John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick, both of the Center for a New American Security, had an op-ed in last Sunday's NY Times. They're both former military officers, now big think-tank executives, and they decided to report on the Great Progress our armed forces are making in Afghanistan. Mind you, the Afghan government still sucks and the Afghan security forces are still ineffective, but our boys are aces!
One of us, Nathaniel, recently flew into Camp Leatherneck in a C-130 transport plane, which had to steer clear of fighter bombers stacked for tens of thousands of feet above the Sangin District of Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. Singly and in pairs, the jets swooped low to drop their bombs in support of Marine units advancing north through the Helmand River Valley.
Half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts, with Sangin ranking among the very worst. Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time.
A significant shift of high-tech intelligence resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, initiated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander, is also having benefits. The coalition led by the United States and NATO has been able to capture or kill far more Taliban leaders in nighttime raids than was possible in the past.
The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory, as it learned in Vietnam and Iraq, but it can put enough pressure on many Taliban fighters to encourage them to switch their allegiance, depriving the enemy of support and giving the coalition more sources of useful intelligence.
Ahh... if you have jets dropping bombs on Taliban positions and had to surge US forces to 100,000 troops because NATO didn't want to grow its presence and Afghan forces aren't capable, you ARE in fact trying to kill your way to victory. I'm not going to dissect this op-ed, I'll refer you to Joshua Foust for that analysis, but I'll tell you what discouraged me about this pollyannish article. First, the two authors want us to be encouraged that after more than nine years of fierce combat in Afghanistan, we might - just might - be able to get down to 25,000 combat forces four years from now. If we're lucky and Karzai leaves office and a competent Afghan government takes his place.
Second, they use the opportunity to suggest that the counterinsurgency tactics are responsible for a shift in momentum that will allow the "Long War" to get shorter. There's been nothing new that I've seen that suggests anything other than bone-grinding attrition has been the overwhelming tactic here. As much as they cheer on the military operators, and I am sure that our military operators are skilled and efficient killers, the Taliban isn't giving up and the Afghan population isn't throwing its trust behind Karzai. It's a slog, an attrition-based battle with no end game. As TwS points out, "Tactical success shouldn’t be used as a predictor of strategic success."
But here's the bottom line. Let's assume Nagl and Fick are right, that everything clicks, that we're able to drop US combat presence in Afghanistan to 25,000 by 2014. So what? What exactly have we gained? What strategic interest has been achieved? So we cleared out one country of AQ (which, oh by the way, they left years ago and operate out of Pakistan now - and Yemen and Somalia and other countries...). It's not as if Afghanistan is going to be a valued partner in the War on Terror. No, that country is going to patch its wounds and hope that it can achieve a living condition similar to Pakistan - if it tries real hard for about twenty years while sucking down billions of dollars in American financial aid. Great stuff.
But hey, I suppose Nagl and Fick are just supporting SecDef Gate's view on life, as misguided as that point of view is.
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