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Afghanistan: Obama's Men and Women Go to War

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Lieutenant Colonel Brian Mennes, U.S. Army, commander, 1st Ranger Battalion, has recently returned from Afghanistan, where he has served for fourteen months in eight provinces. One evening last week he spoke over after-dinner drinks to a few reporters about the frustrations of command in Afghanistan.

"My men can clear the village for you in two to three days -- no problem," Mennes says, recounting the conversation he has again and again with NATO officers in theater. For Mennes, this is a typical scenario: one of the twenty-six NATO forces calls upon the Rangers to clear insurgents from a town or valley. "'Now what? 'What do you want me to do next?' I ask," Mennes says, "and nobody has thought that far." The Lt. Col. gives the reporters another example of this impasse. "So now USAID comes into the village and asks, 'How can we help you?' and I turn to them and say, "Your asking that question is the problem in Afghanistan. I should be asking you the question."

The point for Mennes -- the source of his frustration and indeed his anger -- is that there is no plan for Afghanistan and beyond that any sense of a larger American foreign policy for his men on the ground to implement. The absence of an overarching vision with concomitant strategies to achieve goals in realizing that vision is a point on which not only active military leaders like Lt. Col. Mennes but also every retired general, think tank fellow, professor, NGO partner and military expert of any stripe agree, in a series of seminars for these same reporters. We are spending a week at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland in discussion of the topic "U.S. Military: New President, New Outlook?" The consensus prediction would seem to be no -- at least in the sense that expectations are low.

The next day in seminar Lt. Col. Mennes expands on his postprandial remarks. "For the Marines going back to Helmand [province], who is in charge?" Mennes asks. As he suggested the night before, the U.S. military has mastered its own role in counterinsurgency. Relearning in Iraq the lessons that should have been incorporated into military planning after Vietnam, the Army and Marines have now got it right in waging irregular warfare. At issue is who takes over after the Marines in Helmand have done their job. Who helps the locals transition to a self-governance that will preclude their falling prey once again to insurgents? Who nurtures that leadership? What nurtures that leadership? "I wanted to break down and cry," Mennes says -- and this admission from an officer who, as a reporter observes, could play himself in the movie -- "when Marines came in and were not allowed to subordinate themselves to Afghans." How else to plant seeds of respect for Afghan governance? In Helmand, "the drug lords are the leaders, and we try to kill them," Mennes says, by way of pointing out the self-defeating dynamic of Coalition poppy policy.

"Our counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics goals are at odds," says Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist with the RAND Corporation who shares the podium with Lt. Col. Mennes. Maybe we should just bring in Merck Pharmaceutical and buy the poppy in Southern Afghanistan, Seth Jones suggests, because all the farmers there are indentured. When Coalition forces eradicate these crops, Lt. Col. Mennes adds, "Do we have an agricultural-hydrology plan for an alternative to poppy?"

If the lack of transition foresight and leadership in Southern Afghanistan is complicated by the drug trade, in Northern Afghanistan the geography of isolated mountain valleys is an issue. Pashtuns in one valley have heard of Pashtuns in other valleys but have never met them. How then to realize some kind of security, if not through centralized governance? "This is not a Taliban insurgency," Seth Jones says. "Politics are very localized." There are lots of criminal elements, he goes on to say, and not just black tar smugglers in the South but timber and gem dealers in the North. There are the local militia forces, Iranian elements, tribes and clans that switch sides and some Afghan government supporters of insurgents. With insurgency in Afghanistan, it all depends on "which village -- district -- province." Therefore, recent talk about cutting a deal with moderate elements of the Taliban as a way of achieving stability would seem to be a chimera. Furthermore, as both Jones and Mennes observe, there is growing unhappiness in the provinces, which historically have never accepted centralized authority anyway, with the government in Kabul. Among American and NATO leadership, "there is no will to deal with these people at the top," Seth Jones says, in reference to the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and its corruption, "and that is undermining us."

The role of city manager, as Lt. Col. Mennes calls it, or in the words of Seth Jones, "engaging the local centers of gravity," is the responsibility, from the American part of the Coalition, of the State Department. However, a further point of agreement among the Knight participants is that it has been a long time since State has stepped up to the plate, and not just in Afghanistan. Military brass and military reporters with embed experience mention "PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams] afraid to leave Kabul." There are plans afoot to change State's risk-averse culture, but they will take time. Meanwhile nothing could be more irrelevant to counterinsurgency implementation than the State Department regulation that its employees be housed in office buildings that meet certain security requirements. "My office is on the cutting edge of changing the State Department risk culture," says Ambassador John Herbst, now coordinator for a new program at State to develop a corps of trained civilians for reconstruction and stabilization. And yes, John Herbst says, when pressed by the Knight reporters, in Afghanistan that means that some will be killed.

Meanwhile, without the civilian component in place to deal with what the military in counterinsurgency calls "the problem of hold," the U.S. Army and Marines have filled the vacuum, negotiating with the tribes and clans in Afghanistan as they did with the sheiks in Anbar Province, Iraq. Lt. Col. Mennes, who speaks both Pashtun and Dari, talks about learning the local values of "subordination and respect" and what he calls the Pashtun Valley Code. He teaches his men that "these people have worth even though they treat their women so badly." Among the locals, he resolves disputes. It's justice -- not security -- that they want most, Mennes says. Warriors stepping into a warrior culture, Mennes and his peers perform the task of hold with a natural authority that Herbst's civilians may not find so easy to master.

Mennes speaks frankly about "COIN [counterinsurgency] risk," which he sees not as risk to his men or himself but to the local population he has come so far, in his mind, to serve. He can easily envision the local family, who by the Pashtun Valley Code has offered hospitality to Taliban, "cowering in the corner of the house and praying we don't fire [on] the Taliban at that moment." For this reason, Mennes says, "I rarely dropped big bombs on houses." Nevertheless, he has been responsible for the deaths of civilians, the "collateral damage" that is part of irregular warfare. He speaks, in a seemingly matter-of-fact way, of a Pashtun's three sons he killed in a fire fight with insurgents. Whether the young men were curious or foolish or in the wrong place at the wrong time Mennes does not make clear. He merely says that killing them was unavoidable.

After the fight has finished, however, Lt. Col. Mennes goes to the father's house to take responsibility for the deaths of the man's three sons and, according to the valley code, to make amends. As he has been instructed, Mennes tugs the man's beard and caresses his face. Humbling himself, Mennes strokes the distraught father's chest and shoulders. And so Mennes makes right with the clan, in a way that is completely foreign to American culture and with an outcome that for us begs credulity. How, in the end, can we have a plan and execute it in the midst of such an alien society? The experience of Brian Mennes is but one small example of why the Afghanistan experts who met with military reporters last week are dubious about a "new outlook" in this new American presidency. On the other hand, how can we not come up with a plan? Not only is the insurgency or insurgencies further destabilizing both Afghanistan and Pakistan and therefore threatening our own security. Also we are turning intelligent, gifted and honorable men like Brian Mennes into killers of sons. We had better have a good reason. We had better have a plan.