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"Are We Going to Keep Winning For 20 Years?": The Insane Reality of the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan

On the front lines of Obama's campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban are seamlessly embedded within communities, and the cops are stoned.

Major Jim Contreras was awaiting his marching orders. Literally. Stuck in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Afghan province of Helmand, he was supposed to take his troops, along with a unit of an elite Afghan police force known as ANCOP, to secure the area around Nawa, so the people there could vote. It was part of the past year's biggest U.S. offensive against the Taliban. But he couldn't leave, because his Afghan counterparts hadn't gotten their official order from the Ministry of Interior. The order had been signed five days earlier, but it had to be delivered to the commander, Colonel Gulam Sakhi Gahfori, by courier, with its seal intact. Then again, Colonel Sakhi had also not gotten basic supplies like fuel, ammunition, and radios. Contreras and Sakhi spent a fair amount of time discussing how the Afghans were to refuel at Nawa. Nobody knew if there were any gas stations there.

Contreras is a small man with a big grin who served in Bosnia, Haiti, and the first Gulf War. He was excited about his work in Afghanistan. He believed he was fighting to protect the American way of life. His wife had been working near the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11. "This is in its infancy," he said. "We're beginning to see the military might that we as a nation can bring."

That evening Contreras' men, an Illinois National Guard unit dubbed Team Ironhorse, sat waiting to be briefed by their CO. The dozen men were all scouts, and some were snipers, all trained by their recently killed first lieutenant to be "meat eaters." But the months of daily operations and shitting in bags had taken a toll. They resented being sent on missions that weren't theirs, the neglect they felt, the lack of progress. One sergeant's parents owned a hardware store and sent the team four tow straps to pull their vehicles out of sand and mud because their request through military channels had gone nowhere.

Major Contreras said Ironhorse's mission was to escort the ANCOP to the Nawa area, which a Marine unit was trying to secure so Afghan authorities could take over. He also said guys in police uniforms were harassing civilians. Whether they were impostors or Afghan National Police (ANP) the ordinary and often corrupt cops that Ironhorse's ANCOP partners looked down on was anyone's guess. He told his men to plan for seven days in the field. "The reason why we're going down is to put an Afghan face on the mission," he said.

The men looked skeptical. "Duration of mission and number of legitimate police in Nawa and how will ANP get along with ANCOP?" Staff Sergeant Robert McGuire tersely asked without moving or looking at the major. Staff Sergeant Tim Verdoorn complained that Team Ironhorse would be doing the Marines' job. As the major concluded his briefing, McGuire loudly muttered, "It's a cocksuck." After Contreras left, McGuire added, "That was very well thought out." I asked him to elaborate. "Fuel will be the biggest issue," he said. "We don't know where we're gonna live. We're not taking tents."

Contreras had his own worries. The Marines had chosen a school as their base, and British forces in the area had warned against occupying schools. "The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and fucking charge," he told me later. They might not be suited for counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency, or COIN, has been in vogue at the Pentagon since the success of the Iraq surge, and its dominance was cemented when President Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, former head of special operations forces and a recent convert to counterinsurgency, as his commander in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Obama promulgated his new strategy "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." The primary tool would be COIN.

Counterinsurgency theorists obsessively study "small wars," such as the British war in Malaya, the French war in Algeria, and the wars in Vietnam. The emphasis is on using the least amount of violence against the enemy, familiarity with the local culture, and painstakingly removing popular support for the insurgents. This involves using proxy forces to kill those who cannot be "reconciled," and searching for political solutions that tempt the civilian population away from the insurgents.

In some ways, COIN and the related "stability operations" doctrine are a rejection of the neoconservative focus on military might as the key tool of foreign policy. Just as the neocons ruled the Pentagon under George W. Bush, so it seems that the proponents of "population-centric" fighting now have a preponderance of influence in the Obama administration.

To liberals, these COINdinistas, as they are dubbed, might seem kindred spirits. They emphasize nonlethal means, humanitarian aid, development work, and protecting the civilian population. They recognize that military force alone cannot solve conflicts, and that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military did not know how to operate in a war where "the terrain is the people." But the end result is still a foreign military occupation which is not America's stated goal in Afghanistan.