Harsh reality, tough love
By Philip Smucker
LETI KANDAL PASS, Kunar province - Stone by stone, the new United States military outposts are being built along this lawless frontier that has proven a bane to Alexander the Great, the 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane and - most recently - George W Bush, the former American commander-in-chief.
Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, the new platoon-sized (30 to 50 soldiers) installations are a bold statement to the Taliban, its varied tribal allies and al-Qaeda's military advisors based just inside Pakistan. With their high-tech night vision devices, US fighters can spot the "heat signatures" of invaders slipping across from Pakistan and like high-tech magicians make the starry skies rain metal.
"Our aim is that the insurgents will cease to exist or simply become irrelevant," said 10th Mountain Division Major Andy Knight, who commands several light infantry platoons now fanning out across the border.
Whereas seven years ago, American military commanders were bursting with confidence about their chances of thwarting "the enemy", today's US commanders, many with years of hard-fought experience in Afghanistan, are far more circumspect and pragmatic in their approach to counter-insurgency. The inhibiting factors are many.
The first, manpower, has been addressed by the President Barack Obama administration which has said it is ready to nearly double the number of US forces stationed here. The first step is the current infusion of some 17,000 new soldiers. After that, 13,000 more are already tagged for possible deployment should the security situation deteriorate.
Yet sheer numbers are not likely to crack the challenges presented by this border's harsh, intractable terrain.
American commanders like Knight, who commands light infantry fighters, have been given the discretion to permit soldiers to discard certain parts of their body armor that can prevent their "hot pursuit" of fleet-footed insurgents, who often skip through the rocks in sandals and T-shirts. Neck guards, side plating and groin protection have already been dropped from the body armor of many American fighters.
Even when US fighters get what they believe to be a bead on an opponent, they are required to - according to their commanders - "positively identify" him.
"If we shoot not knowing, it would be a violation of our rules of engagement," said Lieutenant Colonel Frederick O'Donnell, Major Knight's immediate commander and a 1990 West Point graduate. Insurgents who conceal weapons well stand a good chance of slipping through the American net.
Still, American military commanders claim that they have learned, often the hard way, that accidental killings of civilians can set their efforts back weeks and months.
"We hope we don't have to make the moral judgment to shoot a man running away with a gun who is not an enemy," said Knight, leaning back in his swivel chair alongside a computer screen that read, "Top Secret".
"We try to rely on Afghans to help us identify insurgents and we've warned the elders to keep villagers off the mountains at night," he added. "That said, if farmer Mohammed is fleeing up the mountain with his shotgun and we shoot him, even 99% sure that he is an insurgent, and it turns out that he is not, we've got a problem on our hands."
This is where the US military's "Solatia Payment" program comes in, according to Major Chevelle Thomas, the senior public information officer for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)'s Task Force Duke, which controls Eastern Afghanistan.
"These payments are a statement that we regret the loss of life and the hardship that the shooting or injury has created," she said. "The payments are not, however, a legal admission of culpability. Instead of trying to decipher how an Afghan civilian has been killed in the cross-fire, we provide money." This, of course, puts the US military in the position of determining the price of an Afghan life; often in the low thousands of dollars.
Nevertheless, accidental civilian deaths remain an "Achilles' heel" for a US military and NATO operation that still relies heavily on air power and high-tech weaponry to fight a guerrilla war in which insurgents hide in homes and pose as shepherds.
Even as US forces vow to take the fight to the enemy in this remote border region, the Taliban, other Islamic insurgents and al-Qaeda, have another advantage over the Western forces: a sanctuary in Pakistan. "They are bringing 107mm rockets in on donkey back, setting them up with timers and riding back on the donkey into Pakistan, laughing all the way," said one US intelligence officer.
"We have a hard time to outmaneuver them," said O'Donnell. "We'll never defeat all the enemy elements ourselves and that is why our approach in this war has shifted; it is now population-centric. Even then, as we try to build relationships with the broader population, we can't get over the fact that to Afghans, an American soldier in his fighting machine often looks like an alien from outer space."
Knight could not agree more. "That is why we do not focus strictly on the border," he said. "The reality is that unless the population stops aiding or turning a blind eye to the enemy, we will never succeed. One family living in fear cannot stop these guys. On the other hand, if a whole village bands together with our help, it is a different story."
Although the jury remains out on American success on this frontier, much of the can-do optimism of earlier years has now been tempered by hard realism.
Not all of it, however. As if to stress the point, during an intel briefing, O'Donnell asks Knight if he can work with a group of Afghan elders on the border near the new Dangam outpost, some of whom have refused to shake hands with a young US platoon leader.
"Yes, sir," he snapped back. "We just gotta show 'em some love."
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the Islamic world.
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In: Afghanistan, Middle East
Tags: Afghanistan, Taliban, Pakistan, United States, War, Spring Offensive, Nato, EU, Biden
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