LectureHop: Between Iraq and a Hard Place

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David Xia wandered into SIPA last night for a Saltzman Institute event on the fate of the American war in Afghanistan.

The United States’ war in Afghanistan is not working, and we’re not sure how to fix it.

This was the gist of Col. David Gray and Col. Gian Gentile’s (both of whom have served in Iraq and Afghanistan) talk last night at SIPA.

“We don’t have strategy,” Gentile said. “Instead we have commander’s talking points, maxims, and catechisms.” The prospects of counter-insurgency and nation building have “seduced” army officials to the extent that they lost sight of a bigger strategy.

According to Gray, the army initially wanted to leave a “light footprint” – utilizing strategic raids, advanced technology, special operations forces, intelligence agencies, and native human resources – to avoid attracting Al Qaeda fighters into a chaotic vacuum. And it worked just fine. For two years.

Gray painted a gloomy picture of the many challenges the army faced in creating a viable strategy. These included fighting government corruption, countering the rampant drug trade, and reeling in intractable drug lords, and dealing with the Pashtunwali tribal code to which 70 percent of Afghans subscribe: “In the morning they’ll offer you green tea and a goat grab…at night they’ll be shooting at you.” Moreover, tribal interests do not always align with the Afghan government’s interests. “Some guy from Mazari Sharif in the north isn’t crazy about going down to Kandahar in the south to fight,” he said.

Gray proposes creating an Afghan civil service to staunch corruption and recruit competent officials, but could not offer a strategy addressing the lucrative opium production that fills the Taliban war chest. According to a United Nations report, guerrillas in Afghanistan have secretly stockpiled 10,000 tons of opium. The New York Times said that is enough to satisfy every dope fiend in the world for two years.

Gentile said the current military approach was trying to emulate the Iraq troop surge. In 2007, President Bush deployed 20,000 soldiers into Iraq to secure Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. Violence in Iraq decreased, but it is uncertain whether this was a result of the surge or other reasons.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has requested up to 40,000 troops within the next year. In a confidential report leaked to the Washington Post, McChrystal wrote that without more troops, the conflict in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure.”

Invoking the memory of Vietnam, Gentile warned against blindly sending more counter-insurgency troops and stressed the importance of aligning military means with political priorities. Sending troops designed for counter-insurgency, according to Gray, is “like asking a high school football team to go against Super Bowl champions.”

Nation-building, said Gentile, takes more than 40,000 troops. And it may take years, if not generations. There will be no swift victory.

When it came time for questions, the colonels were more often than not at a loss for answers.

Gray said people often ask him who the enemy is. “I wish I could [say]…The Hakani network, Hezbi Islami Party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan…probably all and any of these,” he said. When a woman asked him who the US’ friends are, he responded, “I have no good answer.”

One person asked Gentile, “How do you think this will play out in domestic politics?” Gentile shook his head and deferred to Gray. “He’s the senior colonel. He gets the harder questions,” said Gentile as the audience laughed.

Another man asked about stopping heroin purchases by Western Europeans whose money eventually ends up in the pockets of the Taliban. “We take General McChrystal’s 40,000 troops and deploy them in…Amsterdam,” mused Gentile as everyone laughed.

The night ended as Gentile posed a question none could answer: “Can we really change Afghan society for the better at the barrel of an American gun?”

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