Under the gaze of his U.S. military instructors, Samir Khan, a lanky new recruit to the ranks of the Afghan National Army, takes a turn firing his weapon at targets on this wind-swept weapons range in southwestern Afghanistan.
Dozens of others wait their turn as Khan, whose home village is in the embattled eastern province of Khost, fires rounds from an M240 machine gun. During a break, Khan says he and many friends enlisted in the ANA out of a sense of patriotism as well as pressure from relatives.
“My family wanted me to join because it would be good for the country,” the 18-year-old says, his oversized helmet sliding off his head. “All my friends were joining and said I should join, too.”
If Afghanistan is ever to be made safe enough for U.S. troops to leave, men such as Khan will be critical to achieving that goal. The counterinsurgency strategy that a coalition of nations has rallied behind relies on Afghans standing up for themselves against their former overlords and terrorists who are among the most ruthless in the world.
“There is a nice upward climb,” Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commanding general of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, says of the Afghan army’s progress.
“And I can tell you by December 2014, they will, in fact, have the ability to take the lead for security here in Afghanistan,” he says, referring to the projected withdrawal date for U.S. troops.
In America’s longest war, it’s still unclear whether the effort will be a success. The United States invaded Afghanistan to crush an al-Qaeda base of operations whose leader, Osama bin Laden, oversaw the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and to make sure Afghanistan would not be a haven for Muslim terrorists to plot against the West.
Joining the United States were forces from 48 nations. During the war, the dead have included 2,748 coalition service members — 1,796 of them Americans. The effort has cost U.S. taxpayers about $450 billion.
The region’s stability is still fragile and the suppression of terrorism limited, some analysts say.
“Time is running out to leave Afghanistan in an acceptable shape that would justify the time, money and lives spent in expanding the mission from counterterrorism to state building,” says Terry Pattar, senior consultant for IHS Jane’s.
On the other hand, there have been tangible successes that appear to have made the West safer and the battle worth sticking with, some military analysts and counterterrorism specialists say.
At the moment, Afghanistan “looks like a stalemate,” says Seth Jones, analyst at the Rand Corp. and author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.”
Jones says the situation represents progress from a few years ago, when the Taliban appeared to have the upper hand and was gaining ground. Coalition forces have beaten back insurgents and kept them out of many regions.
“How long one can keep those gains is an open question,” Jones says.
Committing to two wars
On Sept. 14, 2001, President George W. Bush arrived at the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. The two tallest buildings in New York had been leveled by two jumbo jets hijacked by terrorists from al-Qaida, a jihadist movement seeking worldwide Islam through violence.
That day, Bush, surveying the wreckage at what would soon be known as Ground Zero, was handed a bullhorn. A crowd of ironworkers, police officers and firefighters gathered. “We can’t hear you,” one shouted.
“I can hear you,” Bush said. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”
On Oct. 7, U.S. and British forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The immediate aim was the toppling of the Taliban, an Islamic clerical movement known to many Americans before 2001 mostly for videos that showed executions of women accused of adultery that were carried out before packed soccer stadiums.
Within weeks of the invasion, al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden and their Taliban protectors, were fleeing for their lives. U.S. and British troops were greeted as liberators in the capital of Kabul.
The United States formed the International Security Assistance Force and began to set up elections, assist reconstruction and modernization programs and train an indigenous force that could maintain security on its own.
America’s other war, in Iraq, shifted some of the U.S. military’s attention to the Middle East beginning in 2003. Eventually, Americans’ questions about the wars — especially the one in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein— led to political change in the U.S.
In 2006, Democrats were handed control of Congress and began moving to pull the United States out of both wars. In 2009, support for the war in Afghanistan was at a low, with 39 percent in favor and 58 percent opposed, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll.
In 2009, newly elected President Obama vowed to press on in Afghanistan in a fight he said the United States had to win. He approved a surge of more than 30,000 troops that arrived in full in 2010 to bolster a counterinsurgency strategy similar to one that had been effective in Iraq.
The ‘Anbar Awakening’
That counterinsurgency strategy, which aims to neutralize the enemy, protect civilians and build the legitimacy of the Afghan government, is showing signs of progress, Marine Gen. John Allen says.
“There have been real gains, particularly in the south,” Allen says.
Allen is the latest in a string of commanders of ISAF. In Iraq, Allen helped lead a strategy that convinced influential tribal leaders to turn on al-Qaida in what became known as the “Anbar Awakening.”
“Insurgencies are effective when they have access to the population,” Allen said in an interview by phone from Afghanistan. “When they are excluded from the population, then insurgencies have a very hard time. That’s what’s been happening in the south” of Afghanistan.
Analysts at think tanks that follow the war, such as the American Enterprise Institute, agree the war has produced some good results. There have been no successful al-Qaida attacks on the United States since 9/11; the analysts see that as a result of taking the fight to terrorists overseas.
They cite the killing and capturing of hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and the elimination of the country as a base of operations for attacks against the West.
The latest Department of Defense biannual report to Congress on Afghanistan says the Obama administration’s troop surge has produced “tangible security progress.”
“The coalition’s efforts have wrested major safe havens from the insurgents’ control, disrupted their leadership networks and removed many of the weapons caches and tactical supplies they left behind at the end of the previous fighting season,” it says.
True, some analysts say, but that can change quickly.
“In many ways, the conditions of millions of Afghans are considerably better 10 years after the overthrow of the Taliban government,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Economic opportunities have expanded for many. Millions of children are back to school and have better access to health care.”
However, “insecurity and violence persist,” Felbab-Brown says. “The possibility of yet another civil war after the majority of U.S. troops leave Afghanistan looms large.”
President Obama has ordered the U.S. military to withdraw 10,000 service members by the end of the year and 23,000 by September of 2012 — one-third of the 100,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., say that is too many too soon, and former Afghanistan commander David Petraeus said it was more withdrawals than he wanted.
Taliban ‘enormously unpopular’
Allen says insurgent ranks are dwindling as fighters question the commitment of leaders who issue orders from sanctuaries in Pakistan in a war that is not going well for them. The Taliban is increasingly targeting Afghan civilians to try to frighten them, analysts say. A United Nations report in June said the Taliban is responsible for 75 percent of 2,777 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2010.
The Taliban is “enormously unpopular” in Afghanistan, the Defense Department report says, “with 75 percent of the population believing it would be bad for the country if the Taliban returned to power,” up from 68 percent in 2010. One reason may be the stark difference between life then as opposed to now.
Under the Taliban, fewer than 900,000 boys and no girls were enrolled in Afghanistan’s schools, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest report. Today, more than 6.2 million are enrolled, one-third of whom are girls. Since 2001, the U.S. Agency for International Development repaired or built more than 670 schools, printed 69 million textbooks and improved the qualifications of 54,000 Afghan teachers.
Women are in the Afghan parliament and the police forces. However, Human Rights Watch says that in rural areas, women still have little access to education and justice is administered by tribal elders or Taliban “courts,” rather than traditional courts.
Good local government, a key component of counterinsurgency strategy, has been slow in coming to much of the country, the Defense report says, referring to government corruption and alleged voter fraud.
Jones notes that the leaders and command functions of every major insurgent group are not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, where there are no coalition forces to harass them and the Pakistani government has done little to drive them out. Some experts say insurgents are waiting for the Americans to withdraw before moving back in.
That makes the NATO effort to train an effective army critical to having the U.S. effort end in success. The Afghan force is far better and more motivated than it was two years ago, Caldwell says. In September 2009, only 800 young men joined the Afghan National Army. In September of this year, more than 8,000 young men joined, he says.
By the end of 2011, there will be 305,000 combined soldiers, air force members and police operating as part of the Afghan National Security Forces. By late fall of 2012, the number should be 352,000, ISAF says.
Even so, there are only “about two” ANA battalions operating independently without any coalition support, and 124 battalions are “operating very effectively with minimal coalition support,” Caldwell says.
“Those out there today operating in that effective manner … will with time reach the point where they’re able to operate independently,” Caldwell says.
At the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest in Helmand, home to an eight-week training course for Afghan recruits, men such as Khan are learning the basics of soldiering from their Marine trainers.
Training Afghan men of varying tribal and ethnic affiliations can be challenging, says Col. Mike Gann, operations officer for ANSF development in southwestern Afghanistan. Gann says recruits sometimes fight among themselves over age-old rivalries.
“When you bring in different factions, there is always going to be bickering,” he says. “What we are trying to get across to them is the understanding that once we’re (NATO forces) gone, they are going to have to be the caretakers of their country.”
Capt. Daniel Sundberg at Combat Outpost Ghundy Ghar in Kandahar province, says there have been cases of unprofessional conduct in the ANA, such as extorting from opium poppy growers. Despite that, Sundberg says the ANA soldiers “are willing and hard-charging,” taking the initiative to inspect vehicles at checkpoints and fight.
In the eastern province of Kunar, where insurgents from neighboring Pakistan cross the porous mountain border to attack U.S. and Afghan forces, then retreat, Afghan army Capt. Adbul Mahboob extols his men for being “brave and hard-working” in the battlefield, but they lack the essential supplies “to get the job done” on their own.
Mahboob’s men share a combat outpost with U.S. forces along the Pech River Valley, where two outposts were handed over to the ANA from U.S. forces this year. Mahboob’s men lack fuel for the generators that provide electricity for their barracks and vehicles. “We don’t want to ask the Americans for everything we need,” he says. “The Afghan government should supply it.”
Despite the setbacks and problems in a decade of war, Allen says, there are signs the strategy of the United States and its allies is working.
“I’m not going to say the Taliban have been defeated,” he says. “I will say the Taliban have received a dramatic setback, which in terms of an insurgency means that they are on their heels.”
story by: Carmen Gentile and Jim Michaels
photo courtesy of: Sgt. Mark Fayloga, USMC