FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan — Veterans of Iraq recall rolling to war along asphalted highways, sweltering in flat scrublands and chatting with city-wise university graduates connected to the wider world.
Now fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers invariably encounter illiterate farmers who may never have talked to an American as they slog into remote villages on dirt tracks through bitterly cold, snow-streaked mountains.
"Before deploying here we were given training on language, culture, everything. I thought that since I was an Iraq combat veteran, I didn't need any of that stuff. I was wrong. Both countries may be Muslim but this is a totally different place," says Sgt. Michael McCann, returning from a patrol in the east-central province of Logar.
While their experiences in the two war zones vary, for many soldiers in the field – if not policy makers – the conflict in Afghanistan is one they think may prove harder and longer to win.
Soldiers and officers involved in combat operations all cite the more punishing geography and climate, those focused on development the bare-bones infrastructure, and intelligence specialists the even greater difficulties in identifying the insurgents as among the many sharp contrasts between Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The sheer terrain of Afghanistan is much more challenging: the mountains, the altitudes, severity of weather, the distances. That wears on an army," says Maj. Joseph Matthews, a battalion operations officer in the 10th Mountain Division. "You can flood Baghdad with soldiers but if you want to flood the mountains you are going to need huge numbers and logistics."
McCann, a military policeman from Enterprise, Ala., says that the highest he ever got during his Iraq tour was a five-story building. In Afghanistan, troops routinely cross passes 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and higher, descending into valleys where they say villagers "hibernate like bears" for up to five winter months, cut off from the outside world by the snows.
This almost medieval isolation makes it far more difficult for the Afghan government and coalition forces to spread the aid and information needed to counter the Taliban push while the villagers – mostly illiterate and with little access to radios, never mind television – rely on religious leaders at Friday mosque prayers, or the insurgents, to shape their world view.
"When you have a society that can't read for itself and religious leaders are trusted, they can say whatever they like and people will believe them. It's hard for the U.S. to penetrate and influence this. In Iraq there are other ways to get the message across," says Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Weiermann, Jr., an intelligence specialist.
The U.S. effort in Logar has stressed bridging the chasms between villages, districts, the provincial capital and a central government in Kabul which has had little control over the country for the past 30 years of warfare. It hasn't been easy.
"This is not an interconnected society. There is a complete separation of ideas from Pul-i-Alam and Kharwar," notes Matthews, of Vero Beach, Fla., of the provincial capital and a district just 23 miles (37 kilometers) away. "The difference between a village and a city in this country is about 200 years," says the officer, who served for more than three years in Iraq and is on his second Afghanistan tour.
Although tribalism plays a major role in Iraq, U.S. troops find it even stronger in the predominantly rural Afghan society, making the forging of vital bonds between people and government harder. Loyalty is given first and foremost to the tribe, the government coming at best a distant second.
While counterinsurgency in Iraq had its unique complexities, Weiermann said that in Iraq – about 70 percent urbanized as opposed to 25 percent in Afghanistan – "you can meet and hopefully influence a lot of people in one day. In Afghanistan with its great distances, sparsely populated areas and rugged terrain you can do far less in the same amount of time." Hence, one reason for the prognosis that Afghanistan will be a longer haul.
Development – which absorbs the U.S. military more than combat and is regarded as key to victory – is also far tougher than in Iraq, which already possessed a solid infrastructure and once almost produced the atomic bomb. In Afghanistan at best a quarter of the population can read, compared to more than 75 percent in Iraq, which had functioning banking, medical and other systems, however imperfect, through which aid could be channeled.
"Iraq already had the foundation. They just needed the governance piece that would support not just the elite few. In Afghanistan, you are starting at the very beginning. It's like trying to take the American Indians in their purest form and put them into today's New York City. It's not going to happen," says Weiermann, of Ft. Hood, Texas.
"I worked with folks who had been to Oxford and been on projects in multiple other countries. There were homegrown NGOs and highly qualified women – all lacking in Afghanistan," says Les Garrison, a retired U.S. Marine officer from Arlington, Va., who serves as Logar's U.S. State Department adviser.
Col. David B. Haight, commander of U.S. forces in Logar and neighboring Wardak province, half jokes that some frustrated Afghans come to him and say: "'You can put a man on the moon so can't we get a road here?' and I have to tell them, `You know, it's a lot harder to build a road in Afghanistan than put a man on the moon. That skill is not in abundance here.'"
Pinpointing the insurgents has been devilishly difficult in both countries, the U.S. military says.
"Osama bin Laden could walk right up to me and I wouldn't have a clue to who he was. The enemy cannot be identified at first sight. The enemy blends in easily with the population. That is the same for both places but drastically harder in Afghanistan," Weiermann says.
The Baghdad government has managed polls and censuses, compiling a data base on the populace which includes fingerprints and domiciles down to apartment numbers. In Afghanistan, such information often exists only at the tribal level, tracking the movement of individuals and entire communities like the migratory Kuchi next to impossible, Weiermann says.
Militarily, veterans of both conflicts see both disparities and a mirroring.
Thus far, the level of intense combat and violence has proved lower in Afghanistan. In Iraq, soldiers say it was a 24/7, 365-day war while most insurgents in Afghanistan take a break during the winters and are so far less skilled in mounting complex operations against U.S. and coalition troops.
Roadside bombs are the insurgents' weapons of choice in both countries, and ominously are proving more sophisticated and deadlier in Afghanistan as they did over time in Iraq. U.S. forces in Iraq largely pursued a war of mechanized movement. Afghanistan is a foot soldier's war.
Haight, who served three Iraq tours in Special Forces-type operations, says the core counterinsurgency creed – boiled down to "Going into a village and making friends" – applies squarely to both countries. The devil is in the details.
"We as leaders here have to realize that we cannot simply superimpose some of the things that may have worked in Iraq on Afghanistan," Matthews cautions.