Michael's Dispatches

In Time of War

10 November 2008

The Iraq war is over.  Barring the unforeseen, the darkest days are behind, though we are still losing soldiers to low-level fighting with enemies that are true “dead-enders.”  Last month we lost seven Americans in combat in Iraq.  Peace, however, is not upon us.  Another thirty or so Iraqis died today in suicide attacks.  Nobody suffers more at the hands of Islamic terrorists than other Muslims.

A new President will soon begin to make critical decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis at home, and countless other matters.  While the Iraq war began, then boiled and finally cooled before President-elect Obama will be sworn into office on January 20th, 2009, the Afghanistan-Pakistan spectacle is just getting started.  He was always a fierce opponent of our involvement in Iraq.  And, as with so many Democrats in the Senate, he argued frequently, during the campaign, that we should have been focused on Afghanistan all along, because it is the real incubator of the international terrorist threat.  Timing being everything, our new President will get his wish.  Afghanistan now moves to center stage.  The conflicts in Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan have the simmering potential to overshadow anything we’ve seen in Iraq.  Here are a few things I hope he understands:

Our enemies are winning.  The enemies know it.  We know it.  Who are they?  The Taliban, with its deep local roots is enemy number one.  Al Qaeda is hanging around to make trouble.  Some Paks, who don't want to see a thriving Pushtun state on their border, are our enemies.  They fund and shelter the Taliban even though we rely on them to help us defeat it.  Nothing is straightforward in this part of the world.  We have other enemies in Afghanistan who hate the Taliban.

Most of our allies are not very helpful. With the exception of the British, Canadians, Dutch and a few others such as the Aussies, we are not fighting this with an “A-team” of international allies. With a few exceptions, our allies on the ground are comprised of several dozens of countries that mostly refuse to fight.  The bulk of NATO amounts to little more than a “Taliban” Piñata.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is proving nearly worthless and provides no credible threat to Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) in Afghanistan.  Most of the NATO member countries seem to break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of “Taliban.”  They piled in when the war looked easy, and largely humanitarian.  But now that it’s getting harder and more dangerous, they would like to pile out.

Success or failure in Afghanistan depends on the handful of countries that step up -- and a multi-pronged, combat/political/nation-building strategy. The Brits field excellent soldiers but are short of enabling equipment, such as helicopters, armor and UAVs, that could greatly enhance their combat effectiveness.  Nevertheless, an outstanding British-led operation to deliver a 200-ton hydroelectric turbine to Kajaki dam could eventually deliver electricity to 1.8 million people.  This dam, with its potential to bring light, heat and the ability to begin industrializing, is a true and serious victory for the good guys.  So, let me stipulate that it's still a real fight. While the AOGs are making progress on some fronts, success is no more assured for them than for us. Mostly they destroy things that their countrymen want -- including peace, and prospect of increased prosperity.  They cut off lips and noses and douse women with gasoline and burn them alive.  Just recently, a group of enemies apparently tried to bait us into killing a wedding party.  If we are going to get groups to the negotiating table, we must pose a credible threat against enemies, and credible promise to the rest.  What we don’t want is the current situation, where it’s actually the AOGs that are forcing us to the table, largely due to NATO's general apathy and unwillingness to fight.

To ensure that we have influence on the outcome, we need more soldiers in Afghanistan, and fast.  They need to be U.S. forces, British, Canadian, Aussie; we cannot depend on NATO in general and they don’t know how to fight anyway.  Unless President-elect Obama knows some kind of magic spell, he will not be able to persuade most NATO countries to do the right thing.  Springtime 2009 will likely bring very heavy fighting in Afghanistan.  We will not have credible negotiating positions while we remain outgunned by a bunch of old rifles and dinged up RPGs.

While security in Iraq continues to improve, Afghanistan is drowning in a frothing quicksand.  While most of the 2008 fighting season is over, we can be assured that the Afghan national sport – guerrilla warfare – will become the 2009 Taliban Olympics by April.  They know this is a marathon.

Whatever else, Mr. President-elect, this is no time to go wobbly. It is important to note that some top British and U.S. commanders believe that we can make a “success” out of Afghanistan.  We’ve learned a few things over the past seven years.  We’ve truly got a “dream-team” of military commanders with great in-theater experience, to advise and guide the next phase. They saved Iraq. Use them well, Sir.

President-elect Obama says he is serious about Afghanistan.  (Just don’t fumble Iraq, please.)  As he must be learning in intelligence briefings, it's going to be tough stuff.  It will be like solving a human Rubik’s Cube during a firefight while the media screams every time you make a wrong move – or what is perceived as a wrong move, and there is a clock ticking and at some unknown point the cube self-destructs.

Maybe his recent training in the combat of a two-year election cycle will have toughened him up for the international challenges ahead.

Today I am in Kuwait, heading back into Iraq for an end-of-year round-up.  Then it’s back to the war in Afghanistan for one heck of a fight.  Please stay tuned.  Your soldiers are locked in a deadly struggle tonight.

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