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Thread: The battle for Afghanistan
10-26-08, 08:45 AM #1
The battle for Afghanistan
The battle for Afghanistan
U.S. mapping new strategy in response to dire assessments of war
By Michael Gisick and Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, October 26, 2008
(First in a two-part series)
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Every week, it seems, brings a dire new assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
The most recent, a draft National Intelligence Estimate leaked to the press this month, warns of rapidly deteriorating conditions, with widespread corruption in the Afghan government undermining efforts to beat back a growing insurgency.
Violence has risen across Afghanistan, fueled by the drug trade and the flow of guns, money and fighters from sanctuaries in Pakistan. With three months remaining in 2008, U.S. and NATO casualties had already exceeded those of any other year since the 2001 invasion. There are currently about 70,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including 33,000 Americans.
Civilian deaths are also up. The United Nations reported last month that nearly 40 percent more people in Afghanistan died during the first eight months of 2008 compared with the same period last year. More than half of those deaths were attributed to the Taliban and other insurgent violence. But deaths caused by coalition airstrikes are also rising.
According to the Pentagon, more than 6,500 people died in Afghanistan because of the war last year.
Top military advisers to the White House have launched an urgent review of U.S. strategy, with recommendations expected soon. The U.S. strategy to date — described as an attempt to bottle up the fighting in remote areas while relying on development efforts to turn ordinary Afghans against the insurgents — does not appear to be working in large swaths of the countryside.
Thousands of miles of roads have been built since 2003, and access to basic health care and education has been dramatically expanded. Yet, violent incidents in Afghanistan averaged 44 per month five years ago. This year, the figure stands at 573 per month. There were 983 incidents in August, according to the U.N.
"The trends across the board are not going in the right direction," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told reporters this month.
On the ground, commanders are somewhat more optimistic. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, argued forcefully this month that the U.S. is not losing the war, though he said more troops are needed "quickly." Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commander of U.S. forces in the east, has described the war effort as a "slow win," but acknowledged that progress was not coming quickly enough to meet the expectations of Americans or Afghans.
Most expect harder fighting to come.
"I think there will be success, but I think there will be some darker days ahead," said Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, the deputy commander for operations in the east.
"I think it could get worse before it gets better."
U.S. officials and outside analysts say the Afghan insurgency is essentially composed of two distinct groups: the tribal-based Taliban network in the south led by figures who were ousted by the 2001 invasion, and a loose confederation of tribal fighters and foreign al-Qaida volunteers in the east, including bands led by longtime mujahedeen commanders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The size of the insurgency has been estimated at anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 fighters.
As the U.S. re-evaluates its strategy in Afghanistan, the outlines of a new approach are beginning to take form in a number of recent pronouncements and policy shifts. The new strategies amount to a more aggressive response to what have long been seen as the main issues in Afghanistan:
Afghanistan produces roughly 95 percent of the world’s heroin, with poppy production fueling corruption and helping to pay for the insurgency. Insurgent groups reportedly receive as much as $100 million a year through the drug trade.
NATO has long been reluctant to confront the drug problem, deferring to the Afghan government and the fear that a crackdown will alienate poor farmers. An agreement hammered out this month calls for NATO troops to take a tougher stance — targeting drug lords and processing facilities that can be tied to the insurgency.
Even that step came in the face of significant opposition from within the western alliance, an example of another problem in Afghanistan.
Troops from the various NATO countries operate under different rules of engagement, complicating efforts, especially in the south. The U.S., Britain and Canada, whose troops have done most of the fighting, complain that other NATO members aren’t sharing the burden, restricting their troops to humanitarian missions.
France recently bolstered its combat force, but the war remains unpopular in Europe, where it is seen as tied to the policies of a deeply unpopular U.S. administration. The U.S. this month launched a new command that will oversee all American troops in Afghanistan, whereas previously U.S. troops were divided between NATO and a separate American command in the east. All U.S. forces now fall under McKiernan.
Afghanistan’s most important cities, including Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, remain relatively peaceful. But the insurgency has grown in the rugged countryside and has staged increasingly bold assaults on roads and local government centers and "spectacular attacks" in the cities.
Confronting the rural insurgency will require more troops, but officials are also looking at other options. Defense officials are considering a proposal to stand up tribal militias. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently broached the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban.
A similar strategy based on tribal alliances worked in Iraq, but it’s especially fraught in a country with a long history of warlordism, tribal and ethnic infighting, and opposition to central government.
Insurgent safe havens in Pakistan undermine a key tenet of counterinsurgency strategy. As Milley puts it, even an unpopular insurgency could "go on forever" if the Pakistani havens remain.
The U.S. has long pressured Pakistan to launch a concerted campaign in the lawless tribal regions that border Afghanistan. But the Pakistani government appears more fragile than ever, and there are questions about the loyalty of some in the country’s military and intelligence services.
The Pakistani spy service, the ISI, funneled hundreds of millions in U.S. funding to Islamist mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s and supported the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The U.S. has also stepped up cross-border rocket attacks and launched unprecedented ground strikes into Pakistan in September, though some analysts warn that could weaken Pakistan’s government.
The Afghan government is perhaps the greatest cause for alarm among U.S. officials, according to published reports and more than a dozen interviews with top coalition military officers. Relations between President Hamid Karzai and the west have grown increasingly strained, most recently over a disputed bombing in western Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians. U.S. officials have also publicly linked Karzai’s brother to the drug trade, a charge both Karzais deny.
Military officials describe the core purpose of the war as bolstering the Afghan government so it can stand on its own. But what officials describe as "parasitic corruption" undermines the government’s credibility, something the Taliban has proven adept at exploiting.
Some officials have begun to talk about an overhaul of provincial reconstruction teams in relatively peaceful areas, with the focus turning to training administrators and encouraging transparency. Units that mentor Afghans are trying to coax accountability from a logistical system notoriously plagued by corruption.
But if the Afghan government has become a growing source of concern, many leaders take their greatest source of optimism from the insurgency itself.
Despite — or perhaps because of — growing violence, many officers say, the insurgency remains deeply unpopular and has failed to provide any services or outline a vision for Afghanistan’s future. The most recent independent polling shows roughly 10 percent of Afghans supporting the Taliban.
"They don’t have the political capability to win, because they don’t offer a vision that appeals to the population," Milley said. "But they do have the capability to make it a very bloody road."
10-26-08, 08:46 AM #2
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 #3
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."
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