Get Rid of the Foreign Devils

March 22, 2010

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

It’s been a month since the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began Operation Mushtarak, an effort to drive the Taliban out of Marjah in Afghanistan.

ISAF consists of mostly US troops, aided by NATO and Afghan forces, who all must be wondering, “What’s the point?”

Though classed as a “town,” Marjah is really a 100-square-mile collection of small farms. It is part of Helmand province, 22,600 square miles in southern Afghanistan that are securely under the control of the Taliban. Operation Mushtarak injected 10,000 or 15,000 ISAF troops into Marjah, with plenty of advance warning. Apparently, ISAF leader U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal thought that advance warning of the ‘invasion’ would scare the Taliban off, thus ensuring a swift and easy victory. It didn’t. The Taliban took the time between the warning and the invasion, not to run for the hills, but to harden their positions, set up sniper and ambush positions, and plant plenty of IED’s.

ISAF forces spent about three weeks sweeping through an area that should have been cleared in three days. Reports of casualties among ISAF forces, Taliban, and civilians conflict and vary widely. The lack of frank information coming out of Marjah indicates the operation was largely a failure.

The Taliban still are in Marjah, though in smaller numbers, planting bombs, assassinating government sympathizers, and doing what terrorists generally do. Unless ISAF leaves a division permanently to guard this inconsequential settlement, the Taliban will drift back in over the next few months. By May, it will be as though they never left.

Think of a truck driving down a road in a heavy rain. As the truck rumbles by, the water on the road is pushed away and you can see bare, damp, pavement. Within a few seconds, the water returns and it’s as if the truck had never been there. That’s what’s happening almost anywhere the US, the Afghan government, or ISAF go. As soon as they pass through, the Taliban flows in and it is as if they had never left.

The British and the Russians previously experienced this phenomenon in Afghanistan and the French, Japanese, British, then French again, then Americans saw the same thing happen to them in Viet Nam. Why? Because underlying all of this is the issue of foreign occupation. No matter how nasty the Viet Cong or the Taliban, they are at least locals. They are not the foreign devils, the imperialists demonized in nationalist and xenophobic propaganda.

You’re an Afghan opium grower, drinking tea outside a café in Marjah. On the street you see an American Marine and a guy you know is in the Taliban. “Which of these guys is going to be here in the long run,” you ask yourself? “Which is most like me? Which is most likely to marry my daughter? Which understands me, my religion, my hardships, my life?”

“Sure the Taliban guy is a prick and, as soon as that American gets bored, or goes off duty, the Taliban guy probably will shake me down for a few bucks (he doesn’t trust the local currency any more than I do). But I’ve got to live with him for a long time. I’ll bet that American has about 3 months left on his rotation here.”

Or consider the opinion of former Helmand Gov. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada. “The Taliban are not gone. They have only gone to the other districts of Grishk and Sangin. The administration of Helmand is generally corrupt and nothing is changing in Marjah, no signs of reform with the latest appointment. It doesn’t matter if you have thousands and thousands of NATO troops, you will still have Taliban in Helmand.”

We went to Afghanistan to get bin Laden. We couldn’t find him. Let’s go home.

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News from the Front

February 24, 2010

The latest piece of military maneuvering in Afghanistan makes me wonder if they’re teaching battlefield strategy at our military academies any more.

On February 3, the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces (mostly NATO and US troops) operating in Afghanistan made the dubious decision of announcing, well in advance, their intentions to drive the Taliban out of Marjah, a village in southern Afghanistan.

Operation Moshtarek actually got under way on February 13, giving the Taliban occupiers of Marjah ten days to set up ambushes, booby traps, mines, entrenchments, sniper positions, and forward observation posts before the foreign devils arrived.

USMC Lt. Gen. John Paxton briefs Senate Armed Services Committee on Operation Moshtarek

It seems to have worked out well for the Taliban as relatively few (maybe 120) have been killed or captured. About 13 ISAF troops have died, so we are close to maintaining that ever-important 10 to 1 kill ratio. Also this week saw the death of the 1000th American in Afghanistan since this whole mess started 8 years ago.

ISAF troops are meeting with unusually stiff resistance. Two weeks ago they were saying it would it would take a month to clear the booby traps and mines out of Marjah. Now, it looks like it will take longer.

For civilians around Marjah, the scene is one of unremitting chaos. Hundreds have died and at least 40,000 are trapped in the midst of the fighting. Aid workers said the number civilian casualties will be unknown until health officials can move freely in the area.

Civilians who managed to survive and escape to medical care in secure areas all had the same story: their wounds were caused by shooting and bombs from “foreign soldiers.”

“There is no difference between Taliban and the civilian people. The Taliban are the rural people. They are our people,” said one victim who was moved two miles to a hospital in a wheel barrow.

“We were not unhappy with the Taliban,” said another. “The government didn’t do anything for us.”

“They shot me. They came at night. They were foreigners,” said a twelve-year-old victim. “I was outside in the field with a friend.”

So much for winning the hearts and minds.

And Operation Moshtarek seems to suffer from the same lack of long-range planning that has plagued our entire involvement in Afghanistan. After we “win,” what happens?

We can’t stay in Marjah forever and there is no question the Taliban will move right back into town when the Americans leave. Similarly, there’s no question the Taliban will move into the rest of Afghanistan when the Americans leave.

So what are we doing there in the first place?

Afghanistan represented a chance for Mr. Obama to take on one of the most questionable commitments of the Bush administration. His response has been to send another 30,000 troops with no overarching mission other than to survive until he begins withdrawing them in 2011.

He’s still yammering about health care like we give a shit.