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Michael Hughes

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US Can Still Win in Afghanistan, Military Expert Claims in NY Times Op-Ed

Posted: 09/28/11 05:00 PM ET

Although his recent New York Times polemic slamming Afghan war critics is entitled "This War Can Still Be Won," Army Special Forces Major Fernando M. Luján makes an interesting admission near the end of his piece when he concedes that "winning" is a meaningless word when it comes to this type of war, a concept acquired -- no doubt -- during COIN indoctrination and one many a general has tried to impress upon American taxpayers as part of a broader scheme to rationalize this type of war's perpetual extension.

But I do concur that "winning" is not an appropriate term, not to mention that it sounds ugly, triumphalist -- even passé. So, let's employ more meaningful parlance and ways of measuring success by asking such rudimentary questions as, "Are we achieving our security objectives?"

Ah, therein lies the fatal defect in Mr. Luján's case, if a logical argument is what he was trying to put forth at all, because in reading Luján's militaristic apologia it seems he is trying to convince us to support this war lockstep based on nothing more than frothy emotional appeal.

The problem is the U.S. has no idea what the "end game" is supposed to look like and lacks any useful metrics that would lead one to believe sustainable gains have been made. The primary performance indicators Luján relies upon are anecdotal, such as the resounding refrain heard from Afghans living in Helmand and Kandahar who told him: "Last year we couldn't even move out of the front gate without being shot or blown up. Now we control as far as you can see."

Luján also points to the fact the Taliban are now inveigling children with candy to don suicide vests in a sure sign the enemy is getting desperate. He also insinuates the Taliban are on the ropes because of the targets they have chosen as of late, as the major writes:

Pushed out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics, focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian) targets.

Surely Luján knows one of the keys to a successful counterinsurgency campaign is protecting the local population, because it is a precept of which the Taliban are obviously well aware. Attacking such "soft" targets is not some new insurgent tactic either, but is the story of the entire war. In fact, the U.S. troops are the ones that have become the "collateral damage" while the Afghan people bear the brunt of the casualties.

The U.S. has lost 1,788 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001 and, although tragic, it pales in comparison to the number of Afghan civilians killed to date, which a Brown University study estimated to be between 12,000 and 14,000 people.

But U.S. military leaders have never considered these figures to be a reliable reflection of the progress they've made. During his farewell tour in July General Petraeus had the nerve to claim his plan to turn around the war was a success because "compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower." Upon closer inspection the general had been using cherry-picked data that included "enemy initiated attacks" against coalition forces only, while excluding attacks against civilians. When civilians are added to the equation, Petraeus' spin seems especially divorced from reality.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that 1,462 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2011, a 15% increase versus 2010, with May being the deadliest month for Afghan civilians since 2007. Overall, 3,600 civilians were killed or injured during this period -- the highest civilian casualty rate since the war began.

The generals rather trumpet Taliban "body count" racked up via airstrikes, night raids and drone attacks as the preferred litmus, regardless if it alienates Afghans who have been victimized by errant strikes or having their homes invaded in the middle of the night, which is a mindset that undermines the entire COIN philosophy. Counterinsurgency theorist Roger Trinquier once wrote that "the sine qua non of victory in modern warfare is the unconditional support of a population", and being insensitive to local grievances and minimizing the suffering the Afghans have endured is not exactly an ideal way to go about winning hearts and minds.

What I find most shameful about Lujan's piece is the way he chastises "policy wonks, politicos and academics" as being "resigned to failure" who dare question the war's rationale, because this is coming from a man writing on behalf of a military think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is stock full of "policy wonks" -- and one that was founded by Obama cronies to boot.

Never in military history has a counterinsurgency been successful when the host government is despised by the local populace, the enemy enjoys sanctuary in a neighboring country (not to mention a nuclear-armed one), the counterinsurgents lack quality intelligence and civilians incur higher casualties than the military force purported to protect them.

So, forgive us our resignations.

 

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