October 7, 2009

Hold the Fort Theory

To those few who may or may not be following, this concludes our last argument for more US troops in Afghanistan. The demand is one of need, not choice. For all the reasons we calculate more troops, Octopus Mountain opposes the war.

We openly awaited President Obama despite his lack of military knowledge, but he gradually eroded our faith and his handling of Afghanistan's election killed it. He may end up making the right decisions, but right now the lights are on and nobody's home.

Octopus Mountain is working on a special project to highlight what we believe is America's greatest threat if President Obama chooses escalation. Until then...

As the battle raged on the hills near Kamdish, a small village near an isolated US outpost in Nuristan province, it was as if Afghanistan’s whole existence began to play out. Reliving the past through the 2008 Battle of Wanat, where depleted resources and poor base location contributed to a devastating Taliban attack, Kamdish reveals present shortfalls and visions of the future.

No matter what strategy President Obama chooses in Afghanistan, the essence of his goal is to support the Afghan government until it can assume sovereignty of the state. This is the only means to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from retaking the country, to protect and establish legitimacy with the Afghan people, to sustain positive international relations, and to ensure that America withdraws and doesn’t return.

Just a few problems: the government isn’t credible, the army isn’t field ready, the Taliban is gaining strength, and American political approval is plummeting. By staying in Afghanistan, President Obama, no matter the course, must hold down the fort until these problems reverse themselves.

"I would not commit to more combat troops at this time," said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin at a recent hearing. "There's a lot of other things that need to be done to show resolve. What we need a surge of is Afghan troops."

This strategy is akin to leaving the fort undermanned, in some cases unguarded, until the troops arrive several years later. The Afghan army is America’s surest exit strategy, but it’s not close to unlocking the door out. America won’t be able to conduct a proper counterinsurgency in the present security vacuum if more US troops, civilians, and resources aren’t committed for next year and beyond.

At least that’s what Jamaluddin Badar, provincial governor of Nuristan, told reporters soon after the Taliban attack.

The Kamdish outpost’s fate exposes a vivid truth. Officials had planned its dismantling since last year before an estimated 300 militants overran it, according to police chief Muhammad Qasim Jangulbagh. The outpost was one of many forgone by McChrystal as part of an rural withdrawal to protect cities and prop up a weak Afghan government. Badar said he was unaware the outpost was closing.

So many wrongs to choose from.

Troop deficits are evident in ratio, borders, and enemy. About 140 US and Afghan soldiers manned the outpost, leaving them outnumbered two to one. A militant influx, Badar had warned, was crossing the porous border seeking refuge from the Pakistani army’s ongoing operations. Communication is clearly lacking between American and Afghan officials, meanwhile the Taliban once gain deployed a large scale formation to shock and awe.

Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a US military spokesman, said, “Virtually everything that could be thrown at it was thrown at it" - attack helicopters, warplanes, and drones.

Underestimating the Taliban would be the end for America, but on to the real question: what happens to the countryside while America is preoccupied in the cities? Badar used the attack to get his message out, telling reporters, "I have already warned the central government to help us and send more Afghan soldiers, and I warned the American soldiers they need to be more serious and stop the Taliban. But unfortunately, nobody listened to me."

Senator Levin and those of like mind should listen when Badar says he has a shortage of US and Afghan soldiers and an incompetent police force; he’s probably low on political clout and resources too. Nation-building will be impossible in this environment without more troops to secure it.

A quicker training program for Afghan security forces isn’t the answer Badar’s problem. He claims the province will fall to the Taliban if US troops begin phasing out. “I request that they stay," he said. "If they leave, it will be very dangerous for Nurestan."

Wanat and Kamdish are just two blips in an endless conflict, but they project a larger image onto Afghanistan, which in its entirety is like an American fort. America occupies an outpost
awaiting reinforcements in the far reaches of central Asia, low on supplies, surrounded by foreign terrain, unsecured borders, cultural confusion, and hostility.

The lesson is found in the aftermath, not the heat of the battle.

Ultimately Kamdish wasn’t overrun. Like Wanat, Taliban soldiers pushed into the base itself, but US and Afghan forces repulsed the Taliban and inflicted heavy losses. Yet in the Taliban’s mind a great victory was won. Regroup, attack, regroup, attack. America could hold the base or eventually give it up, the outcome is the same. The base company commander said US troops rarely visited Kamdish, a mile away, because it was too dangerous.

Wanat met a similar fate. Though the Taliban managed to capture the outpost, US forces retook it three days later before eventually abandoning it, deciding the resources were urgently needed elsewhere. The result of these battles is stalemate, not winners and losers. If President Obama freezes troop levels in favor of training Afghan forces and counter-terrorism, hoping to hold the fort, he will remain in stalemate for years to come.

These problems aren’t going to change and Hamid Karzai isn’t the answer - America needs decisions from President Obama. National Security Adviser James Jones is right, the fort won’t be overrun any time soon.

But stalemate almost tastes like victory to the Taliban.

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