Today’s look at reading materials in circulation among those who work in Afghanistan covers two different accounts of the Afghan war.
One, “Winning in Afghanistan” [pdf], is a semi-samizdat essay by a captain in the Maryland National Guard who served two recent tours in Afghanistan. The other, “How We Lost the War We Won,” is a 2008 article from Rolling Stone magazine by an Arabic-speaking journalist and author, Nir Rosen, who briefly “embedded” with Taliban fighters in Ghazni Province. The two are matched here because they both have been influential and have managed to retain an enduring relevance. Both accounts are also, in a word, bleak.
As usual, At War does not endorse any of the particular views in these articles, but circulates them with an eye to presenting the war’s complexities and influences more fully.
“Winning in Afghanistan,” by Capt. Carl Thompson, is one officer’s frank chronicle of frustration from his time as a trainer assigned to work with Afghan National Army units.
It details official corruption and incompetence in Afghan military units, and excoriates the American military for not understanding the nature of the Afghan war and for often getting in the way of the soldiers who want to succeed.
Captain Thompson wrote his essay to help officers on the way to Afghanistan to understand some of the problems and situations they will face on their tours. Some readers will find his observations simplistic (“Afghans,” he writes, “come to the table with more hidden agendas than David Copperfield has hidden rabbits”), and others might find his recommendations heavy-handed — at one point he recommends sending truckloads of Afghan soldiers to search contractors’ homes when they delay in meeting construction deadlines. Many readers might also puzzle over his proposal to issue Viagra to Afghan village elders to help win their loyalty, a practice he said that is not widespread but has its place in a tool kit of counterinsurgency techniques.
But few people will dispute that Captain Thompson’s sentiments were hard-won or that his passion is sincere. His jeremiad that “American solutions will not work for Afghan problems” is a pointed summary of what the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency specialists say they think when they urge American mentors to try to help Afghans take the lead on operations. And his disdain for military’s bureaucracy and process-oriented approach to many policies will ring true to no small fraction of officers and enlisted troops who have served in battle. “The enemy,” he wrote, “is everything we are not — flexible, maneuverable, effective — and winning.”
“Winning in Afghanistan” was first published unofficially in 2009. It circulated on Army Web sites until a reader surreptitiously copied it and sent it out more broadly. It first reappeared on the http://www.cryptome.org Web site, where Christian Bleuer, part of a circle of attentive and busy bloggers on the Afghan war, devoted a post to it, pushing the essay into wider circulation yet.
It is worth noting that since the essay was popularized, Captain Thompson has completed another tour in Afghanistan. Reached at home in Maryland recently, he said he stands by everything he wrote. “We need to take a good hard look at what we’re doing, and what we’re paying for, and what we’re getting for it,” he said. “We can’t win if we keep doing what we’re doing.”
His essay serves as a thought-provoking challenge to many official accounts. And his next-to-last recommendation — to take the counsel of enlisted soldiers — will earn him knowing nods from those who have served. “If you want to find out what is going on in your unit,” he wrote, “just ask a private. He’ll tell you what isn’t working.”
The second article highlighted today, Mr. Rosen’s “How We Lost the War We Won,” approached the Afghan war from a different angle, arrived at similar conclusions, but has found a surprising new life.
In 2008, Mr. Rosen, to the anger of detractors in the United States who accused him of treason, arranged via Afghan sources in Kabul to travel with Taliban fighters here in the Andar District of Ghazni Province. The resulting article, which toggles between his account of his experience (including an argument among rival Taliban commanders over whether he should be executed) and quotes from unnamed sources in Kabul who say the war cannot be won by the West, offered an interesting portrait of a small corner of the insurgency. The fighters he traveled with were presented as confident enough that they traveled openly with weapons, but were factionalized and given to disputes among themselves. They were also more pragmatic than doctrinaire, allowing, for example, for their members to use modern technology, which had become necessary to wage war.
The reason the article is of interest to the What They Are Reading series is what could be called its second life. In September 2010, as part of the Obama administration’s campaign against the Taliban, an American infantry battalion from the 101st Airborne Division was assigned to operate in the area where Mr. Rosen had traveled with Taliban fighters two years before. The battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. David G. Fivecoat, assigned Mr. Rosen’s article as required reading for his officers. And the battalion’s intelligence section pored over it, using it to develop a list of buildings to be watched and searched, and insurgents to be focused on.
These days, when visitors come to Andar and meet the American battalion here, Colonel Fivecoat does nothing to hide his enthusiasm for Mr. Rosen’s reporting.
Mr. Rosen’s account of the Taliban’s behaviors and locations aligns with the battalion’s own impressions of the area, he said, and had been useful in shaping some of the battalion’s operations.
“We really enjoyed his article,” the colonel said in a recent briefing. “Some of the guys he met and visited, we’ve been able to go after this year.”
Click to view image: '676532418c3a-untitled.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|