The Greatest Afghanistan War has deteriorated so noticeably that one can now feel the enemy’s growing pulse. Each month it beats steadier, stronger, and in 2010 it will finally be born.
On Sept. 11 in Kandahar, a South African civilian working without security was visibly upset - not at the Taliban but at the police. The 16-year police veteran recounted seeing Afghan police speeding through crowded streets and hitting a bicycle. The rider gymnastically avoided impact while the bicycle was tossed down the road.
The South African, with whom I spent a week in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, said the police never slowed down. “That’s part of the reason the Taliban are gaining ground,” he said. “The police are out there recruiting Taliban.”
I have searched for answers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Along with the more strategic questions (for example, should war be pursued?) are those closer to the shop floor: Are we gaining or losing popular support? Is the enemy gaining or losing strength? Is the coalition gaining or losing strength?
The first answer is a common denominator for the rest.
We are losing popular support. Confidence in the Afghan and coalition governments is plummeting. Loss of human terrain is evident. Conditions are building for an avalanche. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the military commander in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are aware of the rumbling, and so today we are bound by rules of engagement that appear insensible.
We must curb civilian losses at expense to ourselves. I believe the reasoning is sound and will share those increased dangers. Erosion of popular support seems reversible. There still is considerable good will from the Afghan population, but bomb by bomb we can blow it. We have breathing room if we work with wise alacrity. I sense a favorable shift in our operations occurring under Gen. McChrystal.
Enemies are strengthening. Attacks are dramatically increasing in frequency and efficacy. We are being out-governed by tribes and historical social structures. These structures are - and will be for the foreseeable future - the most powerful influence upon and within the political terrain. “Democracy” does not grow on land where most people don’t vote. The most remarkable item I saw during the Aug. 20 elections was the machine-gun ambush we walked into.
The coalition is weakening. While the U.S. has gotten serious, the organism called NATO is a jellyfish for which the United States is both sea and prevailing wind. The disappointing effort from many partners is best exemplified by the partners who are pushing hardest: The British are fine examples.
The British landed in Helmand province after someone apparently vouched that Helmand would be safe, and they believed it. Helmand is today the most dangerous province in Afghanistan.
British combat tours are arduous and the troops suffer in countless ways. The soldiers sweat and freeze in the desert filth; British rations are terrible; mail can be weeks late; and they fight constantly. Troops endure high casualties yet they keep fighting. These things are true. Some say the British “lost Helmand,” but this is not true. Helmand was a mess before they arrived. British soldiers are strong but their government is pitiful, leading to an average effort in Afghanistan.
Example: The British serve six-month tours, minus two weeks’ leave. Travel is not deducted from leave. Troops are so few at Forward Operating Base Inkerman that missions are planned around leave schedules. For leave, a soldier at Inkerman must helicopter to Camp Bastion (the main British military base in Afghanistan) to jet home.
Helicopters are scarce, making flight schedules erratic. As leave approaches, soldiers stop doing missions and wait for a helicopter. The waiting can last a week or more. Then they get home, take two weeks’ leave, then transport back to Bastion, where the soldier waits to helicopter back to Inkerman.
When I departed Bastion last month, some soldiers waited three weeks to helicopter back to Inkerman, and were still waiting. That’s six to seven lost weeks for a soldier on a six-month tour. After other distractions, British soldiers might net three months of focused work. There is zero time to conduct counterinsurgency, and besides, the British military, despite its war-fighting ability, is not good at counterinsurgency. Without change, London likely will be defeated in Helmand within roughly two years, which brings us to the fall of 2011.
Germans had deployed to one of the safest areas in Afghanistan yet today they are staggered by Taliban punches. Berlin is brittle and apt to quit. Smart money says the Germans crumble from any significant role by 2011.
Canadians will quit in 2011. Canadian soldiers have earned respect, but their NATO-partner government has empowered our enemies by quitting at a crucial moment. This likely will be remembered consciously and subconsciously in future dealings with Ottawa.
Other fine partners, such as the Dutch, who have fought well, plan to downsize right when we need them most. The Dutch need to stay in this fight and increase their efforts. We need them.
The key partner in redirecting Afghanistan should be the Afghan government. Yet Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt narcocracy is widely disrespected by Afghans and increasingly combative with the coalition. We are pouring support into a government that we don’t want, and many Afghans resent.
On Aug. 26, I was in Helmand with the British when a bomb exploded in Kandahar, killing at least 41 people and blowing out windows in the room I later rented to write this account. There were bombs and attacks on a daily basis in Kandahar but I only watch from the roof as Afghans kill Afghans. Potential for civil war is great.
In this unprecedented moment, dozens of the world’s most notable nations have focused on helping one land, yet Western sympathies for Afghanistan already have peaked.
While an Afghan avalanche is poised, our thoughts are growing cold. This is it. Either we will begin to show progress by the end of 2010 or, piece by piece, the coalition will cleave off and drift away, meaning 2011 will begin the end to significant involvement in Afghanistan.
Michael Yon is a writer and former Green Beret who has spent more time in Iraq and Afghanistan with U.S. and British combat forces than any other journalist.