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PublishDate: Sunday, January 12, 2014 10:56

Holmes: Will we learn from Afghanistan?

By the end of this year, U.S. troops will be leaving the rest of the country to the Afghans as well. The Taliban are as strong as ever.

An American soldier sat with an Afghan family, cramped into their tiny living room. The soldier was winning over the hearts and minds of the village residents, a key part of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy. The Afghan family members looked uncomfortable. The soldier looked huge, towering over his hosts even sitting down. He was also wearing full body armor, helmet, visor and all. He looked like a stormtrooper out of Star Wars.
I remember thinking this isn’t going to work.
The picture came back to me this week when Bob Gates’ new book hit the papers. I’m sure there are some surprises in the book by the former secretary of defense, but the pre-release headline about the administration’s division over Afghanistan isn’t one of them.
The Obama administration went through a months-long internal policy debate on Afghanistan in 2009, and while none of the players argued their positions in public, it was evident in news reports that there were two factions. One, led by Joe Biden, favored a "counter-terrorism" strategy, with a smaller U.S. footprint and a more narrow mission focused on going after terrorist groups.
The other faction, led by Gen. David Petraeus and other Pentagon brass (presumably including Gates and Hillary Clinton), favored a "counter-insurgency" strategy like the "surge" Petraeus had mobilized in Iraq. It would be a test of the new counter-insurgency field manual Petraeus had written. As in Iraq, the strategy combined fighting, community organizing, economic development and liberal payments to Afghan leaders. It would require more troops, more money and more time.
After long discussions – Gates calls Obama the most "deliberative" of the presidents he has served under – Obama agreed to a counter-insurgency surge in Afghanistan. But according to reports at the time, he made Petraeus agree that he was being given sufficient resources to do the job, and that the mission would be extended only if there were measurable results.
The troops did their best. "Restrepo," a haunting documentary released in 2010, provides an up-close picture of the heroic efforts to reclaim one valley from the Taliban. It features a platoon constantly under fire on an exposed mountain outcropping, and a young female officer who spent a year in tireless efforts to win the trust of village elders. She was making headway – until her tour was up, and then she was out of there, with no replacement in sight. The platoon was withdrawn soon after, leaving the Korengal Valley to the Afghans.
By the end of this year, U.S. troops will be leaving the rest of the country to the Afghans as well. The Taliban are as strong as ever. The opium trade is again the country’s most successful industry. The Afghan security forces, despite years of American training, are still mostly illiterate and often unreliable. The government of President Hamid Karzai is one of the world’s most corrupt, and it’s our money in their Swiss bank accounts.
The Metro West Daily News

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