The Other War
Afghanistan is winnable, but victory can't be taken for granted.
Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
The Taliban are also learning it can hurt to fight against the 32,000-member Afghan National Army. The ANA is better equipped, better trained, and better paid than the National Police. The Afghan army platoon at FOB Lagman is equipped with new-looking American woodland camouflage uniforms, body armor for everyone, and AK-47s in top shape. Most Iraqi army units may be unwilling to take the fight to the enemy; not so the Afghans. "They are very aggressive in the field," says Uifaleanu, "very eager to kill the Taliban." Others I speak with, including non-coms, say the same.
Unfortunately, the police aren't nearly as impressive. Courtesy of a small Romanian convoy, I visited four police outposts along Highway One. Each had a complement of about 15-20 men. The first thing you notice about these buildings is that while they have some blast and antipersonnel protection, the level of protection is low. Ideally they would all be surrounded on the outside by razor concertina wire to keep the Taliban at a distance. There would be an inside barrier--made of huge dirt-filled canvas bags called Hescos--to provide blast protection against rocket-propelled grenades. Sandbags would protect the roof. In fact I saw little wire, and the Hescos and sandbags protected only part of the perimeters. Some of the buildings had sandbags on the roofs for protection against light mortars, others didn't.
In terms of weapons and ammunition, they were no better off. I won't give exact numbers for security reasons, but for their AK-47s they had just enough ammo to sustain a brief firefight (fortunately most are quite brief). At one station, they were delighted to inform us not just how many AK magazines they had per soldier but that the magazines were completely filled. Ouch! It doesn't help that like Iraqis (or untrained soldiers anywhere), they have a tendency to fire not single shots or controlled bursts but rather to hold the trigger and let fly with a good chunk of the magazine.
Every outpost was given an RPG-7--the venerable Soviet grenade launcher--and one had a pair, but again with little ammunition. Each station had one 7.62 millimeter RPK machine gun. For these, the police seemed to have a more decent ammo supply.
Fortunately, these outposts aren't overrun as often as you might think. The Taliban carry light weapons, nothing heavier than an RPK or RPG. Maybe a mortar tube, but with no base plate, so it can't be fired accurately. If the fighting does get thick, stations can call for the Romanian quick-reaction force. But the Taliban know how long it takes the Romanians to arrive and are careful to be gone by then. So the potential Romanian firepower is what really counts.
Not being overrun seemed near the limit of what these outposts could do. At one station they told us, "We ask in the villages, 'Why are you helping the Taliban?' and then they say, 'They take our sons and brothers and there's nothing we can do.'" At another: "We see Taliban driving by on motorcycles, but we don't have good weapons to shoot them."
Lest I be accused of violating operational security by revealing this, the Taliban obviously can see the fortifications and can determine ammo supplies with probes. When they fire several RPG rounds at an outpost and receive only one in return, that tells them something. The Taliban know; it's time the American public knew, too.
Bribes and bullets
All the Romanians can tell the police is, "We'll try to give you enough ammo and enough weapons." But for the time being it's a pipe dream. Consider that an AK bullet costs about 17 cents. That's a little over $5 for a full magazine. For a 15-man station, we could provide each policeman another magazine for about $80. Meanwhile, a single Hellfire air-to-surface missile costs $100,000.
The police themselves are a ragtag bunch, ranging in age from perhaps 14 to 70. A few wear raggedy blue official summer uniforms, while some of the younger guys at one outpost wear thick wool winter gray uniforms that look like they came from a stockpile of the Confederate States of America. Even the caps look Confederate. But most of the police wear civilian clothes, which isn't good. A uniform helps hold a unit together, and it gives a man pride.
The worst deficiency, though, is pay. While their salaries are merely $70 a month, none of the police had been paid in three months. (To use the Hellfire comparison again, one missile would pay more than 1,400 police salaries for a month.) Obviously this discourages recruiting, and when those police do finally get paid it may encourage them to take the money and run. Less obvious, except to anybody who knows the history of Afghanistan, is that bribes are more important than bullets. In fact, the conquest of the country from the Taliban began when the CIA flew in $3 million in cash (they would eventually spend many times that) to win over warlords to the Northern Alliance.
So the Taliban know that far more important than any weapon in their arsenal is the wad of cash supplied by sympathetic Arab oil sheikhs, Islamic charity front groups, and Osama bin Laden himself. According to a February report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "In some reported cases, the Taliban are paying up to $12 a day, three times as much as the [Afghan National Army] field soldiers, and there is evidence of defection from the national security forces to the Taliban ranks."
More than that, a lack of funds encourages some police to sell what weapons they do have. I asked B Company executive officer Lt. Keith Wei if it would be possible to supply the police with DShKs (pronounced "dishka"), a Russian-made 12.7 millimeter antiaircraft weapon adapted for ground combat. It would clean the Taliban's clocks. He was politely aghast at my ignorance. "Because they're receiving no salaries, there would be tremendous temptation to sell those to the Taliban," he said. And DShK rounds can slice through Humvee armor.
Retired General Barry R. McCaffrey's February 2007 Afghanistan report, based on personal observation but primarily outside data, is generally upbeat. "We are now on the right path," it concludes. Nevertheless it also states, "We have no real grasp of what actual [Afghan National Police] presence exists at the 355 District level operations. . . . We do know that 50 percent more Afghan police were KIA last year than [Afghan army] soldiers." It continues, "The task of creating 82,000 Afghan policemen (currently a notional 62,000 force) is a ten-year job that we must fully resource," and we are now beginning that. Yet "the effort to create the Afghan police is currently grossly under-resourced with 700 U.S. trainers." By contrast, he notes that in Kosovo we had 5,000 police mentors for 6,500 Kosovo police.
In the short term, though--which is to say right now--the police need weapons and ammo and proper uniforms for hot and cold weather. Most critically, we need to pay them their lousy $70 a month.
The Zabul PRT established a trade school with courses on basic computer operations, welding, automobile mechanics, plumbing, carpentry, electrical installation, construction, emergency medical technician training, nursing, and an agricultural extension program. The Taliban will probably always be able to offer tempting payments to Afghan men to take potshots at NATO and Afghan troops, but not necessarily enough to make it worth employed ones risking their lives. The PRT in May conducted a medical outreach for the Mizan district, treating more than 200 patients. Qalat's mud huts are being wired for electricity, although actually providing it will be a much more difficult task. Rebuilding long-neglected dams seems the best bet.
All of this information, incidentally, is from web searching. A PRT member at Lagman emailed that he was "very disgusted" with me "for the type of reporting you do"--indicating it was too negative. "Why don't you even mention what is being done in Zabul province by the PRT?" Alas, my repeated efforts to obtain information from the Provincial Reconstruction Team, including emailed requests for a spokesman to answer informational questions for just a few minutes, were rebuffed. I finally emailed the executive officer in disgust:
This is a little harsh on the Air Force generally, but I promised him that "as someone who sees this war as something to be won, I will be writing about this." So I have.
Amazingly, they have essentially a full gym, with free weights, barbells, an elliptical device, and a treadmill. It was here when 1st Platoon arrived. The camp is too small for the men to go on runs, and the patrols are all mounted because everything is so spread out. So a gym is the only way the men can really keep fit, and it's a real morale-booster. Bathroom facilities are crude, as you'd expect. Waste is burned daily by some recently hired young Afghans who live inside the wire. Media sleeping quarters are a narrow bit of hallway between the soldiers' quarters and the door, shared with the techie while he awaits a helo out, and featuring constant foot traffic during the day and evening.
What's truly impressive is how well protected this place is. I'm told the camp, begun by the 173rd Airborne Brigade and later occupied by the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), is far better in terms of both safety and creature comforts than just a few months ago. Hescos, sandbags, and concertina wire are everywhere. As at Lagman, the Americans have no armor but they have lots of late-model Humvees with a mix of M-2 .50 caliber and M240 7.62 millimeter machine guns and MK-19 40 millimeter automatic grenade launchers in the turrets. The camp also has several mortar tubes of various sizes. Conspicuously absent is an American flag. It's part of the effort to look like we're here to help, not to occupy.
The compound is busy as a beehive, which contributes to morale by reducing boredom. In my few days there, I see soldiers make both sides of the "safe house" (their quarters) even safer by extending the roof and building two new walls of sandbags. The dining facility has been sandbagged only about halfway up because they keep running out of filled bags. (I overhear one GI on the phone say they call the FOB "the Sandbag Palace.") A TV is installed just after I arrive, though strangely enough it only seems to receive sports channels. An open phone booth is also installed inside the dining facility, which has only one or two tables when I arrive but is soon filled with enough freshly built tables to accommodate everyone.
To beat the heat, soldiers get up at 0400, and the sawing and hammering begins at 0430. Summer dress here is "military casual," with jackets rarely worn and sandals almost as common as boots.
Morale seems excellent, much better than I would have expected from a unit in the middle of nowhere that rarely gets to engage the enemy. (It's not being shot at, but rather getting a piece of the enemy that boosts spirits.) I did hear one soldier bitterly complain to his wife on the phone about the just-announced extension of tours from 12 months to 15; surely others feel the same. There are worse places to be stuck in a war, but all of these troops are far, far from home. There's also something about being completely surrounded by mountains that makes you feel meek, isolated, and homesick.
The commander of this impressive outpost is 1st Lt. Kevin Stofan, from Miami Springs, Florida. At 28, he's a bit old for his rank. But that's because he only joined the Army in March 2005. "I got tired of sitting on the sidelines," he says. "Pretty much the reason I joined was to go to war. I was happy to deploy to Afghanistan."
FOB Mizan wasn't plopped down here to keep the Taliban out, which is simply beyond its capability. In Zabul as a whole, there's only one NATO or Afghan soldier per seven square miles, and the ratio may be worse in Mizan. Rather, the idea is to inhibit the movement of the Taliban and improve security in Mizan district. The FOB's 120 millimeter mortar, with a maximum range of four and a half miles, is an impressive weapon. Directed from any of the numerous observation posts that scan the countryside, the 45-pound shells can hit the Taliban anywhere on the inside of the mountain range that surrounds the camp. I watched a drill on an almost pitch-black night. Within about five minutes the soldiers had the big tube blasting away, one round right after another.
But patrols are the main tool for keeping the Taliban on the run. "With random patrols their movement is completely inhibited because they never know when we'll be there," says Stofan, "and they do not want to fight us. They don't have the numbers; they don't have the discipline and skill; and they don't have the weapons."
Unfortunately, unless you employ up-armored donkeys, about a third of the region can't be reached by patrols. Yet even patrols can't secure a village. "You have to be there on a permanent basis," says Lt. Stofan. "The villagers worry about the Taliban because they strong-arm people for shelter or food and then move on to the next town," he continues. "When they pass through in large numbers they leave behind nuisance guys to close schools and clinics by kidnapping teachers and doctors and scaring off road crews." A week before I arrived, Taliban killed five Afghan security guards protecting a road construction project in the Mizan district.
"The last school in Mizan closed two years ago," says Stofan, "yet about 50-60 percent of the population is less than 14 years old. There's a rapidly growing younger generation not getting educated. There is some Koran teaching going on, and I asked the instructor if he'd expand teachings to grammar and math if I obtained the books." The teacher agreed, and two months later he got them.
Except perhaps for additions to the base, everything moves slowly out here--sometimes imperceptibly so. Literacy rate estimates for Zabul range from 1 percent to 15 percent but in either case it's the worst in the country and it's even lower for women. In fact, I never saw a woman the whole time in Zabul except for nomads along the highway. The nomads are the least culturally strict people in the country. "You could take a picture of one of these villages and it would look like something out of a nativity scene," says Stofan. I did, and they do.
Numerous crops grow in Zabul, but you can guess which one is most important economically. On one Mizan patrol our Humvee became mired in mud and I was able to get out and walk around a bit until called back to the vehicle when six apparent Taliban moved into position across an easily fordable river from us. I came to a low mud wall, looked over, and--lo!--several acres of beautiful, deadly poppies. Poppy eradication is not working in Afghanistan. Opium production rose a startling 59 percent last year over the year before, notwithstanding USAID's assertion that it would be cut by 30 percent. But we need to consider the possibility that it shouldn't work, at least for now. Raising the flowers is apparently 70 times more lucrative than raising wheat, with wheat barely allowing farmers to break even. "Opium cultivation accounts for nearly 60 percent of the country's gross national product," according to USAID. Waging a "drug war" while at the same time waging a real war may be too much to ask of already greatly overstrained resources.
The Zabul Afghans
The younger Afghans are quite outgoing. I was first introduced to those who live on the base when I began talking to one whose job was burning feces--as good a way to meet someone as any. Two were "terps" (interpreters) who kept insisting I take their photos knowing I would nevertheless have to delete them immediately for their own safety. I remarked to Stofan that I thought they liked me a bit too much because our frequent chai chats were cutting into my work time. He offered that I ought to see them on Thursday nights when they dress up as women and commented on the pervasiveness of homosexuality in the Pashtun culture, a result of severe segregation of the sexes.
Later I meet the district chief, Mohammed Younis, and the young police chief commander, Mohammed Khan (nicknamed "Krazy Bone"). He has the thickest shock of hair I've ever seen on a man, resembling a black-colored eagle's nest. He continually runs one hand through it while his other seemingly seeks gold deep inside his nose. Still, I am told Krazy Bone is a top-notch police chief, despite his idiosyncrasies and his youth, and his men really do seem to have their act together. Younis, conversely, is a picture of dignity in his turban and white flowing clothes.
Guarding the gate to Younis's compound is a Hollywood image of a mujahedeen dressed in dark brown. Again demonstrating the Afghan love of color, he has a little orange ribbon attached to the wire stock of his AK-47 (see photo at right). He wears a hammer-and-sickle belt buckle presumably taken from the body of a Soviet soldier or a member of the old Communist government army. Atop his head is a brown pakol, a flat wool cap indicating he fought under Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud was the most effective commander against both the Soviets and as head of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until al Qaeda assassinated him two days before 9/11.
It's fascinating to watch Stofan converse with Younis via the terp. In America, we usually exchange pleasantries and then get down to business. In Afghanistan, you exchange pleasantries intermittently throughout any conversation, such as asking a man about his recent pilgrimage. The first order of business is compensation for a man whose house was accidentally struck by an American bomb, wounding eight residents. He was to receive about $4,000 and Stofan's main concern was that this was an old man who would be walking from town carrying a heck of an incentive for a mugging. (He would later make it back safely.)
The district chief agrees, but seems more interested in money to support his operations. You can't blame him. He says Krazy Bone's men haven't been paid in five months. "We can fight better if we are paid," he insists while fingering his prayer beads. He then quickly adds that he thinks the problem has nothing to do with Americans but rather is a bureaucratic snafu in Qalat and that the money will be arriving soon. Stofan promises he will ask "my boss," meaning Deputy Task Force Zabul Commander Maj. Christopher Clay, to intercede, and says that in the past such efforts have met with success.
The district chief also offers that the townspeople like us very much and that when American or Afghan soldiers disrupt their lives with raids, the locals "blame it on the Taliban" for prompting the raids. Is it true, I wonder, or does he say this simply to be hospitable? After hours of conversation I conclude that this is a man who speaks his mind, and if he says the townspeople are savvy enough to realize that the Taliban are the root of any problems with the military, he means it. In one conversation Stofan tells Younis that if he gets some money he will buy pomegranates from the locals, but Younis won't hear of it. "We will give them to you," he says, waving his hand, "all that you need."
A WorldPublicOpinion.org poll released last December indicates that the district chief and his people are no exception in their hatred of the Taliban; a scant 7 percent of Afghans said they have a positive view of them, fewer than in a poll 11 months earlier. They have not forgotten the horrors of the Taliban version of sharia Islam, which stacked extremism upon extremism. Aside from that, it's important to understand that Afghans see even Afghan Taliban as foreigners and intruders. That's because unlike in Iraq, the insurgents are rarely local. If you're not from their village, you're not one of them. The Taliban themselves generally feel they don't belong to any country, and who are the Afghans to disagree? Meanwhile, only 25 percent of those surveyed said they had a somewhat or very unfavorable attitude toward the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although that is a higher figure than 11 months previously.
Encouraging also is a mid-2006 poll from the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation that found 77 percent of respondents say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in Afghanistan. Another favorable marker is that slightly over half say they're more prosperous than under the Taliban, while only a fourth say they're less prosperous. In fact, USAID reports the country's economy, not counting opium sales, is growing a robust 12 percent per year. Finally, almost 90 percent say they trust both the Afghan army and police.
They are by no means deeply content. Forty-two percent think the progress of reconstruction is excellent or good, leaving 58 percent thinking it's fair or poor. And while 62 percent still think their nation is going in the right direction, that's down substantially from 83 percent in the poll 11 months before. In other words, we still have plenty of good will in Afghanistan, but we're in danger of squandering it.
Still, it would be a mistake to assume time is on our side. Afghans seem to be losing patience with the war effort, and while that may not help the Taliban, it can certainly hinder President Hamid Karzai in his efforts to keep the warlords at bay. It's warlords, not sectarianism, that pose the internal threat. The most powerful of these is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the Northern Alliance leaders against the Taliban. But before that, he fought on the side of the Soviets and the Communist government. Probably to undercut the government, which has essentially excluded him, he announced in May that he can raise an army and drive out the Taliban in six months.
Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf has just called for negotiating with the Taliban, and a new survey shows almost two-thirds of Canadians think we should parley. Last October, Senate majority leader Bill Frist also called for negotiations, as did a Canadian think tank report in March. This would be astonishingly shortsighted, insofar as the Taliban are fairly inept militarily but once negotiated and bribed their way to control as much as 95 percent of the country. Yet now even the Afghan Senate has voted for a truce to be followed by negotiations and withdrawal of NATO forces.
Of course, if Musharraf were serious about ending the war, he would stop his double-dealing. For all his talk about negotiations, his own granted the Taliban what amounts to autonomy in the lawless border region of Waziristan ostensibly in exchange for a promise not to cross into Afghanistan to fight. The Taliban instantly broke the deal, but now Musharraf says the West needs to learn from his actions. Indeed, it should.
Moreover, at some point we're going to start wondering why we fight so hard to keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan when they've shown they're perfectly capable of running operations out of eastern Pakistan. General Dostum sweetened his offer to restive Afghans by saying his men wouldn't stop at Afghanistan's borders but would sweep into Waziristan as well, the main Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuary, which Musharraf tolerates. Although Musharraf fears Pakistani Islamists as a threat to his own power, he has no problem with them if they're isolated. He is no friend of Afghanistan. If the Taliban were uprooted from Waziristan, it would not only destroy al Qaeda's new headquarters but tremendously shorten the length of the war.
As to the number of soldiers, Stofan says: "I see a solution in sight for Afghanistan; it's just going to take some more guys." Wei seconds that. "We know how to win here," says Wei. "But we're so shorthanded. Every platoon we have is covering what used to be a company-sized sector."
According to the McCaffrey report, while the situation is getting better, "the war in Afghanistan has been shamefully under-resourced by DOD throughout the entire intervention in terms of interagency involvement, U.S. combat forces, political will, and nation-building resources."
Yet together, both wars plus all other defense spending consume about 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, or just over a third of the GDP percentage spent at the height of the Vietnam war. Total U.S. forces currently in both Iraq and Afghanistan amount to just a third of the 540,000 employed for the limited purpose of driving Saddam's forces out of Kuwait in 1991. Yet that still might not be a problem in Afghanistan if NATO nations didn't refuse to pull their weight--in total personnel contributed, combat soldiers, or defense expenditures. Only six members spend as much as 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Last year the then-supreme NATO commander said of the alliance's efforts in Afghanistan, "We have about 102 national restrictions [the "caveats"], 50 of which I judge to be operationally significant." Even as they refer to America as a bellicose "cowboy" nation, they sit back and let us and a handful of other countries expend the money and blood.
"You can see victory on the horizon," says Wei. "We just don't have the means to get there."
Michael Fumento, an airborne veteran, has been embedded three times in Iraq.