The Magazine

The Other War

Afghanistan is winnable, but victory can't be taken for granted.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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Apparently they have cobras here--by which I do not mean Marine AH-1 gunship helicopters so nicknamed, but the kind that slither, hiss, and, if you're unfortunate, bite. The doctor across the way from me, Capt. Richard Slusher, assures me we have no antivenin. On the upside, it's good incentive to keep the place clean, because trash brings rodents and rodents bring snakes. They also have the ugliest, nastiest beetles I've ever seen. The little monsters fly and bite. I'm pretty sure they report directly to Osama himself.

One of the AP reporters says he believes 9/11 was a Bush administration conspiracy hung on al Qaeda. Slusher gives him hell about it--albeit in a good-natured way. I don't hear the other reporter sound out on the subject, but he never takes off his Che Guevara T-shirt. Maybe these two will provide unbiased footage and commentary notwithstanding their personal views--maybe not.

Some embeds pride themselves on getting interviews with high-level officers. But I've found that comments from lieutenant colonels and higher start to become infused with politics. The higher you go, the greater the BS-to-truth ratio. If you want spontaneous opinions you stick with lieutenants through majors, along with non-coms. That can even be true when you want to discuss politics, as was the case when I interviewed the commander of the Transylvania-based 812th, Maj. Ovidiu Liviu Uifaleanu.

Romania has about 750 soldiers in Afghanistan, 550 men and a few women under the 812th at Lagman. Their uniform camouflage patterns resemble something like rust-colored tiger claw marks on a yellowish background. While the American combat uniforms no longer allow the sleeves to be rolled up, the official Romanian uniform includes shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and even camouflage T-shirts with epaulets indicating rank; therefore, the soldiers can be in T-shirts while also being in full uniform. These people understand comfort.

Romania, as noted, is among the handful of allied countries with troops here that actually fight. The fighting countries ranked by total troop presence are the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, and Estonia. The other NATO participants, many of them vastly larger than Estonia (with a population of 1.3 million, about the size Phoenix), have issued "caveats"--rules that basically forbid their forces to fight or even to go outside severely limited areas. These include Germany (83 million), France (64 million), Italy (58 million), and Spain (40 million). The mere presence of Italian troops threatened to bring down that nation's government, while France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, hinted in late April that he would shortly bring France's approximately 1,000 troops home.

Why Romania? I ask Uifaleanu. "We are a NATO country and our mission is established by the government," he says. "We are obligated by NATO membership." Spoken like a true soldier. I ask the major (and that's what I call him, for fear of mispronouncing his name) why Romania feels this obligation when so many fellow NATO members do not. "At higher echelons they make those decisions," he says. "We are keeping our promise as a member of NATO." That does imply, of course, that perhaps the others are not.

There are also about 700 Romanian troops in Iraq, most of whom operate out of Camp Dracula in Tallil. Dracula--also called Vlad Tepes or "Vlad the Impaler"--is a hero to Romanians because, despite his rather unorthodox methods, he did keep the Turks at bay, if only temporarily. Uifaleanu does say that there's strong support back home for the Afghan contingent remaining, while not so for the one in Iraq.

Here's an alternative answer for why Romania fights. Much of what Donald Rumsfeld, prompting great anger, called "Old Europe" has grown lazy, weak, and decadent. Even though many countries are at far greater risk from Islamist terror than is the United States, because they have huge populations of disgruntled Muslims, they're delighted to let others do the fighting and dying. Romania, like Estonia, after years of involuntary servitude in the Soviet empire, is delighted to have joined what remains the world's leading military alliance, and it wants to do its part.

A depressing day at the police stations