21 July 2009

On Afghanistan (again)

I apologize for rambling thoughts, but I haven't gotten much sleep in the past few days.

Once again, I am stuck waiting on a flight.

What's amusing is that I ran into another Soldier here in Kuwait from my unit who has been stuck for nearly a week. He was quite frustrated, since he brought a 1,000 page book with him and finished it within the first two days. If only there was a device for just such an occasion which allows you to bring thousands of books with you in an incredibly portable form...

(Of course, the device does have the occasional drawback. Check out the rather Orwellian solution Amazon used to counter illegal copying and distribution of none other than George Orwell's books. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction.)

With that said, I've taken some time to update myself on the situation in Afghanistan. With the new Afghan surge in full swing, particularly with a NATO offensive in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, things are probably going to develop quickly in Afghanistan. About time, too, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted that it's now-or-never time in Afghanistan, estimating that, unless there is a turnaround within the next year, NATO will begin a drawdown regardless of what goals have been attained.

The campaign in Helmand has been particularly fierce, as has been most of the fighting in the past month or so. July 2009 marks the deadliest month so far in the eight-year war, with over 30 American troops killed in action, in addition to a number of British troops (most notably, eight Soldiers killed in a single day) as well as one Australian (bringing that nation's death count to 11).

The increased death toll is regrettable, for certain. However, an increase in casualties, strangely enough, might be a sign that we're finally doing the counter-insurgency campaign correctly. During the Surge in Iraq of 2007, US troops took considerable tactical risk in moving off of the massive Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), and moving into smaller Combat Outposts (COPs) in the cities. While risky--the death toll increased dramatically in the first half of 2007--it ultimately paid huge dividends, clearing many of the cities of insurgent activities, and allowed US and Iraqi forces to consolidate long-term gains.

I was able to track some of the progress in Helmand in an issue of The Economist that I picked up in a news stand. The article notes that a number of Taliban have slipped past the NATO offensive. Indeed, according to reports, a number of Taliban fighters were able to escape by dressing up in burkhas and masqerading as women.

Now, while the article notes (correctly) that the purpose of counterinsurgency operations is not to produce large numbers of enemy killed and/or captured, it is certainly a desirable end state whenever possible. A few days ago, an analyst (sory, can't find a link) noted that the ability of the Taliban to escape while dressed as women might be attributed to the fact that there weren't enough female Marines to search the "women" who were escaping from the NATO offensive. This goes back to an article a few days ago which highlighted the advantages of having females on the prowl alongside men in counterinsurgency operations.

Further Afghan update:

I swear I need to create a "Ralph Peters" tag for all the nonsensical stuff this guy says. SWJ's Facebook feed has linked to a Fox News interview where retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters--most likely based on pure speculation and possibly RUMINT (RUMor INTelligence)--makes the wild assumption that the missing US Soldier in Afghanistan is can be nothing other than a deserter and therefore deserves to die at the hands of the Taliban. Further, Peters feels that this Soldier is a traitor because he makes anti-American statements, likely under torture and threat of death. Honestly, does anyone take this guy seriously anymore? There's a reason this guy only appears on Fox News and writes for the New York Post.

The "deserter" story doesn't make that much sense. What did he do, just walk off the Forward Operating Base into Afghan territory without being seen by anyone? Peters claims that it's impossible that he fell behind during a patrol, since all Soldiers automatically know where everyone else is. Well, that's true under a best-case scenario. Mistakes have been known to happen...

Additionally, Peters also operates under the assumption that the Taliban will leave him alive for sheer propaganda value. While I can only speculate, keep in mind that Peters grew up during the Cold War, where American POWs were kept alive for propaganda value. Contrast this with the tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004-2005, where American contractors were often beheaded, with videos distributed over the Internet. What the Taliban will do with him is anyone's guess.

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