Afghanistan's Military Challenges Vexing After a Decade of War

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The Obama Administration’s Thursday assessment of its Afghan policy is a classic of the genre: it suggests progress while delaying decisions, offers few data points, and tops it off by blaming a reluctant ally — in this case, Pakistan — as the root of the problem because of the “safe haven” it provides Taliban fighters. Nonetheless, success, erratic as it may be, is happening. “The military progress made in just the past three to four months, since the last of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrived, has exceeded my expectations,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the White House.

U.S. troops in Kandahar Dec. 5 / DoD photo

But beyond the bright lights of the presidential podium, where President Obama, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailed progress being made in the 10th year of the conflict, military officers were detailing some of the fundamental, and continuing, problems they face. They range from rampant illiteracy to citizens so shattered by 30 years of war they remain incapable of doing what the U.S. sees is in their own best interests.

“Notable operational gains” are being made in quelling violence, especially in southern Afghanistan, an unclassified five-page summary of the review said. “Most important, al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001.” But problems in the northern party of the country, and in beating back the Taliban, persist.

Over the past four months, U.S. and allied reinforcements around the Pashtun stronghold in Kandahar have “resulted in some pretty dramatic changes here,” Army Col. Jeffrey Martindale, a brigade commander in the southern Afghan city, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. But Martindale made clear that when his 3,500-strong unit pulls out next summer it will be replaced by one of the same size. “There is no plan for any thinning, at least of my replacement brigade,” Martindale, commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Combat Brigade, said via a video hookup. There White House assessment contained no estimate of how many troops might be pulled out of Afghanistan next summer, when Obama has said he wants to begin shrinking the U.S. presence there.

A gloomier assessment of Afghanistan’s future comes in a new report from the Center for a New American Security that says the result of the $336 billion the U.S. will have spent there by next summer is “deeply disappointing.” David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and commander in Afghanistan, and Andrew Exum, a one-time Army Ranger, conclude that “no immediate solution to the war in Afghanistan is likely.” But they say a continuing presence of up to 35,000 troops — 25 percent of the 140,000 U.S. and allied troops there now — is critical. This smaller force will trade manpower-intensive counter-insurgency operations — where protection of local citizens is paramount — in favor of hunting down and killing the Taliban and their supporters.

The get-out-of-Afghanistan card for the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops now there requires training sufficient Afghan army and police to take their place. The U.S. is trying to build an Afghan security force 305,000 strong (171,000 troops, 134,000 police) by next October. Currently, they’re up to 250,000, including 146,000 soldiers and 115,000 cops. U.S. taxpayers are spending $10 billion to outfit these Afghan forces with 400,000 weapons, 175,000 radios, 80,000 vehicles and 146 aircraft. Ultimately, it will cost $6 billion a year to keep this gear up and running. Army Col. John Ferrari, a top trainer of the Afghan forces, said Thursday that the investment, relatively speaking, is a bargain. “The U.S. government spends about $8 billion per month maintaining 98,000 troops here in Afghanistan,” he said. “So the $6 billion per year is a very good return.”

He was unable to detail the combat losses the Afghans are experiencing. “We know that they actually damage more of their vehicles in accidents than they do, for example, through IEDs,” he said. Afghanistan’s tortured history makes keeping track of wrecked hardware difficult. “Their literacy rate is not high, and so their ability to report back up what’s been damaged or destroyed is challenging, at best,” Ferrari said.

And, as a legacy of war, they don’t like to relinquish anything, even with the promise that it will be replaced. “They have a culture of hoarding, and so if they have a vehicle that’s destroyed, it’s really not in their culture to turn it in,” he said. “After 30 years of being traumatized, they hoard, and so they hold on to their damaged vehicles, figuring that it’s better to have a damaged vehicle than no vehicle.”

The sanctuary that Pakistan offers Afghan fighters remains the key stumbling block, according to the Administration’s assessment. “We do have to work together with the Pakistanis to diminish that over time,” Michelle Flournoy, the Pentagon policy chief, said Thursday afternoon. Martindale says Pakistan is a problem for him and his troops around Kandahar. “We do know that the leadership for the Taliban that are operating within my area are directed from leadership that are in Pakistan,” he said. “We know that some of the leaders now have gone back and they have sanctuary there.”

While Martindale said his forces target them when “they come into our areas,” he said they flee into Pakistan if the pressure becomes too intense. And then he expressed a military officer’s frustration with things affecting his battlefield that are beyond his control. “The solution to that problem really is not for me to answer,” he said. “There’s sanctuary there, and we have international-level dynamics that probably prevent us from going in and eliminating that sanctuary at this time.