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Ugly victory in Afghanistan ; Western forces will be needed beyond 2014 withdrawal

FORWARD OPERATING BASE RUSHMORE, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan is a putrid cesspool of corruption and poverty. What is victory here going to look like? In a word: ugly. It is going to look very much like what we are seeing now, but with Afghan forces gradually taking over responsibility for the tasks currently performed in the field by U.S. forces. I say "responsibility" because, given what I've seen, there is little likelihood that Afghan forces will actually perform these tasks. If they do, it will not be with the vigor and thoroughness exhibited by U.S. forces.

In Kabul, Gen. David Petraeus has instilled a great sense of optimism among the staff at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Supreme Headquarters. Nothing but sunshine emanates from ISAF HQ. But here in the field, remote from the capital, the sense among senior Afghans is that some sort of NATO, ISAF or U.N. presence will be required beyond the withdrawal date of 2014.

This presence will be necessary, first, to inhibit Pakistan and Iran from stepping up pressure on their efforts to destabilize the Kabul regime. Secondly, Westerners will be required to provide adult supervision of the Afghan forces, for there are not enough Afghans who "get it" to enforce duty and discipline upon the forces, regardless of how much training they receive. The average Afghan soldier or policeman may be taught, he may know what to do, but his actually doing it is an altogether different matter. Finally, since there are not enough educated and honest people in Afghanistan to go around, a Western presence will be needed to administer the field forces in the matters of pay, leave, promotions, training, personnel services and so on; services that are vital to keeping large organized forces functioning in the field.

Afghanistan has no banking system to speak of and no system of taxation by which the government gets money from the people to survive and operate. The Kabul regime gets its cash from friendly governments, not from taxation; and the pay of the Afghan forces is provided and administered directly from Western governments to ensure that the money is not stolen and the soldiers and police are paid regularly. The government of Afghanistan is not going to be ready to take over administration of its forces by 2014.

FOB Rushmore lies a short, half-hour convoy drive from the sprawling main base for the Currahees at FOB Sharana. Rushmore is in Sharan, the capital city of Paktika province. A couple of heavily barricaded streets lead from a residential area of the city to the main gates of the base. The security hardware here is double or triple that of FOB Sharana. Rushmore houses the main instructional schools for the Afghan Uniformed Police, the operational headquarters of their intelligence agency, a battalion-sized Quick Reaction Force and the headquarters of the Provincial Police chief of Paktika.

Instruction in the security and police work that the uniformed police are intended to perform is provided by the Headquarters & Headquarters Co., Brigade Support Troops Battalion of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. The HHC is nicknamed the "Warhawks," the 4th Brigade is the "Currahees" and the division is the famous "Screaming Eagles." The company has a number of specialized support functions, one of which is a military police platoon. The company is commanded by Capt. Wayne L. Stiles, 44, of Syracuse.

Stiles, a trained MP, is a blend of apparent contradictions. Once a boxer and a school teacher, he is a devout Christian, a thoughtful, patient and determined man, an avid hunter and a skillful diplomat. Stiles is also a leader in a fine, military sense. He is a big believer in the efficacy of trust. He the sort of man well equipped to lead the Afghan horse to water and to teach it how to drink. This is his first deployment to Afghanistan. Stiles was on the parade the week prior to my visit when a suicide bomber attacked a graduating class of Afghan police, killing 11 officers and wounding nine Afghans and one U.S. soldier.

The first sergeant of the company is Ryan Brassard, 32, of Hudson, N.H. Brassard has done six tours in Afghanistan since 2002. A devout New England Patriots fan, he too is a blend of contradictions. When he has to, he can exhibit the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense demeanor that one associates with a sergeant-major type. Yet, like Stiles, Brassard is a pleasant and intelligent conversationalist when he lets his guard down. His experience in the Afghan theater makes his opinion a factor to weigh on operational matters.

If teaching, training and equipping were all that were necessary to create a police force that would do Afghanistan proud, you could not ask for better hands to do the molding than Stiles, Brassard and the troops of HHC. But there is more to it than that. In baseball, there is pitching, and there is catching. If the catcher can't catch, the battery won't work.

One of the major points Stiles tries to impress upon the Afghans is security. A suicide bomber should not be able to infiltrate through three layers of security and attack a graduating class of police. Yet it happened. Barely a week later, the guards at the main gate had their helmets and rifles stacked on a table in front of them, and their body armor rested against the back of their chairs. A machine gun lay unmanned and unprotected by sandbags on the roof of the guard hut.

Stiles leads a small patrol out past the main gate, himself a living model of what he expects the Afghan police to be. He questions them about what they were taught but does not direct them to live up to the standard. Giving orders to Afghans does not work. They perhaps can be mentored, but not ordered. Through an interpreter, Stiles points out that Brigadier Gen. Dowlat Khan, the commander of the Paktika province police, has his compound within the base that these four men are supposed to protect, and he might not like being attacked by the Taliban. The four lower their heads but are otherwise unmoved to improve.

Rushmore also houses a battalion-sized Quick Reaction Force, commanded by Lt. Col. Haroom. Stiles visited Haroom in his quarters to present him with a poster in praise of the work his men have done. Haroom is a large man in his late 50s or early 60s. His lower teeth are all of gold. In talking with Stiles, Haroom is non-committal and unenergetic. There is no evidence of the merit by which he attained his position; perhaps it has something to do with his tribal status.

Khan, Haroom's boss, is entirely different. Khan is energetic and charismatic. A constant stream of visitors come in and out of his office for decisions. He spends a lot of his time out of his office inspecting and speaking to his men. He seems to understand that the role of police in a civil society is to protect the people and not oppress them. His American counterpart, Lt. Col. Ivan Beckman, of Hampton, Ill., rates Khan as "effective."

Kahn gave me a personal interview, and I rank him as one of the Afghans who "gets it." He believes that while his police will be able to bear most of the burden of patrolling the countryside and keeping the Taliban and bandits at bay, Afghanistan is surrounded by countries that sponsor and support insurgent activity, and a small NATO/ISAF presence would be helpful at keeping the power balanced. Kahn told me he is not comfortable with a complete Western withdrawal after 2014. He argues, albeit self-servingly, that freedom from terrorism in the world is dependent upon keeping the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, and that is the reason why some Western forces need to stay after 2014.

Beckman is also pessimistic that the Afghan police will be able to carry the whole burden of security after 2014. Not only are there profound training issues that will take time to resolve and overcome, but due to the acute shortage of educated people, the personal administration of the police forces, essential for developing a mature and stable force, is lacking and will continue to lack until Afghanistan is able to raise its literacy level.

In Kushamond and in Rushmore, the same story seems to recur. Here and there are individual Afghans who understand. However, there is a general lassitude among the population as a whole, and this lack of grip permeates into the police forces and government agencies of Afghanistan. "Inshallah" -- the will of Allah -- is the excuse for every failure.

Here and there, individual Afghans inspire hope in Westerners that this war will end with an Afghanistan that can stand on its own and begin to progress again. To those who have worked and fought and shared danger with these individuals, it would be heartbreaking to see them go down in a defeat to the Taliban. But personal emotions and romanticism cannot impair the judgment concerning what is best for America. No amount of money or development can win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.

The U.S. soldiers I have seen in Afghanistan are among the finest people America has to give. They are here because their country sent them here. They are here fighting for the cause of America, and some of them have died for that cause. They fought and died here because America needed to be defended and protected. And there are men like Stiles prepared to stay here for as along as necessary to prevent another 9/1 1.

We owe it to them, those who fought and those who died, to do what is best for America in the widest sense. In cooperation with its allies and the Afghan government, the plan is to begin a military drawdown this year, passing the burden along to the forces of Afghanistan. By 2014, even the training mission will be over and the entire burden of maintaining their constitution and system of government will be carried by Afghans. That is a reasonable schedule from the point of view of America and its allies.

No foreign power was around to nursemaid the U.S. constitutional government, and it is not unfair to expect an ancient people like those in Afghanistan to be able to look after their own affairs.

Four different sources gave me their estimate that no more than 500 Taliban were in Paktika province, which has a population of about 400,000. It would be a loss of face for America for the Taliban to move back in after U.S. forces leave. That may be a prospect America has to face and account for in the years beyond 2014.

Afghanistan does not need another surge of combat forces. What it needs is a surge of accountants, engineers, intelligence and special forces operators.


Vincent J. Curtis is a freelance writer who has previously reported on the war on terrorism for The Buffalo News from Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was recently embedded in Task Force Currahee, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division in Paktika province, Afghanistan.

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