Lost in Afghanistan

Posted: May 31, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- The handful of valiant American warriors fighting the "other" war in Afghanistan is not a happy band of brothers. They are undermanned and feel neglected, lack confidence in their generals and are disgusted by Afghan political leadership. Most important, they are appalled by the immense but fruitless effort to find Osama bin Laden for purposes of U.S. politics.

 This bleak picture goes unreported because journalists are rarely seen in that rugged country. It was painted to me by hard U.S. fighters who are committed to the war against terrorism but have a heavy heart. They talked to me not to undermine policy but to reveal problems that should and can be corrected.

 Afghanistan constitutes George W. Bush's clearest victory since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban regime has been overthrown, eliminating al Qaeda's most important base. But the overlooked war continues with no end in sight. Narcotics trafficking is at an all-time high. If U.S. forces were to leave, the Taliban -- or something like it -- would regain power. The U.S. is lost in Afghanistan, bound to this wild country and unable to leave.

 The situation in Afghanistan, as laid out to me, looks nothing like a country alleged to be progressing toward representative democracy under American tutelage. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan president, is regarded by the U.S. troops as hopelessly corrupt and kept in power by U.S. force of arms.

 Those arms are not what they seem. The basic U.S. strength in Afghanistan is 17,000 troops of "straight-legged" infantry -- conventional forces ill-prepared to handle irregulars. The new unit assigned to Afghanistan is the 25th Infantry Division, which has been stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and has not seen combat since the Vietnam War.

 More important than this conventional infantry division are two commando units known as Black SOF (Special Operations Forces) and White SOF. Black SOF, by far the more numerous of the two, is assigned to capture Osama bin Laden. Nothing would do more to boost President Bush's sagging popularity than getting the designer of the 9/11 attacks.

 The problem, however, is that nobody I have talked to in the military thinks his capture is likely or may even be possible. The American fighting men think "UBL" (as he is called) is hiding in Pakistan, impossible to find. Most exasperating to the men in the field is the manpower and effort expended on what they consider to be a helpless cause.

 It is White SOF that is given the task of confronting armed narco-terrorists on a day-by-day basis. There are hardly more than 100 American soldiers assigned to this duty, many of them bearded and dressed as Afghans. They are augmented by British and New Zealand special forces, CIA paramilitaries and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) operatives.

 They are also hamstrung by senior officers who may be expert in conventional warfare but are at a loss to understand American troops far closer in style to Lawrence of Arabia than George Patton. The special operations soldiers and junior officers have a low opinion of Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the U.S. military commander. On paper, he looks good: West Pointer, Ranger, veteran of the Grenada and Panama invasions. But the men who grow beards and wear Afghan headgear grumble that Barno does not have a clue.

 It is a strange war, with the JAGs -- Judge Advocate General military lawyers -- given a hand in military decisions. My sources tell of military commanders, despite credible intelligence of enemy forces, calling off air strikes on the advice of JAGs. This is the kind of restraint the U.S. military has experienced starting with the Korean War, when as a non-combat Army officer, I knew our forces had their hands tied behind their backs.

 I am told that one discouraged and now discharged Special Forces officer, who always has voted Republican and personally admires President Bush, thought about contacting a former military colleague now advising John Kerry. He decided that would accomplish nothing and would inject him in politics. Being lost in Afghanistan transcends politics and is a long-term American burden.