I've been gone for almost a month in Moscow and Stockholm, and am just beginning to catch up on what's happened in Afghanistan since my departure. Back in April, I posted "Afghanistan: We Can't Win On the Cheap, But We Can't Afford to Lose". The point I was making at that time is that we seemed to be wasting an awful lot of money in Afghanistan, while not making much headway. IEDs still cause more deaths and injuries to NATO troops than any other weapon.
Based on information from Defense Insider and quotes from Lt. General Michael Oates, Director of JIEDDO (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization), I wrote that even though IEDs in Afghanistan were primitive compared to those used in Iraq, JIEDDO planned to spend an additional $1 to $2 billion to defend against them, so, I continued:
"If I read this correctly, it means that in Afghanistan we can't use the same anti-IED weapons we used in Iraq because the Afghan IEDs are less sophisticated than the Iraqi ones, and we will have to spend close to $2 billion dollars to fix the problem. I don't get it, what kind of a war are we fighting here where our equipment is so specialized that we have to change it when the enemy substitutes primitive equipment for more advanced weaponry?"
Well, I didn't read it correctly.
General Oates called me just before I left and explained it to me. On the phone, he seemed extremely smart, straightforward and patient. First of all, he let me know that Hurt Locker style deactivation was nowhere near the whole story. He suggested that the first step was convincing the native population to alert NATO troops when they witnessed the planting of IEDs. Secondly, and perhaps most expensively, constant surveillance of roads by fixed cameras, airplanes or unmanned aircraft was required. On top of that, Afghanistan is twice as large as Iraq, and much more surveillance is necessary. That means more cameras, more planes, and more drones -- so it is going to take more time and a lot more money. Regardless of the costs, I still believe, we can't afford to walk away from Afghanistan.
Upon my return, I read in the Times of "a near-doubling of roadside bombings for the first four months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009." JIEDDO is a brand-new organization, and certainly isn't to be blamed for the increase in IEDs, but it certainly makes clear to us just how dangerous that weapon is. Additionally, the number of suicide bombings has, again according to the Times, "tripled...'Insurgents followed up their threats against the civilization population with, an average, seven assassinations every week..." This was attributed to the "growing capability of the local terrorist networks linked to al Qaeda..." Not much good news there, either.
Finally, on Tuesday, Rolling Stone savages The Runaway General, Stanly McChrystal, Commander of Afghanistan Forces, as a power-grabbing control freak who has through his "usurpation of diplomatic policy" has now become the chief handler of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. But, even after ten trips with Karzai all around Afghanistan, McChrystal could not get Karzai "to sign off on what would be the largest military operation of the year." For months, General McChrystal "had been planning to launch a major military operation this summer in Kandahar... It was supposed to be a decisive turning point in the war... But on June 10th, acknowledging that the military still needs to lay new groundwork, the General announced that he is postponing the offensive until this fall."
(Rolling Stone writer, Michael Hastings, traveled with the General for a month and was privy to many private meetings, private conversations, and even a few private celebrations. It seems likely that General McChrystal never saw Almost Famous. Rock bands learned not to allow Rolling Stone on the bus.)
Even with all this, the IEDs, al Qaeda and the suicide bombers and the revelation of General McChrystal's character deficiencies, I still think we have to stick it out in Afghanistan. I have no suggestions about how we're going to "win" the war, or if winning is even possible. But I know that the United States cannot tolerate the return of Osama Bin laden to a sanctuary in Afghanistan, or a takeover of Pakistan by the Pashtun Taliban, who control much of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, and if the thought of a nuclear Iran scares you, think of what it would be like with a nuclear Taliban.