Success in Afghanistan turns on an intangible that instills confidence on the battlefield, oftentimes empowering one to accomplish the impossible.
This intangible was epitomized by a military leader who, 59 years ago this month, marched into Marine Corps history at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Surrounded by Communist Chinese forces, outnumbered 10 to one, battered by freezing temperatures, forced to traverse rough mountainous terrain, faced with only one way out and written off by higher command, the 1st Marine Regiment fought its way out under the inspired leadership of Colonel “Chesty” Puller.
What turned certain U.S. defeat into victory was trust - trust in Puller’s leadership by his men. We see many different aspects of this intangible missing from Afghanistan’s battlefields.
In Iraq, success evolved through both a U.S. force surge and an “awakening” by Sunni tribal leaders, recognizing al Qaeda was their real threat. Working with U.S. forces, tribal leaders came to trust their American counterparts - together restoring security.
The U.S. surge demonstrated to Iraqi nationals - who lived in constant fear of al Qaeda - our commitment to defeat the militants. The people began trusting Americans, plus the Iraqi army and police forces which, after adequate training, actively began patrolling streets and maintaining security. The most immediate benefit gained from this was the flow of tips from locals concerning suspected al Qaeda activities.
With President Obama’s announcement the Afghan surge is for 18 months, any possibility trust between U.S. forces and the Afghan people will factor into the stability equation is minimized. Locals will be reluctant to trust U.S. forces just “passing through” the area; reports on militant activity will trickle, not flow, in.
Also missing will be the Afghan people’s trust for their own military and police. The U.S. seeks to field a 200,000-man Afghan army. That will not happen in 18 months. It could happen in 60 months, but we will never know. What training has taken place so far has produced a small but somewhat timid security force. As U.S. operations in Afghanistan require participation by Afghan forces, such operations have been difficult to execute as the Afghanis rarely can be counted on to show up. Among Afghan police brave enough to embrace their security role, a high price is extracted - averaging three casualties per day. Thus, the people cannot trust a police force whose presence, either from intimidation or attrition, is questionable.
Trust by NATO troops for Afghan security forces suffers, too, as militants successfully infiltrate such security forces. In November, five British soldiers - relaxing at their base after patrolling with Afghan police - were killed by an Afghan who had served on the force for two years.
Additionally, many Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan distrust U.S. motives in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s former intelligence chief, Gen. Hamid Gul, spreads propaganda that Sept. 11, 2001, was a U.S. government conspiracy to justify invading Afghanistan as a pretext for subsequently invading Pakistan to seize its nuclear arsenal. (Such outrageous claims gain traction among Muslims in the wake of statements by U.S. government officials critical of U.S. integrity - such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim the CIA lied.)
Factoring into the Afghanistan equation, too, is trust U.S. fighting forces have for their commander in chief. Mr. Obama’s announcement was far too long in coming, allowing an “unknown” to linger. In warfare, knowns are preferable to unknowns. The damage done by such a delay could have been repaired by a decision to fully support his commander’s 40,000 troop level request. But for Mr. Obama both to impose an 18-month deadline and not provide all the troops needed for a longer timeline as initially envisioned demonstrates lack of commitment to our courageous fighting forces as political concerns outweigh military ones.
At the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, advancing Marine forces, encircled by the enemy, fought their way back out. News reports described the successful breakout as a “retreat.” Unwilling to acknowledge a Marine “retreat,” Puller’s commanding general obfuscated the point explaining, “Retreat, hell, we’re just attacking in another direction.” By imposing a deadline and reducing his commander’s troop level request, Mr. Obama obfuscates - in a war we need to win - what is really a retreat from Afghanistan 18 months from now.
With trust AWOL on Afghanistan’s battlefields, failure is not far behind.
James Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, writes often on national-security and defense issues.