Monday, April 6, 2009
With increased troop commitments, U.S. steps up fight against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, drug cartels
By Rick Rogers
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
More generals, defense analysts and lawmakers are predicting a tough slog in Afghanistan as the United States re-energizes its military effort to stabilize the war-torn nation.
They said victory in Afghanistan – a graveyard for invading powers throughout history – is a must because the area is a breeding and staging ground for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and drug cartels.
Against this backdrop, President Barack Obama recently announced the United States will bolster its 38,000-member force there by sending 4,000 more troops to train the Afghan army and police. He also authorized deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by summer's end.
The increases will push the U.S. troop count to 59,000, including 1,400 Marines from two battalions at Camp Pendleton and a squadron from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Future deployments will likely involve thousands of local Marines.
In addition, U.S. allies have a combined 32,000 troops in Afghanistan operating under NATO command. Yesterday, NATO allies pledged additional military trainers and security forces.
Obama and his military advisers have warned the public to brace for more dead and wounded in Afghanistan because of an increasingly bold insurgency and stepped-up combat operations.
As of yesterday, 1,124 troops in the U.S.-led coalition – including 673 Americans – have died since the war began in 2001, according to icasualties.org. The coalition suffered 78 deaths from January through March, compared with 40 in the same period last year.
In a March 27 attack, an insurgent posing as an Afghan soldier opened fire on Camp Shaheen in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed Navy Lt. Florence Choe of El Cajon. She was one of two service members who died in the attack.
Some military officials and defense specialists said it could take years to achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan.
“It will get better, but I don't know that it will happen very soon,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the Army's deputy director of regional operations. “This is a long struggle.”
Transforming Afghanistan into anything resembling a democracy could take half a century, said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research group in Arlington, Va.
Afghanistan, he said, lacks every political, economic, social and military advantage that has helped the United States bring relative calm to much of Iraq, and support a democratically elected federal government.
“It ain't got nothing anybody wants except opium poppy,” said Goure, referring to the lucrative crop that funds insurgents and drug cartels. “It is centuries behind pretty much every other nation on Earth.”
Civil wars and invasions have been Afghanistan's enduring legacy since Ahmad Shah Durrani established the Durrani Empire in 1747, considered the beginning of modern Afghanistan.
Two centuries ago, a British intelligence officer described the rivalry between the British and Russian empires over Afghanistan as “The Great Game.”
That “game” hit a bloody crescendo in 1842, when Afghans annihilated an entire British army of 16,500 as it fled the capital of Kabul.
The Soviet Union also learned a hard lesson from its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In about nine years of fighting before the Soviets withdrew, more than 13,300 Soviet troops died.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime and helped create a central government headed by President Hamid Karzai. But Karzai holds little sway beyond Kabul because the Taliban has strengthened in the past few years.
Today, about 60 percent of Afghanistan's citizens are illiterate and most of its people don't own radios, televisions or telephones, according to the State Department and the United Nations. Just 12 percent of the land is arable; there are few natural resources and little industry.
Afghanistan experts said the lack of a middle class, rampant graft and deep-rooted ethnic and tribal conflicts make it difficult to maintain democratic governance, especially in a country with no tradition of a strong central government.
Another hurdle to long-term peace, they said, is the lack of a large and professional military. The United States and its NATO allies will need to help develop, instead of just retool, the armed forces.
To quell the insurgency in Afghanistan, Obama said he's counting as much on building schools, hospitals and utility systems as on military might. The view that triumph there demands a nuanced, diverse strategy is espoused by commanders and troops who have seen the country's problems.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which is used to make heroin. The crop's $3 billion annual value accounts for about 40 percent of the gross domestic product – and much of the nation's strife because that money helps pay off corrupt officials and bankrolls anti-government violence.
In an October 2006 speech, Marine Gen. James Jones, then NATO's supreme allied commander, said drug cartels' private armies regularly battled NATO forces.
“They are truly the Achilles' heel of Afghanistan,” said Jones, now Obama's national security adviser. “It would be wrong to say the Taliban is the whole problem.”
Jones and other Obama administration officials have made similar comments since January.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is a montage of groups with differing agendas, said some Marines who recently did combat duty in Afghanistan.
They include Lt. Col. Richard Hall and Capt. William Osborne of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms.
From March until December, Hall and Osborne patrolled the Hindu Kush escarpments to the poppy fields of Helmand and Farah provinces.
Instead of labeling enemy fighters as Taliban or al-Qaeda, they simply called them anti-government forces. The term encompasses foreign terrorists to poppy farmers protecting what for them is a subsistence crop.
“We really need to stop using the word Taliban. Today, they are narco-terrorists, criminals and opportunists,” said Hall, the battalion's commander.
“So many elements are not tied to the Taliban,” Osborne added for emphasis.
Also jostling for influence are Afghanistan's neighbors and other governments with a stake in the country.
Defense analyst Goure said Pakistan and India want influence in southern and northeastern Afghanistan, while Iran is bent on preventing the United States from sandwiching it with footholds in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia is concerned that a U.S.-leaning Afghanistan could undermine the Kremlin's power over former Soviet republics in the region. Meanwhile, China is widely seen as a growing rival to the United States across Asia.
“You have NATO and the United States in the middle. I can't think of another place as complicated and difficult and challenging,” Goure said. “I think most of the rivals would like to see the United States' effort fail for different reasons.”
Troops and defense specialists said U.S. policy must concentrate on providing security, boosting basic services, creating jobs and giving farmers an alternative to growing opium.
Destroying poppy fields is a losing strategy, said Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, both research groups in Washington, D.C.
“We should buy the opium,” Korb said. “No one would like to see Afghanistan as a failed narco-terrorist state.”
Capt. Ross Schellhaas, who commanded a 1st Marine Division company in Afghanistan last year, expressed hope that America can follow through on its promise of making life better for Afghans.
“I know the people would prefer improvements by the government of Afghanistan and the (U.S.-led) coalition . . . more than what the Taliban does,” he said.