Earlier this month, I spent a week with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations and under the auspices of the Central Command meeting with military and civilian leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, including General David Petraeus. We travelled by C-130 aircraft, Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters and armored vans.
We visited Baghdad and Tikrit in Iraq and Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar bases, several forward bases in Kandahar province as well as a hospital and the Parwan Detection Facility holding insurgents. Our trip terminated in the city of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. We were briefed by more “stars” than in the Big Dipper.
It was a strenuous and enlightening week. One does not become an expert in a week. I did, however, get a better understanding of the terrain, political and economic influences, military capabilities, leadership and strategic considerations. The deadly nature of these enterprises is constantly reinforced. Our cargo on the C-130 to Kandahar was blood.
General Petraeus, in his recent testimony to Congress, said that one has to be cautious about Afghanistan. Iraq is clearer but not without continued ambiguity. My comments are a distillation of what we heard and the conclusions I drew. I will not quote any specific Generals or member of any government. Some of what we were told is classified. A great deal is not.
One opening comment: I was enormously impressed by the US military, both regular and Reserves. The military is proficient in PowerPoint presentations and "spin”. More importantly, they are dedicated, motivated and professional. American business leaders and public officials would benefit from the poise, leadership and motivational training the military displays.
It is not worth debating the reasons we are in Iraq, whether the invasion was wise or the shift of resources to Iraq in 2003 was smart. We now have 50,000 troops in Iraq, an additional 17,000 men and women in support from the State Department and other agencies, and about 50,000 contractors, many of whom supply internal security on US facilities – such as our Embassy.(i)
The US military commitment to Iraq ends on December 31, 2011. The State Department will then be responsible for reconstruction, operating from four compounds throughout the country. It is clear to me that the complete withdrawal of US troops would be a mistake. I believe the US military agrees with this statement but it is above its pay grade to say so. No matter how competent the State Department is, the magnitude of the challenge is too great. The scale will overcome its capacity and lead to poor results.
A look at the issues. Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed and the work on reconstruction has barely begun. There is limited electricity. No power plants were built in the last 3 years. The country needs 12 million megawatts. It has 7. Oil production will be up to 3 million barrels daily by year-end and there is abundant natural gas. Its potential oil output of 10 million barrels daily is limited by pipeline, refining and export terminal capacity.
Iraq has foreign reserves but it lacks a private sector economy. The two legs of its economic stool are oil and religious tourism. 40% of Iraqis work for the Government. Saddam Hussein and the State owned all industry. Worse, L. Paul Bremer, among his disruptive decisions as Provisional Administrator of Iraq during 2003-04, fired all the managers of the State-run infrastructure because most belonged to the Ba’ath Party. There are no managers to rebuild the public utilities or private industry.
There is continued violence. We were scheduled to fly North to Kirkuk. Sandstorms and violence between the Kurds and Sunnis, severe enough to require the attention of General Lloyd Austin and Ambassador James Jeffrey, kept us in Tikrit. An IED (improvised explosive device) attack, the first roadside bomb since 2009, on “Route Irish”, the route downtown from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone, illustrated the underlying tension.
Political leadership remains shaky. The good news is that Iraq does have the semblance of a democracy. The counterpoint is illustrated by vacancies in two key posts - the Ministers of Defense and Oil. The citizens reflecting the Arab “street” have begun to protest the lack of services, putting deserved pressure on the Government. The Government, responding to more immediate priorities, cancelled its purchase of about $1 billion worth of F-16s.
Given these observations, it would seem more prudent to keep a nominal force of perhaps 10,000 troops in Iraq. It would also be logical to station them near the Gulf, to, among other objectives, help protect the oil terminals. The military believes that we have sufficient personnel resources to accommodate this deployment.
The Iraqi Government must request us to stay. While this might be delicate politically, the Iraqis have no ability to defend themselves against external threats. Iraq’s 500,000 army and 300,000 police will focus on internal security but it has neither a navy nor an adequate air force. The US could be asked to continue to train the new Iraqi air force and navy.
Iraq is poised between a rich and tentative democracy and a failed state with oil. Leaving now and relying on non-military resources alone seems short-sighted.
A final word: In a shower room in Tikrit, I asked a Sergeant what he thought of his time in Iraq. “I hope it was all worthwhile,” he said. What more is there to say.
Some of the conclusions are clear. Many are not. We are clearly killing and capturing more insurgents and clearing provinces. The surge is working as it did in Iraq. We are re-integrating former insurgents into Afghanistan society. One estimate is that 5% of the members of the Shuras - the town councils - shot at us at one time. We have trained a lot of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and the Afghanistan National Police (ANP). The ANA is able to lead operations now, though the attrition rates remain unacceptable. We are working with the Shuras to promote democracy and conflict resolution. We are uncovering corruption. Finally, President Obama and the coalition have extended our presence in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 so there is more time to achieve results.
That said, we have been at war 100 days longer than the Soviets. Our troops are getting injured daily and dying. We are spending over $100 billion annually, including $12 billion training and arming the army and police. The country’s GNP is about $25 billion. Our military estimates that there are 25,000 Taliban with about 4,000 at most hard core. The leadership stays in Pakistan. The older Taliban are getting killed and there is a debate about whether the newer and younger Taliban leadership is more radical. The Pakistan border remains porous. The Central Government under President Karzai is notoriously corrupt and unresponsive. We are fighting not only the Taliban but the Haqqani Network(ii), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)(iii) and al-Qaeda. Of the four, al-Qaeda – the reason we invaded in 2001 – seems the least relevant now in terms of continued presence in Afghanistan.
From what I can tell from briefings by our Commanders in the field using biometrics, many forms of intelligence, our technology in terms of advanced weaponry and our troops, we are making military progress. We have cleared a number of provinces and long-term Taliban strongholds like Kandahar City with 850,000 people. We have abundant aerial surveillance including blimps, towers, predators, and a more advanced drone which provide vivid intelligence. As an aside, one wonders why we don’t use this technology on the Mexican border.
Afghanistan is not secure, however. We expect heavy fighting in Helmand and Kandahar as we try to hold on to these areas during the summer fighting season. The Pakistan border allows insurgents to come and go. Three identified ammonia nitrate plants near Pakistan’s border provide explosive material used in IEDs. The situation is reminiscent of Cambodia and the Parrot’s Beak.
The Taliban is increasing its attacks on principally civilian locations which our generals believe show desperation but are deadly. There is potential for a Tet-like offensive (Vietnam 1968) this summer. There are intelligence reports of 400 suicide bombers. The base commanders are alert to such attacks. Three weeks ago, the British intercepted a shipment of newer, more sophisticated rockets being smuggled from
A note about our casualties and the type of war being fought. Because of superb and fast medical attention and improved body armor, fewer of our casualties are dying. However, because of IEDs and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and the manner in which they impact Humvees and even our newer, sturdier MRAPs (mine resistant ambush protected vehicles), our personnel suffer more severe injuries. For example, there are many more life-changing limb and head wounds. I think we are underestimating these losses and their physical and psychological impact on our troops’ lives.
Balancing the above observations and reaching a conclusion of “now what” is excruciating. Our goals, as stated by every commander, are to "win"; to create a "stable and secure” Afghanistan; to eliminate corruption and to promote democracy. The burden is on the military with assistance from civilian agencies to attain these goals. It puts the military in the midst of nation building – a political process. We are more accustomed to our military having such a role in Reconstruction, the Philippines in 1898 and post WWII Japan. Insurgencies are these types of wars, according to our current doctrine.
What does "win" mean? Surely, we are not going to destroy the entire insurgency or eliminate the Haqqani Network. We will never occupy the entire country. What do “secure” and “stable” mean?
Is it a reasonable goal to eliminate corruption? In developed countries, such as our own, we are constantly uncovering corruption among public officials. Corruption is a way of life in Afghanistan.
It is the lack of definitions which is so troubling.
A second issue is how does peace occur? Who starts the process and under what circumstances? Who negotiates with whom? It is clear that, in addition to the Taliban, Pakistan has a major role in the process. I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Pakistan’s views on what type of Afghanistan it prefers. I have been told that Pakistan’s preference is a failed Afghanistan state so it can maintain control and thwart India’s influence. Since Afghanistan won’t be a failed state assuming the US stays the course, what is Pakistan’s next best choice?
Third, we are in the process of nation building to the nth degree. We have nonmilitary, US government employees and NGOs through the Country. They are risking their lives to create a democracy in a country which ranks at the bottom of all nations in almost every category, such as literacy, (28 % literacy overall) and in per capita income. We are encouraging farmers to substitute wheat, vegetables and fruits like pomegranates for poppies. We have a form of the Peace Corps but one aligned with the military and with a lot more money. None of these efforts seem practical or achievable without coalition military presence. Will all these labors pay off by 2014 so we can rely on the ANA, ANP and the Afghanistan Government?
We are doing our best to be sensitive to the culture and avoid harming civilians. In deference to Islam, no liquor or beer is served on our bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. Rules of engagement are designed to minimize collateral damage. On one video recording the targeting of an insurgent, for example, after a bomb was released, an unidentified person entered the target area on a bike. Unable to get a positive identification, the F-15 crew moved the bomb several hundred yards to the left and away from the target where it exploded without injuring the target or the biker.(iv)
I went to Iraq thinking it was the wrong war and nothing I saw changed my mind. In Afghanistan, I am encouraged by the effectiveness of our military effort. We are not the Soviets. We are trying and seem to be succeeding in influencing Afghanistanis towards our goals.
I also understand the geography better. Afghanistan is the territorial nexus between countries of strategic interest to the US – Iran, Pakistan, India, China and former Soviet countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This territory may not be able to be conquered but it cannot be ignored. The stability of Pakistan is the primary concern and the relationship of India and Pakistan. The Taliban itself is not the strategic threat to us despite its brutality and abuse of women’s rights. al-Qaeda can go elsewhere. There is always a failed state or two. The Haqqani Network and LeT will remain lethal. Our military believes that by the end of the next 12 months at the latest or, perhaps, by the end of the summer season, the Taliban will know that it cannot beat us. We are hopeful that, as a result, a segment of the Taliban will move towards peace. It will be a long and difficult summer. There is no doubt about the intensity of fighting. No one knows when the Taliban or which subset will consider compromise. I am not sanguine concerning the prospects of peace. A year from now will be the time for the Obama Administration and NATO to conduct another policy review.
i A number of the contractors are security guards from Peru and Uganda.
ii An independent insurgent criminal group in Afghanistan and Pakistan aligned with the Taliban.
iii A militant Islamic terrorist organization with headquarters in Pakistan which organized the attack in Mumbai.
iv The targeted insurgent was killed subsequently by strafing. I couldn’t help but think that the ability to react so quickly was attributable as much to time playing video games as military training.