We say we're training and equipping the Afghans to fight the Taliban - but are we? And are we showing them how to wage the war successfully, or how to screw it up?
An article in the May 30 New York Times by Dexter Filkins, "Taliban Push Afghan Police Out of Valley," offers a glimpse into the first question. How were the Taliban able to push out the Afghan police? The Afghan police ran out of ammo. Ran out of ammo! Doesn't sound as though we've equipped them quite well enough. And there have been many other accounts of the shortcomings of the equipment the U.S. is supplying to the Afghans - old rifles, outdated ammo. We're not giving them the good stuff, so they can't match the firepower of the better-equipped Taliban, who seem to have an endless supply of Kalashnikovs, the world standard foot-soldier weapon. The Afghan soldiers and police can see what the U.S. and NATO forces are using in the field, and must be wondering why they, the Afghans, are not similarly equipped.
Then we have strategy and tactics to consider. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who has survived six embeds with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, offers a fascinating slice of insight into the way the counterinsurgency is being conducted. She quotes West Point military history prof Colonel Gian Gentile as saying that the U.S. military and Afghan president Hamid Karzai are both employing "a strategy of tactics" - meaning that they are making it up as they go along, at ground level. General David Petraeus's much ballyhooed Counterinsurgency Field Manual calls for small military units to embed with local populations, protecting them while helping build a sound local infrastructure and healthy economy. Problem is, Ms. Marlowe observes, is that early successes of this strategy die quickly, and one of the main reasons is the failure of the Karzai government. Counterinsurgency, she writes, "...tells you how to persuade the population to embrace a good government, but it can't make a government acceptable to the people." The Karzai government's acceptability has diminished sharply over the past several years. Provincial and local governments have little faith that Kabul will help in a pinch.
Still on the question of tactics, consider the drone strikes. As reported in the May 29 New York Times, in February Predator drone operators, sitting at computer monitors in Nevada, spotted a three-vehicle convoy, a pickup truck and two SUVs, and tracked it for over three hours, apparently without noticing that there were women and children in the vehicles. A few miles away, an American special ops team was tracking a group of insurgents. The little convoy was headed roughly in their direction, and the drone operators, non-combat soldiers playing what is essentially a video game thousands of miles from the action, seemed to believe that the vehicles held reinforcements for the insurgents. The drone operators ignored the warnings of other intelligence analysts who were watching the live video from the drone that there were children in the vehicles, and called for an air strike. Hellfire missiles fired from a helicopter destroyed all three vehicles and killed twenty-three people - women, children, and innocent civilian men. An investigation found the drone operators "inaccurate and unprofessional." That doesn't begin to cover it.
Other Predator drones, operated by the CIA, are targeting Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Their strikes, too, often cause "collateral damage" - the deaths of innocents - and also damage to Pakistan's government for allowing foreign forces to operate in its sovereign territory.
Tactics we see. Strategy we don't see. Nor do we see a way out, or forward.
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