As an example, when the Fourth Brigade Combat Team handed over its only combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghan security forces in April, the US commander in the area, Lt. Col. Thomas S. Rickard, promised to continue occasional sweeps to support government security forces. But he also wanted to focus his efforts on areas that had larger populations.
The result was not encouraging. Within days of the handover, the Taliban had raised its flag within sight of the outpost. Although it appears the Afghan forces were willing to fight, they were badly outclassed by the Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban simply moved in and occupied the security post. A coalition spokesman tried to put the best face on the failure, saying, “We deemed it not to be strategic and closed it,” he said, adding, “The Taliban went in and occupied it because it was vacant.”
Be that as it may, questions abound regarding the ability of the Afghan army to pick up the slack when NATO troops pull out. Special Operations warriors can carry out raids and target specific individuals for capture or death. They can also carry out reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, and call down drone strikes on high value targets. But they are unsuited to the task of playing glorified policemen. Ideally, that’s the job of the Afghan army, with US soldiers acting as consultants or advisers. That sort of mission is too high profile for the secretive special ops soldiers, who prefer working in the shadows.
Beyond the questions regarding the capabilities of the Afghan army and the confusing mission of Special Operations personnel, there is the huge problem of winning the Afghan people to the government’s side. This was one of General David Petraeus’s major goals when he announced his plans for the surge in troops in 2009. By pacifying population centers, freeing them from Taliban control, while the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) move in and improve the lives of ordinary Afghans by building schools, mosques, and infrastructure, it was believed that the people’s loyalty would flow to the government in Kabul rather than the Taliban.
To date, it hasn’t worked that way, and given the fact that troops will be leaving by 2014, it appears probable that the concept will never work.
An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel profiling local PRT officers points up the daunting challenges faced by the reconstruction teams as they work with local officials to bring water, electricity, roads, and other amenities to the provinces. They also seek to develop economic infrastructure in order to boost local economies. One such effort involves developing an agriculture production system where none existed before. Capt. Gena Selby is working with Afghan officials to figure out ways to improve transportation and storage of crops and boost marketing. She is also working to set up an agricultural resource center so that local farmers can improve their farming methods.
“Farmers have no incentive to change their practices if they can’t get more money for their crops and if there’s not a market,” said Selby. She also listed the almost impossible challenges she faces: “You need transportation to move your crops to market. You need packaging and grading, sorting and milling to preserve it or canning if you want to make jams and jellies,” Selby said.
Very little of that — not even the roads — currently exist in Afghanistan.
Another PRT member hit upon the biggest problem facing these dedicated soldiers and public servants. “Afghanistan is tribal based, and if you had a problem you went to the tribal elders. Now we’re trying to get people to understand they can come to the government.”
This is where our nation-building efforts have landed us in Afghanistan. We are trying to alter a culture that has done things a certain way for a thousand years, attempting to make a nation-state out of a collection of farmers and small artisans who have never contemplated any identity other than that defined by their clan, or tribe, or village. Kabul is so remote to almost all of them that it may as well be on the surface of the moon. They appear angry at the occupation of their villages — not because they believe it violates Afghanistan’s sovereignty, but rather for the much more mundane reason that the fighting disturbs the familiar rhythms of their lives. They don’t like the Taliban much either, but at least they’re local.
The downing of the helicopter carrying 30 brave Americans is a tragedy. But perhaps a bigger tragedy is that we are still in Afghanistan after 10 years of failure — asking our courageous soldiers to do the impossible.
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