Our success in Iraq was propelled by the troop surge, but an important factor was that the population turned against Al Qaeda, which they saw as a brutal, foreign force beholden to an extremist ideology. In much of Afghanistan, however, the Taliban is local and less feared and resented.
The tactic of a troop surge cannot be as effective in Afghanistan as in Iraq because, when we make military progress against the Taliban, President Karzai does not, or cannot, find competent officials to take hold of the cleared territory. Nor do we get a comparable “surge” in the number of honest, well-trained civil servants and police. So we’re left with two kinds of failure: Our military successes create a vacuum of authority that is either quickly filled by the returning Taliban or taken over by warlords or illegitimate officials whom the Afghans see as corrupt in the vein of Tony Soprano.
Kandahar Province is theoretically run by Karzai’s thuggish brother as a representative of the central government, but the Taliban is very powerful there. In a survey taken there in April 2010, more than half of the respondents viewed the Taliban as “incorruptible,” about four out of five considered Taliban adherents to be “brothers” who would stop fighting if they just had jobs, and more than 90 percent felt it would make more sense to negotiate with the Taliban than to continue the fighting.
Compare that with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s statement to President Obama on November 6, 2009, that President Karzai is “not an adequate partner.” Actually, that was an understatement: The man is not just inadequate; he’s a negative. I don’t think you’ll find even 5 percent in Kabul who would call him “incorruptible.” (And they’re probably on the take.) Our job is made even more difficult because he is such a dismal and counterproductive (alleged) partner.
His arrogance seems boundless. He is so convinced that we are stuck with him that he feels emboldened to threaten to join the Taliban himself. Our actions are partly to blame. Rather than provide our aid through his central government, such as it is, we have to start making end runs around Karzai and deal directly with the tribal leaders at the district and provincial levels. To the extent that we cut him out of the deal, we can prove to the Afghan people that we’re not his “enablers.” We can offer a “third way,” a practical alternative between the Karzai regime’s greed and corruption and the Taliban’s oppressive medieval rule. With cooperation at the local level, we might be able to bring about a peaceful, smoothly functioning society in which music is allowed, girls can go to school, and towns have clean water and electricity.
Meanwhile, relations with Pakistan, though frequently challenged from different quarters, are better now than at any other time since the low point of September 12, 2001. That’s when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb the country back to the Stone Age if it didn’t help us by turning against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Officially, the Pakistanis did indeed join our side; secretly, they continued to play both ends against the middle, especially through their intelligence agency, the ISI. When we invaded Afghanistan, the Pakistanis provided safe haven to terrorists who fled. There were two reasons for this behavior. First, preparing for when we would eventually leave Afghanistan, they wanted to stay on good terms with the Taliban; that would give them a friendly neighbor to their west, balanced against their dismal relationship with India to the east. Second, they needed the terrorists to become involved in their proxy war with India, especially in Kashmir.
But the monster has turned against its master. Our relations with the Pakistanis have been improving—not because of anything the Obama administration has done but because they’ve finally acknowledged that they have no control over the Pakistani Taliban. At last, they’ve seen the light: The most significant danger to the survival of their government and the security of their nuclear weapons is not India, the external threat, but the Pakistani Taliban, the threat right at home.
To be fair, the administration has certainly taken advantage of the Pakistanis’ awakening and willingness to work more closely and effectively with America. It is often thanks to good intelligence from Pakistan that our drone strikes are so effective. Currently, we have several hundred Special Operations forces in the country working as advisers and trainers with the Pakistani army. We need more, if the Taliban is to be defeated, but progress is being made.
And there are still gaps in the increasing cooperation. In December 2009, seven of our CIA officers were killed in Khost, Afghanistan, by terrorists in the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan, Pakistan. It was also in North Waziristan that Faisal Shahzad trained with the Pakistani Taliban. It gets more complicated. The Haqqani network is loyal to Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban. Should not our allies join with us in getting some payback in Waziristan for both the CIA murders and the Times Square attempt? They will not go after the Haqqani network for the simple reason that when we leave Afghanistan, they hope that the Afghan Taliban will return home and oppose Indian influence there. Obama’s announcement of a withdrawal date only encourages this kind of thinking. So our former fault lines with Pakistan may be opening again.
Moreover, even as we’ve been cooperating more with the country in many ways, the various terror groups, unfortunately, have also been cooperating more with one another, sharing resources and capabilities. Greater numbers of them are engaging in attacks beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. This greatly troubles Bruce Riedel, who helped formulate President Obama’s AfPak strategy and is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy:
The ideology of global jihad has been bought into by more and more militants, even guys who never thought much about the broader world. And this is disturbing because it is a force multiplier for Al Qaeda.
In other words, even as we seem to be getting more help and cooperation from the Pakistani government, we face an increasingly complex challenge.The Price of Freedom
So based upon what we know, or think we know, what would I say to Rick Rescorla about our handling of the war on terror? That’s a conversation that, frankly, I wouldn’t want to have right now. I would be ashamed to admit the truth to a man who gave his life protecting those in his care. And that truth is that our government has acted with neither his resolve nor his focus on the task at hand. Our leaders have overestimated the value of political correctness just as they continue to underestimate the nature, motives, tenacity, and capabilities of the enemy. The two misevaluations, I believe, are closely related. At times, it seems that our strongest, most effective defense has been the frequent ineptitude of our enemy. The clock’s running out on that strategy.
Remember, the 1993 truck bombing in the World Trade Center was widely derided as an amateurish failure, even though six people were killed. After all, the two towers still stood proud. Rick Rescorla drew a different lesson, and we are in great peril if we cannot follow his example. He redoubled his efforts because he recognized that this was not the end of it but the beginning. Because of his clarity of vision, many families of Morgan Stanley employees were spared the pain of losing a loved one. Will the same be said of the intelligence operatives and other security officials who have been given a lesson, and some valuable breathing room, by the three lone terrorists we’ve seen in this chapter?
Nearly a decade has gone by since Rick’s passing, but the lesson he taught us—and that is still an invaluable teaching tool, if we pay heed—is as important right this moment, as you read, as it was on September 11, 2001. Vigilance is indeed the price of freedom. Preparation is the guarantee of survival.
When the Bullets Are Real, There Aren’t Any Toy Soldiers
We Need an Effective Military Policy and Strategy
n early February of 2008, I was in the heat of the presidential campaign as one of the few remaining Republicans still in the hunt for the nomination. I had received word from a former cabinet member and staff member that his son, who was a captain in the U.S. Army, had just arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington having been severely wounded in Iraq by an improvised explosive device (IED) and had in fact lost an arm and suffered other serious injuries. I was scheduled to be in Washington a few days later and arranged to visit Captain David Underwood at Walter Reed. I wanted the visit to be personal and private, with no press tagging along or even knowing that I was going. This visit was not a political photo op. It was an opportunity to pay respect and check on the son of a dear friend and colleague, and I hoped to bring some encouragement and appreciation to a true American hero.
As I visited with David that afternoon and watched his wife and children fill his room with their presence and love, I was reminded of the enormous sacrifice our men and women in uniform make on behalf of the rest of us. Though David had lost an arm and would carry shrapnel from a bomb in his legs and body for the rest of his life, here was a soldier who didn’t complain of his loss but expressed his gratitude that none of his men had been killed while under his command. These are the men and women who make our country and our world safe and free. We can’t do enough for them.
Over two million men and women have served in our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. And despite what some on the left might say, they haven’t been sent there to fight “culture wars.” These are wars fought with real bullets and real bombs. Death, disfigurement, and lifelong disabilities are among the heavy prices paid in the struggle. With so much at stake—and with additional threats no doubt looming around the globe—our soldiers can prevail and survive only by staying focused on their core mission. They should not be relegated to the status of advanced social workers. Those in our military are, of necessity, trained primarily to “kill people and break things”; that’s the plan. “Winning hearts and minds,” though they can do it well, is a luxury when people are trying to kill them; making friends among the local population is not the main thing when the enemy is paying no attention whatsoever to the traditional rules of engagement or the Geneva Conventions.Giving Back to Our Veterans
To make their jobs even more difficult, we’ve stretched our military—both as individuals and as a united fighting force—almost to the breaking point. It is common for a soldier to be assigned two or three tours on the battlefield; four and even five total tours are not all that unusual. Fortunately, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has promised a much-deserved (and saner) new protocol: Soon, our troops will enjoy two years at home for every year served overseas.
Thankfully, he has also addressed the military’s past shortcomings in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues caused or exacerbated by war experiences. “This is a debt the country owes them for their service,” he has said. “It needs to be the first check we write.”
Amen to that! A RAND study in 2008 found that about 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from either PTSD or depression; worse, a later Stanford University study concluded it was likely closer to 35 percent. Soldiers serving the multiple deployments I mentioned are, according to the
American Journal for Public Health
, three times more likely to suffer from PTSD and depression than those on their first deployment. As I write, the Department of Defense (DOD) is officially listing 35,000 as wounded in action. Add those who suffer mental health problems, however, and the total wounded increases by hundreds of thousands. Almost 20 percent are affected by a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by proximity to an explosion. Mental health problems of one sort or another, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, have been diagnosed in almost 250,000 veterans of the two operations in the Middle East. Of these, tens of thousands have
PTSD and TBI.
These statistics, alarming as they are, leave out part of the harsh truth: To this day, despite all of the information available to the public, the stigma of mental health problems is still with us. One result is that too many servicemen and -women are afraid to seek help or talk honestly about their issues; such openness, they fear, will hurt their chances for career advancement inside or outside the military. Perhaps this kind of fear is often justified. All of the press about veterans’ mental health issues is a double-edged sword: Important as it is for these problems to be brought to light, wary civilian employers may hesitate to hire the soldiers who are victims. (Vietnam vets had much the same problem after that war, when seemingly every hourlong TV drama and many major high-profile movies featured a soldier home from Nam who, unable to cope with civilian life, eventually went ballistic.)
The military, at least, is trying to avoid the stereotyping within the ranks. The DOD has updated its security clearance application, no longer asking a veteran whether he or she has been treated for mental health issues in the preceding seven years. It’s a start.Homeless Veterans
Not everyone, however, can benefit from such an enlightened approach. For veterans who remain deeply affected, and for their families, the damage caused by severe mental problems can be even more troubling. Mental and neurological problems can result in spousal abuse, divorce, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, and suicide. For those reasons, as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, the military now requires confidential, in-person mental health screenings of all troops when they return home. Even so, the military does not have nearly enough medical personnel to provide the necessary mental health treatment, especially for veterans who don’t live in or near urban areas.