Report From a Forgotten War (5th and Last in a Series)

Posted: Sep 05, 2008 12:01 AM
Report From a Forgotten War (5th and Last in a Series)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- It is good to be heading home, where there are paved roads, no Russian landmines, and the man standing at the next intersection isn't going to blow himself to pieces trying to kill me, my family and my friends. At home, drinkable water comes out of a faucet, not just from a plastic bottle. Home is where meals come on plates -- not in brown plastic bags -- and we have air conditioning and fresh green vegetables and showers last as long as we want. At home, we go to work in coats and ties instead of body armor and helmets. At home, our vehicles don't have turrets, and if we drive after dark, we use headlights instead of night-vision goggles. At home, "overhead cover" is protection from the elements, not a defense from enemy rocket or mortar fire.

In America, we take all these things for granted. Here in the shadows of the Hindu Kush, however, ignoring any of them could get a soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman or Marine killed. Unfortunately, the so-called mainstream media has ignored this fight for so long that few in the U.S. are even aware of the challenges confronting our 33,000 troops in this always difficult and often dangerous place. For the benefit of those who care, here are some particulars that the potentates of the press generally have overlooked. First, the bad news:

--Islamic radicals know that their cause is lost in Iraq, so remnants of the Taliban, al-Qaida and foreign fighters intent on joining a jihad against the West are flooding into Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran. Factions in both neighboring countries are providing safe haven and training and material support to those who want to overthrow the democratically elected government in Kabul.

--Despite seven years of United Nations and NATO "assistance" to Afghanistan, the Afghan army still has fewer than 85,000 troops, and the country still has only one paved highway (Route 1, the "Ring Road"). As we were reminded firsthand on this trip, the dirt tracks that pass for roads here are laced with landmines and improvised explosive devices, causing numerous U.S. and Afghan casualties and isolating the population.

--Illicit drug production -- heroin/opium/hashish/marijuana, the only real cash crops in the country -- is an enormous criminal enterprise, generating more than $5 billion in cash to benefit the Taliban and corrupt officials in the Afghan government.

--The U.N.-led "economic reconstruction" of Afghanistan is a miserable failure. The number of displaced refugees, life expectancy, live birth rate, illiteracy, childhood disease, malnutrition and unemployment all are getting worse instead of better because of incompetence, corruption and lack of coordination among "international donors." The Taliban insurgency thrives on ignorance and misery. As one U.S. officer put it, "We're feeding the beast."

--There is no coherent command-and-control structure or common set of operating procedures among U.S. forces, the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police or the 25 other nations in NATO's International Security Assistance Force, nearly all of which have different rules of engagement or national caveats on how they will be employed. Though some U.S. units, such as the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the 101st Airborne Division, have integral air support, others have to rely on the ISAF. As a result, wounded Americans have waited hours for casualty evacuation, and sometimes it never comes.

Now the good news. Though there are significant cultural and tribal differences between Afghanistan and Iraq -- the military/security situation in Afghanistan is similar to what it was in Mesopotamia 2 1/2 years ago -- they are equally "winnable" if we do the right things. Some repairs will take time, but these are needed urgently:

--Inform both the Pakistani and Iranian governments that insurgent cross-border operations will not be tolerated and that if Taliban/terror bases on their territories are not closed, they will be attacked.

--Commence building paved roads throughout all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, not just in urban areas. Such projects will generate tens of thousands of jobs, create lasting infrastructure, reduce casualties from IEDs and mines, and show the Afghan people that their government cares about them.

--Stop illicit drug production from the top down, not the bottom up. Arrest and prosecute the kingpins, and then go for eradication and crop replacement. It worked in Colombia, and it can work in Afghanistan.

--Fix the unity of command problem immediately. The NATO-ISAF command structure should be shut down. "Allied" forces that can't or won't fight should be thanked and sent home. More U.S. troops are needed desperately in Afghanistan, but unless Gen. Petraeus is given clear lines of authority to do what has to be done, the Afghan army and police never will get the equipment and training they need. He did it in Iraq. Now he needs to do it in Afghanistan.

The Afghan people don't want to be ruled by Islamic radicals. Afghan soldiers -- properly trained, equipped, led and supported -- are brave and fight well, but they can't win unless these problems are fixed. Neither they nor the young Americans serving here should have to wait for a new administration in Washington to make the necessary repairs.