In the midst of a fair amount of depressing news from Afghanistan (e.g., al-Qaeda backers get U.S. military contracts, U.S. cites “due process rights” as reason not to cancel), here's a report from the front that offers some grounds for hope.

It's by two Marine infantry officers, Captains Joe Falvey and Dom Pelligrini, who just returned from Afghanistan after serving with the last Marine advisor team to an Afghan army infantry battalion in Helmand Province. Their report from Sangin--the location of some of the toughest fighting over the last few years--is encouraging, but they warn that hard-won progress could easily be lost if Washington is unwilling to stay the course.

Their conclusion:

Based on [the Afghan Army's] victories during the 2013 fighting season, however, we believe that they are presently capable of overcoming the many challenges still faced and implementing Afghan solutions to limit Taliban influence in Sangin. Although our mission in Sangin will draw to a close, Afghan soldiers will persevere because they must. As we depart, we leave behind brothers-in-arms. While eating a final meal with our Afghan counterparts, their sincere gratitude for the last decade of U.S. support required no translation. Our final contribution to them is telling their story: the Sangin ANA’s current success and willingness to fight on their own should be encouraging to all Afghans and Americans. If the Afghans in war-torn Sangin are capable of preserving the progress won by British and American sacrifice, they can do it anywhere, resignation to impotence is unwarranted, and there is much hope to be found in Afghanistan’s Army.

And their warning:

This hope and the Afghan Army’s current successes could be jeopardized, however, by decisions now under consideration. As reported in July by various news outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, U.S. leaders are still deliberating the pace of American withdrawal leading up to the 2014 deadline, as well as the extent of American presence and financial assistance post-2014. In addition to assessing an accelerated departure, they are also considering post-2014 options ranging from a residual force to the “zero option” of no U.S. presence. A complete pullout and funding cuts have become increasingly attractive due to recent quarrels at strategic levels between Washington and Kabul....

Based on our perspective on the Afghan Army’s tactical capabilities, the “zero option” and drastic funding cuts would seriously impair the ANA’s ability to preserve its security gains in Sangin and throughout Afghanistan. The Afghan Army will need financial assistance and limited U.S. support, most likely past 2014, to sustain its progress and forces in the field. In particular, a Bilateral Security Agreement that affirms a steady U.S. commitment would help assure stability during and after our withdrawal. In Sangin, local elders would tell us that they were unsure of the area’s future without American involvement. They are a hard, embattled people who have learned to survive by siding with the strongest tribe. With limited support and resolve that lasts through fighting seasons and election cycles, we believe that the Afghan Army can surmount coming challenges and remain that strongest tribe.

To continue successes like those we observed in Sangin, the Afghan Army still needs limited U.S. support, especially surveillance, helicopter CASEVACs, and training. This support requires relatively minimal risk of American lives but they are key advantages on a battlefield that often favors a shadowy enemy. Surveillance assets are our “eyes” which extend over massive populated areas and deter enemy activity, particularly at night. Without it, the Afghan Army would truly be operating in the dark while fighting the Taliban on a much more level playing field. Even more crucially, helicopter CASEVACs save lives and bolster ANA morale, especially in areas where Afghan soldiers risk daily gunshot wounds and limb amputations. Finally, the Afghan Army needs U.S. training cadres to continue its professionalization and mastery of subjects that stymie even advanced militaries, such as fire support, logistical systems, and command and control. Such limited support will require a small residual footprint of U.S. forces, while still allowing steep reductions in areas such as manpower, advisors, U.S. fires and air support. We wholeheartedly agree that the Afghan Army’s growing capabilities and independence permit such reductions throughout our pre-2014 withdrawal. But the Afghan Army will not soon achieve our technological proficiency in surveillance and CASEVACs, nor the professional expertise of our military. Given the significant advantages and grave sacrifices preserved by limited U.S. risk, we should provide this support until the Afghan Army is prepared to thrive without it.

In addition to assisting with these critical capabilities, plans for future involvement in Afghanistan should include funding necessary for the Afghan Army to build on current successes. Most estimates forecast that it will cost approximately four billion dollars per year to sustain the Afghan Army in the near future, a number that far exceeds the Afghan government’s current funding ability. Without continued U.S. financial assistance, Afghan soldiers ready to fight for their country will lack the essential supplies and ammunition to do so....

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