You could say that we began going wobbly over Afghanistan in March, when the much-heralded new strategy embodied the best nation-building aspirations, but did not quite add up to a renewed declaration of war. There are good reasons too. It is a huge leap from calculating how much we can afford to lose to trying to decide seriously what it will take to win. The McChrystal 60-Day Assessment with its determination to protect the population is as solid as strategy-making can get under the circumstances. George Will framed the right side of the counter-argument with his counter-terrorism op-ed in the Washington Post. And the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who has been down here trying hard to get the story right, discovered the right critique: go all the way or none of the way, but not half-way. Clausewitz would understand. The debate is really about the value of the object, about US not THEM. And in this realm — wild Afghanistan — as public tolerance for seeing more soldiers die decreases by ones and twos while our ambitions promise so much, the Taliban, with their totalitarian version of Islamism and no shortage of jihadi recruits to lose, simply show no sign of losing their nerve.
On the ground in Kandahar, at the epicenter of the insurgency, cynicism is skepticism’s temptation. The Afghans are perfectly aware that the next phase of their future is being decided in Washington. Most of them still welcome the American-led anchor in the sand. But reality and survival demand wariness, under the cruel risk that the international counterinsurgency presence could give way to civil war that inevitably would begin again. Sadly, corruption badly tarnished the August 20 elections, especially here in the South, where it was the Taliban who stole the first round on the strength of their intimidation campaign that kept turnout below 10% in many locations. To get the 30 km between our base at Kandahar Air Field and Kandahar City is a combat patrol, and Taliban Night Letters appear on regularly on mosque doors. Last month in the provincial capital, a suicide truck bomb took out an entire city block.
The Stryker Brigade Combat Team I ride with is the best football team we ever sent in to play baseball. They truly are the Army’s premier soldiers, led by the most tried and true 6’5″, 230 lb, African-American warrior you would ever want to have on your side in a fight with another country. But Kandahar isn’t Moscow or even Mosul, it’s Chinatown. They are busy learning this different game, but for eight years we’ve been wandering and stomping around in this first war of the 21st Century, which also happens to be the last war of the Cold War. This business about what it really means to the Afghans when we say we are here to stay came home to me the other day at a village shura where we delivered the message. The room was filled with grizzled Pashtun leaders, former mujaheddin, opium farmers, Taliban sympathizers, and not a Noble Savage among them, but all wise and experienced enough to welcome our power. Then one elder stood up and said what they all knew, though none of us did: “You were here before and said the same thing, but in 2003 you left.” No one had to mention, “…for Iraq.”
OK, the Q is as always: What is to be done? “I don’t know” is the only authentic answer, and yes, if we don’t give it our best try the dilemma will get worse. If I could dial back, I would clear this elephant herd of a coalition right out of Afghanistan, strip down to a few thousand Special Forces, form village defense groups, and train the hell out of the Afghan Army until they could stand on their own. It is too late for that now, certainly too late for any magical surge, but maybe, but just maybe not too late to find enough of a muddle through to keep the forces of darkness from swarming back across the border.