Military April 2010

Man Versus Afghanistan

Divided by geography, cursed by corruption, stunted by poverty, staggered by a growing insurgency—Afghanistan seems beyond salvation. Is it? From Somalia and the Balkans to Iraq, the U.S. military has been embroiled in conflicts that reflect an age-old debate: Can individual agency triumph over deep-seated historical, cultural, ethnic, and economic forces? Drawing on his experiences in Iraq, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has his own answer to that question.

With a little peace and development, the hard core of the hydra-headed insurgency, including elements of the HIG and the Taliban, could no longer hide in plain sight, and “we nailed them,” Kolenda said. You couldn’t afford to lose one firefight. Yet when you were not eyes-on-target, you had to show restraint. Kolenda told me about one junior noncommissioned officer who made sure his soldiers did not step on a farmer’s field once they had spread out on open ground. This sounds easy, but such mundane yet critical actions go completely against the grain of high-testosterone young soldiers bred on hunting and chewing tobacco and wanting to be an Army ranger all their lives in order to fight.

By the time Kolenda’s battalion was redeployed out of Kunar and Nuristan, violence had dropped by 90 percent. His battalion didn’t need a Dairy Queen or other amenities to keep their spirits up. As Sergeant Major Mike Hall told me, “If you’re down-range and focused, time goes fast. That is what good morale is all about.”

The measures that Kolenda told me about were not the gold standard. They were merely the minimum required to overcome the forces of geography and history; and they had to be replicated throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan, where each battalion encountered a different mix of clan and sub-clan rivalries.

The coordination of more than a score of such battalions, not to mention 45 Army Special Forces A-teams, Marine special-ops units, and so on, all involved in some aspect of counterinsurgency, is less the job of McChrystal than that of Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez, like McChrystal and Kolenda a West Point graduate, who heads the ISAF Joint Command. If the military coalition in Afghanistan were a newspaper, think of McChrystal as the editor in chief and Rodriguez as the managing editor. McChrystal, atop ISAF, is, as he said, focused “up and out,” dealing with big-think strategic planning, daily interactions with NATO and other members of the 44-country coalition in Afghanistan, the United Nations, the Afghan National Army and National Police, President Karzai, and the ministers of interior and defense, as well as with training indigenous forces and restructuring detainee procedures—that is, exploiting captured Taliban sources, while not mistreating them, and gradually getting America out of the detainee business altogether. Above all, McChrystal has the task of military coordination with Pakistan in the hunt for high-value targets in the borderlands.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, is focused “down and in,” on the day-to-day operations of ISAF, on the deputies of the relevant ministries, the district governors, provincial councils, border police, individual Afghan army units, and so on. Rodriguez, a six-foot-four-inch, gangly, gentle giant with a shock of short salt-and-pepper hair, is the real implementer of President Obama and McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

The shame is that Rodriguez’s three-star command didn’t even come into existence until late 2009: before that, previous commanders such as Generals David McKiernan and Dan McNeill had to combine the two jobs. As a result, neither job got done as well as it should have. Given the demands of both positions, McChrystal isn’t the only one who sleeps just four hours a night; the same could be said for Rodriguez, and for Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. Flying to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif with Eikenberry and Rodriguez, respectively, I noticed how they sleep on planes because they essentially have two back-to-back workdays in each 24-hour period: the line-up of briefings and meetings all day long and the tsunami of emails that arrive after dark once Washington, nine and a half hours behind, gets to work.

Rodriguez flew up to Mazar-e-Sharif to listen to Afghan security forces report on what they had been doing for the past few months. In his quiet, unassuming manner, Rodriguez relentlessly questioned the Afghan officers about the Taliban’s shadow governments and justice system, the integration of local militias into the security forces, improvements on the ring road connecting Mazar-e-Sharif with Herat in the west and Kabul in the east, and the threat level in Kunduz and Baghlan. The Afghans responded with briefs about the extortion of farmers by the HIG in Baghlan and by the Taliban in Kunduz, and about how the enemy was able to attack highways and supply lines coming from Central Asia and erect an alternative tax system, even though it had no permanent bases. Because of problems with translation from Dari to English, the meeting went on for hours.

“This process is slow and painful,” Rodriguez admitted to me afterward. “If we did everything ourselves, it would be quicker, but we wouldn’t leave a legacy. Because the Afghans are deeply involved in all these operations, they own it. For a Soviet-inspired army to talk about rural redevelopment as they did in that meeting is an incredible thing.” Rodriguez told me he constantly flies around to the regional commands for such briefs, bringing with him a train of high-ranking American and Afghan officers and Kabul ministry officials. On this trip, Rodriguez immersed himself with two key Afghans: army Chief of Staff Bismullah Khan and Lieutenant General Sher Mohammad Karimi, head of army operations. (Karimi is from Khost, by the Pakistan border, the lair of the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, and so for very personal reasons, he wants Haqqani “eliminated.”)

The idea is to put the American and Afghan military leaders, as well as low-ranking commanders, down-range together socially, and create a flat, fast organization. As with a similar effort in Iraq, top-down guidance from high-ranking officers gets bottom-up refinement from captains and sergeants. To wit, Rodriguez’s operations center is a vast hangar-like building with no walls or partitions, very much evoking a newsroom environment. “It is an atmosphere in which you error towards sharing what you know,” said Navy Commander Jeff Eggers, a McChrystal adviser.

“I learned at JSOC,” McChrystal explained, “that any complex task is best approached by flattening hierarchies. It gets everybody feeling like they’re in the inner circle, so that they develop a sense of ownership. The more people who believe that they are part of the team and are in the know, the more you don’t have to do it yourself.” As Brigadier General Scott Miller, who runs the Afghanistan-Pakistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, told me about McChrystal and Rodriguez’s philosophy: “Decentralize until you’re uncomfortable, then scrutinize, fix, and push down and out even further, to the level of the sergeants.” Precisely because of the commander’s ability to reach down to the junior noncommissioned officers, a flat military organization puts—in the words of one admiral I interviewed—“performance pressure on everybody.”

This show of organizational dynamism points to a ground truth: despite the awful toll of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the near-breaking of the Army through the strain on soldiers and their families because of long and dangerous deployments, American ground troops are emerging nearly a decade after 9/11 as a force that is even more organizationally and intellectually formidable than it was after the Berlin Wall collapsed, when the United States was the lone superpower. Army and Marine Corps company commanders, for example, can lead in a conventional fight and, as Kolenda’s experience showed, also bring order to chaotic tribal and ethnic messes, all while they communicate effectively up the bureaucratic chain (a skill they began to hone before 9/11, in the Balkans). And these officers have mastered what is, in fact, the colonial technique of partnering with indigenous forces molded in their own image. Rodriguez’s command is a culmination of this whole experience.

But the very dominance of the U.S. military can lead to a dangerous delusion. For the time being, the American media and policy elite are focused on whether U.S. forces can achieve substantial results in 15 months, even though it is a truism of counterinsurgency that there are few shortcuts to victory and you shouldn’t rush to failure. Nevertheless, U.S. forces quite possibly will have quelled some significant part of the anarchy in southern Afghanistan by then: this is the sort of challenge our troops have become expert in. Yet that might only lead to mistaking artificial progress for lasting governance. The very prospect of some success by July 2011 increases the likelihood that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan in substantial numbers for years. In effect, the proficiency of the American military causes it to be overextended. British Major General Richard Barrons, a veteran of the Balkans and Iraq now serving in Afghanistan, told me he learned during the most depressing days in Baghdad that “the long view is the primary weapon against fate.” If you are willing to stay, you can turn any situation around for the good. But that is an imperial mind-set, with its assumption of a near-permanent presence, which today’s Washington cannot abide, even as its own strategy drives toward that outcome.

At the core of a withdrawal strategy is the building of the Afghan army and police force. In charge of this effort is Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, who, like McChrystal and Rodriguez, is a 1976 graduate of West Point, and like them was transformed by the “band of brothers” belief system forged in Iraq. There, as a spokesman, Caldwell “saw us go from the depths of despair to ‘this is going to work.’” He added, “I have a young family, and this will be the third of five Christmases I will be away from them. I did not have to be here, but I absolutely believe in this mission with Stan.”

I challenged Caldwell about reports of 90 percent illiteracy in the Afghan security forces. He answered: “The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy. We’re three or four years behind Iraq in building an army, but if the ground situation improves, like in Iraq, political and media pressure will dissipate, and that will buy time.”

A deal with the insurgents constitutes another part of a withdrawal strategy. While becoming more organizationally formidable since 9/11, the Taliban have also modified their behavior. Mullah Omar has sent out a directive banning beheadings and unauthorized kidnappings as well as other forms of violent and criminal activity, according to both Al-Jazeera and ISAF officials. “In a way, we’re seeing a kinder, gentler Taliban,” said both Commander Eggers and General Flynn. Moreover, in working with the tribes in the spirit of Churchill’s Malakand Field Force, Flynn, the intelligence chief, went so far as to suggest that the insurgent leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are both “absolutely salvageable.” “The HIG already have members in Karzai’s government, and it could evolve into a political party, even though Hekmatyar may be providing alQaeda leaders refuge in Kunar. Hekmatyar has reconcilable ambitions. As for the Haqqani network, I can tell you they are tired of fighting, but are not about to give up. They have lucrative business interests to protect: the road traffic from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Central Asia.” Lamb, the former SAS commander, added: “Haqqani and Hekmatyar are pragmatists tied to the probability of outcomes. With all the talk of Islamic ideology, this is the land of the deal.”

Again, the resemblance to the 1980s is telling, with leading anti-Soviet combatants like Haqqani and Hekmatyar central to the military equation, and a partially irrelevant Karzai: today ISAF officials talk quietly about working around Karzai by dealing directly with the ministries of interior and defense, and with the offices of the provincial governors, all of which they are fortifying with Western advisers.

The possibility of reaching an accommodation with some insurgents against others, as elusive as it may be, suggests how nonlinear the future is, and how deterministic a linear perspective can be. As in Iraq, surprises lie in store, and they might even be good ones: in so many places in Afghanistan, I saw the raw potential of this country. Despite a deadly, intimidating geography of steep and icy peaks that seem to stretch into infinity when seen from the air, in Afghanistan’s cities I encountered many an intellectual in a cold room with boxy furniture, passionately seeking to move beyond ethnic politics to a democratic, liberal universalism. They reminded me of the civil-society types I had met in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, in cities that, like Kabul, stank of lignite in winter. Then there was Herat, an old Silk Road nexus in western Afghanistan, which, despite 30 years of war, had changed remarkably for the better since I had last seen it, as a backpacker in 1973. Back then it was a ramshackle, Wild West town with barely a paved road. Now it is a sprawling, bustling city with malls, on the same level of development as many places in central Turkey that I knew from the 1980s: an improvement replicated in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and other urban areas here, with Kandahar being the striking exception. “Despite 30 years of war,” McChrystal said, in his office, rubbing his eyes from lack of sleep, “civilization grows here like weeds.”

Now the American military is about to bear down hard on Greater Kandahar, where Taliban- and Karzai-affiliated warlords hold considerable sway. “We will get to about 33 percent of the Afghan landmass in the next 15 months or so, affecting 60 percent of the population,” Rodriguez assured me. Once again, we might be poised to overcome the vast, impersonal forces of fate, even as we contribute to our own troubled destiny as a great power.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C.
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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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