On June 22, President Obama announced a decision that only a civilian politician could make. He evaluated the war effort in Afghanistan in terms of its political cost, and decided that the effort had to be scaled back. This decision to reduce the level of effort was made over the advice of the senior commanders tasked with running the Afghan war. Obama has thus obliged his generals to reorient their thinking about how to achieve the war aims, and perhaps to trim expectations, to meet the resources that will be provided. Obama has told the generals: find another way.
This decision by Obama has been received calmly on the home front. Generals are paid to fight wars the best way they know how, not make policy judgments about when the country, or the administration, has had enough. The U.S. military mind-set is to solve problems quickly and decisively through a massive and intense application of force and resources. General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864-65 is instructive on this point. Presidents, on the other hand, are paid to take a broader view, and make decisions for the country as a whole.
A guerrilla war, like that in Afghanistan, does not yield to a traditional military approach. Guerrilla wars are like marathons, not sprints. Sprinting too early in a marathon brings the runner to the point of collapse before the finish line is reached. The consequences of treating a marathon as a sprint were seen in Iraq, when some of America's smaller allies became militarily exhausted by 2007, and their drawdown was held as evidence of defeat and abandonment of the effort.
In my tour on behalf of The Buffalo News late last year of Paktika province while embedded in Task Force Currahee of the 101st Airborne Division, I saw too many of the wrong kind of soldiers. Dozens of airborne infantry were driving around in massive, armored ATVs doing one or two cordon-and-search operations per week trying to snag an unlucky Taliban or two. This was not a war-winning strategy, but that was how these soldiers were employed.
What were lacking were Special Forces, intelligence specialists, engineers and accountants. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) I saw were at least as militarily capable as the Taliban were, and what they needed was adult supervision. For that, far fewer forces are required than provided by entire brigades of infantry.
It is a mistake to believe that Afghanistan can be turned into some kind of liberal democracy that is governed from Kabul. That is culturally and physically impossible. This large country is desperately lacking in infrastructure and communications, like good roads. It is poor, and the level of literacy among the people is low. It is riven by tribal loyalties. Corruption is endemic, widespread and the depth of it hard to comprehend without experiencing it first-hand. If there is a difference between the Taliban and the regular Afghan, it is in the degree to which one is ready to sell out his brethren: a slender advantage to the Taliban. This is the main weakness of the Kabul government: the people cannot trust each other.
In his memoir titled "Known and Unknown," former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld observed that since its founding in 1747, the "ribs of government" in Afghanistan were the tribes. Understanding this is key to understanding what can and cannot be achieved in that country. Nothing ordered from Kabul will happen outside of the largest cities unless tribal leaders go along with it. Not even the power and capability of the U.S. military can force the writ of Kabul to run where the tribes are opposed.
Rumsfeld went on to say, "I was convinced that [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai needed to learn to govern the Chicago way -- using maneuver, guile, money, patronage and services -- to keep fractious leaders from rebelling against authority."
Weakening the grip of the Taliban will open the tribes to Kabul, but it will not necessarily follow that, given a free choice, they will cooperate with the central government, which historically has been corrupt and exploitative. Thus the dream of a well-organized central government in Kabul bringing progress to the hinterland, where most of the people live, is illusory.
The true aim of the Western effort in Afghanistan is to keep the Taliban out of power. If, after Obama's decision, American airborne infantry are not going to carry that burden on their shoulders, how can it be achieved?
The "Taliban" that American soldiers encounter in the field can be divided into two types: the hard-core and the enabler. There are few hard-core Taliban. The highest number I was quoted in Paktika province, by the executive officer of Task Force Currahee, was between 300 and 500, against which were arrayed a brigade of airborne infantry as well as the ANA and the ANP forces.
The enablers are those who -- for money, local prestige or out of fear -- will occasionally plant improvised explosive devices, participate in intimidating tribal elders or take pot-shots at ISAF or Afghan forces, like a local militia. Without the assistance and coordination of the hard-core, the enablers collapse, and revert to being the mere country tribesmen and shepherds they usually are.
Identifying, locating and getting the hard-core Taliban is best achieved by intelligence operators and Special Forces working hand in hand. Attacks by drone aircraft are also feared in the countryside. Conventional military forces provide a structure within which intelligence and Special Forces function, and a drawdown means that targeted efforts against the hard-core will be restricted to the more strategic areas.
If a surge is needed in Afghanistan, it is with accountants and military engineers instead of airborne infantry. Accountants are needed to bring a sense of honesty and accountability to the allocation of resources. Between 2002 and 2010, the United States, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a total of $18.8 billion in aid to Afghanistan, a country with a per capita GDP of $900, a 35 percent unemployment rate and a government budget of $3.3 billion in expenditure. To look at Kabul, a giant Third World slum, you have to wonder where all the money went.
Military engineers are needed to make sure that money allocated for road construction is spent on road construction, not bribes.
The ANA and the ANP are a match for the Taliban, up to a point. I met Brig. Gen. Dowlat Khan, chief of police in Paktika province, and "Switched-on ANA Dude" of Forward Operating Base Kushamond. (The head of the ANA force has had three different aliases because of the number of times he had to move his family due to death threats from the Taliban.) But there are not enough good leaders in the ANA and the ANP like these men to overcome the weakness and corruption. Good, but isolated, leadership tends to get betrayed to the Taliban. This is where adult supervision by Western forces comes in. Disciplined Western forces can provide the stiffening that the ANA and the ANP need to keep on top of the Taliban.
Obama made the decision to start drawing down American forces in Afghanistan against the advice of his generals. This decision is political, and is fairly based upon the cost of continuing the war as the generals advise compared with the cost Obama judges the effort to be worth to America. It is easy for those not in responsible office to condemn the decision.
However, there are good reasons for believing that an adjusted effort can still meet American security needs. We are just going through the motions trying to build up a Western-style government in Kabul. The true aim in Afghanistan is to keep the Taliban out of power, and the ANA and the ANP, with Western stiffening, are able to keep them at bay. So long as their morale does not collapse.
Vincent J. Curtis is a freelance writer on military affairs who has corresponded for The Buffalo News from Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and, most recently, Afghanistan.