- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

The young American boarded the trans-Atlantic flight after everyone else.

He might have been flying stand-by and got the very last seat. He was tall, well-groomed, and unadorned with bits of raw metal sticking through ears, nose, or mouth. There were no obvious tattoos. His hair was unfashionably short, but he was obviously no skinhead. He used the word, “sir” — and it came naturally.

He scrunched himself into a seat much too small for his long legs and pulled out a serious-looking book on the history of Afghanistan.

When the exceptionally nasty meal arrived, he and his neighbor exchanged disparaging remarks about the joys of traveling these days. His neighbor was curious. “Where are you headed?” he asked, assuming the answer would be some battlefield. Instead, the young man said, “Venice.” “Oh, what takes you there?” It turned out he actually was going to Vicenza, site of a U.S. army base, and he said he would be there for a few months before being deployed to Afghanistan.

It turns out this will be his second tour, and he expects to be there for 18 months. “What about Secretary Gates’ announcement that tours in Iraq will be limited to 15 months?” he was asked. “Well, supposedly the same conditions apply to tours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “but we haven’t heard anything yet officially.”

He was asked about reports that the Pentagon has decided to extend tours partly because they want to be more frank about what troops face and partly because it’s the only alternative to reinstating the draft. He shuddered in horror. “If they bring back the draft, that’s it. I quit. I can’t imagine serving with draftees.”

“OK, but what about the growing divide between the career military and American society in general. Don’t you agree it’s a problem when we have only one serving U.S. senator with a son in the military? What about the fact that a wildly disproportionate percentage of those in the service come from small towns, from the South and the Midwest, and so few come from either coast? How about the fact that they are disproportionately poor and uneducated? What about the fact that the vast majority of Americans are paying no price at all for the current wars, the way we did, to at least some extent, in all our previous wars?”

He agreed with all that, but made it clear he vastly prefers serving with people who have volunteered rather than with unwilling conscripts.

With some trepidation, his interrogator asks, “So how do you see the relationship between Iraq and Afghanistan?” Quietly, with total assurance, the soldier says, “There is none. Going into Iraq stopped us from doing what we have to do in Afghanistan. It took away the troops we need and has killed the initiative. And it got us into a mess we didn’t have to get into.”

“What do you hear about how things are now in Afghanistan compared with what you saw when you were there the last time?”

“It has deteriorated badly,” he said. He pulled out his book, found a map of Afghanistan, and showed where his unit was the last time he was there and where he will be in a few months. Then he pointed to the areas where other American units are and where other NATO troops are. By and large, he said, U.S. troops are based in the more dangerous areas, while troops of other NATO countries are stationed where things are a bit quieter.

Then he showed the areas under Taliban control and indicated how they have grown since he was there.

“So, what’s the biggest problem we are facing in Afghanistan?”

Again, quietly, with total assurance, the young soldier said, “The Taliban are being financed, trained, and armed by Pakistan. Everybody there knows it.”

How do people in the Army feel about our “ally in the war against terrorism” being the source of funding, training, and weapons for our enemy, to whom they also provide sanctuary? That got a withering glare from the young soldier.

What do you say to a young man heading into harm’s way knowing the people who are deciding his fate have exposed him to unnecessary risks? What do you say when those same leaders embrace “allies” who provide aid and comfort to the people who are trying to kill him. And those same leaders are able to command little or no support from our traditional allies, who could do a lot to help?

How come those who are misleading him — in every sense of the word — can get away with claiming they have the right to speak on his behalf? How do they get away with claims that anybody who agrees with the soldier’s assessments of their policies is undermining his morale?

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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