There is an old adage about infantry officers: "Frequently wrong but never in doubt." It suggests a self-deprecating willingness to forge ahead with can-do verve under less-than-ideal conditions. A retired general brought it up during a briefing last month on his recent trip to Afghanistan, as he recalled the enthusiasm with which U.S. troops are gamely trying to fix the country.
The problem, both Pentagon officials and troops themselves agree, is that their efforts aren't enough. Overstretched military forces coupled with too few diplomats and economic development experts and a corrupt government in a desperately poor country have led to disheartening deterioration in Afghanistan. U.S. troop deaths are at their highest level since the war began. More than 130 have been killed this year, with the monthly toll for forces throughout the country now exceeding that in Iraq. Roadside bombings are up some 40 percent over last year. And an increasingly capable Taliban—with new high-tech, all-weather camping gear and strict orders not to punish villagers for supposed Islamic infractions such as listening to music—is growing stronger.
The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, has made unusually public appeals for 15,000 more troops "as quickly as possible" to bolster the current 33,000 U.S. troops on the ground. But he may have to tread water for some time: While he's been promised some 5,700 more by January, the Pentagon doesn't have additional troops to send until spring or summer of 2009, when drawdowns in Iraq are expected. In the meantime, McKiernan warns, Afghanistan "might get worse before it gets better."
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama favor sending more forces. Obama advocates redirecting American troops otherwise planned for Iraq, while McCain has been less specific about how to balance the manpower demands of the two conflicts on the strained U.S. military. Both candidates have vowed to rout al Qaeda terrorists in western Pakistan; that's the area "where the greatest threat to the homeland lies," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress last month.
Around Washington, there is talk of applying some of the counterinsurgency lessons of Iraq to Afghanistan. By that, most mean a military "surge" and the possibility of an "Awakening"-style movement modeled on the Iraqi program in which the U.S. military has been paying Sunni insurgents to stop fighting American troops and work with them instead.
But there are considerable dangers in drawing too many parallels between America's two wars, U.S. military officials warn. At the Pentagon and in the operation centers of Kabul, U.S. officials note that Iraq and Afghanistan bear little fundamental resemblance to each other. Afghanistan, they add, is the more complicated conflict. "A far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq," is how McKiernan describes it.
This is the case in no small part because Afghanistan covers an area 50 percent larger than Iraq but has no tradition of strong central government and a more intricate network of tribes and ethnicities. The most harrowing difference, however, is that in contrast to Iraq's vast oil reserves and its mostly literate, cable TV-viewing population, Afghanistan is desperately poor and uneducated. "This is one of the most miserable places on the face of the Earth," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a West Point professor who travels frequently to the region.
These factors make America's Afghanistan involvement a daunting undertaking. "We could, to some extent, buy ourselves out of our problems in Iraq. We can't do that in Afghanistan," says one senior U.S. official, who adds that he was "always convinced" that America could win in Iraq. In Afghanistan, he says, "I'm not so sure."
America is clearly not winning there at the moment. That's the judgment offered by the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, during congressional testimony last month. And an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate will "present a fairly grim assessment" of the war as it stands in Afghanistan, one that makes it clear that "we're pretty concerned about where we're going," according to a senior Pentagon official.
No winter lull. What's more, fighting may not let up this winter, traditionally a time when Afghan insurgents regroup as snow blocks their supply routes through mountain passes. U.S. forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, have found hidden caches of sleeping bags and winter coats. "There is always the question, are they [Taliban] strong enough, are they winning over tribes enough, that they can stay through the winter and start next year much stronger?" says a senior military official in Afghanistan. "The reporting is that there is some intent to do that."
If the Taliban doesn't take time out to regroup, it means U.S. forces won't get a breather, either. This lends a sense of urgency to new strategic reviews of the war currently underway at both the White House and the Pentagon. Military officials note that these reviews need to revisit some very basic matters: "The first-order question is, 'What are we trying to do in Afghanistan?'" says Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine officer who is now a fellow at the Center for New American Security. He says he has spoken with senior officials who share his view that "there doesn't seem to be a strategic end state that every player agrees upon." Pentagon officials respond that the main goal is "to get at the extremist threat and eliminate it." That said, one adds, "we recognize that it can't just be a military solution."
More troops are expected to reinforce 71,000 American and NATO comrades already there. But, says Fick, "I would suggest that two or three additional brigades beg the question of, 'To do what?'" It is, senior defense officials concede, a fair question. "Before we say we need three to five brigades, we've got to figure out what the hell we're doing," says a senior U.S. military official in Kabul.
Some troops will likely go to the provinces nearest Kabul to address concerns that the Taliban is trying to encircle and isolate the capital. "I think that will start us out next year much better off, when that area isn't an ungoverned space that the insurgents have free rein in," says the senior military official in Afghanistan. Others will be used to train the underpaid, widely corrupt Afghan police.
At the Pentagon, the strategic review is focusing most heavily on the role of Pakistan, whose ungoverned tribal territories provide sanctuary for Afghan insurgents and al Qaeda leaders. Those close to the policy review process add that a key to any new strategy will be to eliminate those sanctuaries as extensions of the Afghan battlefield. "We're looking at them, militarily speaking, as one theater of operations," says the senior Pentagon official. "We're looking at the insurgent and extremist threat as a single threat to both nations. Our focus is on eliminating that."
To that end, the U.S. military, with presidential authorization, has stepped up cross-border operations in the past month or so. These include missions by special forces as well as increased attacks by Predator drones and other aircraft. But these raids are proving controversial, even within the U.S. military. Pakistani officials have accused America of violating their nation's sovereignty, and U.S. troops have taken fire from supposedly friendly Pakistani soldiers. "It's very tense there," the senior Pentagon official says. "We do the very best we can to keep them informed of what we're doing, but the nature of the targets doesn't permit a lot of advanced heads-up."
Some defense officials privately worry those actions may alienate Pakistan's leadership and drive insurgents further into an already volatile Pakistan. "I cannot imagine the U.S. interests to be served by overt cross-border operations," McCaffrey says.
One of those interests may be to publicly pressure the Pakistani military leadership to deal with the extremist problem itself rather than watch as American forces reach across the border. But the Pakistani military—built on the perceived threat from neighboring India—isn't made for domestic counterinsurgency operations. For this reason, Admiral Mullen has made repeated trips to try to persuade the Pakistani Army to accept U.S. trainers. "We've indicated that we are ready, willing, and able to assist them in training in whatever way they deem appropriate," says the senior Pentagon official. "We are still working our way through the arrangements—slowly, a little more slowly than we'd like."
For now, Pakistan has agreed to a handful of border outposts staffed with Afghan, Pakistani, and NATO troops. But it does not bode well, McCaffrey notes, that the manual written for the border stations includes 40-plus pages of instructions on what troops are not allowed to do there.
Making things more complicated are ties between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban, occasionally abetted by the government, which pays tribes and insurgent networks to attack each other with the goal of preventing any one group from getting too strong. "The Pakistanis, as the Brits did before them, try to get the tribes to work against each other," says the senior military official in Afghanistan. In one striking change, the Bush administration has become more willing to publicly challenge Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, for alleged cooperation with tribes and insurgents fighting U.S. forces.
Corruption and poverty. While insurgents in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan will continue to be a grave threat to progress in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say that equally destructive and less publicized is the corruption that permeates the Afghan government, which has done little to alleviate the poverty throughout the country. This in turn has fed the explosion of opium poppy crops. They are easy to grow and, best of all, don't require refrigeration, which is key in a country without electricity in most rural areas.
U.S. military officials seem increasingly resigned to the fact that fighting is not the forte of most of the 37 nations allied with them in Afghanistan. But more development assistance from NATO partners could further free up U.S. troops to fight, as well as train more Afghan police to enable them to provide security in areas that NATO forces clear but do not have the numbers to hold. "We need a lot of help that's not there now," says the senior U.S. military official in Kabul. "That's the most frustrating thing. We need a big pile of State Department folks and folks from other nations—any others that can do something right."
In order to work, such experts need some measure of security and local goodwill. But that is eroding throughout the country. Stepped-up fighting and too few troops have forced NATO to rely more heavily on air power, sometimes with the devastating consequence of civilian casualties that fuel antigovernment, anti-American anger. "We have used it as a crutch," says the senior U.S. military official in Kabul, who adds that NATO partners need more training on how to call in airstrikes. "There are a lot of bombs being dropped in support of the coalition. Yeah, we dropped it, but you guys asked for it, and you didn't know what you were asking for," the official adds. General McKiernan has issued guidelines to all troops "telling them to be smarter, be more careful, think their way through it" with the goal of decreasing civilian casualties.
In the meantime, U.S. forces are battling it out against an increasingly sophisticated Taliban, which plans to step up attacks on small, often isolated NATO units, according to U.S. intelligence. In August, for instance, 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in an ambush just 40 miles east of Kabul. Taliban leaders hope to raise domestic political pressure on NATO partner countries to pull out. "The Taliban isn't strong enough to take over the country," the senior military official in Afghanistan says. "But they don't have to be. They are strong enough to end its progress—and they are doing that relatively successfully."