Michael's Dispatches

How Much is Afghanistan Really Worth to Us?


10 February 2009

While we prepare to shunt perhaps 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan (which still will not be enough), Russia continues to play the Asian chessboard.  The Russians are picking off pawn after pawn, and steadily eroding our foreign policy influence with them and other Central Asian countries.  The Russians know that we need a land route through their country to Afghanistan, especially as we begin the slow process of increasing our combat presence.  The Pakistan land route is one Achilles' heel to our Afghanistan effort, and Russia is working hard to make sure that Russia is the other Achilles' heel, which will strengthen the Russian position on matters such as missile defense.  Russia, at the present rate, will eventually exercise considerable control over the spigot to Afghanistan.  The Russians are successfully wrestling us into a policy arm-lock.  While Russia takes American money and gains influence over our Afghan efforts, we will continue to spend lives and tens of billions of dollars per year on Afghanistan in an attempt to civilize what amounts to Jurassic Park.

We must start asking Russia, and others, who the true losers will be if we abandon Afghanistan and leave a resurgent Taliban to lap at their doorsteps.  I am not advocating that we abandon Afghanistan, but our own population and allies might grow weary during the long journey unfolding before us.  The direct threat to us derives far more from al Qaeda than the Taliban, and we can keep punching down al Qaeda for a lot less than it's costing to prosecute the Afghan war while abdicating significant influence to Russia.  Russia has much to worry about if NATO countries begin to abandon Afghanistan.

Some recent and unfolding examples: Russia allows transit of US military supplies

Russia is not a country given to a humanitarian spirit, and they do not cooperate on matters such as the International Space Station only for the sake of space exploration and science.  Russia can only be trusted to behave in ways that enhance Russian power and wealth.

Beyond the fact that we will need to dedicate decades or even a century to Afghanistan, no country in the neighborhood will cooperate except when it directly affects their own interests.  They will attempt to squeeze every dollar and concession from us as we help secure their neighborhoods, all while the present drug-dealing Afghan government is bucking like a mule while our government is preparing to pin a significant amount of our combat power in a landlocked country.

The sum of many factors leaves me with a bad feeling about all this.  The Iraq war, even during the worst times, never seemed like such a bog.  Yet there is something about our commitment in Afghanistan that feels wrong, as if a bear trap is hidden under the sand.

If I had not witnessed firsthand what our military accomplished in Iraq, I might think our efforts in Afghanistan are destined to fail.  But we are plainly succeeding in Iraq with the long, dark days well behind us.  Our military is proving far more capable of fighting in Afghanistan than any military in history.  The Soviets got crushed by the Mujahidin, with U.S. help.  The Taliban and associates, however, get stacked up every fighting season, though our casualties also continue to increase.  If I did not believe we could achieve success in Afghanistan, I would likely not go back.

As we enter a new fighting season in Afghanistan this year, we need to know that the President has our backs.  Not just that he is behind us, but that he is covering our six and ready to politically and economically pounce on those who hamper our efforts.  We need to know that the President is fully engaged in this fight, that he is there to win and for the long haul, that he listens and takes close counsel from our senior military, and that he has faith that we can make this process work.  But eight years from now, this thing will not be over.

We must also understand that Afghanistan is what it is. The military is acutely aware that Afghanistan is not Iraq.  The success we are seeing in Iraq is unlikely to suddenly occur in Afghanistan.  If we are to deal with moderate elements of the AOGs (armed opposition groups) we must do so from a position of strength, and this means killing a lot of them this year, to encourage the surviving “reconcilables” to be more reconcilable.

Predicting the trajectory of a war is fraught with peril, like predicting next season’s hurricanes.  Anything can happen, and often what changes the course of a war has little or nothing to do with the war.  For instance, a failing global economy, or supervention of some chain of events perhaps still unimagined could cause the Af-Pak war to become less relevant.  Caveats behind us, it seems that 2009 will see the sharpest fighting so far.  That much has been clear for some time, and 2009 is now within our headlights.  We can already resolve from the fog much of what is likely coming this year.  Imagining what is beyond the headlights, my guess is that 2010 might bring the sharpest fighting of the entire war.  My guess is that 2010-11 will likely be crucial years in this process, and that many allies will be making decisions during those years whether to stick it out or to punch out.  By the fall of 2010, we should be able to resolve whether our renewed efforts under President Obama are working or failing.

The Great Game continues, but it’s no game for the people who are fighting it.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doug Santo · 12 years ago
    Overall, a thoughtful piece. The first paragraph reads like press-speak, however. Temper commercial desire with native instinct. Native instinct is better.

    Russia is a longtime adversary; never a friend. Russia plays the cards it has. I wonder how strong Russia is looking forward. Oil and gas revenue down, militarily and technologically poor, unable to project power on a global scale, Russia attempts to stick a finger in our eye. The reality is, we are forward deployed in Russia's backyard, basing men and equipment in Russia's neighbors. I am not downplaying the threat from Russia, I am saying view it in context.

    Russia will always behave in ways that advance Russian power and wealth. That you can count on, and that is how you beat them. Our weak point is not Russian actions. Our weak point is our partners.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA
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    TS Alfabet · 12 years ago
    Michael, your post reminds me of a backyard construction project that looked do-able at first but when you get into it you discover that there are all kinds of complications and previously-hidden obstacles that will make the project a real bear. So you come to the point, maybe with the shovel in your hand before you take that irreversible step, and ask yourself,"Do I really need this deck? Do I REALLY, REALLY need it?"

    And that's where we are with A-stan. Robert Kagan's recent article is some cause for hope but also makes clear how difficult this job could become. Unfortunately, after the past 4 years of public hand-wringing and whining and inconstancy over Iraq, I no longer trust the American people or the political class. U.S. military can accomplish anything IF they are given even a modest amount of support, but we came VERY close to losing Iraq only because politicians panicked and their cronies in the media parlayed that panic to the American public. Thank God for your reporting and Bush's dogged determination to see Iraq through to victory. But I don't see that happening in A-stan.

    I will hazard a grim prediction. The going will get very tough in A-stan. NATO troops will be withdrawn in the face of mounting casualties as the T-ban cleverly target them wherever they can. The Administration will get all the media support it could ever want for a "new" strategy for "Stability" that in bygone times would be called retreat and surrender. The T-ban will quickly retake A-stan and the Islamofascists will finally have their caliphate in A-stan and the Pakistani FATA and NWFP areas. The U.S. will occasionally use missile strikes to keep up appearances but it will be far too little. 2010 or 2011 will see another, significant terrorist strike in the U.S. God help us if the T-ban take over Pakistan or otherwise get access to its nukes.

    And then, we will see the kind of mass destruction that only a Democrat president is allowed to unleash. Obama will initiate a devastating program of heavy bombing on Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan with huge civilian casualties. If the U.S. is hit with one or more nukes, then Obama will unleash the nukes as well. And the U.S. media will support him all the way, of course. Forget about disproportionate retaliation.

    What happens after that I will not guess. But you can be sure of two things: 1) it will not solve the problem, and; 2) it will get worse before it gets any better.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wil Bagley · 12 years ago
    No one has ever beaten the geography of Afghanistan, nor will we. The use of drones and selectively picking our targets is the way to go. Let them know that the cost is too high for them to win. We are not Russia! They beat Russia once, maybe we should let them make it two in a row. That would be a win, win for us.
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    _Julie_ · 12 years ago
    The new Zaranj-Delaram road in Nimroz province could be used to carry our supplies. This requires Iran's help. Khatami announced he will run for president. Are things looking up for Iran-US relations?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thanos · 12 years ago
    While not contenanced by many as feasible, there is a third option that would certainly be a shot across Putin's bow. Negotiate with China to use the old silk road. With overland routes about as long as the other case, it's actually simpler. You have only one gov't to deal with since China directly abuts Afghanistan, and as always they are a player in the great game as well. They would love an expanded trade route headed that direction, and certainly would like the dollars that a milroute would bring. All milroutes eventually become trade routes once the fighting's over. Even if we did not plan that as a real option, just opening the discussion as a possibility would send eyebrows upwards in the Kremlin.
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    M. Mack · 12 years ago
    The military might as well start pulling out of Afganastan now. Our current Democrat Congress and President will never offer more than lipservice support to our troops. Sad to say, the military is of little concern to these America haters. Any success by the military will be squandered by decisions made in the White House for the next four years. It's better to cut the losses now, than to continue spilling more soldier's blood.

    I pray I am wrong.

    M. Mack
    Longview, TX
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Old Blue · 12 years ago
    Michael, good call on the current situation. Russia's games are easily understandable. Their distrust of NATO is understandable given their primitive geopolitical view. NATO has been encroaching on their "turf" and simply interferes with Moscow's ability to belligerently coerce her neighbors into compliance with her designs. Totally understandable. Who wouldn't be upset with the degradation of their ability to lob nukes at Europe whenever they had a mind to?

    Of course, her neighbors' desire not to be summarily swallowed by Russia at the first convenience is also totally understandable.

    There is also a Russian desire to not see an American success story in her own imperial graveyard. Don't think for a minute that doesn't come into play. It does... but nobody points to that elephant, especially in polite conversation and most especially if they're Russian. They're also still a little miffed over the Georgia episode.

    So the Russian desire to clutch our testicles firmly yet friendly in their paws is totally understandable. Future security be damned, it's the Americans who really need a good lesson in all of this. Unfortunately for us, we are playing right into their hands. We're desperate. The reason that we are desperate is our own doing, and that's the other elephant in the room.

    In not one but two theaters in the GWOT we have failed to see the inevitable coming. We failed to understand that we had to provide interim governance and a firm rule of law in Iraq because we were so busy showing off our conventional primacy on the world stage. "See? We can decapitate this heavily-armed country with one hand tied behind our backs, so here's how!" was our battle cry in Iraq. Immediate chaos in the absence of authority ensued and we were somehow shocked. "Idiots," the world mumbled to itself.

    In Afghanistan the situation was simpler... or so it seemed. "Why," we wondered as the erstwhile rulers made their inroads, "isn't the Taliban satisfied with simmering in caves and villages in the FATA?" We failed to assist in the development of a working working government in nearly every aspect except the military. "Why," we pondered as the Taliban message of corruption, new warlordism and occupation began to take hold among the populace, "don't the people realize that democracy is so much better for them than the mean old Taliban?"

    I totally agree that it's going to get worse before it gets better... but it will only get better if we actually start doing what we said that we were going to do upon entering the country over seven years ago. The only really successful thing that we have done in Afghanistan is develop the ANA. It's the only thing that the de facto lead agency in the effort, the US Army, has truly been interested in... that and counter-guerrilla warfare. Between of the distaste of the Army for getting deeper into COIN than saying the word itself, the risk-aversion, and the failure to coordinate an well-rounded counterinsurgency to include economic development, the development of good governance and provide accessible justice at the village level... much less a less-than-pathetic local police... we have screwed the pooch. We have served up an all-too-easy insurgent campaign plan, and like a good bunch of Mao-trained insurgents they are running with it.

    We are being schooled.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Old Blue · 12 years ago
    The proof is in the pudding. If we had used the period when the Taliban was in rebuilding mode in Pakistan and al Qaeda was busier than a cat in the litter box in Iraq to establish any kind of real economic growth and robust governmental basic service delivery along with the capable ANA we would not be in this fix. Instead we again failed to see the elephant in the room and now we are running around like a bunch of headless chickens trying to figure out a new approach. We are even trying to apply Iraq-centric solutions to Afghan-specific problems. Yes, they are similar problems; but the solutions are as singularly Afghan as the Sons of Iraq are uniquely Iraqi. Arming militias is the easy way out... it doesn't require a well-rounded approach to COIN. Just toss a few Chinese weapons to some irritated tribesmen, shake and serve well-chilled.

    Never mind that the Afghans themselves are shouting that warlordism is what gave birth to the Taliban to begin with. Don't think for a minute that the "Lashgars" won't have their own leadership and their own agendas, either. Meanwhile, we will toy absentmindedly with the ANP, leaving many of them to their own devices while we provide them with competitors on the local level. This should be fun... like putting a camel spider and a scorpion together in a box.

    Our problems in Afghanistan stem from our inability to perform our own doctrine with more than a small resemblance to the real thing. We shout, "COIN" while performing counter-guerrilla missions with all the gusto of that America's military will put towards any effort that they are thrown into, but counter-guerrilla is only a small part of counterinsurgency. We send squad-sized missions out to do counterinsurgency, but the squad leader is untrained in COIN. Counter-guerrilla is all he knows, and he's never heard of Galula. He can tell you who Clausewitz and Guderian are, most likely, but he thinks Trinquier is a cheska Afghan boy on Thursday.

    Meanwhile, we eye Russia suspiciously and secretly long for the linear war that we know and love all while mouthing the word, "COIN."

    You are absolutely right in that this is winnable, but weƒ??re the ones not getting the point internally soƒ??

    Here's my prediction based on our current course: We will continue to neglect to train counterinsurgency to the Soldier level, training him really only in conventional warfare (because of the looming Big War) and its illegitimate cousin, counter-guerrilla (which is what real Soldiers do when they can't find a peer competitor willing to fight linearly.) The State Department will continue to toss money over the wall of its compound in Kabul because they are too valuable to actually expose themselves to any danger. A small group of Afghans will continue to become wealthy and powerful. There will still be only five to six hours a day of electricity in Kabul (which will go unnoticed by the State boys because they have their own generators.) We will piddle with the ANP while growing the ANA, the only governmental entity that can even approach doing a real job. The tribal militias will have an immediate impact on the Taliban, but will begin to have problems with each other and the ANP. We will point to initial successes with this program, but there will be unexplained defections when the Taliban and AQ remember that Afghans will indeed fight for money. The people will still continue to suffer. Taliban shadow governance will continue to render GIRoA agencies irrelvant, especially the courts. The insurgency will gain power and control. American casualties will rise.

    That's when America will quit. We in the Army will still be there, but the direction will be to prepare an immediate exit strategy.

    Ten years down the road, the most popular subject for papers at West Point will be the comparative analysis of minor divergent details between Afghanistan and Viet Nam.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zsu · 12 years ago
    "The Other Option' by Thanos presents an intelligent option which would lift China
    in stature and importance, thus allowing her government to manifest itself in that volatile area. China has always enjoyed being recognized for her intuitiveness as well as her power. Our trade with China helped stabilize her economy. We treat China as an equal. Her leaders would enjoy flexing China's muscles in the sight of those close-proximity neighbor nations who tend to look down on her and treat her as a backward nation.
    Washington, are you listening?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Terry Gain · 12 years ago
    Iraq has 600,000 people in their security forces. The last time I checked, about a years ago, Afghanistan had 40,000. CIA Factbook no longer has this information available. If these figures are accurate I question whether Afghanistan can be won.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R Hampton · 12 years ago
    Michael Yon,
    Why do you - and other so called "hawks" - refuse to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for Wahhabism and the entrenchment of the Taliban and al Qaeda? Seven years later, surely you can recognize the folly of protecting the US-Saudi diplomatic relations at the expense of losing the War on Terror? Do you honestly believe we can "win" this thing when your lot pussy-foots around with who the enemy really is?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul conway · 12 years ago
    Mr Yon;
    As always a thought provoking dispatch. Afghanistan and Pakistan are complex places. Americans tend to ignore complexities until forced to confront them; we prefer quick and easy solutions. Obviously we paid too little attention to Afghanistan from 2001 until recently.
    I suppose we ought to decide what success would be much like we scaled our expectations down in Iraq. I suspect that we tend to think of the Afghan's as retarded children incapable of running their lives. It seems to me that Afghan tribal society functions fine if left alone, there is order plenty rough of course but the Pushtun tribes did have a rough justice system. Next time you are in Afghanistan, you may wish to look up Rory Stewart. Mr Stewart works with a small NGO in Kabul. Unlike most foreigners in Afghanistan, he speaks Dari, Pushto, Farsi and Arabic and walked across Afghanistan in 2002. His perceptions are worth listening to.
    Of course the Russians see to their interests, everybody does including us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kevyn · 12 years ago
    Michael, Your dispatches are a breath of fresh air. The haze lifts and we can see a distance.

    "...we need to know that the President has our backs. Not just that he is behind us, but that he is covering our six and ready to politically and economically pounce on those who hamper our efforts."

    We'll see.

    I wish I could offer some encouragement. So far, he does not appear to listen well...if he has listened, it's not immediately apparent or not well communicated to those of us wanting and waiting to know whether or not he's understanding what he's being told. His initial forays into the foreign relations arena are puzzling and disturbing, unsettling to say the least. Sincere naivety is not a strength or political maneuver I understand yet. Frankly, he seems preoccupied consolidating his domestic political power. I have genuine doubts that he'll ever give our efforts in Afghanistan the attention they deserve; what attention he does pay will be fleeting and disengaged. He has never impressed me as a war fighter or even as a leader who understands or is interested in maintaining America's leadership or presence in the WOT.

    Personally, I do not believe that America can afford to fight this war the way it needs to be fought. Unless there's an immediate and profound economic recovery, domestic economic recovery will, no, is going to take precedence in budget matters. I can hear dunning voices screaming through the air right now---but we cannot afford to withdraw or even maintain status quo. Withdraw? Profound mistake! Maintain? Mistake! We need to pounce and pounce hard with all the spirit and strength we can muster. Our soldiers deserve to have our undivided attention and focus and resources at the ready for every road they travel. The scenario and conditions for a strong commitment to Afghanistan are faint at this time.

    In case you cannot tell, the domestic situation in America is perilous. Partisan politics are bleeding America and the struggle for direction is a constant and strong distraction from 'Jurassic Park'. I've only been working four decades but I cannot recall ever losing nearly 600,000 jobs in a single month. Economic shock waves are coming weekly and the level of partisan rhetoric is ratcheting towards a screaming pitch. There is going to be a vigorous and heated debate regarding the federal governments new expansionist role in what were once considered private and states matters. This debate could either overshadow foreign affairs or push foreign affairs into the spot light. Either way, 'Jurrasic Park will not get the attention it surely deserves.

    Will our influence there wane to the strength of another? Others? Probably. Had our NATO allies stepped up proudly from the beginning, the questions would be different and certainty of outcome perhaps clearer. hindsight is always easy. Viewing around the corner and down the dusty, dimly lit street with a broken shard of scratchy mirror is practiced artform.

    I do like the 'beartrap' analogy. Apt. Breaking camp before we know for sure is not an option I'm comfortable with. On the other hand, waiting to see who springs the trap on who's leg is not a scene I relish.

    God bless Michael. CY6
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tanya Lasagna · 12 years ago
    "I wonder how strong Russia is looking forward. Oil and gas revenue down, militarily and technologically poor, unable to project power on a global scale."

    Russia probably wouldn't be able to maintain any serious military operation that lasted more than a few weeks, especially against someone with a military larger, and more capable than Georgia's. Their country and infrastructure is in shambles, their cities and factories look as if they've been abandoned for 60 years and are just now being re-populated. I recently visited one of their larger cities, a city with a large military presence. Their average soldier, as seen on the streets in mid-day, in uniform, is a drunken thuggish buffoon. Granted, they do have some very, very good troops, but very few of those.

    The saber rattling they are playing at right now is all for show, looking closely the saber is all hilt and no blade.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    GoatGuy · 12 years ago
    Your points are well taken, Michael. Afghanistan for us is substantially different than it was for Russia when she was getting the shit beat out of her armies 'way back when. Afghanistan for us is the gateway between the mullacracy of Iran and the semi-democracy of Pakistan. Pakistan is schizophrenic about their fully democratic, wealthier and quite multicultural neighbor ... a schizophreny fed by the Mullahs in their Midst paired against the benefits of being aligned to the democracies of the West.

    To the Rus, Afghanistan was a geopolitical pawn. To us it is a sociological rook.

    The Afghan people, proud, intensely poor, civilizationally feudal, are also strong, faithful and quite good people to work with. They, not unlike most of the world's poor peoples, easily feel slights to their sovereignty and honor. Yet, they need "training" in order for the progressive, inclusive side to make headway against the more primitive characters that lead in their midst.

    The hardest problem - and frankly one that I don't think we can overcome in anything but multiple decades - is that the education, attainment and world-view of the population is ... missing. The women of Afghanistan need to be educated, just as the men of Afghanistan need to embrace their learning as potentially making for better (or more interesting) family life. The other very difficult problem is that Afghanistan is without significant mineral or petrological resources, so their means of commerce is very limited. It is for this reason that they are the world's number One maker of contraband weapons and munitions. Enterprising, they are.

    They need farm equipment, diesel oil, tools and fertilizer. They need pumps, transformers, an upgraded power grid and all sorts of stuff from Sears (so to speak). They need to be largely self-reliant because from that comes honor. We absolutely must not let our capitalist side view them as a "profit center". It will be decades before they're on that sure of a footing.

    But make them self-reliant, gift them the necessary tools, know-how, follow-up calls. Honor their ways, require all of our soldiers, contractors and others to speak a bit of Afghan, to NEVER turn down food (one doesn't have to gorge themselves, just pick away and complain of a bad stomach by way of 'the water', which always gets a laugh, and an acceptably honorable way out), nor ever turn down TEA. There are only a few rules that when followed make a huge difference, and they all should be, by everyone.

    If Afghanistan was "invaded" by an "army" of people well versed in their family, neighborly, community and clan codes of behavior, and if that army hardly ever violated the principle of "bring a gift, no matter how small", as well as wishing Salams on everyone, for everything ... Muslim or not ... then it all works that much better.

    Afghanistan will be "won" by the way of the candy bar, cigarette, belt of ammo, exchange of inexpensive firearms, by way of agricultural help, setting up and assiduously maintaining the electrical grid to keep all the necessary infrastructure working. Afghanistan will be won when the people have heard from EACH OTHER that the Americans are making them strong, self-reliant, and are very generous, very well mannered, and very honorable in dealing with the gerentocracy that is the actual ruling "party" of the land.

    The "honor" hand, well played, also becomes the most powerful weapon to cut the Taliban out of the political circle. They can be shamed by their own peers into lying low, and eventually ... if opportunity knocks, they'll gradually fall apart. We need not conquer a religion or an ideology. Just provide much more compelling "wealth and opportunity" on the right-side of the fence, and plenty of bridges allowing them to cross.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg from USA · 12 years ago
    We are the USA. We put a man on the Moon. We can do ANYTHING.

    TS Alfabet, regarding your comment "Do I REALLY REALLY need this deck?", I built a deck. It took weeks and weeks. I finished it after work, at nights, in bitter cold 5 degree temperatures. I never thought about giving up, I just kept focused on the next task in a long list of tasks. When I was done I simply started the next project. I never pondered over the effort.

    To complete the deck, it was not "hard", it just took the WILL to do it. Step by step, post by post, joist by joist, nail by nail.

    Our Boys win wars the same way. Step by step, through firefights and fireside chats, through tribal meetings and tribal warfare, through mistakes and magnificence. The USA has fought wars not worth getting into, but right or wrong, through the lens of time we find that the USA has never fought a war that is not worth winning.

    As you pointed out, the politicians contribute to the war effort through panicking and hand-wringing and whining and inconstancy. Does that make sense? Of course not, and I expect the Republicans to leave such destructive politics at the water's edge.

    So we have a smart, powerful, highly trained army fighting for freedom and to protect the USA by taking the fight to the terrorists. General Petreaus is competent commander who wrote the book on COIN and has the brain trust to overcome any obstacle to success. Even in the worst of times, we have the means to prosecute this war. We have the MEANS to win.

    Do we have the WILL to win? Well, that is up to you. If again and again blogs tell the person on your right and left: "Allowing Al Qaeda a whole country to feed their terror machine will only lead to more and deadlier attacks like 911", then the country will have the WILL.

    If the country has the will, then the President Obama has the WILL. He will deny Al Qaeda the resources of a failed state, he will deny them peace and quiet to plan another attack.

    Thank you, Michael Yon, for your reporting. It would be easy to throw up our hands and walk away if you didn't report on what a formidable enemy we are up against and how our soldiers are standing against them.

    It may be Jurassic Park, but better repair the fence over there than build a new one over here.

    Greg from USA
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    Sergius · 12 years ago
    It seems that new administration in Washington will not hesitate spending American lives in Afghanistan, and they do not seem to intend to waste any time. If only Americans could defeat whoever they think they are fighting in Afghanistan, it would certainly benefit Russia as well, for sure. But, who knows for sure what this US Administration, just as the previous one, really has on their minds? Just pray that this Afghanistan-Pakistan war does not spill over into Europe in a year from now!!! There are some in the US of A who virtually dream of repeating the history of the 20th century thinking it is only by the side of a ravaged Europe that America could thrive again. It is impossible to win conventional war in Afghanistan against local population. Period. Ask any military expert and you will see that such a war, no matter how many locals you kill, will leave you defeated eventually. Therefore, anyone who starts such a war there must have a different objective. Russians could not defeat the Afghans not because Americans were shipping arms to mujaheddin, it just helped the Soviet strategists realize that they had made more mistakes than they were allowed to. There is no winning by killing many enough in a country like Afghanistan. Does not history teach you anything!??
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    AfghanMoon · 12 years ago
    Thank you once again, Mr. Yon, for a blunt and thoughtful assessment. I first picked up on your work through LGF. Now I am working with the Army in Afghanistan (but I am not in the Army), up in the north.
    It is frustrating to see us doing the opposite of countrinsurgency by way of our Force Protection decisions and contracting mind-set. You mention 0,000 troops--no amount of troops will get the job done if we do not get back into the COIN business, with a quickness.
    Regarding your Thorny Bush article and this one, I find it difficult to criticise any administration or organization for failing to get the right answers on the first, second, or third try. This is a process with a lot of wrong answers built-in. What I find frustrating is to see the obvious mistakes we make, in my opinion, for want of mission clarity, which would enable mission focus. The hardest part is determining which goals are merely difficult, and which are impossible.
    I don't know where my criticism should go. I find no person at fault in the process I observe, but compare the results to the stated goals, and know that the process is being corrupted somewhere.
    I have the luxury of working in the north, where things are not so bad, and I cannot speak for any other region; indeed, I speak only for myself. But I feel that the problem is a bureaucratic process--the Afghan First policy of procuring goods and services puts us at the mercy of the contracting process. It would not be hard to imagine a situation in which an operational requirement is changed because a contractual process trumps it. I have not seen this, and I hope not to. But the fact that this is one of my concerns should speak volumes.
    Likewise, when force protection concerns trump COIN principles, we are putting the cart before the horse. If we will accept non-accomplishment of the mission, then we can fail to accomplish the mission far more safely at home. In order to get the mission done, we need to make risk decisions which will allow it. This means interacting with people in town, taking off the gear from time to time, demonstrating confidence even when we don't have it.
    These things are easy for me to say--it's not me on the QRF responding to situations, and I don't have to write letters to parents and wives. We are training the ANA & ANP, legitimizing the government, building infrastructure, and providing humanitarian aid. We are doing good things here. I am confident that we will win here once we get focused. But I do not feel that we are succeeding at COIN.
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    ottovbvs · 12 years ago
    Somewhat to my surprise I find myself agreeing with most of Yon's comments since I've always believed the Iraqi adventure was aberrational and is indeed somewhat responsible for the predicament we find ourselves in in Afghanistan. The reality is that this a mountainous country which provides perfect terrain for guerilla operations. It is occupied by a population of mainly hardy countrymen who make their living from the land. They are devoted to the Islamic religion and deeply antipathetic to foreigners of any kind. Rid your mind of the notion that these people want us occupying their country. They don't. Would we welcome the Chinese garrisoning the US. They don't distinguish between Russian Hind helicopters dropping bombs and US drones dropping bombs on civilians. Personally, I don't believe we have the remotest chance of turning Afghanistan into a semi democratic, stable, largely terrorist free, pro American island between Pakistan and Russia. Those that do might want to ponder the cost of achieving this. It is going take hundreds of thousands of US troops, forget the Europeans who aren't going to shed blood or treasure for Afghanistan. There will be a need for hundreds of billions of dollars of reconstruction aid and we will need to constantly engage with Russia and Pakistan who have no interest in doing us any favors. The duration of this is at least a generation or about 20 years. Is it worth it? Are Americans willing to pay this price? I doubt it. It then becomes necessary to start addressing the best exit strategy.
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    AfghanMoon · 12 years ago
    You wrote in Comment 19 that the Afghans resent us, do not see us as different from the Soviets, and that we are on our own without any reliable European support. I couldn't disagree more, and on all counts.
    I am in Afghanistan, and every day we are engaging in some way with the people. I have issues with how much, and how, and with whom, and how frequently we are doing the core COIN work. But believe me--there is absolutely no confusion among Afghans regarding the brutal Soviet occupation and the well-intended if somewhat milquetoast US & Coalition counterinsurgency. We are doing nation-building, like it or not, whereas the Soviets were pacifying the population in order to secure their interests.
    There is a lot to argue about as far as how we are doing what we are doing, and in some cases, the question of what in fact we are doing is ill-defined. There is legitimate debate as to what our own interests are and how to serve those. But two things are certain--first, that we are engaged in a manifestly American style of operations at the ground level, where good-natured US soldiers team up with Afghan counterparts and go from town to town on missions which no Afghan resents or misunderstands. Second, our European allies in the coalition are out here just as much as we are. Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Scandinavia are well represented in the fighting and the dead.
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    flyonthewall · 12 years ago
    Mr Yon,
    Thank you for this and your post on Lithuania.

    Why do we continue to use the misnomer "war" to describe US involvement / efforts in the Middle East? Wars are won or lost and we measure success or failure by these constricted terms based on ignorance of complexity. If Afghanistan were framed as a humanitarian crisis, perhaps we could view it as an opportunity to compensate for our gutless failure in Africa. (Now we're chasing pirates because we fled Somalia?)

    Why does the U.S. invest so much and EU, NATO, UN so little? Could we not rethink Afghanistan and hold out for parity among our "allies". (i.e. every nation's army is allowed to use weapons??) Learning about Lithuania and its "skin in the game" makes me wonder about the complacency of established, "greater" NATO members who have no memory of fighting oppression and no heart for stepping up. Americans still whine about our military "occupying" Iraq and demand timetables. The U.S. has no national attention span for Afghanistan and not enough U.S boots to meet Afghanistan's self-perpetuating generations of guerillas. Meanwhile, we'll be on the other side of the globe, ignoring a failing state in Janet Napolitano's back yard with no border and no control of guerillas flowing through.

    Meanwhile, the Sunday News features the "feat" of putting a prosthetic leg on an elephant.
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    SFC Cheryl McElroy U · 12 years ago
    I'll respond by asking all those opposed to our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, if they don't think it's worth stopping Islamofascist extremists where they live and breed. In the Middle East it's like this: PICK ONE. They're trained, funded, and indoctrinated in every single Islamic nation-state. It would have been worth it just to vaporize Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia on 12 September 2001. That's how you fight a jihad.

    But, I'm a former Soldier, not a diplomat.

    SFC Cheryl McElroy
    Iraq War Veteran
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    sfcmac · 12 years ago
    That 'aberration' was a threat to U.S. forces in the region and considered very important to the Islamic terrorists. One of the letters we intercepted from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the now in hell Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, specifically mentioned the es
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    cb · 12 years ago
    "The military might as well start pulling out of Afganastan now. Our current Democrat Congress and President will never offer more than lipservice support to our troops. " (comment #6)

    Just an example of the complete alternate reality in which people live when they watch too much Fox News. Of our two presidential candidates, Barak Obama was the only one who supported and voted for the G.I. bill. Which passed with 92 yea, 6 nays and 2 non-votes---McCain was one of the two Senators who did not vote.

    Success in Iraq? 400 thousand civilian deaths is success? The millions of displaced Iraqis--forced to flee their homes to other countries---How do people overlook these numbers? What is the measure of success? Are we really any safer just because a lot of people got dead due to Bush's pet war? Yeah, let's blow em all up, say the military types. Good god. Where people's values are I really have no clue.
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    cory michael · 12 years ago
    Cb you should take a look into those bills before blasting people who vote against it. Alot of those bills do little in the way of real support for the military and sometimes when people vote against bills it because they want those bills to be sent back for further review and improvement. Read the bills and make a choice on your own the media is mostly handing out info to the best of its ability 2nd hand sources at best.
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    opponent · 12 years ago
    'Russia is a longtime adversary; never a friend. Russia plays the cards it has. I'
    'Russia probably wouldn't be able to maintain any serious military operation that lasted more than a few weeks, especially against someone with a military larger, and more capable than Georgia's. Their country and infrastructure is in shambles, their cities and factories look as if they've been abandoned for 60 years and are just now being re-populated.'

    Well guys... not Russia but YOU play our cards, and it is fun. Just let you know - quite a lot of your discussions are translated into Russian, even without comments it would be enough to give us idea who is our REAL enemy. Who is talking about 'serious military operation' against us etc.... I'd like to remember you that real threat from somebodies site - yours in this case - makes wonder. We have experience in protections for such threat. I know you don't have access to more or less independent history but if you know German I would recommend to read about WWII from their sources. That's quite objective. You'll get to know that Russians became very strong as soon as they understand that you are going to destroy them.
    You gave money and trained Taliban's forces when we've been in Afghanistan. Now you want HELP from our site???? That's a good joke, I like it :-)
    And again, this game - 'Americans want to destroy Russians and they are enemy for us' - this game is played by our government and you are part of its team. Does Putin pay you salary for it? :-) Just one link to your discussion will prove again this motto. Simple and free of charge. That's quite important in this hard time with a low price for oil.
    Sorry for my English, I was doing my best.
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