Misunderstanding the Turning Tide

by Joshua Foust on 12/8/2007 · 1 comment

“Without satellites, without an air force, with even their primitive radar knocked out, they were ingenious enough to use plain old commercial flights to keep track of the Fifth Fleet’s positions. I realized that if we were counting on our military technology alone to win the war on terror, we had a lot of lessons to learn.”

—Greg Mortenson, in the excellent book Three Cups of Tea, on one of the many ways in which the U.S. misjudged the kind of enemy it was fighting in the early days of the War on Terr-uh. He was on a flight from Peshawar to Riyadh, and saw two Taliban looking out the window of the aircraft with binoculars, noting the location of the U.S. Navy in the Arabian Sea, then rushing to the bathroom to use their sat phones to call it in.

That is the sort of observation (made after he was questioned by hilariously inept intel officers in both Islamabad and Kathmandu) that makes Mortenson one of the most effective, if unintentional, fighters against Islamic extremism. His insights into the Taliban were and are essential for gaining a bit more understanding of what, exactly, is at stake in Afghanistan. It makes for an interesting comparison with “Charlie” at Abu Muqawama:

* On the one hand, things are getting better. Roads getting paved. Troops getting trained. ISAF starting to get its act together, etc.
* On the other, we have no where near the number of troops on the ground necessary to secure a country with as many people and as much territory as Afghanistan. We’re lucky to be keeping our head above water, and despite the “perfect and getting better” viewpoint, things are starting to slip through our fingers…

The Sov[iet]s couldn’t win that war from the air, and neither will we. But if we could send some senior leaders over there who not only had read FM 3-24 but actually understood it, well, that would be a good start.

It would be nice to have some competent leadership in place, but we wish we’d win the lottery too. In the upper reaches of the government, there seems to be a certain dissonance in place, almost like a Vietnam syndrome, in looking at “hard” statistics—numbers of Taliban killed, miles of road paved, and so on—and thinking that captures anything useful about the real state of the country. In the meantime, look at how the UN is conceiving no-go areas over the last two years:

no-go areas

Péter Marton notes, “As long as it is needs in European capitals, and the Iraq factor for the US, that decides the level of international troop presence in the south and not the (potentially dynamically changing) needs on the ground in Afghanistan, chances are that the mission will not proceed at all.”

Precisely. From the start, the U.S. has fundamentally misunderstood the war it was fighting—conception, tactics, strategy, and culture. That the tide is turning faster and faster, and the U.S. military is only now ever-so-slowly adapting to it, does not speak well for any sort of victory conditions. The war still can be won—the resources, manpower, and capability all exist. The Taliban can still be defeated, and the country can be rebuilt. It simply takes the desire to do this, to focus on the actual terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and sparked a global war. Alas—at least in the U.S., you have better luck freaking out over immigrants than trying to discuss the war the Presidential candidates are meant to fight once in office. And still, the turning tide remains a mystery to most people…


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Pale Ale December 8, 2007 at 1:27 pm

Nice piece. It may be more poignant to also point out that Afghanistan is becoming (or has become) more dangerous than Iraq in terms of suicide bombings, IEDs, and attacks on US troops.
Until the US military sheds a few layers of its reliance on sheer force, firepower, and technology it won’t be able to fully grasp or address the simple but very important aspect of cultural understanding. It is a slow slog through mud that the US military is going through (while kicking and screaming) to take on the necessary tools to “win” a counterinsurgency. I’m afraid the transition is too late and too slow, but nonetheless, worth the effort.

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