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'Cautious Hope' from Afghanistan

11:23 AM, Aug 5, 2013 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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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.

British soldiers in Afghanistan.

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.

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