The Magazine

Give McChrystal a Fighting Chance

The war effort is succeeding in parts of Afghanistan-with time and troops the gains can be consolidated.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By MAX BOOT
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The 30-minute ride from Forward Operating Base Shank, occupied by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, is nerve-wracking. This is Logar Province, an area of central Afghanistan that has been the staging ground for major suicide-bomber attacks into Kabul, 45 miles to the north. U.S. troops trying to clear Logar and neighboring Wardak Province since this summer have encountered numerous IEDs--some of them large enough to penetrate even the most heavily armored vehicles. One such blast back in August killed a 22-year-old soldier and seriously injured CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick. As we bounce along the narrow dirt road, the driver of our MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle is clearly nervous. When we pass over a culvert, which insurgents are known to pack with explosives, he mutters, "I hate those f--ing IED holes."

Our arrival at a joint Afghan-American Combat Outpost in Baraki Barak, a small town set among lush farmlands and mountains, is hardly more reassuring. Just as I am getting out of the armored vehicle a loud boom goes off. Incoming or outgoing, I wonder? Turns out it's outgoing. The U.S. soldiers are firing mortar rounds to keep the Taliban off balance and discourage them from planting IEDs. And yet, incongruously enough, before long the talk here turns from combat to economics.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gukeisen, the hulking commander of the 3-71 Cavalry Squadron (equivalent to a battalion), explains that the worst fighting is over here. His troops cleared out the Taliban this summer and established a "security bubble" around Baraki Barak. Now they are implementing what they call an "Extreme Makeover," using CERP dollars (Commander's Emergency Response Program) to build projects requested by local villagers. All such projects are designed to provide employment for young men so that they will not be tempted to accept the Taliban's money to plant IEDs. At the same time, Gukeisen is running his own radio station and handing out hand-cranked radios to get out the message that the Americans are here to help and the Taliban aren't. He is publicizing statistics showing that more Afghans than Americans have been wounded in Taliban attacks.

The results have been dramatic. Attacks are down 62 percent and intelligence tips are up 80 percent since August, Gukeisen tells me, adding, "We're not just baking cookies. We're regularly shwacking bad guys based on good intel." But Gukeisen is part of a new breed of Army commanders who know that you can't kill your way out of an insurgency. While it's important to kill or detain insurgents, even more important is to provide durable security and some prospect of a better life to the population. And that's just what he's doing here in cooperation with more than 150 Afghan soldiers and police officers.

Next to the combat outpost is a brand-new district center built with foreign aid money. Inside we sit down to chat with the district governor, Mohammed Yasin Lodin, a natty man with frizzy black hair and a thin mustache, and the police chief, Colonel Amanullah, who is (unusually for an Afghan) clean shaven. Yasin is overflowing with praise for the improvements wrought by the Americans. The Americans later tell me that the governor, for his part, is doing a good job, spending far more time than he used to in the district (his family lives in Kabul) because it is now safe to do so. The Afghan soldiers and police also receive praise for fighting off insurgent attacks on their checkpoints with minimal U.S. help.

"We've got the four horsemen working together," Gukeisen tells me--his nickname for the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, the National Directorate of Security (the intelligence service), and the district government. Gukeisen, in turn, has the assistance of the State Department, which has sent a District Support Team here as part of a new program to improve local governance. Closely mentored and monitored by the Americans, the notoriously dysfunctional Afghan government is showing itself capable of effective action at least in some areas.

But all concerned know that progress is fragile. What would happen if the U.S. troops were to pull out of Afghanistan, I ask Governor Yasin. "Don't even think about leaving!" he exclaims with a laugh. Colonel Amanullah (like many Afghans he goes by one name) explains: "If the snake is injured, it becomes more dangerous and aggressive. The Taliban are angered but not destroyed. If the Americans leave, we won't be able to do what they are doing. Afghanistan will become a battleground worse than before. That will be a very dangerous situation for the whole world and not only for Afghans."