- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

Editor’s note: Jason Reich, a former Israeli soldier who served in the July-August 2006 Israeli war against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, is a journalist in Afghanistan filing reports for Israeli and U.S. media. Here, Mr. Reich takes on the role of a military analyst, offering an opinion based on his experience in two wars - the first as a soldier and the second as a journalist embedded with U.S. troops.

NERKH, Afghanistan | The sticky sweat on a stifling August night made it possible to periodically wipe mosquitoes from my face while crouching behind a bush.

Behind me sat a full infantry battalion. We lay in wait, listening to the sounds of a battle raging less than a mile away. A small team of enemy soldiers, probably no more than five men, had ambushed one of our convoys just up the road, but we were told to wait and not engage.

The problem was simple, if frustrating: There were too many different units in the area, and higher command was having trouble controlling them all. All we could do was sit and listen on the radio as the convoy duked it out with the enemy and screamed for the reinforcements that weren’t coming.

If this doesn’t sound much like the current war Afghanistan, that’s because it wasn’t. The Salouki Valley is in southern Lebanon and this incident took place in 2006, back when I was a soldier instead of a freelance writer.

Israel had just sent 30,000 ground troops into southern Lebanon, an area about one-fiftieth the size of Afghanistan, to disarm the Iranian and Syrian-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, and stop the group’s rocket fire on northern Israeli settlements. Despite massive Israeli firepower, neither objective was achieved. More than 100 Israeli soldiers and hundreds of Lebanese were killed.

This August, I was in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist working for U.S. and Israeli media. I found myself witnessing an equally frustrating military dilemma.

The parallels, and differences, between the Lebanon and Afghanistan wars reveal some potentially serious flaws in U.S. strategy.

On Aug. 20, election day, the Taliban were attacking polling stations in the Nerkh district of Wardak Province west of Kabul. The province is patrolled by elements of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The Afghan soldiers manning the polling stations had called for reinforcements, but the American troops I was with were powerless to help. There just weren’t enough soldiers.

Moments earlier, a platoon had been hit by a devastating bomb, known as an improvised explosive device or IED. In a flash, one man died and six fell wounded.

“If I send out another force [to the polling stations], I will have only six guys left to guard this JSS - which isn’t even much of a JSS,” Lt. Colin Riker explained. He was referring to the joint security stations where American and Afghan National Army (ANA) forces coordinate their activities.

“The ANA guys will just have to wait this one out,” Lt. Riker said.

The fortified JSS in Nerkh was hardly “joint.” A week after the first American soldiers occupied the site, their Afghan counterparts still hadn’t arrived. Later, when Lt. Riker tried to send emergency Afghan reinforcements to relieve one badly undermanned American platoon, the Afghans hit an IED en route. An Afghan soldier died, and his fellow Afghan troopers appeared to lose the will to fight.

To be sure, Afghan weakness is tied to a dearth of U.S. resources.

“You can’t assist [Afghan forces] by sitting behind your gates and talking to them on cell phones,” Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue said. “You have to be with them.”

But that hinges on having enough troops.

Pacifying Wardak province has been slow and costly. Still, there has been some progress. Last year, all of Wardak was patrolled by just one U.S. Army company. There were just enough troops to keep the main highway open, but none left over for patrols among the local people.

In January, more U.S. soldiers arrived, and eked out enough security for some basic governance in the towns. But the Taliban still occupy the three capillary valleys to the west of Nerkh and use them to launch rockets and mortars with almost daily frequency.

Reflecting on my time embedded with the U.S. Army, I see a marked difference between the two wars.

In Lebanon, we Israelis had more resources than we could handle, but poor leadership and planning prevented us from winning what should have been a winnable war.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. grapples with the opposite problem. Owing to excellent leadership and the tactics and the bravery of American soldiers, the coalition is making some progress with limited resources. But U.S. forces need more people and equipment if they are to have any chance of training their Afghan counterparts and enforcing security on the streets.

American firepower alone isn’t a solution to Afghanistan’s problems, and simply surging more troops into Afghanistan won’t help, either, on their own. As was evident in Wardak, a boost in resources must be combined with a true partnership between U.S. and Afghan troops. And that partnership needs to eventually produce independent Afghan forces. Until Afghan forces can stand on their own, the Americans can never go home.

The dilemma in Wardak this summer raises a difficult question. Americans must ask themselves, just as Israelis did with our post-Lebanon Winograd Commission: Are the benefits of this war worth the costs? Victory is possible, but it will cost more men, money and material, and there’s always the possibility that even a big increase in resources will fail, due to the inability of U.S. and Afghan forces to truly get along.

David Axe contributed to this story.

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