Troops Wonder: WTF Are We Doing In Afghanistan, Again?
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Two years ago, when I was last in Afghanistan, soldiers complained to me off the record that there weren’t enough of them to properly fight the war. This time around, in similarly candid moments, I heard a more fundamental complaint: The war doesn’t make sense.
To get the caveats out of the way: This post is based on an unrepresentative sample, drawn from what fewer than a dozen soldiers, airmen and contractors told me at this sprawling military base (and only here). There’s some anecdotal evidence that troops stationed on megabases are prone to greater despair than those serving in more spartan conditions. Most of my interlocutors sought me out to vent; none of them wanted speak on the record, fearing command reprisal. And I’m factoring out the typical (and understandable) deployment gripes. Your mileage will vary around the battlefield. I don’t mean to suggest there’s a groundswell within the ranks against the war. But it would feel irresponsible if I didn’t report the skepticism I heard at Bagram about the course of the Obama administration’s strategy.
Some considered the war a distraction from broader national security challenges like Iran or China. Others thought that its costs — nearly ten years, $321 billion, 1243 U.S. deaths and counting — are too high, playing into Osama bin Laden’s “Bleed To Bankruptcy” strategy. Still others thought that it doesn’t make sense for President Obama simultaneously triple U.S. troop levels and announce that they’re going to start coming down, however slowly, in July 2011. At least one person was convinced, despite the evidence, that firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal meant the strategy was due for an overhaul, something I chalked up to the will to believe.
But if there was a common denominator to their critiques, it’s this: None understood how their day-to-day jobs actually contributed to a successful outcome. One person actually asked me if I could explain how it’s all supposed to knit together.
Something I didn’t hear but expected to: complaints about the rules for using force. Maybe if I had been down south in Kandahar or a witness to the extremely violent fight in Kunar I would have heard the sort of discontent that colored Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal. Instead, while I heard a lot of frustration about dealing with Afghan civilians, I also heard troops offer that rising rates of civilian casualties were a sure path to losing the war.
What they wanted to hear was a sure path — any path — to winning it. Or even just a clear definition of success. If the goal is stabilizing Afghanistan, what does that have to do with defeating al-Qaeda? If this is a war against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda is in the untouchable areas of tribal Pakistan, where the troops can’t go, why not just draw down to a few bases in the east in order to drop bombs and launch missiles? Even if we can’t just do that, what will Afghans consider “stable,” anyway? Is all of this vagueness just a cover so we can decide at a certain point that we can withdraw in a face-saving way, declaring victory as it suits us to cover up a no-win situation? If so, why not just do that now?
Overwhelmingly, these sentiments were expressed to me as questions, not hardened positions. I didn’t find troops going off on political or strategic diatribes. (Well, there was that one guy.) Instead, I heard them try to work out the complexities of a strategy that didn’t quite add up for them. Only two people I talked to sounded resigned to the war amounting to a debacle. One of them considered it a disaster because, in his view, it diverts the United State’s attention from the growing strength of states like Iran and China.
I mentioned to some of my interlocutors that I was going to interview Gen. Petraeus. Their questions to me informed some of my questions to him. Above all: What end state is his campaign plan supposed to bring about? Reducing the Taliban to irrelevance, getting the Taliban to negotiate, or bringing them down just to the point where the Afghan security forces can handle them?
“I think it’s all of the above,” Petraeus answered. “But, obviously, success in this country is an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself, and doing that obviously requires security for the population, neutralizing the insurgent population by a variety of ways. Irreconcilables have to be killed captured or run off.” I wonder if that assuaged any of the skeptical troops I spoke with at Bagram, since those are three rather different endpoints.
During a wide-ranging interview last week, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of NATO troops in Eastern Afghanistan, lamented the U.S.’s inability to speak clearly and compellingly about its war aims after 10 years of fighting. “We can sell Coke and KFC all over the world,” he said, “but we can’t tell people back home why we’re here.” Nor, apparently, the troops down the road from his Disney Drive office.
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