Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl on the ‘Long War’
The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter
By NATHANIEL FICK and JOHN NAGL
reprinted from NY Times, Feb. 20th, 2011.
IT is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign, but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.
The shift is most obvious on the ground. The additional 30,000 troops promised by President Obama in his speech at West Point 14 months ago are finally in place and changing the trajectory of the fight.
One of us, Nathaniel, recently flew into Camp Leatherneck in a C-130 transport plane, which had to steer clear of fighter bombers stacked for tens of thousands of feet above the Sangin District of Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. Singly and in pairs, the jets swooped low to drop their bombs in support of Marine units advancing north through the Helmand River Valley.
Half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts, with Sangin ranking among the very worst. Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time.
A significant shift of high-tech intelligence resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, initiated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander, is also having benefits. The coalition led by the United States and NATO has been able to capture or kill far more Taliban leaders in nighttime raids than was possible in the past.
The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory, as it learned in Vietnam and Iraq, but it can put enough pressure on many Taliban fighters to encourage them to switch their allegiance, depriving the enemy of support and giving the coalition more sources of useful intelligence.
Afghan Army troop strength has increased remarkably. The sheer scale of the effort at the Kabul Military Training Center has to be seen to be appreciated. Rows of new barracks surround a blue-domed mosque, and live-fire training ranges stretched to the mountains on the horizon.
It was a revelation to watch an Afghan squad, only days from deployment to Paktika Province on the Pakistani border, demonstrate a fire-and-maneuver exercise before jogging over to chat with American visitors. When asked, each soldier said that he had joined the Army to serve Afghanistan. Most encouraging of all was the response to a question that resonates with 18- and 19-year-old soldiers everywhere: how does your mother feel? “Proud.”
These changes on the ground have been reinforced by progress on three strategic and political problems that have long stymied our plans.
The first is uncertainty about how long America and its allies will remain committed to the fight. The question is still open, but President Obama and the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have effectively moved the planned troop withdrawal date from July 2011 to at least 2014, with surprisingly little objection. Congress and the American public seem to have digested without a murmur the news that far fewer troops will be withdrawn in 2011 than will remain. NATO is not collapsing because of Afghanistan. In fact, the International Security Assistance Force continues to grow, with one-quarter of the world’s countries on the ground in Afghanistan with the United States.
Two more vexing problems are the corruption of the Afghan government and the complicity of some Pakistanis with the insurgency. While it is safe to assume that neither the Afghan nor Pakistani leaders will fundamentally alter their policies any time soon, we are changing ours. Previously, our policy options with Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari were limited to public hectoring and private pleading, usually to little effect.
Now, however, the coalition’s military and civilian leaders are taking a new approach to the Afghan and Pakistani governments. We are establishing a task force to investigate and expose corruption in the Afghan government, under the leadership of Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster. We are also shoring up the parts of the border that the Taliban uses by thickening the line with Afghan forces, putting up more drones and coordinating more closely with Pakistani border guards.
Not since the deterioration in conditions in Iraq that drew our attention away from Afghanistan have coalition forces been in such a strong position to force the enemy to the negotiating table. We should hold fast and work for the day when Afghanistan, and our vital interests there, can be safeguarded primarily by Afghans.
That day is coming, faster than many Americans think.
Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain, is the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. John Nagl, a former Army lieutenant colonel, is the president of the center.