Michael's Dispatches


Lithuanians bring supplies to district hospital at Chaghcharan.

18 October 2009
By Michael Yon

The inbox was peppered with hyperlinks to Dexter Filkins’ story in the New York Times, Stanley McChrystal’s Long War.  One message came from Kathryn Lopez at National Review, asking if I had seen the article and for any thoughts.

It should be said that I respect the work of Dexter Filkins.  Mr. Filkins is a seasoned war correspondent whose characterizations of Iraq ring true, while Stanley McChrystal’s Long War resonates with my ongoing experiences in Afghanistan.  Despite the great length of the article, the few points that did not resonate were more trivialities for discussion than disagreements.  Mr. Filkins did a fine job.

To be clear, I have developed a strong belief that the war is winnable, though at this rate we will lose.  Mr. Filkins seemed to unfold a similar argument.  In my view, we need more troops and effort in Afghanistan—now—and the commitment must be intergenerational.

In Mr. Filkins’ article, a couple of seemingly small points are keyholes to profound realities, and to a few possible illusions.  For instance, the idea that Afghans are tired of fighting seems off.  Afghans often tell me they are tired of fighting but those words are inconsistent with the bitter fact that the war intensifies with every change of season.  The idea that Afghans are tired of war seems an illusion.  Some Afghans are tired.  I spend more time talking with older Afghans than with teenagers, and most of the older Afghans do seem weary.  Yet according to the CIA World Factbook, the median age is 17.6 years; meaning half of Afghans are estimated to be this age or below.  The culture is old, but the population is a teenager.  Most Afghans today probably had not reached puberty when al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks.  Eight years later, Afghanistan is more an illiterate kid than a country.  The median age for the U.S. is given at 36.7.  In addition to the tremendous societal disconnect between Americans and Afghans, there would be a generational gap even if those distant children were Americans.  Clearly this could lead to frustrations if we expect quick results.

We ask Afghans for help in defeating the enemies, yet the Afghans expect us to abandon them.  Importantly, Mr. Filkins pointed out that Afghans don’t like to see Americans living in tents.  Tents mean nomads.  It would be foolish for Afghans in “Talibanastan” to cooperate with nomadic Americans only to be eviscerated by the Taliban when the nomads pack up.  (How many times did we see this happen in Iraq?)  The Afghans want to see us living in real buildings as a sign of permanency.  The British at Sangin and associated bases live in temporary structures as is true with American bases in many places.  Our signals are clear.  “If you are coming to stay,” Afghans have told me in various ways, “build a real house.”  “Build a real office.”  “Don’t live in tents.”  We saw nearly the opposite in Iraq where pressure evolved to look semi-permanent.  The Dr. Jekyll–Mr. Hyde situation in Iraq seemed to seriously catch hold by 2006 or 2007, by which time Iraqis realized we were not going to steal oil and might decide to pull out while leaving them ablaze in civil war.

A great many Iraqis wanted to know that we would stay long enough to help them stand, but were not planning on making Iraq part of an American empire.  It became important to convey semi-permanence, signaling, “Yes we will stay and yes we will leave.”  Conversely, Afghans down in the south, in places like Helmand, tend to have fond memories of Americans who came mid last century, and those Afghans seem apt to cooperate.  That much is clear.  But Afghans need to sense our long-term commitment.  They need to see houses made of stone, not tents and “Hesco-habs.”

Ghor Province, Afghanistan.

It’s crucial to hold in constant memory that Afghanistan is the societal equivalent of an illiterate teenager.  The child-nation will fail unless we are willing to adopt the people.  Many Afghans clearly hope this will happen, though of course we have to phrase it slightly differently.  Afghans are, after all, proud and xenophobic.  They are not just xenophobic but also afghanophobic.  Most houses are built like little Alamos.

Half-solutions failed in Iraq and are failing in Afghanistan.  There will be no cheap, easy or quick compromise that will lead to long-term success in AfPak. Erroneously adopting a paradigm that scales back to a counterterrorism approach would be like dispatching the potent but tiny Delta Force to the Amazon jungles with orders to swat mosquitoes.  We can give them every Predator and Reaper in the arsenal, yet twenty years from now they’ll still be shooting Hellfires at mosquitoes.  Gutting mid-level enemy leadership has been very effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only in a larger context.  Using strictly a counterterrorism approach, we’ll end up killing relatively zero mosquitoes—the birthrate alone will see that we never win—before coming down with war malaria and nothing will change.  Counterterrorism in today’s context remains important but CT is only one of many subheadings in the great accounting.  It’s time for CT to crawl into the backseat, not take the wheel.  Afghanistan was a special operations playground for more than half a decade.  Nobody can argue that special operations forces were not given plenty of assets and discretion with special affections from the White House.  They also got more than a half-decade of free press passes.  Many people argue that the press lost the war in Vietnam, but that argument has no fizz in Afghanistan.  Nobody knows that better than Stanley McChrystal, who today is asking for more troops, not fewer.  We need to provide General McChrystal with the resources to win and nobody is in a better position to know what he needs.

Children at school in Chaghcharan, Afghanistan. (Thanks to Lithuanians and other international support.)

If Afghanistan is to succeed, we must adopt it.  We must adopt an entire country, a troubled child, for many decades to come.  We must show the Afghans that together we can severely damage the enemies, or bring them around, and together build a brighter future.  The alternative is perpetual war and terrorism radiating from the biggest, possibly richest and most war-prone drug dealers the world has ever seen, and what could eventually reverse and become the swamp that harbors the disease that eventually kills Pakistan, leaving its nuclear weapons on the table.

Adopting this child-nation means more than the relatively simple task of building security forces bankrolled by foreign governments.  Afghanistan cannot finance its police and army, much less the education and vast infrastructure needed to fashion and fuel a self-sustaining economy.  The Coalition has already adopted the Afghan security forces and this remittance arrangement is perpetual until we squeeze the account and watch it die, or Afghanistan stands.  The illiterate people of Afghanistan are multiplying like rabbits, and so thousands of schools, teachers and entire educational infrastructure must be raised up; uncontrolled population growth, among Afghanistan’s countless other problems, is born in the bed of ignorance.  Only through education and opportunity, and eventual meritorious inclusion into the international community—if meager—can narcotics production, criminality, warlordism and fanaticism be eroded and whittled back.  By adopting Afghanistan, bringing peace and creating a nucleus for progress, the many private donors who profoundly help develop countries such as Nepal can operate freely to spread seeds of civilization not just in Afghanistan, but in the region.

Finally, we are not the Russians, nor the failed Soviet Union.  It is important to learn from Soviet success and failures, but comparing too closely Coalition efforts to theirs quickly becomes silly.  The Coalition can succeed where the Soviets failed, and it should be remembered that the Soviets failed in the “easy” places where democracy now thrives, such as Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and a distinguished list of others who this moment are helping in Afghanistan, and whose countries are today thriving and where we are welcome.

The 'Impossible' regularly becomes common sense: former members of the Soviet empire, whose fathers fought in Afghanistan, have returned.  Today they come and build schools and infrastructure, not to spread communism, but to seed freedom and prosperity.

I remember Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and others during the dark days.  It is no wonder to me that the Soviets failed while freedom and democracy succeeded.  People who saw Prague then and can see it today likely will have great difficulty explaining the differences to the uninitiated.  The Coalition in Afghanistan is largely comprised of nations who have suffered greatly in recent times.  They get it.

We should adopt Afghanistan for the long term.  If not, there will be perpetual and growing trouble.  This Coalition can succeed in Afghanistan where others failed.


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