Friday, March 27, 2009

learning from your mistakes

I believe I have said it before. Yes, in fact, I said it here: Afghanistan portends to continue to be a nasty little war.

Now don't get me wrong: American troops in combat can do amazing things. Given a strategy to win, they will win. Every time.

It took us a while to figure things out in Iraq, but eventually that puzzle was pieced together.

And what was part of that puzzle? The surge--but NOT JUST THE NUMBERS! There was much more to that game-changing strategy than merely increasing our footprint. A change in fight tactics was critical to the success those new troops found.

Enter Afghanistan, the most obvious "next stage" in what used to be called the War on Terror.

The Administration is putting together its own plan right now, and I honestly and sincerely wish them all the luck in the world.

And I also offer them this advice, free of charge and probably worth every penny:

Don't play by the rules.

One of the lessons that I, personally, took from Iraq is that you can't worry about the hearts of the natives until the natives aren't so worried about their necks.

This lesson has applicability in Afghanistan, to be sure. We are up against a great deal of obstacles, one of which is a "central" government that has absolutely no sovereignty over large swaths of the country.

And those remote areas are the hardest areas in which U.S. forces will fight.

And it won't help our fight if we have to act with one hand tied behind our back.

So here's what I propose: President Obama uses some of his much-ballyhooed international credibility to "influence" NATO to pay plentiful dinero to the Afghani and Pakistani governments to allow the organization to temporarily "annex" all the provinces along the border of Pakistan from Nimroz to Nuristan--on both sides of the border.

And THEN, we use a massive full-bore military operation into the provinces to hopefully achieve some serious clearing action.

With the combat troops focused on the border regions, the more civil-affairs elements of our presence in-country can help the central government of Afghanistan get it's act together.

Crazy idea? Of course it is--but let's look at what it might enable:

-- a strong cash flow into the central governments might not be the best thing in terms of getting real increases in services to the citizens of the countries-but at least it will keep the government from openly stoking anti-"invader" sentiment;
-- by decreasing the amount of land that the central government is responsible for securing, we can only help the short-term self-governing ability of the Afghan government. By the time they resume control of the now-troublesome border regions, those areas should be completely devoid of troublemakers;
-- by taking sole sovereignty over the border regions, NATO forces (with the US in the lead) would be unfettered in establishing a military infrastructure most likely to help achieve combat victories;
-- I don't think I can state strongly enough how making the "virtual" border between Afghanistan and Pakistan disappear will help in our fight against insurgents;

and many many more.

Expensive? Heck yes. But this is going to be a costly war, period. The only way to decrease the cost is to make sure it doesn't turn into a Soviet-style multi-year occupation.

And the only outcome that I find acceptable is the defeat of the Taliban, and the end of insurgent or extremist strongholds all along the Afghani-Paki border.

How to win in a place that no army has ever won before? Don't fight the way any one has fought before.

What we need is to find a way to bring the superior ability of the Western military to bear in a fashion that will achieve sustainable progress. And since Afghanistan is a big country, we need to focus that power where it's needed most: at the strongholds of the bad guys.

We have to find a way to "clear and hold" lands that have never even been cleared. What better way to "hold" than to have bases of operation in the hill country? We can do that IF we aren't overoccupied with keeping the more populated areas under wraps. Let the Afghanis do that--they should be able to handle it. All that extra cash will hopefully buy a job or two in the security business for the locals, you know--and maybe even buy some competent law enforcement too, if we're lucky.

We need to shut down the border--and the best way to do that is to take responsibility for both sides of the line.

And MOST IMPORTANTLY: we have to convey an "all in" attitude. I am thoroughly convinced that the victory in Iraq was as much about persistence as it was anything else. When there were voices the world over that were calling our efforts there a total failure, there was unwavering direction from the oval office.

Now Pres. Obama talks a good game on Afghanistan. Heck, the additional troops is more than talk--that's pretty darn close to a flat-out walk of the walk. And SecDef Gates has put it on paper that the Unites States cannot be seen as losing in Afghanistan.

But until there is a STRATEGY--a break-the-mold strategy--to accompany the somewhat unimaginative increase in troops, there will always be a question about the will of the administration.

Doing something as bold, as risky, and as potentially game-changing as what I recommend above would take all hope away from the enemy.

And THAT is a victory all its own.


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