The U.S. military does not move in mysterious ways. It plods, it plans, it plots out every logistical detail before launching an initiative. Things take time. For example: not all of the 21,000 additional forces that President Obama authorized for Afghanistan last winter have even arrived in the country yet. For another example: the battle plan those troops were asked to execute was devised primarily by General David McKiernan, who was replaced about the time the troops started arriving. McKiernan's plan reflected his experience in conventional warfare: he chose to deploy the troops where the bad guys were largely in Helmand province on the Pakistani border, home of nearly 60% of the world's opium crop, a place that was firmly in Taliban control. But pursuing conventional warfare in Afghanistan is about as effective as using a football in a tennis match. The Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine says you go where the people are concentrated and protect them, then gradually move into the sectors the bad guys control. That is not what we're doing in Afghanistan. In addition to all the other problems we're facing the corruption of the Karzai government, the election chaos, the porous Pakistani border it has become apparent that we're pursuing the wrong military strategy in this frustrating war.
Upon his arrival in Afghanistan as McKiernan's replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. "The ship was moving in that direction," a military expert told me, "and it would have been difficult to turn it around." Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course. The additional troops were needed immediately to blunt the momentum of the Taliban and also to provide security for the Afghan elections. The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand's neighbor to the east Kandahar province, especially in Kandahar city and its suburbs. "Kandahar is the center of gravity in this insurgency," says John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army's counterinsurgency doctrine. "It is as important now as Fallujah was in Iraq in 2004."
Kandahar is the capital city of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, home of both the Karzai family and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. It is where the Taliban began. It has been run, in a staggeringly corrupt manner, by Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai who, according to U.S. investigators, has extensive links to the opium trade. As the Karzai government has grown more unpopular, the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated. The Taliban own the night, slipping death threats under the doors of those who would cooperate with the government. In Iraq the military's counterinsurgency strategy turned around a similarly bleak urban situation notably in Baghdad, where U.S. troops helped the Iraqis regain control of neighborhoods by setting up and staffing joint security stations. But the troops who should be securing Kandahar are fighting an elusive enemy in Helmand.
What can be done now? The military will want more troops to paper over its strategic mistake. It will resist any suggestion to leave Helmand and redeploy to Kandahar. "That would be a death sentence for all the people in Helmand who have supported us," a military expert told me. It is a compelling argument but, ultimately, a flawed one; death sentences are being delivered every night in Kandahar. And remember the military's poky timetable: "We are trying to decide now how to redeploy the troops we already have in Afghanistan, the units that provided the security for the elections, for next spring's fighting season," a military planner told me. But even if all the troops sent to secure the election are redirected to Kandahar, there won't be enough.
The Kandahar screwup adds considerable pressure to Obama's decision about whether to double-down on a war he has called crucial to America's national security. The military wants a decision soon, but both the President and the Secretary of Defense are undecided as they should be. Any decision about Afghanistan has to depend on whether the elections produce a plausible government that is, one that includes Karzai's rivals, like Abdullah Abdullah and the excellent technocrat Ashraf Ghani, and removes from power allegedly corrupt elements, like Karzai's brother. And even then, the chance of success in Afghanistan is minimal.
An American with long experience in the country told me this story: a member of the Barakzai tribe was recently installed as a district leader in a Pashtun area. He was told to hire his top staff by merit. Instead, he hired only Barakzais which caused the tribe's leaders to switch sides from the Taliban to the government ... and caused most of the other tribes in the district to switch from the government to the Taliban. Afghanistan, it turns out, befuddles even Afghans. And for foreigners, "victory" there is a handful of smoke.