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The Clock Is Ticking for Afghanistan

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Kabul, Afghanistan - Everything takes twice as long in Afghanistan. Security concerns, infrastructure disruptions, cultural sluggishness, epidemic corruption all converge to make life extremely cautious and the pace excruciating slow. So, what I promised to do in two weeks, write a follow-up blog, has taken me four weeks. I blame it on the war and on Afghans.

In my last blog, "What I Learned In Afghanistan," I wrote that the evolving Obama Administration's strategy was changing the central mission of U.S. troops from killing the enemy to training the troops. Having been in Afghanistan for two months, I wrote that "I'm more optimistic than when I left my home in New York." Then I ran out of gas and didn't explain why I was more optimistic.

Nothing has changed for me, except I have been in Afghanistan for three months. I still believe that the U.S. is turning a major corner in understanding how to use its power in the world. Not everyone, of course, but many, including many in our government and the military are finally realizing guns and bombs are of limited utility in winning modern wars.

When I wrote my earlier blog, I had already spent time with a Marine Embedded Training Team working with an Afghan Army unit, and U.S. infantry troops training Afghan National Policemen. In the last month, I have embedded with a Marine Special Operations unit and with US Air Force mentors of the Afghan Air Corps, this country's air force.

Although encouraged by what I have witnessed, everything is certainly not peachy in the U.S. embedded world. I learned that young Americans make lousy mentors, and can do more damage than good. Most of them don't grasp what I call the "essential 3 P's" for mentoring and training: patience, presence, and persistence. Yet, Marines and soldiers and airmen and airwomen with some maturity, who have been screened and given specialized training are generally excellent mentors and advisers. Watching them up close is what made me optimistic, cautiously optimistic that Afghanistan will not turn out to be another Vietnam.

The Historical Failure

In Vietnam, the U.S. military attempted to counter guerrilla tactics with traditional military tactics and after failing the North Vietnamese rolled over South Vietnam. End of story. Well, not really. The collapse of South Vietnam shook the American mind hard, and vibrations are still being felt today.

The old American arrogance has receded -- regardless of the Neocons recent stranglehold on U.S. reign policy -- and new ideas have crawled into prominence. Slowly, incrementally, reluctantly, haltingly a different thinking on how to fight modern wars has gained acceptance. These new ideas existed in Vietnam, but General Westmoreland ran the show, and he adhered to the old thinking rooted in World War II. But in Afghanistan, much of the U.S. military understands 3rd World illiterate peasants attired in Western-looking pajamas and subsisting on rice and mud cakes can be one formidable opponent. Not the least because the rag-tags have a solid, tested strategy for modern warfare.

So the Taliban engages in asymmetrical warfare using well-proven guerrilla tactics. They prick the weak spots of the U.S. military leviathan, placing bombs on roads and concealing themselves in rugged terrain to ambush. They slip away and melt into sympathetic populations, denying U.S. firepower easy targets, or deceiving the handlers of U.S. firepower to blow away civilians. The insurgents control the pace of the war, ensuring they do not lose and therefore the war continues until the American public becomes disheartened. This has become a well known movie on the world stage.

Their game plan, however, should not be called irregular warfare, or unconventional warfare. Because today this type of war is rather regular -- especially against the U.S. military with its vastly superior firepower and humongous advantage in war-fighting technology. In terms of traditional military power, the U.S. military is in a category by itself. Those who challenge it, then, avoid frontal attacks. They use concealment to evade and to surprise, and are quick to negate the lethal power of the U.S. leviathan. From Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Central Asia this strategy has been used effectively. But first, and most effectively, it was used in Vietnam.

A Hopeful Future?

In Afghanistan, the World War II movie is dead. In fact, last week on a U.S. military base near Kabul they showed MASH, a movie that used the forgotten Korean War to show the absurdity of the killing in the Vietnam War. Many of the Marines here talk about their fathers and uncles fighting in Vietnam, but they never mention the defeat. But you hear "defeat" in what they don't say. For them World War II is ancient history. And, it seems, the World War II and Vietnam doctrine that put a premium on killing the enemy.

The U.S. military has never been so serious about what it calls "the full-spectrum of counterinsurgency," and never has the emphasis been so heavily tilted toward the non-kinetic, mentoring and training local security forces. Yes, the U.S. is providing services to villagers; a few of our construction projects somehow avoid channeling all the funds into foreign bank accounts; we're winning a few "hearts and minds," but never enough to win this war. The US military has never been good at winning the hearts and minds of villagers. The core of this new strategy, which is not new except to the degree it's being implemented, is training and equipping the Afghan military and police.

Of course the killing continues -- in fact, Taliban attacks and U.S. combat operations are on the rise, and the number of deaths. But the central focus for the U.S. military now is "Afghanization" of the war. The exit strategy is not winning the war but the Afghans winning the war. If the U.S. military and NATO troops are successful in bringing a degree of peace and prosperity to Afghanistan, this will become the West's new model for these types of wars.

Yet, journalists remain mostly clueless , which is not unusual of course. They rush from battlefield to battlefield -- from the Korengal Valley in the east to the Helmand desert down south to the Warkad mountains outside of Kabul -- hardly covering the more important battle. They don't understand the frontline has moved from the shooting war to the training war, the strategy has shifted from focusing on killing the insurgents to training the Afghan security forces.

But will this new strategy work? I don't know. I do know the clock is ticking, and ticking fast. We're already eight years into this war. Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- following the lead of Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense -- has been saying there must be solid signs of progress that this new strategy to strengthen Afghan security forces is working. And he even gives a timetable. In 12 to 18 months!

"This problem will not be over in 18 months. This problem will not be over in two years. This is a long-term commitment that we are involved in Afghanistan, if we are to ultimately be successful.... I think what we are saying, simply, is that we think that the strategy needs to show some signs that it's working, not that it has been totally successful a year or 18 months from now."

But the US and NATO are poorly organized. The Afghan government remains corrupt, the economy is dismal except for the drug economy, the Taliban knows time is on its side, so it will slow everything down. And the Afghan security forces are under-trained, under-financed, and under-equipped. Finally, the Afghan people are cynical and don't believe foreigners will do anything good for their country. This won't be easy, then.

And everything runs excruciatingly slow in Afghanistan. But the political clock in America is ticking faster and faster. The 2012 presidential campaign is speeding toward us ... the Republicans are preparing to tear into "Barack Obama's failed Afghanistan War" ... the Democrats are starting to scream we "must leave."

Suddenly, I'm somewhat less optimistic. After all, everything in Afghanistan takes twice as long. Except the bad.