The class too dumb to quit' tries to fix a broken nation
Posted: Thursday, Jul. 23, 2009

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan I'm here in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. This is the most dangerous part of the country. It's where mafia and mullah meet. This is where the Taliban harvest the poppies that get turned into heroin that funds their insurgency. That's why when President Obama announced the more than doubling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, this is where the Marines landed to take the fight to the Taliban. It is 115 degrees in the sun, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is addressing soldiers in a makeshift theater.

“Let me see a show of hands,” says Mullen, “how many of you are on your first deployment?” A couple dozen hands go up. “Second deployment?” More hands go up. “Third deployment?” Still lots of hands are raised. “Fourth deployment?” A good dozen hands go up. “Fifth deployment?” Still hands go up. “Sixth deployment?” One hand goes up. Mullen asks the soldier to step forward to shake his hand.

This scene is a reason for worry, for optimism and for questioning everything we are doing in Afghanistan. It is worrying because between the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are grinding down our military. I don't know how these people and their families put up with it. Never have so many asked so much of so few.

The reason for optimism? All those deployments have left us with a deep cadre of officers with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, now running both wars – from generals to captains. They know every mistake that has been made, been told every lie, saw their own soldiers killed by stupidity, figured out solutions and built relationships with insurgents, sheikhs and imams on the ground that have given the best of them a granular understanding of the “real” Middle East that would rival any Middle East studies professor.

Relationships, not body count

I've long argued that there should be a test for any officer who wants to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan – just one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer “yes,” you can go to Germany, South Korea or Japan, but not to Iraq or Afghanistan. Well, this war has produced a class of officers who are very out-of-the-box thinkers. They learned everything the hard way – not in classes at Annapolis or West Point, but on the streets of Fallujah and Kandahar.

I call them: “The Class Too Dumb to Quit.” I say that with affection and respect. When all seemed lost in Iraq, they were just too stubborn to quit and figured out a new anti-insurgency strategy. It has not produced irreversible success yet – and may never. But it has kept the hope of a decent outcome alive. The same people are now trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan. Their biggest strategic insight? “We don't count enemy killed in action anymore,” one officer told me.

Early in both Iraq and Afghanistan our troops did body counts, a la Vietnam. But the big change came when the officers running these wars understood that RBs (“relationships built”) actually matter more than KIAs. One relationship built with an Iraqi or Afghan mayor or imam or insurgent was worth so much more than one KIA. Relationships bring intelligence; they bring cooperation. One good relationship can save the lives of dozens of soldiers and civilians. One reason torture and Abu Ghraib got out of control was because our soldiers had built so few relationships that they tried to beat information out of people instead. But relationship-building is painstaking.

Vision might outstrip our means

And that leads to my unease. America has just adopted Afghanistan as our new baby. The troop surge that Obama ordered here early in his tenure has taken this mission from a limited intervention, with limited results, to a full nation-building project that will take a long time to succeed – if ever. We came here to destroy al-Qaida, and now we're in a long war with the Taliban. Is that really a good use of American power?

At least The Class Too Dumb to Quit is in charge, and they have a strategy: Clear areas of the Taliban, hold them in partnership with the Afghan army, rebuild these areas by building relationships with district governors and local assemblies to help them upgrade their ability to deliver services to the Afghan people – particularly courts, schools and police – so they will support the Afghan government.

The bad news? This is State-Building 101, and our partners, the current Afghan police and government, are so corrupt that more than a few Afghans prefer the Taliban. With infinite time, money, soldiers and aid workers we can probably reverse that. But we have none of these. I feel a gap building between our ends and our means and our time constraints. My heart says: Mission critical – help those Afghans who want decent government. My head says: Mission impossible.

Does Obama understand how much he's bet his presidency on making Afghanistan a stable country? Too late now. So, here's hoping that The Class Too Dumb to Quit can take all that it learned in Iraq and help rebuild The Country That's Been Too Broken to Work.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018-1405.