon" and was quickly abandoned.
"People are starting to see some real progress here, and they don’t want to lose that," he said. "We’ll never win this kinetic war as far as defeating the enemy. What we will do is win the race and get development so far ahead that those forces are marginalized."
That has been how military officials have described the U.S. strategy for several years, with small U.S. units in the mountains engaged in what amounts to a holding action while commanders rely on development to eventually turn the tide against the insurgents. But thus far, officials acknowledge, the insurgency is gaining strength and U.S. troops in the east are fighting at the hard edge of an undermanned war.
On the ground
When commanders decided to close down a U.S. outpost in Kunar’s Gowardesh Valley, they announced the plan in the nearby villages, hoping to pre-empt the inevitable insurgent claims to have driven the Americans from their base. The outpost had been attacked only twice in the previous year, and with other outposts under near daily assault, the troops were needed elsewhere.
But within a few days of the announcement, on Sept. 11, a soldier was killed during an attack on the base. As the troops shuttered the base in early October, insurgents attacked again, wounding a soldier who had stepped outside to brush his teeth.
Three soldiers were killed in Kunar on Oct. 14, when a roadside bomb demolished a Humvee at the center of a patrol of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Two days later, a patrol in the Korengal came under attack and one soldier was killed, possibly by an errant U.S. mortar round, the military said.
Two days after that, the same platoon that had been sent to reinforce the Gowardesh outpost was ambushed along a dirt road near an American base in Naray.
"We just got our asses handed to us," Spc. Kyle Christensen said moments later, his face streaked with blood and a gash cut through the back of his head. A dozen U.S. and Afghan soldiers were wounded, several seriously.
Amid the general re-evaluation of U.S. strategy, the military is looking for ways to step up its efforts in the distant valleys where the insurgency is based, hoping to curtail the insurgency’s ability to move through villages. Without more troops, commanders continue to rely on development efforts, especially roads, to try to build tribal support and provide employment to men who might otherwise fight.
But many fighting-age men still prefer the gun to the shovel, for a variety of reasons.
"I don’t think you can make blanket statements about why people are fighting," said Maj. Matt McCollum, the operations officer of 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment. "The fighters can offer the young men money, status, adventure, and the elders don’t have enough power to counteract that influence. We’ve had elders who come out and tell us they can’t control their young men."
Borrowing a formulation making the rounds in the east, McCollum compared the war to a game of chess.
"Except instead of two players and rules," he said, "you don’t know how many players there are, you don’t know what the rules are, and you can’t even see the whole board."