April 1, 2006  

An imperiled mission?

President’s visit to Afghanistan fails to ease concerns for future

Interrupting his long-planned trips to India and Pakistan for a “surprise” March 1 visit to Kabul, President Bush reiterated the U.S. commitment to the country: “We want to be here to help Afghanistan grow its democracy and defend those who … can’t stand the thought of terrorism. … Our desire is to see this country flourish and set a great example not only in the neighborhood, but around the world.” The president is partial to these grand rhetorical flourishes, but in the Afghan blogosphere, the U.S. mission has grown increasingly imperiled since the September 2005 National Assembly elections.

At Afghan Warrior, “Waheed,” a translator for U.S. military trainers in Kabul, points out that voter participation rates tumbled by a third between the October 2004 presidential election and last September’s election. He blames voter alienation on the government’s failure to deliver such basic necessities as electricity and safe water. Simple proof of the government’s handicaps: The National Assembly election was repeatedly delayed from May to September.

Meanwhile, the Taliban seized on the post-election security lull to launch large-scale attacks against government and religious leaders in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. In the February issue of Armed Forces Journal, Sean Naylor described the Taliban strategy to simultaneously coax U.S. forces into continuing their drawdown from the region while establishing a shadow government through intimidation of the local tribesmen. Civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and their local partners also have come under increased attack.

To cap things off, the Muhammad cartoon protests reinforce how susceptible the Afghans remain to anti-Western provocation. At Afghan Lord, an independent Afghan journalist who uses the pseudonym Sohrab Kabuli indicates the power of rumor when he reports — based on hearsay — that PRT soldiers “used poison gas against extremists and protesters,” a dangerous reputation to have in a region where governments have used chemical weapons in recent memory.

What have Afghanistan-based U.S. war bloggers written about these developments? Surprisingly little. Accepting that the U.S. military blogging community in country is far smaller than in Iraq, there is little reference in the 30-odd blogs that are maintained by U.S. troops on these developments.

A welcome exception is Fortunate Son, an excellent, incisive blog maintained by a civil-affairs soldier based in Jalalabad PRT. Although this soldier clearly believes in his mission, he also describes the poisonous effect of pressure on his commanders to avoid risk rather than execute PRT missions in the face of continuous improvised explosive device attacks: “[A] KIA incident is disgraceful and can be a career-ending event for commanders if investigations find the slightest deviation from the increasingly constrictive [standard operating procedures], regardless of whether they would have made a difference. … Soldiers are spending more and more time inside the wire and less out amongst the local population building relationships and rebuilding infrastructure and governments.”

To an outsider, it might seem that if a 70- to 90-man PRT is coming under such constant attack that it cannot maintain adequate force protection and execute its mission, the logical answer would be to deploy more direct-action troops to the area and secure it for PRT missions. But the Pentagon’s plan for reclaiming victory in southern Afghanistan is to shift responsibility for peacekeeping to our NATO allies while we draw down our presence in the country from 19,000 to 16,500 troops. To take our place, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have pledged to send almost 6,000 soldiers to take their places in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces, the latter of which has the special distinction of being the birthplace of “Blind” Mullah Omar, the senior Taliban cleric and host of Osama bin Laden.

Will NATO troops be able to restore, maintain and expand upon the activities of their American predecessors? Most likely not. Force protection is the overwhelming concern of all three countries, and the Netherlands is debating whether to send their troops at all in light of the increased violence there.

Even the Afghans recognize a difference in professional quality and moral commitment between U.S. and NATO troops. When the author of Going Down Range told an Afghan interpreter that the Europeans or Canada would be coming to take over security in the region, his interpreter responded with the common attitude of his countrymen: “It was the Americans who liberated us, not the Europeans,” and that he remained certain that Americans were unafraid to die with Afghans to free Afghanistan from the Taliban.

The surest means to resolve this dilemma will be for the United States to increase troop levels in Afghanistan to the point necessary to roll back Taliban gains in the south and permit greater PRT operations. Bush’s visit to Kabul was an important demonstration of American commitment to Afghanistan’s success as a fledgling democracy. The question that remains is whether we will carry out that commitment by bolstering, rather than outsourcing, security in southern Afghanistan.

In addition to those mentioned in this month’s BoW, other excellent war blogs from Afghanistan include M.A.N., Miserable Donuts and Afghanidan. As a general resource, www.milblogging.com deserves special mention as a catalog of more than 1,249 military blogs in 49 countries. Also of note: A milblogging conference is scheduled for April 22 in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Griffin is a researcher in the Asian studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.