Willing To Win in Afghanistan?

Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan — From the top of Cemetery Hill, just outside town, the village of Chura looks like a thin green ribbon winding along the bottom of a narrow valley. To the east, the west and the north are dry, uninhabitable mountains. To the south, through a gap in the mountains, it is just possible to see the next narrow valley.

For the Dutch captain whose soldiers graciously invited me along on their patrol up that hill, this geography means a great deal. The green valley of Chura, he explains, is “secure”: That means that when his Charlie Tiger Company patrols the one-street bazaar, nobody shoots at the soldiers. It also means that the Dutch “provincial reconstruction team” — NATO’s name for troops who deliver aid, and the central focus of the Netherland’s mission here — can keep up their work on Chura’s small health clinic, bring better seeds to Chura’s farmers, build Chura’s schools. During the patrol, villagers come out to shake hands with the reconstruction team leader who is walking with us and to ask the medic for advice. Children put their thumbs up and shout “Alles Gut,” the rough Dutch equivalent of “okay.”

It is a positive, happy story: Not just a success for the Dutch but for NATO, which also works with French, Australian, American and Afghan troops in Uruzgan, and which sponsored my trip there. It is an important story, too: Uruzgan, in the Pashto-speaking south of Afghanistan, is the birthplace of Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder.

Unfortunately, this story is not complete without explaining that the next valley, the one visible through the gap in the mountains, is “insecure.” There is no Dutch base there, and when Charlie Tiger Company goes on patrol in that direction, the soldiers don’t take journalists. “Insecure” means that there are snipers and roadside bombs, such as the one that recently blew up a Dutch vehicle near here; it means the tribal leaders there are rivals of the tribal leaders here; it also means that a German aid group has indefinitely postponed plans to build a road to Chura, and that Chura’s doctor doesn’t feel safe far from his clinic. Not all Taliban, he explains in a low voice, approve of medicine.

And this, in a microcosm, is the dilemma we face in Afghanistan, well understood on the ground but occasionally worth restating for outsiders: Where there is a real military presence, it is possible to bring peace and development to Afghanistan. But where there are no foreign troops, there is often anarchy. Though European governments like to draw a line between bringing “security’ and engaging in counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, on the ground those missions blur.

Though Americans like to talk about “winning” and “losing” the war in Afghanistan, on the ground it’s clear that those categories aren’t relevant. Of course we can “win”: The real question is whether we are willing to pay the high cost of victory.

The problem is complicated by the nature of the enemy in Afghanistan, best described by NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, as an “insurgent nexus” that includes not only remnants of the original Taliban but new “Taliban” who work for the money they receive from across the Pakistani border, tribal leaders with their own agendas, criminal syndicates and opium dealers. These groups cannot dislodge a Dutch or American base, they cannot rule the country, and they cannot win mass popular support. But with a handful of weapons and some homemade bombs, they can make the coalition forces in Afghanistan pay a high price for their good intentions — and erode support for the Afghan mission in foreign capitals.

And this they will succeed in doing unless the extraordinary ambition of this enterprise is better understood. No government with troops in Afghanistan has explained to its voters that the troops’ achievements are so fragile, that safety established in one valley does not imply safety in the next, and that the task of “reconstruction” is so integrally linked to military work.

The nearly 5,000 new troops promised last week by President Bush represent the beginning of a recognition of the scale of the challenge, but only that.

Other resources are needed, too, as widespread use of the newly fashionable word “surge” indicates. A NATO official in Kabul spoke of the need for a “civilian surge,” meaning an increase in the already high levels of aid; a U.N. official wants a “political surge,” meaning greater attention to the negotiations that will ultimately bring insurgents in from the cold. They are right, but so is the U.S. military, which has quietly invested billions in training the Afghan army: Joint missions are now the norm. At a gleaming new air base outside Kabul, I watched an American colonel, a survivor of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, proudly show off the embryonic Afghan air force, created with American mentors, refurbished Soviet helicopters and older Afghan pilots with Russian training. “I am out fighting Taliban, even in my dreams,” one of them told me.

And someday he may be able to do that, even without our help. But in the meantime, that extraordinary, multimillion-dollar air base, just like the blond Dutchmen patrolling Mullah Omar’s province, serves as a reminder that we haven’t exactly “neglected” Afghanistan, as Barack Obama and others often say. It’s just that we haven’t yet faced up to what we have undertaken to do here. Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, more rugged, more impoverished and vastly more complicated, with more languages, more ethnic groups, more tribes and more-lethal neighbors. It has only begun to test our stamina.

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