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They Can Do It

Our troops can win in Afghanistan. But the key battleground is in Washington.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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Kabul

Photo of an American soldier in a desert

Marines from the 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment, fighting door-to-door.

Newscom

In any war there is often a disconnect between on-the-ground reality and perceptions back home. But rarely has there been such a yawning chasm as with Afghanistan today. 

Back home, the general feeling is that the war effort is either failing or idling in neutral. A casual newsreader may note the recent suicide bombing of an armored NATO bus in Kabul, a terrorist assault on the U.S. embassy in September, high-profile assassinations (including that of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani), some of President Karzai’s disparaging comments about the United States—and not much else. In Washington all the talk is about how quickly we can withdraw—not about how to achieve “victory,” a word that has been conspicuously missing during much of the public debate over this 10-year-old conflict.

And on the ground? A seven-day visit to Afghanistan in late October, taken along with other security analysts at the invitation of General John Allen, the senior American and NATO commander, reveals that U.S. troops are fighting with wholehearted dedication—and, at least in the south, enjoying considerable success. If the United States is indeed on the way out in Afghanistan, as the political class in Washington now assumes (perhaps rightly), nobody has bothered to inform the troops. They are still risking their necks every day in order to defeat the enemy.

In Zhari District, west of Kandahar City, troops from the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division are in the process of clearing this longtime Taliban stronghold. I drove in a convoy of heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles from Forward Operating Base Pasab down roads that only a few months ago were full of buried IEDs, past fields that once sheltered Taliban fighters. The American infantrymen have been using M9 armored bulldozers and Mine Clearing Line Charges (known as “mick licks,” after their acronym) to blast their way through the Taliban’s minefields. Regular air assaults by helicopters are also taking place to leapfrog Taliban fortifications: As our troops and their Afghan partners advance, they erect their own forts and link them together with newly dug roads that are protected by blast walls to impede Taliban movements. The youthful-looking brigade commander, Colonel Patrick Frank, proudly showed us some of the spoils of war—we got to walk through what is said to be Mullah Omar’s hometown and even to see his former mosque. Another sign of progress: There are now 14 schools open in Zhari and neighboring Maiwand District, up from only 2 last year.

Just before our arrival, the brigade had finally managed to reach the Arghandab River, which marks the southern boundary of Zhari. “This is a big deal,” Lieutenant Colonel Kenny Mintz, commander of the 1-32 battalion, told me, noting that this achievement had cost him 13 men killed and 29 seriously injured during the past five months. Just before departing Zhari, I witnessed a moving ceremony in which three of Mintz’s men received medals of valor for their extraordinary heroism—including one soldier who had been badly wounded and evacuated stateside for treatment but had volunteered to return to the fight. “You’re my hero,” Mintz told him.

Not far away in Helmand Province—which, like Kandahar, has been a focus of the American-led offensive since 2010—U.S. Marines are making similarly impressive progress. Having been at their operations longer, the Marines are farther along: In most of the province they are moving from the “clear” to the “hold and build” phase. Among the districts in the process of being turned over to the Afghan security forces is Marjah, a notorious Taliban stronghold that was first entered by the Marines in February 2010. That much-publicized offensive did not meet initial expectations, leading many to conclude that the whole war effort was doomed. But, while taking a bit longer than expected, the pacification of Marjah has largely been completed. 

One Marine battalion has already left Marjah. Now, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Schmitt, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told us that his Marines are moving out of central Marjah. They are turning over the population center to the Afghan police and army while they deploy to the surrounding desert to pursue the remaining insurgents who have been pushed out of town. Those insurgents who have elected to stay in town have given up the fight and decided to cooperate with the new strongmen of the area—the Marines.

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