Why NATO Allies May Not Be the Answer to the Military Challenges in Afghanistan

U.S. troops express concern that progress bought with their sweat and blood will be lost.

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GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN—It has been a tough tour for U.S. soldiers in this craggy and violent central province where, after years of relative calm, insurgent attacks more than doubled in 2008. But as they prepared to pull out, readying for the October 30 handoff to Polish troops, the Americans expressed misgivings about leaving and concerns about what will happen here when they do.

Since they arrived in March, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment have had to contend with Taliban ambushes and 500-pound roadside bombs. They have engaged in hand-to-hand combat and, at times, have battled until they were so exhausted that they were on their knees, throwing up. Their efforts seem to be paying off. Recently, insurgent attacks have declined dramatically, from a high of 77 in August to nine in October.

Now, these soldiers are going elsewhere in Afghanistan under a NATO plan that puts this area's security in the hands of the Polish military. The Polish battle group brings 1,600 troops (plus attack helicopters), which is 400 more soldiers than the overstretched U.S. 101st Airborne Division had been able to spare for Ghazni. But, to put it bluntly, the Americans worry that the Poles are not up to the job, and that NATO alliance politics and a shortage of American troops are a formula for failure.

The province is home to a strategically vital stretch of the paved "ring road" that links Kabul to Kandahar, and the U.S. troops here fear that without highly advanced counterinsurgency soldiering and a nuanced touch—traits for which the Polish forces are not generally known, they add—this region could quickly backslide. "It's frustrating because we've spent seven months fighting and being killed in this battle space to give it a fingernail's chance of success," says one U.S. military officer here. "Now we've taken the Poles and thrown them into a Ph.D.-level insurgency." Adds another officer, "You know those giant erasers you get at the fair? It's like watching everything you've done being erased with one of those."

There has been much made of so-called caveats, which are the limitations that European NATO partners place on their forces in Afghanistan. These restrictions include, for example, not allowing them to fight at night, or in the snow, or even, in some cases, at all. Allies have garnered praise for their willingness to fight and, at times, ignore caveats. But the Polish takeover here, U.S. soldiers say, illustrates the perils of giving less experienced allies pivotal battle space when hearts and minds are at stake.

At a weekly dinner at his home, Ghazni Gov. Muhammad Usman greets U.S. battalion commander Lt. Col. Tony DeMartino with a hug and a kiss on each cheek—he calls him "B plus B," for big brother. The governor has been vocal about his concerns about the Poles and has threatened to request a transfer to another province. This would be a blow, given that Usman is Ghazni's third governor in a year and a half and, since taking over in June, he has garnered solid reviews among locals for increasing security.

On this evening, Polish battle group commander Col. Rajmund Andrzejczak joins them, and the dinner doubles as a weekly security debriefing. It begins with some good news. Intelligence officials have intercepted communiqués indicating that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is unhappy with his Ghazni commanders—and has even recalled some—because of their failures to disrupt the movements of U.S. forces. At this news, Usman offers a fist-bump to DeMartino.

But word is trickling in that a new U.S. Special Operations Forces group in the area mistakenly killed 22 Afghan security contractors, militiamen paid to guard U.S.-sponsored construction work. The Provincial Coordination Center didn't pass along the information to each of the armed groups that friendly forces were in the area, resulting in the Afghans' deaths.

The PCC is a particular sore point for the U.S. battalion, which worked hard to get it up and running before recently turning it over to the Poles. Army Capt. Caleb Threadcraft, who taught himself fluent Dari in advance of his arrival, transformed the center, training Afghan forces and buying rugs for a tea room to entertain locals who might drop by. He also established a tactical operations center with a map on which he marked key locations with numbers so that the less literate police could quickly coordinate their responses to area violence. Ghazni locals praised the PCC's responsiveness and began dropping by with tips.