Soon to be blogging from Afghanistan
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is off to Russia, to plead for a new supply route to Afghanistan. Then he will drop in on Europe, to plead for more European troops for Afghanistan. But I'm still mulling over what happened three days ago. That's when President Obama ordered 17,000 additional Marines and Army troops for the flagging Afghanistan War.
Are we throwing good troops into a war that has gone bad? Are we again ignoring history -- our fiasco in Vietnam, the Soviet's disaster in Afghanistan, that "cakewalk" in Iraq -- while escalating our national commitment to a country the world calls "the graveyard of empires?" Is American hubris once again swamping practical reason? Wait! I might be getting carried away.
We are being told through a chain of leaks and whispers from the White House and the Pentagon, reported now nearly daily in the press, that the Obama War in Afghanistan will be fought very differently from the failed Bush War. The Obama administration's ongoing strategy review promises nothing less than to refocus the mission of our troops. That means goodbye to American cowboys blasting away and hello to counterinsurgency's softer power. The emphasis on killing the Taliban will be diminished, while the effort to protect the Afghan people will be increased. Once Afghans are no longer squeezed by insurgents and troops, they will withdraw their support for the Taliban, which will then wither and die.
Sounds great, right? But can it happen?
In Iraq, General David Petraeus' troop "surge" ushered in Combat Outposts (COPs) and Joint Security Stations (JSSs), small compounds in Iraqi villages and neighborhoods. Instead of US and Iraqi troops having limited contact with locals, mostly when patrolling or when conducting a combat operation, the troops began living in the villages and neighborhoods. No more running back to the base for dinner. Moving troops close to the people, when combined with a heavy infusion of money to induce Sunni insurgents to switch sides and pots of gold to keep tribal leaders smiling, reduced the violence in Iraq. Well, for now anyway.
More important than the number of troops, then, is what these troops are doing. And what Obama wants the troops to do is different from what Bush had them do. Only time will tell how much different.
The second part of Obama's emerging strategy is to channel more resources into training the Afghan National Army and the National Police. The Bush strategy did not prioritize training and mentoring the embryonic security forces, rather killing "the bad guys." Yet, it will be Afghan forces, not foreign troops, which will ultimately defeat the Taliban, if they are defeated; will (with economic development) establish lasting security in Afghanistan, if there is to be lasting security. Europeans consider this sensible, and may very well contribute more troops to train the Afghans.
Finally, the new Obama strategy will attempt to facilitate the development of local militias. Whereas tribal leaders were crucial for establishing militias in Iraq, warlords will be needed to create militias in Afghanistan. (There is a difference between tribal heads and warlords, but not always that much.) This part of the Obama plan is controversial, especially in Kabul, and in Europe, but also in America. After all, who will control these militias? Can they be controlled? Will they crossover and turn against the national government? Yes, this is risky.
That is an outline of the administration's developing military strategy -- protect the populace more than kill the insurgents, highlight the training of the Afghanistan army and police, and create local militias. These are the means, but what is the goal? Forget George Bush's fantasy of a Western democracy on the road to Shangri-La. Barack Obama will settle for simply more security, allowing for a measure of economic development. Without improved security there cannot be any development. And the country will remain a potential launching pad to again attack this country.
What concerns me is not this "minimum goal," which seems reasonable, and clearly is not blind to the frequent mishaps recorded in history. But what happens if even this downsized goal is not achieved? Will these 17,000 US troops be followed by another 17,000 and then another.... Sending troops to a hopeful war, even one not going well, is always easier than extracting troops from a failed war.
So I'm headed for Afghanistan, where I will blog on this transition from Bush's War to Obama's War. Where I will report on whether the new military strategy is being implemented in-country, rather than only discussed in Washington. Where I will attempt to determine if the Afghanistan War is going merely badly or is now a hopelessly failed war.
First, I will embed with US soldiers training Afghan troops in the rugged mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, near Parachinar where many believe Osama bin Laden is hiding. Then I will travel to the desert south, to Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand and Farah provinces, and report on the activities of the US Marines there. Then I will embed with US Special Operations forces, writing about their work, which is very seldom written about. Finally, when Obama's 17,000 new troops arrive in Afghanistan this spring, I will write about their arrival.
And I want to write about Afghans, those I run into on my travels, and those I purposely seek out. I will blog about their lives, report their thoughts on the war, on the strengthening of the Taliban, on....
And I want to write about subjects you want me to write about. So please, help guide me by commenting on what topics I should investigate. I'm all ears, even as I begin to pack my bags for "the graveyard of empires."