Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Read C.J. Chivers on Afghanistan

I finally got around to reading C.J. Chivers' excellent article in Esquire about a 40-hour patrol along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I know I should have read it earlier, since he authored the series of articles for the New York Times earlier this year that almost redeemed the concept of embedding reporters with military units. I recommend reading the whole thing, since he interweaves a story about one group of soldiers with observations that illustrate the challenges facing us in Afghanistan.
He discusses the four primary missions troops may be undertaking in Afghanistan: "It is hunting for, and hoping to capture or kill, the top-tier Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and their coteries.... [W]orking with foreign governments, non government organizations, and American agencies to build a nation where ten years ago a nation existed principally in name....creat[ing] foundations for indigenous security," and fighting insurgents. All of these are tactics, and what we desperately need in Afghanistan is an end goal and a strategy to get there. "The problem with the United States' multiple missions is not that any of them is without merit, although each has had its mix-ups and flaws. The problem lies in the relationship of missions to one another."
Go read the whole article, but I think these few longer quotes stand ably on their own.
It is easier to be descriptive in Afghanistan than prescriptive, though there is no shortage of thoughtful voices prescribing solutions: more soft-shoe counterinsurgency tactics, more conventional troops to provide security (read: show up and fight) in areas where there is little security now, more troops to train and mentor Afghan soldiers and cops, more soldiers on the Afghan — Pakistan border to plug infiltration routes, more political engagement and security collaboration with Pakistan. Some advice is interlocking and neat and aligns with the invigorated war effort being pursued by the United States. Other advice is contradictory: The United States should conduct fewer Predator and Reaper strikes against insurgent leadership in Pakistan, or maybe it should conduct more. The United States should eradicate poppy fields, or perhaps it should encourage putting the crop to legal medicinal use. And some advice points to options that are easy to imagine but hard to execute, both politically and practically, including deciding which insurgents can be negotiated with and how....
The insurgency in the valley is on one level remarkably simple, though complicated by several factors. The simple distillation is that it is a revolt against outsiders that has been fueled by economic grievances. Most of the fighters are local Korangalis, and many have been displaced from work by the American-backed Afghan government, which banned most logging. Company B's outpost is on the grounds of the sawmill that Haji Matin had been dispossessed of — a symbol of jobs lost by loggers and mill workers and truck drivers and everyone else who lived off harvesting the forests in which Company B now sat. Later, as the war here escalated, Haji Matin's house was destroyed by an air strike, which extinguished hopes that he might be peacefully convinced to set aside his guns. Instead, Haji Matin and the displaced workers fight. Lieutenant Colonel Brett Jenkinson, Captain Howell's intense battalion commander, had summed up an underlying dynamic: The insurgency drew manpower from a pool of jobless laborers to create a guerrilla force without many other ways to eat....
Even among those with experience on the ground, the military, institutionally, has yet to resolve a central question faced by democracies fighting counterinsurgency war: how to balance the practical role of violence (raw, deliberate, and unblinking) against the constant risk that the same violence (raw, accidental, and reduced to euphemism) will miss its mark and erode support from civilians caught between competing sides.

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