The war in Iraq has ended. Violent elements remain, but they no longer threaten the very fabric of Iraq. The Iraqi Army, police and government continue to outpace the elements that would prefer to see Iraq in chaos. Iraq is no longer an enemy. There is no reason for us to ever shoot at each other again. But Afghanistan is a different story. I write these words from Kandahar, in the south. This war here is just getting started. Likely we will see severe fighting kicking off by about April of 2009. Iraq is on the mend, but victory in Afghanistan is very much in question.
Zabul Province, Afghanistan
While Americans sleep tight in their beds, this time of year U.S. soldiers sit shivering through the frigid, crystal clear nights at remote outposts in places most of us have never heard of and will never see. Often they head out into the enveloping darkness, to hunt down and destroy terrorists, who continue to kill innocent Afghans, Americans, Aussies, Balinese, Brits, Indians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Spanish … in short, anyone who opposes their violent tyranny. Their greatest weapons are ignorance and terror. Witness the latest unprovoked attack on our friends in India.
These enemies have no wish to reconcile with their fellow countrymen, or compromise in any way that would diminish their control of the lives of the ordinary Afghans who don’t share their feral vision of life. They throw acid in the faces of little girls whose only crime is that they go to school. So we must continue to send our toughest men to confront them eye to eye, while performing the difficult balancing act of not alienating those who intend us no harm. This is particularly difficult in Afghanistan, a proud nation with a deep tradition of antipathy toward outsiders — even those who are here to help, though I am finding many Afghans clearly do not want us to leave.
The hard work is especially difficult when our troops are spread perilously thin. Over the last nearly two weeks I’ve spent time with teams whose nearest ground support is too far away, and too small anyway, to help them when they get into serious trouble, which happens all the time. Some of these groups are too far out for helicopters to reach within any reasonable amount of time, and so their only choice often is “CAS,” or Close Air Support: jets with bombs. Sadly, despite the extreme precautions I have seen our people taking in Iraq and now Afghanistan, we are bound to make some mistakes, which the enemy exploits to full potential. In fact, there are reports that I believe credible that the enemy is actively trying to bait us into bombing innocent people. Such is the savagery of the Taliban and associated armed opposition groups (AOGs).
Few Afghans can tell the difference in uniform or equipment between Germans, Americans, Brits or Estonians or any of the other dozens of nations here. And similarities in vehicles and equipment can cause confusion among U.S. and Canadian forces, themselves. So we can’t really expect illiterate, Afghan civilians to tell the difference between an American and a French jet at midnight. But you know the result: when bombs or bullets fly off in the wrong direction, which inevitably happens in a hot war, when there is an occasional overuse of force, it gets blamed on Americans — or the “U.S. led coalition” — with the implication that the U.S. engineered the error. This is partly a function of the expert propaganda machine that the Taliban and its fundamentalist allies bring to bear — and, of course, of a world media eager to exploit such stories.
For our part and to the credit of our leadership, the U.S. is reluctant to publicly correct the record, since finger-pointing can only cause friction in the coalition. At a moment when Afghan policy is hanging in the balance, with a new Administration thinking about what they ought to do to move toward stability, we walk a tightrope between offending our allies by criticizing their actual shortcomings — and the even more important problem of overstepping very sensitive boundaries in Afghanistan. If we are going to be able to finish the job we started, we can’t afford to create problems for the Karzai government.
Rules of Engagement, discipline, training, and moral boundaries vary drastically between nations. Sophisticated readers should know that “U.S. led” does not necessarily mean that an American called in the target, or had anything to do in dropping the bomb. But I will say that a small American team told me recently that it was a French jet who came to their aid during an ambush, and expertly dropped a bomb straight onto a Taliban position.
Antique British WB-17 bomber flies over Afghan skies. The WB-17 is operated by NASA and has been used for collecting cosmic dust from extremely high altitudes. It seems doubtful that NASA came all the way to Afghanistan to collect cosmic dust, but this would be an interesting region to search for traces of nuclear materials, perhaps.
Please stay tuned: I’ll be in Afghanistan during most of 2009, with occasional trips to countries like Iraq. Updates can be found here at Pajamas Media.